Date: Thu, 22 May 97 09:50:27 CDT
From: rich%pencil@cmsa.Berkeley.EDU (Rich Winkel)
Subject: AFRICA: From Oral Tradition to Screens and Keyboards
To: BROWNH@CCSUA.CTSTATEU.EDU p /** headlines: 156.0 **/
** Topic: IPS: AFRICA: From Oral Tradition to Screens and Keyboards **
** Written 6:26 PM May 19, 1997 by newsdesk in cdp:headlines **
/* Written 4:11 PM May 17, 1997 by firstname.lastname@example.org in africa.news */
/* ---------- "IPS: AFRICA-TELEMATICS: From Oral T" ---------- *//p
From Oral Tradition to Screens and Keyboards
By Gumisai Mutume, 14 May 1997
ADDIS ABABA, (IPS) May 14 -- Africa is striving towards full membership of the Global Information Society (GIS), but experts are debating whether the world's poorest continent is ready for the information explosion.
The continent's determination to harness information for development was underscored at a May 5 to 8 meeting here, where African economic planning ministers reiterated their commitment to the Africa Information Society Initiative (AISI).
Adopted last May at another U.N. Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) conference of economic planning ministers, the AISI is intended to put the continent on course to build an information and communication infrastructure, and will be incorporated in the national development priorities of member countries.
According to the AISI's vision, by the year 2010, every man, woman, child, village, government office and business will be able to access information through computers and telecommunications.
This vision may soon be a reality for, whereas in 1994 only about four countries had full internet access, the end of the year will see all but four or five African countries hooked up, experts say.
Despite this progress, the director of the ECA's information services division, Dr Karim Bounemra notes: "Now that our vision is crystal clear and that it matters for our countries to get onto the information highway, a number of pertinent questions need to be asked in order to reach that goal."
A major setback to the AISI is the lack of an African computer culture, as very few countries have a serious strategy for the development of informatics, that is, the application of information processing to solve problems.
Recent research by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC) found no systematic national informatics policies in 10 African countries, among them Ethiopia, Congo, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Where such strategies existed, they were often found to be counter-productive, as when computer imports are banned, because they contributed to unemployment.
In many countries across Africa, governments continue to impose stiff import barriers on computers and software, prompting fears that the information superhighway may prove to be a mirage on the continent.
Rapid changes in technology, tight budgets, globalisation, and cut-throat competition have forced governments to wake up from the slumber of telecommunication monopolies, but much remains undone on the continent.
For example, none of the countries studied had a telecommunications sector capable of supporting a modern information and communication service. Africa has 12 percent of the world's population yet it has only two percent of its telephone lines -- fewer than those in New York.
Bounemra wonders whether Africa can carry forward the programme with the kind of telephone lines in place, and how to make the technology appropriate to African cultures.
"Are our societies ready to grasp them, to go from oral tradition to screens and keyboards. Will we give them time to be trained?" asks Bounemra.
Ernest Wilson III of the Global Information Infrastructure Commission, says the problems are partly the result of poor technical and financial management, and other inefficiencies in telephone companies, and the policies and politicians that constrain them.
Between 1983 and 1992, the 6.8 annual growth in networks on the continent has lagged behind the 10 percent achieved by other developing regions.
"Conditions are similar with regard to computers, software, publishing, the internet and other elements of the information revolution," says Wilson.
However, the choices confronting African governments are tricky. For instance, should Ethiopia spend 200,000 U.S. dollars on computers or on cotton swabs badly needed in hospitals and clinics? And how should it deal with a serious gender imbalance in the training of informatics experts?
"At the moment there is almost a complete absence of training of women," says Christine Kisiedu, a Ghanaian academician. She sites a recent workshop she attended where out of 40 people only one was a woman.
According to Wilson, the answer is to develop a strategy which permits over-burdened and under-informed senior officials to make rational trade-offs.
Rapid changes ongoing in Africa are underscored by the interesting developments afoot regarding issues such as broadcast content, station ownership, improved access to radio and television control, in one of the most important sectors of the continent's national information infrastructure.
Also starkly present, is the perception that Africa is not in charge of its own development, which is voiced by Ashiek Manie, head of the information society and development division of South Africa's telecommunications company Telkom.
"There is a danger that we will be dumped with technology that we do not have the capacity to use," notes Manie. "Are our people, our ministers and our budgets ready?
"We should not empower ourselves simply to get on board a train that belongs to the G7 (Group of Seven) countries which we do not have the capacity to guide to our advantage. We must plan and define our own destiny," Manie continues.
To be prepared for the GIS, Africa needs many of the same changes required to solve other economic and political problems, such as greater institutional efficiency and transparency, and training and regulatory reforms to counter underdevelopment in information.
Under the AISI initiative, challenges include how to approach the language/literacy problem, content development -- especially with the vast amount of information generated for and about the continent in western countries and the impact of new technologies on gender.
"Some of the challenges involve getting rural people to define their own needs and disseminate their own information," says Nancy Hafkin, AISI focal point and an employee of Padis, an information service based in Addis Ababa which links African institutions.
"We need to get the internet beyond the urban areas, beyond the lap-top executive into primary and secondary schools. Human resource development must start in the schools," adds Hafkin. "Part of the strategy should also be reversing the brain drain. Thousands of Africans in this field are working in Dallas, Washington and London, with the very skills Africa desperately requires." (end/ips/gm/jm/pm97)
[c] 1997, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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