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Myths of Digital Technology in Africa: Leapfrogging Development?

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Many multi- and bilateral agencies have integrated the promotion of information and communication technologies in Africa into their programmes. Along with African NGOs, they strongly advocate the use of ICTs by government offices, private enterprises, schools and the public. In general, groups and actors involved in such efforts share a set of dispositions and worldviews which are highly ‘modernist’ and technocentrist and characterized by a propensity to view and act in favour of exogenous ‘technological’ solutions to development problems. One of the main characteristics of this rhetoric is that it accords no importance to existing social conditions, assuming that equipping people with computers will suffice to leapfrog them into the technological world of economic opportunities. This article critically reviews the main ideas presented by the proponents of this position in Africa and shows why there is a need for a more cautious approach to the question, without rejecting the promises of ICTs.
Global Media and Communication
DOI: 10.1177/1742766505058128
2005; 1; 339 Global Media and Communication
Gado Alzouma Myths of digital technology in Africa: Leapfrogging development?
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Myths of digital technology in Africa
Leapfrogging development?
Gado Alzouma
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, USA
Many multi- and bilateral agencies have integrated the promotion of information
and communication technologies in Africa into their programmes. Along with
African NGOs, they strongly advocate the use of ICTs by government offices,
private enterprises, schools and the public. In general, groups and actors involved
in such efforts share a set of dispositions and worldviews which are highly
‘modernist’ and technocentrist and characterized by a propensity to view and act
in favour of exogenous ‘technological’ solutions to development problems. One
of the main characteristics of this rhetoric is that it accords no importance to
existing social conditions, assuming that equipping people with computers will
suffice to leapfrog them into the technological world of economic opportunities.
This article critically reviews the main ideas presented by the proponents of this
position in Africa and shows why there is a need for a more cautious approach to
the question, without rejecting the promises of ICTs.
access Africa democracy ICTs internet WSIS
In a few months the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)
will be held in Tunis.1Africa will be represented at all levels by political
actors as well as NGO representatives and international development
agencies operating on the continent. In preparation for the WSIS, Ghana
hosted a meeting in February 2005, during which the participants tried
to build a consensus on an African agenda for a full integration of the
region’s countries into ‘the global village’. For a number of these partici-
pants, the Information Society is unquestionably perceived as a chance
for Africa, a chance to blend into a world of economic opportunities and
social well-being. They think that information and communication
Global Media and Communication [1742-7665(2005)1:3] Volume 1(3): 339–356
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technologies (ICTs) are the instruments through which the growing
marginalization of Africa can be tackled. These expectations and
assumptions are now pervasive in the development literature (Menou,
However, it is not the first time that grandiose hopes of leapfrogging
development have been attached to a new technology. Since the end of
colonialism, nearly every decade has been marked by the celebration of
a new technology as a means for overcoming the long-lasting problems
faced by developing countries. The era of tractors2 was replaced by the
era of broadcasting and television,3and the latter by the era of new
information and communication technologies (ICTs). Many authors
(Castells, 1997, 1998, 2000; Mansell, 1993; Mansell and When, 1998;
Negroponte, 1996) compared the unprecedented development of ICTs to
changes brought about by the printing machines or the invention of
writing. They particularly emphasized the potential for well-being,
education, and liberty offered by these technologies. They are backed by
international development agencies such as the UNDP (United Nations
Development Programme, 2001) and the World Bank (through its
Global Information and Communication Technology Department),4
which argue that the need exists for developing countries to implement
national ICT strategies to help them build ‘knowledge societies’ and
foster development. They contend that Southern countries should
participate in the globalization process of the information age to fully
share its benefits.
Outside of the academy and in developing countries, there is also a
growing literature devoted to the evaluation of ICT projects and
programmes.5This literature is based on the assumption that economic
development can be fostered by the use of ICTs6or the assumption that
they can foster the direct participation of people in political decisions
(Grossman, 1995; Ott, 1998). In the same way, the problems of culture
and identity, modernization and globalization are analysed in their
relation to development and technological change (Appadurai, 1991,
1996, 2001; Escobar, 1994; Pfaffenberger, 1992). However, the optimism
which often marks some of these views is not sustained by clear
evidence when it comes to how these technologies will perform the
miracle.7What we are offered as arguments is constituted by a set of
general statements and enthusiastic accounts of the potential change
ICTs might generate.
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The perceived benefits of ICTs
ICTs are first believed to be media through which intellectual content is
developed, information circulated, and ideas and objects exchanged,
which all contribute to creating wealth and empowering community
members.8It is affirmed that rural communities (traders, craftsmen,
herdsmen, etc.) can thus find the way to advertise and sell their products
all over the world and particularly to people of industrialized countries.
