Realizing ICT4D requires structural awareness

The attraction of the “Africa market”, albeit a simplification of both the proportions and boundaries between the 50 plus countries on the continent, remains of large interest to multinational enterprises within the ICT field and beyond. Most of these still have their origins in the global north. The alluring positive aspects, although far from giving the full picture, are manifold.

Part of the positive aspects is the promise of rapid economic growth. A handful of Africa’s fastest growing economies expanded at a pace somewhere around 10 percent last year. At the same time, the population of the continent is young, and it is growing fast. Lack of indigenous competition, market saturation and the prospects in terms of internet penetration and the spread of ICT:s multiply the interest of large western tech-giants. According to The Guardian, Smartphone connections in Africa stood at 226 million by the end of 2015 and are forecast to increase to 720 million by the end of 2020.

Accompanying the economic interests of tech-giants in Africa is the school of thought that is convinced of the benefits and possibilities vested in ICT4D. Some scholars, such as Heeks, defines ICT4D as the application of an entity that process or communicates digital data in order to deliver some part of the international development agenda in a developing country (2018). During the past decades this approach has made its mark within both NGO:s and the policies of national development institutes alike.

The African Technology Foundation is an example of an organization characterized by the approach. The foundation is a non-profit based in Silicon Valley that has been working since 2014 to connect African technologies with experts in the US. The organization aims to “provide access to resources that effectively address and manage the most pressing technological challenges on the continent”. This is done through a set of various programs and initiatives. Some of the main strands seem to be the physical exchange of individual experts from Africa to visit Silicon Valley, as well as the opportunity for African experts to take part in the African Technology Landing Pad, a sort of incubator promoting the acculturation of African startups in the US.

The intentions of the African Technology Foundation are beyond doubt nothing but benign. Exchange between people and of ideas can certainly produce positive outcomes. Individuals given the opportunity to take part in exchange schemes may flourish and contribute to development beyond their own personal fulfillment.

But at the same time there are other, larger aspects that need to be taken into consideration. It is for example important to remember that new forms of exploitation may be embedded in a simplistic approach to ICT4D. And that for large scale development, ICT4D initiatives cannot be limited to the individual, but that it is also needed on a structural level. For the purpose of this blogpost I will stress two aspects:

The first and perhaps most difficult issue is the fact that the purely economic driven interests of multinational tech companies increase the risk for replicating some of the already existing dependence structures also in the technological area. As countries in Africa become structurally dependent on certain technological solutions, and thus not develop the manufacturing capabilities needed to produce their own solutions. As scholars Murphy and Carmody put it, new ICTs may be implicated in other forms of uneven accumulation, economic extraversion, and market concentration (2015).

Secondly, there is also a risk that the facilitation of imports and FDI into African economies in turn will result in leakages of capital outside the region. This does not only go for financial capital, but also so called “brain drain”, where skilled people may leave to seek employment in the global north. If there are no incentives for such experts to engage in the development of their place of origin, countries in the global south may lag behind also in in this regard.

In sum, activists, academia and practitioners all need to be mindful of the existing pitfalls in terms of ICT4D, while at the same time stay positive and explore new ways of achieving change and collaboration. The key issue seems to be to make sure to address structural issues that allow for economic driven interests to enhance development, and for ICT to be included in that equation. This is easier said than done.

 

Sources

  1. Heeks, R. 2017: Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D). Abingdon: Routledge.
  2. Murphy, J.T. and Carmody, P. 2015: Africa’s Information Revolution-Technical Regimes and Production Networks in South Africa and Tanzania. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.