9 March 2001

Top Story

The G8’s Dot Force has reached the end of its deliberations and produced a strategy and a plan for action. Many in Africa held out great hopes of this initiative. But it’s not clear how this strategy or its implementation plan will be carried out. The USA is distancing itself from the initiative and any action is being seen as taken by individual countries. Russell Southwood looks at what’s being proposed.


The G8 Dot Force’s "Genoa Plan of Action" to address the digital divide has nine action points:


Action Point One: It is looking to help establish and support developing countries and and emerging economy national e-strategies. Rightly, it places the responsibility for creating these strategies at a national level where it needs to receive "the highest level of national political commitment". These e-strategies should create "an enabling, pro-competitive regulatory and policy framework. This framework should be linked to wider development goals. This work will be supported by the creation of an International eDevelopment Resource Network that will provide "quality and affordable expertise in the development, implementation and maintenance of e-strategies."


Action Point Two: This point addresses the need to improve connectivity, increase access and lower costs. Here what are usually described as telecentres (public and community ICT access points) in a variety of contexts are held out as the solution. However it is far from clear what business model can support a service that is free (or low cost) at the point of delivery that does not require massive subsidy without wider fundamental economic growth. Without this, the sorry cycle of donor-supported initiatives that have no organic connection with their intended beneficiaries that ultimately fail will repeat itself. Otherwise it looks to exchange of best practice (never many votes opposing that) and the adaption of technologies for conditions in developing countries. A simple practical suggestion (that came out of the UK’s DFID) is the creation of local Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) that wqill lead to national and regional internet backbones. Experience in Kenya suggests that it may be a while before certain countries in Africa understand why this is important.


Action Point Three: Human capacity. In other words, people and skills. Again nine propositions that are hard to resist. Promote the dissemination of ICT skills among children. Enhance teachers’ training. Give special attention to disenfranchised and illiterate people. Twin developed and developing country universities. Encourage companies worldwide to give staff time to the problem. Cyber-mentor entrepreneurs. All of this section is absolutely right but each of these unarguable priorities will need massive resources and it is not clear where these will come from.


Action Point Four: This point addresses the need for economic growth identified above. It reprises the need for pro-competition policies and calls for the creation of an International Entrepreneur Resources Exchange. Furthermore it commends public-private partnerships and integrating ICT into all development programmes. It is perhaps surprising that given the involvement of some of the private sector representatives that there is little or no sign of how say a developing country in Africa might begin the difficult task of tackling the steep slope of entering global markets. What is it a continent like Africa can offer that a million Chinese programmers cannot? Where’s its advantage? Put another way, what market gaps are there for developing countries?


Action Point Five: This point is about creating a constituency of support in developing countries that understands and can play a meaningful role in the international policy debates surrounding the digital divide. Again the international resource network is seen as one of the means for achieving this and it presses international bodies "to support the representatives from developing countries as they seek to particpate effectively in these fora.."(Translates: Air tickets and accommodation).


Action Point Six: This point seeks to focus particular attention on "least developed countries". This will be achieved by making particularly sure they have got internet exchange points and by aggregating demand and thus reducing costs. Joint stakeholders (such as the African Partnership Initiative, African Connection and others) are pressed to address the unique ICT dilemmas faced by Africa "with a view to sustainable solutions". "ICT is a means of supporting rural-urban linkages and strengthening small farmers along with micro-enterprises and small businesses." This is the kind of pious rhetoric that gives those working in development a bad name. Again we’re back to how exactly will this occur? Why is ICT the lever? If I had a dollar for every time someone told me about the Bangladeshi farmer who used the internet to discover wholesale crop prices at market (the crop varies depending on the teller) I’d be a rich man. The generally unarguable proposition has not been translated into the more difficult practical approach.


Action Point Seven: This point looks at how ICTs might address health care issues, in particular HIV/AIDS and other infectious and communicable diseases. This places emphasis on using the technologies to spread information, both amongst professionals and the population. For the first time there is a mention of content and other media (community radio) playing a part. It talks of creating another network: ICT against HIV/AIDS. This all makes good sense and seems potentially effective. The more difficult questions are about how information affects human behaviour. How will ICT transmitted information impact on the horrifying circumstance that 15% of women/girls between the age of 15-19 in some recently surveyed South African schools have HIV/AIDS? How will those responsible for giving the disease to those affected change their behaviour through information transmission?


Action Point Eight: This point seeks to address the encouragement of local content and applications. Again a bundle of useful ideas including: digitizing local content (especially related to local heritage), the creation of language content, localising software and encouraging low cost information distribution. As elsewhere, government is seen as the motor for change: "a means of achieving a critical mass of online content". This shows touching faith in the capacity of governments that may not always be shared by Africa’s long-suffering citizens. There are exceptions but they are not yet the majority.


Action Point Nine: This emphasises the importance of ICTs in all aid programmes (multilateral, bilateral) and calls for more co-ordination "to avoid duplication and enhance efficiency and effectiveness." Donors are pressed to pay attention to the e-strategies that have been put in place at a national level.


Although there is much to be critical about, the overall framework of action points captures a great deal of what needs to be done. In the nature of these documents there is a great deal of general aspiration. We understand that an implementation plan has been drawn up and that this makes useful efforts to translate the general into the particular. However, the question of resourcing the strategy has been left to national governments. G8 structures are not really ideal for a strategy of this kind as they are more accustomed to tackling macro-economic issues. The United States is already taking its distance from the initiative as it is seen to be the idea of the previous administration. However it may yet come up with a technology related initiative that tackles some of the same issues. So we have a plan but as yet no idea as to who will implement or where the resources are coming from? But lest we be too cynical, at least we have a plan...


BTW, I noticed that the link you had for Karen Fung’s Cote d’Ivoire site in News Update 61:


... was not correct—it should be:


Don Osborne, Bisharat