It is also said that teachers and students can improve their performance
by using resources (books, exercises, learning materials, etc.) available
through the web; in the same way, civil society (NGOs, workers’ unions,
women’s groups, associations for people with disabilities, minorities
activists, human-rights activists, etc.) can advocate democracy and
progress (Grossman, 1995; Ott, 1998); women and children can find
new perspectives when faced with the day-to-day burden of male
domination or abandonment (Rathberger and Adera, 2000); artists can
find new ways of expression and communicate their feelings to those
who are interested (African Studies Association, 2002); entrepreneurs can
expand their markets and production; researchers, through networks,
exchanges and newly available resources, can improve their searches,
economize time and money, and collaborate with other researchers
throughout the world; and so forth (African Development Forum,
As stated by Bedi, ‘Proponents attribute a wide and almost
impossible array of positive effects to ICTs’ (1999: 10). These include
economic growth, agricultural and industrial productivity, efficiency of
public administration, and participation in democracy. In any case, the
potential for development is unquestioned and the emphasis is put on
‘holistic’ aspects (Hawkins and Valentin, 1997: 8). The benefits of the
‘information age’ ‘are often held to be true axiomatically’ (Bedi, 1999: 10).
This discourse has had profound policy implications for international
development agencies and developing countries. For example, in 1996
the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa launched what it
called the African Information Society Initiative (AISI, 2003).AISI has been
conceived as ‘an action framework’ which is ‘the basis for information
and communication activities in Africa’ (AISI, 2003). All African
countries have endorsed this programme of activities. In 1999, AISI held
the African Development Forum in Addis Ababa with the theme ‘The
Challenge to Africa of Globalization and the Information Age’. This
forum set as goals, through the use of ICTs, the eradication of poverty,
the promotion of democracy (‘electronic government’), education,
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health care, business and trade. It also published four theme papers
which are the theoretical basis for ICT policies in Africa:
1. Globalization and the Information Economy: Challenges and Opportunities
for Africa
2. Information and Communication Technologies for Improved Governance in
3. Strengthening Africa’s Information Infrastructure
4. Democratizing Access to the Information Society (ADF).
Following this forum, a wide range of literature flourished that estab-
lished the rationale for development interventions in the domain of
ICTs. In the following pages, I will analyse how these four areas of
interest (access; content and language; identity and culture; and
implications for democracy) are defined in the literature.
The access issue
The problem of access amounts to the ways African populations might
be equipped and trained to use information technology. However, access
also has to do with what is called the ‘digital divide’, in other words, the
inequality between developed and developing countries regarding access
to information technologies. In the same way, the inequality between
social groups and between males and females parallels the differences
between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ (those who can afford computers,
for example, as opposed to those who cannot), and between literate and
illiterate people (those who can read the English content of the internet,
for example, as opposed to those who cannot), etc. Access has been the
most debated topic when it comes to the relationship between ICTs and
development in Africa. Of course, the first obstacle identified by
researchers is the enormous gap existing between African countries and
the developed world.
Jensen, in ‘The African Internet – A Status Report’ (2002), estimates
that internet users in Africa amount to:
5–8 million, with about 1.5–2.5 million outside of North and South Africa.
This is about 1 user for every 250–400 people, compared to a world average
of about 1 user for every 15 people, and a North American and European
average of about 1 in every 2 people. (2002: 1)
Castells, on his part, writes: ‘There are more telephone lines in Manhattan
or in Tokyo than in the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa’ (1998: 92). As for
Mansell and When (1998) they assert that ‘for many of these countries
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widespread access to these technologies in the timeframe within which
policy and strategic actions are taken [is] out of the question’ (1998:
100). This is the crudest manifestation of the digital divide. It is due,
above all, to the extreme poverty of many African countries.
However, none of these authors has apparently anticipated the
rather extraordinary development of new ICTs in just the first four years
of the 21st century, notably the fact that innovations are lowering the
cost of technological devices and expanding their penetration in
developing countries at an unprecedented pace. We can even say that it
is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish info-poor countries
from info-rich countries. Not long ago, the Senegalese president, Abdoulaye
Wade, echoed Castells’ notion that there were more telephone lines in
Manhattan than in all of Africa. He thought he was just voicing a
striking opinion, usually made to illustrate the info-gap between poor
and rich countries. However, he was not aware that things have changed
radically, thanks to Africans’ rapid adoption of the internet and cell
phones. He was corrected by a World Bank report, which notes: ‘Unless
New Yorkers and their commuter friends have 12 phones each, Africa
now has many more telephones than Manhattan’ (ABCNews Online,
2005). Indeed, due to the very rapid expansion of ICTs and particularly
cell phones, the gap between Africa and the rest of the world, although
still very large, is being reduced.
According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU),
Africa is now ‘the world’s fastest growing mobile market’ (2005: 1).
Between 1998 and 2003, the increase of subscriptions to mobile phones
outpaced by 1,000 percent those of fixed lines. More than 51.8 million
people in Africa have cell phones (and this figure is expected to be 90
million in 2005) while only 25.1 million own fixed lines. ITU’s report
affirms also that cell-phone penetration in Africa extended to 6.2 per
100 inhabitants by the end of 2003 while fixed-line penetration stood
only at 3 per 100 inhabitants. By 2003, almost 70 percent of telephone
subscribers in Africa were using cell phones. In sub-Saharan Africa,
especially, three out of four subscriptions were by cell-phone users: ‘This
is the highest ratio of mobile to total telephone subscribers of any region
in the world’, the report states (ITU, 2004: 1). The annual average
growth rate of cell-phone use in Africa is 65 percent, compared with 33
percent for the rest of the world.
