Kevin Painting outlines the enormous challenges for CTA and its partners in ACP countries in mainstreaming ICTs into their programmes and projects.
Moore’s law, a prediction made in an obscure article over 30 years ago that computer processing power would double every 18 months, has proved remarkably prescient. It has also become emblematic of the ICT revolution and the unstoppable proliferation of technologies and applications into our daily lives. In particular, rapid technological advances are apparent in the information technology (hardware, software and peripherals), telecommunications technologies (radio and television broadcasting, telephones) and networking technologies (the Internet, wireless and broadband connectivity).
While achievements in these fields are impressive, statistics starkly show the gap (or ‘digital divide’) between those who have access to the technologies (mainly in the developed North) and those who have little or no access (mainly in the developing South). Closer inspection of statistics for developing countries also reveals the yawning gap between access to ICTs in urban and rural areas, the latter being agriculture-based economies commonly struggling with a lack of basic infrastructure, and low levels of literacy. In many developing countries the digital divide is also a gender divide between men and women, which is exacerbated by a host of socio-economic and cultural factors that marginalise women even further.
Notwithstanding these seemingly insuperable difficulties, a technological optimism is discernable in the development debate that seems to have its origins in Moore’s Law. This optimism, put simply, translates the rapid development of the technology predicted by Moore’s Law into the rapid societal development achieved through the swift introduction of the technology itself. Critics have been quick to point out that this gives the impression that developing countries are on an appropriate track for the introduction of ICTs and that the problems are primarily technological – issues that are hotly contested. The prevailing consensus is that ICTs can only gain their true power for economic and social leverage when they are adapted to the prevailing local conditions, with attendant support mechanisms.
What is never in doubt is that ICTs have enormous potential for developing countries, a point that has been repeatedly driven home in international forums. The potential of ICTs in three related areas stand out in the debate: for information distribution, for communication, and for building social capital. The situation here is quite complex. Depending on the stakeholder group (e.g. policy makers, regulators, industry, NGOs, users/beneficiaries), opinions differ widely on which technologies/applications to adopt (and in which situations) and how these should be supported, monitored and regulated. These are clearly problems when mainstreaming ICTs into programmes. It is worth looking at how CTA has addressed these issues over the years.
When CTA became operational in 1984, its raison d’être was ‘…to provide ACP States with better access to information, research, training and innovations in the agricultural field’. In the early years the emphasis was on supplying information, but this strategy changed in 1995, partly in recognition of the ICT developments at the time, to one where the balance is more heavily weighted towards building capacity within ACP states to help individuals and institutions manage information and communication more effectively themselves. In effect, much greater emphasis was put on a two-way dialogue and on facilitating South–South and intra-ACP exchanges. To address the complex issues of surrounding ICT adoption, in 1998 CTA formed its Observatory on ICTs, a think-tank of technical and policy experts to inform CTA’s programme-related ICT strategies and to monitor developments in ACP countries.
Today, the mainstreaming of ICTs into CTA’s programmes is conspicuous, from their conception to their delivery. A few examples suffice. In information dissemination, ICTs are used as delivery mechanisms in their own right (portals, electronic newsletters, newsfeeds, etc.), or to complement established print media (such as electronic versions of articles distributed via email and via WorldSpace satellite). In communication, ICTs are used for electronic forums and e-consultations by email, or to allow the participation of a wider electronic community in location-based seminars (through live forums, conference blogs and newsletters). In building social capital, ICTs underpin efforts to build electronic communities (for example, in training support) and to promote information sharing among thematic networks.
What are the prospects for the future? To date, the development of the ICT landscape in ACP states has not shown the same exponential growth as the development of the technology as predicted by Moore’s law. In the past five years, however, there have been a number of promising developments. For instance, significant changes in the telecoms sector have led to a huge growth in mobile networks and the expansion and modernization of fixed-line telephone networks. Digital, satellite-based radio broadcasting looks set to penetrate even the remotest areas of Africa. Telecentres or phone shops stand to capitalize on infrastructure developments such as low-cost, two-way satellite voice and data services and broad-spectrum wireless links (WiFi).
The potential of such technological advances will only be realized, however, if there is a suitable, enabling policy environment, as well as improvements in basic infrastructure and capacity building at all levels. Capitalizing on these developments is therefore a daunting, but not unrealizable task that will continue to exercise the minds of policy makers and ICT practitioners for years to come.
Kevin Painting is senior programme coordinator in CTA’s Communication Channels and Services Department (CCSD).