Events of the past three decades have had significant social, political and economic impacts on Africa as well as the entire world to varying degrees. For Africa in particular, the varying degrees of impacts and their causes have been subjects of studies, commentaries and criticisms through the subsequent years. The missing links, however, involve those concerning dispassionate assessments of causes and effects. Analysts tended to have exhibited some forms of bandwagon in their approaches, findings, recommendations and actions based on prevailing views, with disproportionate attention to what seems obvious, to the neglect of the nuanced.
For so long, the economic woes of most of Africa have been attributed to the prescriptions of the Bretton Woods Institutions, presumably gone awry conceptually, perceptually and in implementation. The time-worn critical arguments revolve around accusations that these institutions exclude the voices of developing countries most adversely affected by financial and trade policies, that money rules at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and that “consensus” at the World Trade Organization (WTO) is often the product of behind-the-scenes “greenroom” bargaining and pressure from trade heavyweights such as the United States.
It is needless and time-wasting to dispute over the consequences of these interventions. However, if, after decades of complaining about them, what seems as exhaustive analyses of the popular views have only resulted in paralysis, a new direction of thinking is worth exploring. Could there also be any validity to the opinion that the arrays of previous analyses were parochial and limited in scope, especially in the light of other emergent important and far-reaching global events? It is now time, therefore, to question the hitherto prevailing responses, old assumptions, prescriptions, actions and results, and to evolve new viewpoints or review old ones that have hitherto remained unrecognised or unacknowledged. Can it be rightly inferred, first and foremost, that the decades of lamentations across the continent over the failed liberalisation experience prescribed by the Bretton Woods institutions have not yielded any fruit?
The advent of the global information technology revolution in the 1990s played a part in widening the development and wealth gaps globally, especially between the global North and global South. While the World Bank, IMF or any other organisation may be held culpable for the structural changes that badly battered African nations’ economies since the late 1980s, the information and communication technology (ICT) revolution that defined the twilight of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st century needs to be put in context. Could there have been any direct synergy in the impacts of Bretton Woods’ prescriptions and the evolution of ICT on Africa? These require proper introspection on their impacts in shaping African economies, for good or for ill. The readiness of Africa for the ICT era and the socio-economic and political impacts are thus worth examining.
Although African countries were not among the early adopters of ICT, recent events reveal that the continent could make fortune from the sector. The concerns earlier expressed by ICT world leaders on Africa, and stretched beyond measure by global media, were – in part – a reflection of the predicament of the continent in the formative years of ICT revolution as much as it was partly responsible for the limited attention to the continent’s prospects. Microsoft’s Bill Gates reportedly earlier said of poor countries, particularly Africa, that: “Let’s be serious. Do people have a clear view of what it means to live on $1 a day? . . . There are things those people need at that level other than technology. . . . About 99 per cent of the benefits of having [a PC] come when you’ve provided reasonable health and literacy to the person who’s going to sit down and use it.”
Their argument was that investing in ICT for poor countries draws precious resources away from more urgent development needs. The lack of critical infrastructure, such as adequate energy grids, and of education keeps citizens of poorer countries from tapping ICT’s potential. But, connecting the dots, and considering the trends in globalisation, those fears now seem unfounded and misplaced. With the emergence of a new class of capitalists and a new class of elite workforce that has come to be known as ICT knowledge workers, Africa’s path out of poverty seems well paved. This is because competences in the ICT industries contribute to competitiveness, adaptability and structural flexibility of the whole industries and services in an economy. The ICT services segment presents lower barriers to entry and thus offers more opportunities for participation by countries at different levels of technological development.
According to a commentary, “developing countries,” particularly in Africa, “have experienced difficulties in adapting policies and regulations to rapid changes in technology and market structure. In some instances, policies concerned with ICT and education are not complemented by policies in other relevant areas, such as telecommunications, that support such development. Furthermore, ICT policies are not always accompanied by detailed implementation plans or commitment from government to implement them.”