Notwithstanding these developments, Africans are far from bridging
the digital divide because it is not only a gap between countries, it is
also a gap inside countries, with disparities existing between rural and
urban settings, men and women, and the educated and uneducated.
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Infrastructure is mostly implemented in modern cities, particularly in
the capitals. Expanding ICTs to rural communities is particularly chal-
lenging because of lack of energy (electricity) and problems related to
language, illiteracy, etc. States are poor and cannot support a large
expansion in rural sectors. That is why alternative solutions, such as
solar energy, are being attempted to create rural connectivity. The goal is
not to reach a level of access such that one person could have simul-
taneous telephone and internet access but rather to promote collective
models of access such as telecenters (equipment set up to deliver
multiple services – access to the internet, phone, fax, etc.) or cybercafés,
which have been implemented with the help of some organizations in
countries such as Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda, Senegal, Mali, Benin,
South Africa, etc. (Etta and Parvyn-Wamahiu, 2004).
In the current literature, cybercafés and telecenters in Africa have
been analysed mainly with regard to their function of providing access
to computers and telephones. However, here again, the question of
access cannot be reduced to the number of computers or telephone lines
in a country. The skills needed to run the equipment and to interpret
and apply the information retrieved are equally important: as Mansell
and When write, ‘the capacity to generate, distribute, and share
information about local resources and activities is as important as access
to distant digital information’ (1998: 100).
Content and the language issue
Another of the main issues posed by the reception of ICTs in Africa is the
question of content or technology-generated knowledge. Since this
content is generated in the West, will Africans be passive ‘receptors’ and
‘consumers’ in the chain of information? How can they be potential
creators or contributors? How could they appropriate this knowledge
and preserve and produce, in turn, their own knowledge? Will their
identity face negation and marginalization, or will they be able to
maintain old identities and create and manage new ones?
Closely linked to these questions is the perceived ‘threat’ posed by
the consumption of foreign intellectual production and cultural values
(Bosah, 2000). More importantly, ICTs themselves are based on some
epistemological assumptions, which constitute their core values and
which could contrast with some cultural values or identities and repre-
sentations in Africa. We have only to think about how cultural identities
and representations have been influenced by the introduction of
movies, radio, and television. The way identity is structured may also be
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affected by newer ICTs because individuals have to think about them-
selves and to define themselves in new ways. Some representations may
be reinforced while others may be diluted (Lengel and Murphy, 2000).
This contrasts with the idea of ICTs as tools of liberation, since local
values and endogenous development could be undermined by foreign
interests and models of consumption imposed from the outside (Gunkel,
2000). Thus, people may lose control of their destiny and decisions,
which can profoundly affect their lives. These concerns are expressed in
most of the literature devoted to the issue of content. Solutions
identified by the various authors are generally related to the production
of local knowledge. For example, in a report titled ‘Using ICTs to
Generate Development Content’, Batchelor writes that ‘this foreign
content must be matched by the expression and communication of local
knowledge that is relevant to local situations’ (2002: 4). In other words,
ICTs should be used to process and transmit locally produced content.
They also should help local people interact in their own cultures,
through their own languages.
In this context, the issue of language takes on particular importance
since English and European languages largely dominate as internet
languages (Gunkel, 2000). Thus, the problem of access linked to
illiteracy is doubled by the use of foreign languages. This can make
impossible or at least very difficult the appropriation of these tech-
nologies as regards the creation of indigenous knowledge. A large part of
the literature on this topic (mainly in the form of conference reports) is
focused on the use of African languages or the use of alternative
solutions; for example, technologies which do not require literacy. The
Regional Conference of Africa, held in Bamako in May 2002, insisted in
its conclusions on the need for Africa to address the economic,
technological and political aspects of the use of African languages on the
internet (production and maintenance of websites in African languages,
training of African data-processing specialists, etc.). In this context,
software in African languages, automatic-translation software, online
dictionaries for African languages, African-language tablets and graphics,
and multilingual internet names have been created and are managed by
dozens of projects.
African languages are judged important in the pedagogical process
also because ICTs are becoming more and more used in distance-
learning courses through projects which seek to link African universities,
teachers, researchers and students to Western universities and research
centres. The original aspects of these technologies are that they make
interactivity possible in the pedagogical relation. The participants are
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understood as ‘a conversational learning community’ (Bodomo, 2001: 1)
and thus the use of indigenous languages becomes one of the salient
aspects of the learning process. However, the idea of ‘local knowledge’
has itself to be calibrated with local realities, namely the fact that local
expressions of culture are not always ‘authentic’. Local Westernized
elites are usually the ones with access to computers. It is not auto-
matically the case that they articulate local cultures since they have been
educated in foreign languages and have, in line with their social
position, specific interests. They share worldviews and ideologies which
are often in accordance with techno-centrist ideas, and they may
advocate the use of information technologies in order to reinforce their
position in society.
