VERNON ELLIS OF ACCENTURE ON AFRICA’S DIGITAL OPPORTUNITIES

20 April 2001

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Tomorrow is the launch of the Digital Opportunity Initiative, a partnership between the UNDP, the Markle Foundation and private sector consultancy Accenture. This week we interview Accenture’s International Chair Vernon Ellis who is also the UK’s private sector representative on the G8 Dot Force whose work will shortly conclude.

 

> How did the Digital Opportunity Initiative (DOI) come about?

 

It was launched at last year¹s G8 Summit in response to the Okinawa "Charter on the Global Information Society," and the Japanese government's "Comprehensive Cooperation Package to Address the International Digital Divide." The partnership between the UNDP, the Markle Foundation, and Accenture was underpinned by the strong belief that collaboration between the public and private sectors is essential for creating digital opportunities and accelerating sustainable development.

 

> What was the scope of the work?

 

When the Digital Opportunities Task Force was formed at last year¹s G8 meeting, protestors marked the occasion by burning computers on the streets of Okinawa.They saw a simple trade-off between computers and development needs.We wanted to gather hard evidence on whether or not that trade off existed, or whether digital development could play a role in wider development.

 

The DOI research team conducted a comprehensive survey of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) initiatives around the world. Our research focused on community development needs such as health, education, economic opportunity, empowerment and participation, and environmental sustainability.

 

In addition to research on targeted ICT interventions, we also researched national approaches to ICT and the implications for development outcomes. The goal of the research was to understand how countries are using ICT to advance national objectives, and to identify innovative solutions to common barriers.In particular we aimed to understand some of the complex dynamics relating ICT to development, and looked for opportunities to generate sustained growth.

 

> What was the research you did in Africa?

 

Members of our project team traveled to a number of countries, including South Africa, Tanzania and Senegal, and their findings were supplemented by desk research. Initiatives highlighted in the report are achieving high-impact results in Africa, including HealthNet¹s healthcare information system, University of South Africa¹s distance learning programs, Pride Africa microfinance and SANGONet¹s communications network for development and human rights workers in Southern Africa. The final report also profiles South Africa¹s approach to incorporating ICT as an enabler of social and economic development and Tanzania¹s experience as an LDC (least developed country) taking bold steps to leverage the benefits of ICT for its national priorities of economic growth and poverty reduction.

 

> What needs to happen for there to be successful digital development in the South?

 

One of the reasons the digital gap is widening is because the role that ICT can play in social and economic development has not been fully understood. There is a need to move beyond the debate about choosing between ICT and other development needs such as health and education. The issue is not about a trade-off between technology and health or education, but an understanding that these go hand and hand. One of the most important contributions of the DOI has been to address the scepticism that persists by finding a compelling case for ICT and development on the basis of empirical evidence.

 

But technology by itself is not enough: it can only help bring about sustainable development if the other fundamentals are also right. Our research points strongly to five fundamentals: infrastructure; policy; education and training; local relevance; and, above all, entrepreneurship. These are the five pillars of sustainable development. Of course they apply equally North and South, but given the urgent need to accelerate development, they are probably even more significant in the South.

 

The first pillar, infrastructure, is of course important. Without a basic communications infrastructure progress is hard and slow. However, this is not just about communications backbones or wiring everyone to a personal computer ­ an expensive futility in countries where literacy rates are low. In such conditions, direct access to a telephone is more valuable than access to the Internet. In many developing countries public or community access centres have a key role to play.

 

Secondly, the overall policy environment must also be right. Take, for example, the question of liberalising telecommunications markets, which in many developing countries are state monopolies.This often raises the need to balance several competing objectives, such as securing incentives for investment and the entry of new operators, while at the same time encouraging universal access and preventing too much erosion of government revenues.

 

Education and training form the third pillar. Simply providing computers without the training to use them is a sure-fire formula for disaster. Basic literacy and numeracy are of course important.But it is crucial to ensure a core of knowledge workers: people with the technical capabilities to maintain ICT infrastructure and adapt it to local requirements.

 

A focus on locally relevant content provides the fourth pillar. After all it is useless building elaborate Internet networks or providing computers if the only software and content available is that designed for people living thousands of miles away.

 

The fifth ­ and for me the key - element is entrepreneurship. This is a subject we care passionately about, having just published a major study on it. It is vital for sustainable development, providing the engine for economic growth and generating the revenue to pay for social goals.

 

Most importantly, initiatives must secure the participation and commitment of all key stakeholders - local communities, NGOs, governments, the private sector, and multilateral agencies. Political leaders must provide the vision and leadership needed to confront existing barriers. National and international private sectors must work closely together to adapt and develop technologies to meet the unique needs and challenges of the less fortunate. And civil society must be a critical player to ensure that ICT targets local needs and priorities.

 

> If you had to pick just three things, what do you believe are the most exciting things in terms of the opportunities you identified?

 

Of course one of the most exciting opportunities is the development of national e-strategies which cover the five pillars of development outlined in the DOI report. These strategies, generated and owned by the countries themselves, would bring together the public, private and civil society sectors, national and international,in support of a practical and well focused national programme.

 

In terms of more specific opportunities, I would say supporting local entrepreneurs in generating wealth and economic opportunity in less developed countries, deploying ICT in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and enabling longer term development via distance learning are three very powerful and far-reaching opportunities for leveraging ICT for development.

 

On entrepreneurship my interest lies in finding ways for international business to channel its expertise, know-how, and other resources to help local enterprise develop on the ground. There is increasing support for this approach in a number of international business forums and amongst a series of our clients and partner organisations, and I hope to help initiate some practical action soon.

