Mixed momentum behind national ICT planning
Recently, we were asked by South Africa’s ITWeb to provide commentary on national ICT plans in Africa for an article. The interestingly-focused article ended up using two sentences out of the two pages we submitted. Our entire set of thoughts regarding ICT policy formation is included in this post.
African countries have difficulty focusing on national ICT plans
ICT plans are easy to discuss, but are hard to implement. ICT plans require a great deal of focus on the part of the government. Even then, stakeholders face an array of challenges including stubborn officials, lack of infrastructure, and a limited number of trained consultants. The process of raising awareness, formulating goals, approving a plan, and implementing a plan often takes years.
Governments understand the need to consult key stakeholders but I can’t recall many instances where truly all players were part of the policy formation. Mainly because the list of collaborators is so daunting: private sector, NGOs, national institutions, public sector, academia, ISPs, current Internet users, women, youth, religious entities, and the media.
Once stakeholders are assembled the question becomes ‘how can we maintain the collective commitment involved in the implementation of these initiatives?’ In this time of rapid mobile growth, for instance, ICT policy can become obsolete before it can even be implemented. This raises the question of how policies can be broad and flexible enough to not expire too quickly yet still be effective.
The most active ICT planning countries in Africa
Nations with long-term development goals tend to be the most successful in realizing a national ICT plan. Plus, nations with a stable political environment have more time to devote to ICT in general. In fact, five of the most active nations have “Vision” plans in place that hope to create global societies.
Nigeria made great progress raising awareness for a policy in 2011 and currently has a draft policy which aims to fully integrate information and communications technology into transformation of Nigeria into a knowledge based economy. An ICT policy will tie-in with the Vision 2020 plan.
Kenya’s ICT Board is crafting a five-year strategy to grow the ICT sector and foster a knowledge-based economy. A Vision 2030 plan is already in place.
Rwanda just began the third phase of a 20-year, four-cycle plan that ties into a Vision 2020 concept. Now that information and infrastructure are in place, the government aims to encourage creativity and collaboration to again, bring Rwanda into the global playing field as a knowledge-based society.
What’s more, Kenyan and Rwandan initiatives will most likely spur development across the rest of East Africa.
In terms of smaller nations, I’m impressed with how Benin and The Gambia are handling the ICT planning. Worth noting is that each nation has a long-term plan (Vision 2025 for Benin and Vision 2020 for The Gambia). Various Internet governance forums in West Africa have spurred ICT progress in The Gambia.
Libya is poised to create its first-ever national ICT plan. In January 2012, Egypt and Libya discussed working together to strengthen Libya’s ICT environment.
The least active countries include Guinea-Bissau, which has experience an inordinate number of power transfers in the past decade, Eritrea which is home to a government notorious for media censorship, and Somalia, a nation without much of a central government.
ICT plans can address pressing issues (ie. health)
ICT strategies take into account the overall social and economic development program of each government. In fact, 18 countries out of 20 who responded to a 2008 UNECA survey cited ICT as their national priority. And it’s no surprise. After all, a national ICT plan encourages e-government, education innovation, and e-health initiative. Technological infrastructure is only one portion of a successful plan. Governments have an obligation to serve the people, and this means considering Internet access as a human right. Human rights are negatively impacted when there is limited access to information – be it healthcare or agricultural prices.
There are roughly two dozen African nations with a national ICT plan, and around 60% of these plans were active through 2011.
In 2009, UNECA found the existence of forty-two nations with national ICT policies, six undertaking the process to create a plan (Angola, DRC, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Togo), and five countries with no process even initiated (Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Libya, Sao Tome, Somalia).
Regional harmonization is crucial. Trade liberalization and advancing wireless technology have made regional coordination of telecommunications policy more attractive. Smaller, less wealthy nations are interested in regionalization as a means to pool regulatory resources and even share policy frameworks. Additionally, undersea cables like Seacom, EASSy, WACS, ACE, and Main One have spurred regional commitment and cohesion.
Ambitious global goals need to be adapted for the African context. For example, the UN wants all countries to have a type of broadband policy by 2015. There’s no need for African nations to rush to meet such lofty goals.
More than ever before, the private sector has the potential to influence government. Tech hubs are springing up across Africa and provide a grassroots interest in pushing for social change at a higher level.
Many national ICT policies still lack explicit coverage of women and children.