Let Them Eat Megabytes

Does Africa need digital handouts or economic independence? When leaders of the eight wealthiest nations in the world met at Gleneagles in 2005 for the G8 summit to discuss the future of Africa, the question of what kind of development Africa needs, and where computing fits in the mix remained unanswered.

Laptops for Africa and a McDonalds in every village are the kind of proposals we have come to expect from our leaders at such events. In Genoa in 2001, Blair, Bush and other leaders agreed to the Genoa Plan of Action to 'bridge the digital divide' between Africa and the west by the creation of DOT Force - the Digital Opportunities Task Force - an alliance of western governments and IT corporations.

Bill Gates, however, questioned whether this was Africa's primary need; he was in agreement with Ann Pettifor, UK director of anti-debt group Jubilee 2000, who said 'the poorest people in the world cannot eat lap tops'. At the 2001 G8 summit in Okinawa, Japan, protestors burned computers to point out that that the world’s poor needed breakfast, not PCs.

Bono of U2, who spoke on African poverty at the Labour Party conference and who has appeared with Bill Gates at several G8 summits, said Blair and Bill were "getting it right" in fighting poverty, particularly in Africa - but which one of them is right on laptops for Africa? Blair, Bush, Bill, Bob and Bono - This unlikely pro-celebrity line-up of experts on Africa are grouped together because they shared the stage at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2005, and because they were presented as the makers and shakers at the Gleneagles G8 summit which claimed to solve Africa's problems. But nothing has changed.

Whilst we keep being told that all Africa needs is education, celibacy, foreign investment or laptops, what it really needs is western institutions and corporations - from the IMF and World Bank to Cargill and Monsanto - to get off its back. The so-called 'digital divide' is not the cause of Africa's problems; like the education divide, the health divide and the nutrition divide, it is merely a symptom of the underlying and growing income divide.

As the west has grown richer, Africa has grown poorer - a fact that even the World Bank now acknowledges. Globalisation has led to Africa exporting an increasing proportion of its wealth, leaving less for its own people. As President Clinton said at the 2000 Davos summit, “we should stop denying that there is in many places an increase in inequality, and we should instead start explaining why it has happened and what we can do about it”.

Africa does not need aid, it needs debt dropped. It does not need free trade rules written by the west, it needs an end to western subsidies of its own agricultural exports and it needs the right to protect its own new industries in the same way that the west once protected its new industries. And, lest we forget, Africa will struggle to develop whilst it has to cope with the two crises of AIDS and global warming.

Traditionally the development policy for Africa promoted by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation - the de facto World Government - has involved 'structural adjustment', which meant privatising schools and hospitals, electricity and water supplies; letting in western transnationals to but these resources; growing flowers for export by jet instead of food for feeding the poor. In short these nations were asked to hand over their economies to our businesses in the belief that their big profits would somehow trickle down to the poor. Increasingly, however, these organisations are recognising that such policies might be making the poor poorer.

A big rethink?

There have been encouraging developments in recent years. Tony Blair called for the cancellation of much of the Third World debt. George Bush agreed to substantially increase US aid to Africa. Bill Gates is financing a range of aid projects. This sounds too good to be true - and maybe this aid will turn out just to be market-creation for western businesses.

How encouraging are these promises? The decision to stop extracting billions of dollars from Africa in interest charges is conditional upon these nations adopting trade policies that will be highly beneficial to western nations and businesses. It has already been agreed by the finance ministers of the participating nations that debt cancellation should be conditional upon recipient nations eliminating "impediments to private investment, both domestic and foreign”.

Bill Gates questioned the practicality and appropriateness of high-tech investment in Africa. "The percent of growth that an IT firm like Hewlett-Packard will get from people who make less than a dollar a day is minimal," Gates said, "Do people have any concept of what it means to live on less than a dollar a day? There's no electricity. Do they have PCs that don't use electricity?". Critics will point out that Bill Gates has no concept of living on a dollar a day either as he earns more each year than a typical African nation. They will also point out that most of this income depends upon the Trade-Related Intellectual Property (TRIPS) rules of the World Trade Organization that allow software, AIDS vaccines and seeds to be priced beyond the means of average Africans. The US$ 750m that he has donated for a global programme to vaccinate children against deadly diseases is far less than either he or the pharmaceutical companies have received in profits from developing nations as a result of TRIPS rules. This does not, however, invalidate his comment.

Dematerialising progress

In a world of finite resources we need sustainable development that does not rely upon increased resource consumption. The digital revolution does offer some cheaper and more sustainable alternatives to conventional development - ways to get more for less - because information is intrinsically free and needs no physical resources. The need for cars can be greatly reduced by telecommunications. In nations like China and Thailand that could not afford a wire-based telephone systems mobile phones are now in widespread use.

In theory the entire literature of the world could be turned into audiobooks in every language and circulated for free in MP3 format. This could massively increase the level and outreach of education whilst cutting expenditure on schools and books - which matters in a world where the cost of a single schoolbook exceeds the weekly wage of 80% of the world's population. This would, of course, also require a revolution in attitudes towards intellectual property because the artificial scarcity created by current copyright and patent laws denies most of the world access to modern technology.

Despite Gates' comments about the limited potential for profit in Africa, Microsoft are active throughout the region. Microsoft West, East, & Central Africa (WECA) has five offices covering this area. It has projects in 8000 schools, these are run in cooperation with SchoolNet Africa and involve around 500,000 students. They have been criticised for trying to inculcate dependency on proprietary software, but even the Free and Open Source Foundation For Africa questions this. They point out that students are likely to obtain computer literacy from Microsoft's programmes but may well then go on to use cheaper OpenSource software. Sun Microsystems is also active in the area, promoting Java, and they report high interest in OpenOffice.


Open source development

This prediction seems to be in line with recent developments in other developing nations. In Brazil government ministries and schools are rapidly switching from Windows-based systems to free and open source systems. Jose Luiz de Cerqueira Cesar, head of IT at Banco do Brasil, said “It would be wrong to portray this as a personal war against Bill Gates, but I think free software will encourage Mr Gates to reinvent his business. The world of technology is opening up; there are hundreds of thousands of people working to improve free software. The old, closed model must adapt in order to survive”.

Similar developments have taken place in China. In India a 'Simputer' is being developed for communal village use. This is a $200 32Mb Linux-based computer suitable for word-processing and email by a large number of users. But it is still not edible.

Robert Vint



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