 

Another promising opportunity is to leverage ICT for health care, particularly in the fight against HIV/AIDS and other infectious and communicable diseases. ICT offers valuable applications in health and education, monitoring, statistical analysis, and delivery of care. The use of ICT should be expanded in the campaign against HIV/AIDS, utilising every available form of communication from community radio to broadcast media, telecommunications and the Internet.

 

Thirdly, distance learning provides a powerful mechanism for enhancing human capacity, knowledge creation and sharing. Breaking down the traditional barrier of geographical isolation, distance learning can bring world-class learning opportunities to people living in underserved areas. The Africa Virtual University project serves as an example of knowledge sharing between North and South that fosters scientific and technological capacity building in spite of the shortage of local teachers and current curricula in Africa.

 

> Can you give me some examples of countries or organisations that are "getting it right" and some where things just aren’t working?

 

Our research strongly demonstrates that there is no single path to using ICT for development, and many countries and organisations are experimenting with different approaches. While there are no "one-size-fits-all" solutions, there are important lessons to be learned from the multitude of specific interventions currently underway around the globe, as well as from diverse national approaches to ICT.

 

Organisations supporting specific initiatives should be explicit about their development goals. Initiatives should reflect local needs and local conditions, be sustainable, participatory, and well coordinated. Grameen Village Pay Phones - an initiative that aims to reduce poverty through the economic empowerment of women in rural Bangladesh - is highly successful in all these terms and serves as a model for community development.

 

At the national level, countries have pursued diverse strategies: some have focused on developing ICT as an economic sector ­ either to boost exports or to build domestic capacity ­ while others are focused on deploying ICT as an enabler of wider social and economic development. Countries with an export focus, such as India and Costa Rica, may achieve significant economic benefits, but these benefits do not necessarily translate into progress on broader development goals. Countries with an explicit focus on using ICT in pursuit of development goals, such as Estonia and South Africa, achieve a wide diffusion of benefits contributing to both economic growth and specific development goals. Estonia is an interesting case because it is the first country to declare internet access as a right.

 

In cases where things "just aren¹t working," the problem is often because interventions are narrowly conceived and implemented in isolation without consideration for the complex relationships between infrastructure, policy, human capacity, enterprise, and content and applications. Far too often, solutions are based on technology as an end in itself - "build it and they will come" - and fail to consider local demand or skill requirements. This can lead to costly investments in infrastructure with very little benefit to the local community.

 

> How will this piece of work go forward? What sort of practical projects will come out of it?

 

We are currently planning pilot initiatives where the DOI conclusions will be used as a basis for developing national ICT strategies, and in some cases, applied to specific sectoral strategies such as health, education and e-government. We aim to develop a methodology and toolkit that can be re-used and tailored to developing countries with diverse conditions and priorities.

 

> How do you think the G8 Dot Force’s report will be able to make a difference to what might happen? How well do you think inter-governmental initiatives of this kind work?

 

ICT can only enable sustainable development if it is part of an holistic long-term approach, in which business works co-operatively with other parts of society ­ especially government and civil society. These partners will need to work together on a programme which addresses the 5 pillars of development I referred to earlier.The Dot Force report establishes just such a programme.Provided it is seen through to implementation, I believe it will make a significant difference.And I believe there is a good chance of that happening.Certainly I and my private sector colleagues on the Dot Force have offered real resources and real management commitment to turn this programme into a reality.

 

Working on the Dot Force ­ which is both an inter-governmental and a cross-sector project - has been an interesting experience.Too often in the past each party has stayed in its own silo, unwilling or unable to see areas of mutual interest where much more could be achieved by working together. But I was particularly struck by the great spirit of co-operation among all those involved in the Dot Force ­ governments, both G8 and developing, civil society, and the business sector ­ and the determination to bring about real change.Compared with what might have happened only a few years ago, there was far less suspicion from G8 governments and the non-profit organisations that the private sector was only out to grab subsidies for large-scale infrastructure projects.Perhaps the biggest shift in attitudes was among developing-country governments.Initially suspicious of the process, they were gradually re-assured that it would not ­ after all ­ turn into yet another attempt by Western governments and companies to gain unfettered and unreciprocated access to their markets.

 

> How does all of the above fit into Accenture’s work?

 

One reason we choose to be involved in all this is that it is in our long-term interest.Accenture has offices in 46 countries in the world, and those countries cover 98% of current global GDP. Accelerated development in the rest of the world will ultimately expand the size of the markets we can hope to serve.

 

More broadly, this set of development issues also represents an excellent opportunity to further our mission to make a difference in the way the world works and lives.Too often in recent years global business has allowed itself to appear remote, unaccountable, and blind to its impact on local communities and world society.At Accenture we have understood for some years that business must do more to recognise its interdependence with wider society, and that if global corporations wish to remain free to generate the many benefits which they can undoubtedly bring ­ such as increased business efficiency; rising prosperity for many; greater knowledge and awareness of different cultures - then those corporations must also place a significant emphasis on disseminating and sharing these benefits with people who have so far been left behind.

 

Tackling the challenge of the digital divide ­ one of the most complex challenges facing the global community - is a good fit for Accenture because of our global reach and broad experience in both strategy formulation and practical implementation. In addition to the Digital Opportunity Initiative and the Dot Force, Accenture has also been active in the World Economic Forum (WEF) Digital Divide Task Force, relevant work in the Global Business Dialogue on eCommerce and, in related areas of work for the Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum. We are working in many local programmes that aim to create digital opportunities in countries across the world.