Identity, culture, gender and cyberspace
Although scholars have rarely so far addressed the potential implications
of ICT use on African cultures and identities, a growing literature dealing
with cyberspace and cyber-identities (understood as global realities)
exists today. Two orientations can be distinguished in this literature: one
which deals with the interaction between ICTs and the internal
structures of society, its divisions; and one in which cyberspace is viewed
as a land of no-conflict, where social struggles and competing world-
views are reconciled.
In the first group, we find authors such as Castells (1997), for whom
technology is a symbol and a powerful means of domination for ruling
elites and societies. It participates in the perpetuation of power and
authority and becomes central to negotiating identities and social
conflicts. Identities can be affected by the use of ICTs because individuals
have to think about themselves and define themselves in new ways.
New lines of division are even being created in the use of, or, more
precisely, the access to ICTs. Thus, for Castells, the advent of informational/
global capitalism is concomitant with a ‘dehumanization’, a ‘marginal-
ization’ or a ‘selective integration’ and a ‘technological apartheid’ for
Africa (1998: 82–92).
Hall (1998) has analysed ‘the digital divide’ (the inequality in the
access to computers and the internet) as a mark of status which the
African elites are trying to monopolize even though they face a contra-
dictory process: due to the drastic fall in prices of services and devices,
these new technologies are becoming more affordable. Besides, some
rural communities are gaining access because of technical innovations
and international programmes and projects aimed at ‘decentralizing’
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and implementing them in the remote areas. The content of the
information circulating is also subject to this kind of ‘democratization’.
What Hall’s study suggests is that privileges and positions may be
capable of being undermined by the use of the internet in Africa.
However, this idea is arguably part of the current ‘technotopia’ (Hakken,
1999) which accords to computers the capacity to change social
relations. On the contrary, it is not the technology that shapes social
structures but rather social structures and ‘external’ conditions of
existence, such as they are lived daily, that shape interactions in the
virtual world. In the same way, the structure of interactions between
internet users is determined by the position they occupy in the real
Thus, in Africa and elsewhere, there exists a strong correlation
between gender and internet use, this being partly the result of females’
low access to education in developing countries. For example, until
recently, the necessity for girls to go to school was hardly admitted by
most Nigerien parents. In a survey designed to assess Nigerien parents’
perception of girls’ and boys’ schooling (Niger Multiple Indicators Cluster
Survey, UNICEF, 1996), 27.1 percent of parents responded ‘No’ to the
question: ‘Is it necessary for girls to go to school?’, while the proportion
was only 6.2 percent when it came to boys. It appeared even that
mothers perceived less than fathers the necessity for girls to go to school:
28.9 percent of them responded ‘No’ against 24.7 percent for fathers. Here
again, education appears as a strong discriminating factor, since there
were more educated parents perceiving the necessity for their daughters
to go to school than uneducated parents: 31.7 percent against 25.2
percent. This also explains why girls and women are underrepresented
among internet users in Niger, and Africa in general. This under-
representation is the result of dispositions cultivated in relation to
women’s uses of technology. As shown by many studies, family social-
ization of girls and women influences attitudes towards education as
well as towards computers and internet use (Rajagopal and Bojin, 2003).
In the African context, the gendered dimension of technology is
rarely admitted, particularly by development agents. On the contrary,
we are invited to share the view that technology is neutral and
constitutes a kind of independent domain, which has its own life,
detached from society and social stakes. In this view, social divisions,
categories and identities seem to play no role in the introduction,
reception and appropriation of technology. The powerful symbolic
values carried by technologies find no place in the design of the devices.
However, it is not difficult to see that the dominant view is in reality the
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idea that technology is a ‘male device’ and this, of course, induces ‘fears’
on the part of women wishing to use technology (Rathberger and Adera,
2000). Thus male dominance in the social and economic sphere is
transferred into the sphere of technologies, contributing to marginalize
women as active participants in development. In turn, poor access to
ICTs isolates women from sources of information which could be helpful
to them. It means isolation from skills, knowledge, ideas, new
perspectives which can lead to integration into the modern world. It
results in the fact that women’s specific needs and views about
technology are not taken into account and this in turn has an impact on
women’s access and use of technology.
ICTs and democracy in Africa
In The Electronic Republic: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age
Grossman (1995) argues that new ICTs are fostering direct participation
of people in political decision-making. Their main effect has been to
make possible the rise, visibility and weight of public opinion as a way
of orienting and influencing the political process. Thus, elites are more
and more concerned and bound by public opinion and try to frame their
actions around it, making possible the advent of ‘popular consensus’
and what he calls ‘the electronic republic’. Following Grossman’s study,
many authors have seen in information technologies a way to promote
democratic governance, and cultural and political resistance against
dictatorial control in African countries. Thus, in a paper titled ‘Power to
the People: The Role of Electronic Media in Promoting Democracy in
Africa’, Ott (1998) notes that we have passed from a ‘polis’ in which
‘direct communication among and between all the political actors was
an attainable ideal’, to a situation in which diversity and geographical
distance necessitate ‘alternative modes of interaction’ (1998: 1–2). From
this perspective, access to ICTs can foster the democratic process in
The internet can also play a unifying role for diasporic communities.
