AFRICAN e-STRATEGIES - THE TRICKY TASK OF TURNING PAPER INTO ACTION
26 October 2001
e-Readiness assessments and e-strategies seem to be all the rage at the moment. In an understandable desire to try and understand the impact of ICT on their countries, African governments (and their external funders) commission these documents to help provide a focus for action. Sadly all too often these studies are long on aspirations and short on implementation and action. The more complicated task of knitting together active initiators of a strategy in government, the private sector and civil society is sometimes overlooked or avoided. Margareet Visser of Durban-based Bridges.org provides an overview of a field littered with forgotten studies.
Too often e-readiness assessments commissioned by developing countries sit unused on shelves while the consultants who write them, profit. And to add insult to injury, often the leaders of these countries do not do their homework. They commission even more reports without being aware that assessments have already been undertaken in their own back yard.
Bridges.org, an international NGO that helps people in developing countries use technology to improve their lives, warns that money is being wasted on e-assessments that are not followed up with planned action. In its study "E-Readiness Assessments: Who is doing What, and Where?" Bridges.org noted that a total of 84 countries have already been assessed and currently at least five more initiatives are underway to conduct further e-readiness assessments.
Sixteen countries have been assessed for e-readiness at least five times by different organisations, while many of the poorest countries, which have the most to gain from the information technology revolution, have never been assessed. India topped the list, with a total of eight e-assessments, followed by Egypt and China, which both had six. South Africa benefited from four assessments; many other Southern African countries had none. Bridges.org has had first hand experience of this duplication. Recently it was approached by the World Bank to submit a bid for e-readiness assessment work in Thailand, but it declined, in part because that country had already been assessed five times. Bridges.org has also seen cases where substantial assessments have been done, but no one in government has read the reports or has any idea of what the next steps should be.
Just doing e- readiness assessment will never be enough. It is necessary to draw up a detailed action plan, or "e-strategy", that maps out concrete steps to improve ICT access and use throughout society. But Bridges.org found that at the moment there are relatively few resources or best practice guides for developing countries on how to translate their vision into action in a way which is appropriate for the local economic, governmental and cultural environment.
However, a few general principles are emerging that can help African countries not repeat many of the mistakes already made. First, governments must get public "buy-in" for their ICT goals and strategies so that citizens will not reject their plans. "Ownership" is another phrase used to describe the same need to get a wide spectrum of people involved in implementation.
Too often citizens feel excluded from the process of restructuring and believe that their views are not valued. For example, in South Africa the powerful labour organizations have staged strikes against the Government and threatened to withdraw support because they do not feel their concerns have been addressed in the program for telecommunications reform. The government will build greater support and buy-in if stakeholders are included when goals are set, information is collected, and the strategies are developed.
Second, the results of assessments must be circulated for public use to catalyze action in the business and the wider community so that others can put the concepts into practice in their own spheres.
Third, African countries should be wary of those trying to sell them a universal answer on how to put plans into action. Instead, they should take into account their local circumstances such as their macro-economic environment, socio-cultural factors and the level of trust that citizens have in their technology and their government.
Fourth, e-strategies should comprise small, achievable steps that deliver sustainable results. This is the best approach to narrow the digital divide and to ensure that valuable resources used to measure that e-readiness are not wasted.
Finally, in the ideal world, there would be a central repository for e-readiness assessment results and best practices which would be widely and freely available to those who need it most. There is a pressing need for this type of information, and it would make a valuable contribution to the work that many agencies and governments are involved in. Whilst some of the information is publicly available now—provided that one knows where to look—much is not, and this challenging issue needs to be addressed as well.
Whether a Government chooses to use an external consultant will depend on the levels of expertise it has at its disposal. If a consultant designs an e-readiness assessment that is of relevance to a specific country, it would be more appropriate than using a "blue print assessment tool" designed for the developed world. Also, if the assessment is structured in such a way that it measures outcomes than can be converted into implementation targets. Beware vaguely expressed, generalised outcomes.
It is also be important to ask the question whether the consultant is actually doing an assessment that provide the type of information that the funder is looking for or will have long-term use in the country itself. Are they looking for e-commerce (narrowly), or are they looking at ways to bridge the internal digital divide?
SEE ISSUE 84 FOR SOURCES ON EXISTING ASSESSMENTS AND CASE STUDIES.
REACTIONS TO ISSUE 82: BLACK STAR RISING? - SPECIAL REPORT DIRECT FROM GHANA
Selling services to the US or Europe is certainly the way to go as well as expanding into other countries in Africa. Soft,Internet Ghana and NCS are all great and I have been personally told of export markets successes but I am not so sure. You say proof of exporting services are several (?) I only know one!) The well-publicised data processing operations. No fear of Nigeria here. Or anyone unless they understand what will make the Ghanaian market explode. And Government is more likely than not (on past record) to prevent anything from happening!
I like the idea of 500,000 users but as you say the evidence is hard to find. Your figures from the ISPs are good - just over 10,000 does look paltry. Africa Online looks pretty bad to me - I expected it to be close to NCS (but their US$50 a month charges may explain it) . And I suppose IDN has suffered, however their support to me is great. And few people can afford two ISPs. I do have two (!) one is midnight express from IDN (US$6 a month) surely quite affordable for all those with a phone line and US$15 from wwwplus. We should give everybody a great run for their money. There was a great launch with at least 80 machines available.
Still, why Ghana as you ask? Perhaps we have the greatest opportunity with the internet. The Nigerians, I think, have too great a handicap. Power issues alone make me wonder whether they will make any progress. Like I wrote above the bottleneck is Government. Vested interests. Through the grape vine in Ghana one knows exactly what is going to happen. Not good. We have not learnt that competition will allow the best solution to survive. It is still state manipulation and it will not work. No one knows which solution will work. They must all be allowed a free run.
And your Update had it all. "The best of the high-quality skills available locally is outstanding but the overall pool of those with IT skills is not always at this standard. As one of the Geek Corps volunteers observed:"The best here is every bit as good as in the States and much cheaper. When I go back to the US, I’d like to sell the skills of these people." IF HE CAN SELL THE SKILLS YOU WILL BE VINDICATED ON GHANA GHANA GHANA. But it will show the rest of Africa the way - that’s the only thing it seems we have been good at.
So perhaps I can still ask the question WHY GHANA? Have you come into contact with Ghanaians? Maybe it’s GMT - Ghana Mouth Talk!
TEXT MESSAGING TO OVERCOME PHONE SYSTEM
I read your News Update 82 issue on Ghana with avid interest - and noted the somewhat plaintive comment from the Tanzanian. Funny, one hears these kinds of comments quite a lot on the BBC African service - why so many letters/emails from Ghana or Nigeria! So even though the medium may have changed, it seems that some things are still similar...
I was very interested to hear your comments about the Ghanaian phone system. It certainly does cause those of us who have to use it a lot for work a lot of pain. I did notice that you didn’t mention anything about the role of the mobile phone operators. But maybe that’s a whole other issue.
Related to the mobile phone issue is that of text messaging, which has caught on - especially with those who are users of Spacefon, the major GSM operator. At times I have found it so difficult to get through to people using Spacefon mobiles, that I had to resort to sending them text messages from my PC in the office. And that worked very well!
Thanks again for continuing to put Ghana on the "map".
The British Council