ICT Powering Development: One of the Main Conclusions of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development's Information Economy Report 2007/8 Is That the Information Communications Technology (ICT) Revolution Is Spreading Fast to the Developing World and Contributing to the Rapid Modernisation of Their Economies. Stephen Williams Reports

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The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, writing in the foreword of this year's United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) Information Economy Report, observes that we are now midway on the timeline set by the international community for achieving the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The MDGs include a commitment for increasing global partnerships for development. Key to this commitment is making available the benefits of new technologies, especially ICT. Unctad's annual report is a useful means of assessing how much progress has been made towards meeting this MDG commitment or whether it remains simply a worthy policy aspiration.

The message from Africa is mixed: on the one hand, the diffusion of ICT technologies is growing rapidly; on the other hand, developing countries as a whole (apart from those that straddle the line between the status of developed and developing, like South Africa) remain far behind in the adoption of ICT.

Among the various ICT tools, it is the mobile phone that has made the most headway in penetrating African markets--the classic leapfrogging of technologies that has seen much of the continent benefit from telecom connectivity (via the mobile phone) while side-stepping the prior development of a comprehensive fixed-line network.

The number of mobile phone subscribers in the developing world has almost tripled in the past five years, the Unctad report states. They now account for 58% of mobile phone subscribers worldwide. In Africa, it is undeniable that the ever-increasing use of the mobile phone has done much to improve the quality of life as a whole.

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), between 2000 and 2006--the first year that all African countries had active mobile telephone services--mobile subscribers increased more than 12 times, from 15.63 million to 189.49 million.

Unctad's role in the spread of mobile telephones in Africa has been to ensure that a number of policy issues over the last decade have been addressed. It has advocated policies such as the liberalisation of the telecom market, the licensing of new-mobile operators, creating independent regulatory bodies that would establish fair and competitive markets for mobile services while supporting compatible standards, and facilitating interconnection between mobile service providers.

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In discussing Africa, the Unctad report makes the interesting point that mobile telephony continues to be the only ICT sector where developing countries are quickly catching up with, and even in some ways overtaking, the developed world.

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Furthermore, it makes the case that mobile telephony represents, for many Africans, an important introduction to ICT. Sophisticated mobile handsets now have new functions previously only available on personal computers with internet connections. The Unctad report therefore believes that mobile telephony provides a gateway to digital literacy.

"For many individuals and communities, once the initial hurdle of ICT acceptance has been overcome, the adoption of higher-level technologies may be less intimidating. In that sense, mobile telephony is the most useful tool for low-income populations," the Unctad report states.

Worryingly, the Unctad report presents evidence that although over the last 10 years there has been a trend to migrate the production and assembly of ICT electronics from high-cost to low-cost locations, i.e. from developed to developing countries, Africa (with the exception of Mauritius) is being left behind. For example, not one mobile telephone handset manufacturer produces or assembles its products in sub-Saharan Africa.

Nevertheless, ICT-enabled service industries, the so-called Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) enterprises (including customer call-centres) are migrating to Africa and these industries are showing strong growth in countries such as Senegal, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa. …