It can loosen the class, gender and intellectual barriers which used to
divide them. Today, this is true for many scattered peoples who find in
the internet a way to regain a sense of lost community, according to
Maybury-Lewis (1998). The flexibility of the internet makes possible a
greater number of positive expressions of individual or collective
identities. Indigenous social movements such as the Zapatistas find in
the internet a powerful tool for breaking their isolation and promoting
their struggle across the world (Castells, 1997).
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Along these lines, the critics focused on the centralized and
authoritarian role of African governments, particularly in French-
speaking authoritarian states which do not allow for the emergence and
expression of local power. Rural populations and women particularly are
dispossessed from any participation in power and the resources power
offers. Therefore, the advent of ICTs is understood as an opportunity for
shifting and sharing power until now concentrated in the hands of the
urban political authoritarian elite. The decentralization issue, or how to
empower rural and poor people through the use of information tech-
nologies, then becomes central.
For Fleming (2002), the primary role of ICTs in promoting democracy
in Africa is in ‘facilitating participation and providing public access to
information’ (2002: 1). Advocacy and empowerment of civil society are
therefore the most important aspects of political activism that the inter-
net could help foster because the most significant obstacles to democracy
are the exclusion of the poor, the social and intellectual distances between
decision makers and rural people, etc. Thus the democratic potential the
internet may offer is seriously impeded by social inequalities.
Similar observations made everywhere in Africa led to the adoption
of the concept of E-Governance (Electronic Governance), defined as the
delivery of government services and information for public usage in
order to empower communities so that they can take part in the
management of their own affairs, in their own interests and in the
interest of the wider society.
Information technologies are claimed to ensure a more transparent
process as well as the availability and the dissemination of the
information necessary for this participation.
However, E-Governance is not intended for the administered only
but is intended for governments as well. It is believed that electronic
tools could be used for the improvement of communication among
administrative services, among citizens and governments and among
businesses, thus creating ‘vast economic opportunities for African
countries’, as explained in the ‘e-Africa 2002: Building e-Governance
Capacity in African Countries’ project proposal (ATRCAD, 2002: 3). In
the context of the same framework the United Nations initiated UNPAN
(2002) (the United Nations Public Administration online Network) whose
aim is to improve governance and management in Africa by promoting
community multipurpose telecenters and rural radio stations. For its part,
in 2003, the USAID (United States Agency for International Development)
launched the Digital Freedom Initiative in Senegal in order to promote the
use of ICTs in Africa through the creation of new enterprises.
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African elites, ICTs and the rhetoric of development
According to Grant Lewis (1992), the current discourse on ICTs and
development is often an outcome of the ideology of a professional elite,
interested in controlling rewards associated with the use of computers
and the internet in Africa. Although members of this elite claim to serve
only popular interests and technological development, it is not difficult
to see that they are, above all, interested in becoming a visible group of
professionals, in gaining a status and participating in the formulation of
national ICT policies. Advancing internet use in their respective
countries would increase their prestige in the wider society as highly
skilled professionals able to master the most advanced forms of
contemporary technologies. In turn, their visibility would result in more
influence on national ICT policies, more foreign assistance, more ICT
programmes and projects, and more rewards for them in terms of
employment, consultancies and NGO creation. In other words, the
current discourse on ICTs is strongly associated with specific social
positions and interests. It is a legitimizing discourse for national groups
of professionals and foreign aid agencies which share common interests
in the promotion of ICTs and whose worldviews are re-appropriated by
ordinary internet users.
Thus, we should not reduce technical issues, and particularly
internet issues, to solely the technical sphere. As a technology, the
internet operates within a set of social conditions which give it meaning
and value. The images of the internet in Africa are constructed through a
discourse which reflects the ideology of developmentalism and the
interests of particular groups of actors, even though it is based on
technological determinism. These groups of actors are what Uimonen
(2003) calls ‘the Internet community’.
Based on shared interest rather than physical proximity, the internet
community is above all a community of interest (Rheingold, 1994), a
transnational community that cuts across organizational, national and
continental boundaries. This community is but one example of
transnational social landscapes, what could be defined as netscapes
(Uimonen, 2003) that frame online social interactions. These instances
of global cultural flow combine a localized sense of belonging with a
global, cosmopolitan outlook (Uimonen, 2003:146).
Therefore we should look behind the screen, where real actors with
real interests engage in ‘socially anchored practices’ (Uimonen, 2003),
along with the elaboration of a corresponding ideology. Above all,
internet promoters tend to be among the young, educated elite, who, by
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virtue of their training and profession, share an interest in wide use of
the internet. Their daily activities are closely related to computers and
the internet, and their professional ethos, as well as their culture,
involves ‘networking’. They are concerned with knowledge sharing and
information sharing, as well as facilitating or providing access to the
internet. They take part in ‘virtual’ groups of all sorts, such as online
discussion groups, international or global associations, and organizations
promoting computers and the internet, numerous colloquia, confer-
ences and training seminars helping them keep updated about the latest
advances in information technology.
