Wiring Sub-Saharan Africa for Development

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ABSTRACT

This paper discusses the uses of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), the dimensions of access and the digital divide, and the development of telecentres in the Sub-Saharan African region. It illustrates that the development initiatives perceived technical access to computers and other ICT as the only prerequisite to economic and social development when in actual fact extremely important social access to literacy, content, housing and health is not given much consideration in the development agenda. Finally, it discusses experiences at one of the telecentres, the Nakaseke Multipurpose Telecentre in Uganda, by drawing on data from the evaluative report of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC)-sponsored telecentres in Africa.

Keywords: Access, ICT, digital divide, telecentres, development challenges, sub-Saharan African region

"The information revolution provides an invaluable new set of tools for all partners striving to achieve sustainable development. It makes empowerment both meaningful and effective and opens up for developing countries the prospect of leapfrogging over earlier communication technologies to become real participants in the global economy." Maurice F. Strong, former Secretary-General, the Rio Earth Summit (1992).

INTRODUCTION

In an attempt to wire up the Sub-Saharan African region to the global information grid, international developmental agencies such as Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are working in partnership with the governments of Sub-Saharan African countries, civil society groups and transnational corporations such as CISCO, Alcatel, and Microsoft to build the information communication infrastructures. Some of the projects that are being undertaken include:

* African Optical Network (African ONE1) that is geared towards building a fibre optic ring around Africa (see: http://www.lucent.com/press/0699/990604.coa.html);

* The sub-marine optic fibre cable South African Telecom 3-West African Submarine Cable- South Africa - Far-East (SAT-3/WASC/SAFE) project that is aiming to link Africa with Asia and Europe;

* The Regional African Satellite Communications Organisation (RASCOM) project that aims to provide satellite communication, and effective linkage between Sub-Saharan Africa telecommunication networks with those of the other continents.

To speed up the region's integration to the global information exchange system, governments of many Sub-Saharan African countries are also introducing institutional reforms such as "divestitures of public enterprises and commercialization, liberalization and privatization" of the countries' telecommunication industry" (M'bayo, 1997:351).

However, with the free flow of information, privatization and liberalization doctrine at the heart of the 'new' development paradigm, concerns surrounding equity issues such as access, ownership and allocation of resources are becoming important. It is within this context of globalization2 and the continued marginalization of Sub-Saharan Africa that this paper will discuss the uses of ICT, the dimensions of access and the digital divide and the development of telecentres in Sub- Saharan African region. Finally, it will discuss experiences at one of the telecentres, the Nakaseke Multipurpose Telecentre in Uganda, by drawing on data from the evaluative report of the IDRC-sponsored telecentres in Africa.

POTENTIAL BENEFITS OF ICT AND ACCESS CHALLENGES IN THE SUB-SAHARAN AFRICAN REGION

Although there is no consensual methodological approach to assess or measure the actual social and economic impact of ICT on Sub-Saharan African development, the potential benefits and contributions of ICT to sustainable development in Sub-Saharan Africa are never disputed by both critics and advocates of ICT for development (ICT4D). Some of the potential contributions or benefits of ICT include:

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