By contrast, India moved in early to take advantage of the emerging ICT revolution. In 1988, India launched a set of policies that fostered a wave of software-development. Any wonder that, as of year 2000, Microsoft, Oracle, Sun and Infosys were already in India? With the advent of IT, many preferred to open companies there due to easy availability of qualified manpower, favourable weather and enabling policy environment. Pune, Bangalore and Hyderabad emerged as India’s ICT hubs, attracting companies from the USA, particularly Microsoft and IBM, to open operational units. India took good advantage of it while investors shied away from Africa.
In the 1990s and the early 2000s, while Africa was still struggling to get attention, development-focused information and communication technology (ICT) research predominantly concentrated on bridging the digital divide through overcoming connectivity and access barriers for more and more of the continent’s population. South Africa began the creation of several public entities and agencies concerned with ICT, as well as a national commission to advise on ICT development in the country. These support ICT in education in various ways as part of their mandates, giving South Africa the continental lead in ICT industry in volume and value.
As the penetration of ICTs increased across the African continent in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the focus started to shift to the uptake and impact of these ICTs in order to transform societies and economies since enhancing information flows alone is not sufficient to grasp development opportunities. It has been affirmed that African small, medium-sized and microenterprises (SMMEs) can – and do – rapidly develop local and localised applications, content, platforms and solutions enabling Africans to use the web to meet their communication, business, educational and commercial needs. And the world is already noticing.
The World Bank, in a publication, noted that “the speed at which the sector has evolved, the nature of the policy changes that have triggered the reforms, and the way in which investment has been financed all make telecommunications unique among the infrastructure sectors in Africa. In an article written by James B. Steinberg, and published by Brookings Institution, reference was made to “those who see wiring the global South as a way to transcend decades of painful economic development and catapult even the poorest countries into the information age.” It alluded to the United Nations former Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, in his Millennium Report, in which it was paraphrased that “New technology offers an unprecedented chance for developing countries to ‘leapfrog’ earlier stages of development. Everything must be done to maximise their peoples’ access to new information networks.” Proponents of this view not only stress the potential benefits of ICT but also argue that in an increasingly globalised economy, countries that fail to “get connected” will fall further and further behind.
The recent rise in ICT fortune in Africa presents mixed messages. Ramesh Awtaney, Founder and Chairman of iSON Group, at the 2017 London Business School’s Africa Business Summit, commenting on “Bringing Intellectual Property to Work: Create Onshore Model, Target Offshore Opportunities,” presented contrasting pictures between Africa and India. According to Awtaney, while Africa, with over one billion people, has an ICT market of $32 billion, South Africa alone has a disproportionate ICT market valued at over $22 billion. This leaves the rest of the continent with just $10 billion, or 32 per cent of the total market value. According to Awtaney, ICT is the propelling factor in India’s 6.5 per cent average annual GDP growth for the past two decades and presently contributes a 10 per cent share of the country’s GDP. Also, 38 per cent of India’s export is ICT services. In the $2 trillion economy, the sector rakes in $100 billion in exports.
Enhancing the use of ICTs for capacity-building, empowerment, governance and social participation is expected to boost digital opportunities and social inclusion across the African continent. This should also strengthen capacities for scientific research, information sharing and cultural creations, performances and exchanges of knowledge, and to enhance learning opportunities through access to diversified contents and delivery systems to support the transformation to knowledge societies. The new wave of social and economic pluralism, spreading all over the world, is gradually being felt in Africa. Future projections about Africa give an interesting outlook. Approximately 250 million people are expected to join the African workforce between 2010 and 2050, according to The Economist, 2014, March 29.
The projections went further to affirm that Africa will have the world’s largest workforce even sooner; in this decade the workforce will increase by 163 million and by 2035 the workforce will be larger than that of China. Within the next 35 years, Africans will account for a quarter of the world’s workers. These and many more serve as indices for proactive policies to create a vibrant economy around the ICT on a continent-wide basis, taking advantage of the teeming population and associated market. The speed of knowledge diffusion and the low entry barriers create great opportunities to transform Africa’s ICT landscape and the economy of the continent. Will Africa make hay now while the sun shines?