They subscribe to journals devoted to the popularization of ICTs and
read online e-news and bulletins. But, more importantly, they are
connected to each other and to other interested people around the
world by way of new communication technologies, most commonly
through e-mail. They can best be described as people having their feet
on the African soil and their heads in the virtual world of inter-
connectivity. Because they share an interest in the advent of a world that
is in accordance with their social dispositions and their expectations,
their discourse is a ‘performative discourse’, in the sense that Bourdieu
(1990) gives to this term, namely, a discourse which calls into being the
reality it evokes. It is a kind of social movement that, says Uimonen, ‘is
aimed at transforming meaning ... [It] is also characterized by the
“outward-oriented missionizing” that characterizes movements, in this
case a pronounced desire to extend the Internet and the spirit in which
it has been developed around the world’ (2003: 154).
More importantly, the techno-centrist discourse on ICTs and
development is deeply rooted in philosophical and moral concepts which
shaped the relations between colonial Europe and Africa. Under one
form or another, it marks and sustains the discourse on ICTs in all its
aspects. It derives from the 19th century’s idea that technological progress
will ultimately free people from all natural and social constraints.
Against this utopia, we should not forget that whatever the technology,
its use is shaped by ‘external’ social conditions. It does not derive from
an ‘internal’ logic commanded by the way the technology has been
designed. In other words, the general conditions in which people are
living do not change suddenly with the introduction of the internet.
Those who are poor and illiterate remain so. ICTs cannot leapfrog
beyond the ordinary development problems Africans are faced with.
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Introducing computers in rural areas, for example, does not auto-
matically solve the problem of illiteracy, health-related problems or
poverty. The solutions to these problems reside outside of the realm of
technology. It is important to remind ourselves that there is a digital
divide within societies, an inequality of access to computers and other
technologies. Technological opportunities are unevenly distributed,
particularly in African nations, where a small elite holds power, eco-
nomic resources, and knowledge. Members of this elite are in a position
to consolidate its resources and its power in a society where technical
skills and access to technology are important facilitators of success.
Unskilled people who are deprived of technological means are at risk of
being marginalized. Thus, instead of being a tool for liberation, the
internet can become an intimidating technology which can contribute to
widening the gap between those who possess everything and those who
do not. They can become a tool for excluding poor and illiterate people.
1 The World Summit on the Information Society took place in Tunis from 16–18
November 2005. This article was submitted to the editor before that date.
2 I am here referring to the 1960s theories of the ‘take-off’ (Rostow, 1960), which
closely linked the improvement of agricultural production to massive introduction
of tractors in Third World nations.
3 In the 1970s, programmes of ‘educative television’ were introduced in many
African countries. They were supposed to rapidly raise the schooling rate by
lowering education costs since fewer teachers and didactic materials would be
needed to teach a greater number of pupils. These programmes failed and a
country such as Niger, where they were first introduced, still has a schooling rate of
less than 40 percent.
4 On its website, the World Bank presents the mission of the GICT (Global
Information and Communications Technology Department) as follows:
‘Information and communication technologies are opening new opportunities for
emerging markets. The World Bank Group aims to stimulate sustainable economic
growth, increase productivity, improve public services, promote transparency, and
reduce poverty through extending the reach of these technologies in the
developing world’ (World Bank, 2002).
5 Mike Jensen (2004) has compiled an impressive list of these programmes and
projects in an online document.
6 We find one of the first formulations of these ideas in ITU’s 1985 ‘Report of the
Independent Commission for World-Wide Telecommunications Development’
(The Maitland Report): ‘Decisions by telecommunications operators in developing
countries to improve and expand their networks will create a major market for the
owners of telecommunications technology, and the manufacturers of equipment.
A more comprehensive world system will mean an increase in international traffic
from which all operators will benefit. Where information flows so does commerce.
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A growth in world trade and other contacts will increase understanding among
peoples. Effective and expanded telecommunications both within and between
countries will make the world a better and safer place’ (p. 4).
7 The goal of most of those projects and programmes is to bridge what came to be
known as the ‘digital divide’, the inequality of access to computers and the
internet (Hall, 1998). Like many terms or concepts in vogue in developing
countries and Africa, the idea of ‘digital divide’ finds its origins in Western
preoccupations and debates, notably the mid-1990s debate on ‘technology poor
and technology rich’ in America. Larry Irving, a former member of the Clinton
administration, is said to have coined the term ‘the digital divide’ and informed
‘the American public about the growing problem it represents’ (Morino Institute,
2004). However, Larry Irving himself, in an online discussion forum, accords the
paternity of the term to two Los Angeles Times journalists. He writes: ‘Jonathan
Webber of the Industry Standard makes a compelling case that somewhere back
around 1995 he and Amy Harmon (when both were with the LA Times) invented
the term to describe the social division between those who were very involved in
technology and those who were not’ (Irving, 2001).
8 It should be noted that I am not implying that tractors and other technologies are
not indispensable to development. I refute any kind of primitivist theory or
techno-pessimism. However, I think that technologies should be placed in context,
as only one of the dimensions of development. The social and political dimensions
are as important as technology is and that is why the latter should not be isolated
and fetishized as if it were able to produce a miracle by itself without the social and
cultural aspects which give it its meaning.
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Biographical note
Gado Alzouma is a postdoctoral fellow in the Global Media and Research Center
of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He holds a PhD in Anthropology
from Southern Illinois University (USA) and a DEA (Diplôme d’Études Approfondies)
in Science, Technology and Society from Université Louis Pasteur, Strasbourg.
From 1988 to 1998 he taught sociology in Abdou Moumouni University of
Niamey (Niger). While at this post, he carried out many studies and surveys for
international development organizations such as the World Bank and the UNFPA.
In 1998 he was Adjunct Program Officer in Niger’s UNICEF office. From 2000 to
2001, he was Coordinator, Evaluation and Learning Systems, for the Africa and
Information Society Program, in the West Africa Regional Office of the
International Development Research Center in Dakar, Senegal. His current
research focuses on the use of ICTs in Africa and how these technologies are
affecting culture and representations in the context of globalization.
Address: 611 East Park Street, Carbondale, Illinois, USA, 62901.
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... 3 These optimistic or even euphoric models shattered in the years after 2010, and it became clear a little later that falling information acquisition costs did not automatically mean a competitive advantage for certain participants in the economic arena (Choudhury, 2015;Kwami, 2016). Smartphones are not merely generators of new prosperity for all (Alzouma, 2005(Alzouma, , 2019. In fact, their contribution to overcoming poverty and equalising social injustice is much smaller than expected in the first years after the introduction of the new technology (Helsper, 2021). ...
... The singular focus on the digital in the Global South does not always provide adequate opportunity to investigate how social and cultural factors such as language, religion, class, and urban-rural divide challenge media engagement practices and mediate news publics, particularly given that a little over one in three people in India have access to the Internet (Paul 2018). The short shrift given to vernacular language media cultures also reflects the imperialist impulse of the dominant development paradigm, which emanates from the idea that technological progress will ultimately free people from all natural and social constraints (Alzouma 2005). Given the lack of attention given to social, political, and cultural contexts that constitute the challenges of development, the digital narrative paradoxically "replicates Eurocentric ontological domination even as it frames the technology in a culturalist language" (Dutta and Shome 2018, 3970). ...
Malayalam-language newspapers published in the southern Indian state of Kerala are known for their contribution to the vernacular public sphere. However, while the popularity of commercial Malayalam-language newspapers has steadily increased over the past decades, “community-based” publications such as Deepika have experienced decline. Using the case of Deepika and drawing on the New Literacy Studies scholarship, we examine how print newspapers enter into the daily lives of people and analyze the reading practices associated with this tactile form of media in this part of the world. Our article contributes to Global South journalism studies by illuminating how literacy practices can provide an alternative theoretical framework to better understand the cultural meanings of print news media.
... Cities have emerged as trail blazers for new standards of openness and transparency, for instance in local procurement and public contracting, with 56 new local municipalities particularly from Africa and Asia joining the global partnership to promote open government (Open Government Partnership 2019). While a universal leapfrog narrative for the continent has been rightly questioned (Alzouma 2005;Srinivasan et al. 2019), there are undeniably growing pockets of digital and technological innovation, not least in the civic tech and social innovation bracket. It is particularly the cities with a critical mass of young and well-educated entrepreneurs that are at the cutting edge of new data-sharing models and platform economies, as well as novel approaches for local democratic participation in Africa. ...
This volume brings together a unique set of interventions from a variety of contributors to bridge the gap between research and policy with a distinct focus on Africa, drawing on work conducted as part of multiple interconnected research projects and networks on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and global policy implementation in African cities. Through the framework of the SDGs, and in particular Goal 11, the book aims to contribute to generating new knowledge about approaches to SDG localization that are grounded in complex and diverse local contexts, needs and realities, integrated perspectives and collaborative research.
Journalists adopt new technologies amid the limitations and structure of their existing tools. This study uses organizational sociology and actor-network theory to examine the infrastructure supporting journalists’ newsgathering in two Rwandan newsrooms, highlighting the role of the messaging platform WhatsApp. The network, which includes editors, sources, reporters, weather, vehicles, drivers, moto-taxis, WhatsApp, and petty cash, encourages journalists to gather news from predictable events. In this newsgathering network, WhatsApp allows reporters and editors to coordinate with each other, gather news, and influence newsroom behaviour. However, the platform does not overcome physical limitations such as transportation problems, which contribute major obstacles to newsgathering, even at wealthy organizations. In this network, WhatsApp extends the communication capabilities of journalists but is moderated by existing social relationships and subject to physical constraints as a result of those relationships. This study shows how physical and social contexts influence newsgathering and production. It also reinforces the importance of context in understanding how new tools are adopted into news production networks.
Corruption is one of the major hurdles to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) globally. Money is lost due to illicit financial flows and the lack of progress in updating policies and improving the technical capabilities of key departments at the national level. In addition to that, many African countries face the challenge of reforming colonial-era public administrations, making them more accessible and accountable to the people they serve. In turn, successfully localizing the SDGs requires a competent and ethical public service, including at the local government level, which is the primary state-citizen interface. This chapter sets out to connect the aims of SDG 11 and SDG 16 through exploring the potential of the urban planning profession as a key custodian of transparency, accountability, and, ultimately, urban integrity. Drawing on research among urban and regional planners in Zambia and South Africa, done as part of the Cities of Integrity project and funded by the Department for International Development (DFID), we argue that planners are among the key stakeholders to engage when addressing corruption and maladministration at the local level. We further maintain that it is worthwhile to move from a narrow focus on legalistic compliance with anti-corruption measures towards a more proactive promotion of professional integrity and collective accountability mechanisms. This is especially true in the African context. Finally, using a case study involving planning professionals in Lusaka, we explore the opportunities and challenges faced when addressing corruption and promoting integrity among the local community of practice.KeywordsSDG 11SDG 16Local governmentCorruptionIntegrityUrban planningSouth AfricaZambia
The purpose of this paper was to highlight pertinent issues relating to digital access and the development of digital reading culture in Africa. This study established the appropriate strategies of promoting digital reading culture in African libraries and also the roles that libraries use in promoting the adoption of digital reading culture amidst various challenges and obstacles. Design/methodology/approach This paper examined an extensive empirical and theoretical literature review. A thorough analysis of the literature was done, focusing on combining empirical studies and theoretical ones, to bring out the importance of the reading process and how it can be adapted to digital context to overcome the access issues in the digital environment. Findings The findings indicated the advantages of digital reading in the present era. Additionally, the results pointed out the challenges faced in developing countries in Africa when promoting a digital reading culture and proposed the important role of librarians in helping the population through digital literacy. Originality/value This paper provides significant approaches on promoting digital reading in developing countries. To the best of the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study to review the literature from different aspects and perspectives on this topic in the context of developing countries in Africa.
Full-text available
This article unpacks the material and cultural implications of the Digital India programme’s rhetoric of social transformation and digital empowerment by asking the question ‘How and whom does digital empowerment seek to empower?’ Through an analysis of the discourse on the Digital India website, this article concludes that the recurring depoliticization and dehistoricization of social differences deliberately make the programme’s intended beneficiaries vague. By flattening structural differences among caste, class, gender, and ethnicity, Digital India’s technopolitics recasts empowerment as an individual issue and naturalizes the myths of meritocracy, castelessness, and genderlessness. Furthermore, in a Hindutva regime, Digital India’s depoliticized technopolitics becomes a tool for managing citizenship that reinforces the status quo. This article argues that, by declining to define a process of empowerment that considers cultural complexities and structural hegemonies, Digital India’s call for digital empowerment remains an empty signifier.
In this study, we investigate the impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs), represented by ICT capital services, on total entrepreneurial activity (TEA) in developing, emerging and developed countries with particular attention on countries’ absorption capacities over the period 2006-2016. First, our results suggest a positive relationship between ICT capital services and entrepreneurship in the whole sample. Second, while the results concerning subsamples are larger in developing and emerging countries than in developed countries, the comparisons do not reveal statistically significant differences in the contribution of ICT capital services to entrepreneurship in these three groups of countries. Thus, regarding the benefits of ICTs in promoting entrepreneurship, developing and emerging countries are not earning more than the developed economies. This challenges the argument that these countries are ‘leapfrogging’ through ICT. Concerning the absorption capacity, we find that secondary school enrolment is the best channel of ICT entrepreneurial effect, not tertiary school enrolment, and innovation is a complement to ICT in promoting entrepreneurship only in emerging countries and developed countries, but not in developing countries.
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Comprehensive review of the role of digital technologies in development from a science and technology policy perspective
Computerization as a political process, Suzanne Grant Lewis, Joel Samoff African bureaucracy and the computer metaphor, Bruce Berman foreign assistance agencies as advocates and innovators, John Daly centralized planning for microcomputer adoption and use - the experience of Tanzania, S. Grant Lewis the emergence of new social forms in the workplace - computer contracts in Kenya and Ivory Coast, Bennetta Jules-Rosette recognizing the assumptions in microcomputer use for development planning, Craig Calhoun, Pamela deLargy microcomputer adoption and the rise of a computer elite, S. Grant Lewis.
Significant changes in the nature of social life are being brought about by computer, information, and biological technologies, to the extent that-some argue-a new cultural order, ''cyberculture,'' is coming into being. This paper presents an overview of the types of anthropological analyses that are being conducted in the area of new technologies and suggests additional steps for the articulation of an anthropology of cyberculture. it builds upon science, technology, and society studies in various fields and on critical studies of modernity. The implications of technoscience for both anthropological theory and ethnographic research are explored.