Within international development policy we spend a lot of time planning. Much of that planning is either at the micro-level - particular programmes or projects - or issue-related - for example, what strategy works for addressing multiple concurrent partnerships (MCP) related to HIV/AIDS.
But a major development for East and Southern Africa floats significant questions concerning the ability of the international community - from UN agencies to country governments - to gather together and plan how to take advantage of a possible quantum leap forward in everyone's capacity to achieve reduced poverty levels, higher participation and accountability levels in political processes, decreased HIV/AIDS infection rates, and a bunch of other important goals.
This all revolves around a couple of cables being laid under the sea off the coast of East and Southern Africa...but before we get to those slim tubes of optic fibre, let's back up our little boat a little. Why might these cables be so important?
Consider these recent International Telecommunication Union (ITU)-reported cell and mobile phone use trends:
Tanzania Subscriber Base to Jump 25% in Six Months - 13 million from 2 million four years ago.
Kenya Poised for Huge Growth in Mobile Services - 15 million now with a 39% penetration rate and expected to rise to 29.28 million, or 66.7% penetration, by year-end 2013.
Nigeria posts a subscriber base of more than 61Mn, outshines South Africa's mobile market - The mobile penetration rate, at present, stands at 42%.
Ghana now has nearly eleven million phone connections - The total mobile base increased from 383,000 in 2002 to 10,242,916 at the end of last year .
Mobile phone subscribers reach the mark of 8.2Mn (Uganda) - Wireless subscribers rose to 8.2 million at the end of 2008. The mobile penetration stood at around 25%.
South Africa Mobile Penetration Level Breaks the 100% Mark - The South African market broke through the 100% penetration barrier during the third quarter (Q3) of 2008 to finish the quarter on 101.8%. The total market reached 44.51 million customers.
These are all contributors to an overall trend in which so-called developing countries [non-OECD] are rapidly closing on their developed country [OECD] counterparts when it comes to mobile phone use - as reported in ITU documents.
We have had data for some time indicating that mobile, digital technologies may have a significant impact on GDP growth in a country.
A study, backed by the mobile phone company Vodafone, but done by Centre for Economic Policy Research, is from 2005 and at that time said that African countries with greater mobile use had seen a higher rate of economic growth. Even then, 4 years ago, with mobile rates very low compared to today, more than 85% of small businesses run by Black people, surveyed in South Africa, relied solely on mobile phones for telecommunications, and 62% of businesses in South Africa said mobile use was linked to an increase in profits - despite higher call costs. Overall, the report concluded that a developing country which had an average of 10 more mobile phones per 100 population between 1996 and 2003 had 0.59% higher GDP growth than an otherwise identical country. See the BBC report outlining these patterns. These findings were echoed by a more recent study related to Bangladesh.
There is more than a possible economic effect from the spreading use of mobile and other digital technologies. Over and over we see citizens' groups using cell phones to report their views, ideas, and observations on political processes. From citizen journalism to election monitoring via mobile phones, people are using mobile technologies as a way to engage politically.
From a very different perspective, mobile technologies are beginning to play a vital role in HIV/AIDS action. Effective use of anti-retrovirals [ARVs] requires good compliance. Cell phones are being used to prompt people to take their ARVs when they should take them.
There are many other examples of development action effectiveness and efficiency being significantly enhanced through new technologies.
Back to those so far mysterious cables! John Makeni from the BBC Focus on Africa magazine sets the scene: "A way may be emerging for East African countries to circumvent the mess in telecommunications in the region - and it is rising out of the sea. From having no undersea cable links to the rest of the world, East Africa is now poised to have three. As a result, many businesses are investing in finger-sized underwater fibre-optic cables that will open doors to the rest of the world. It could not come too soon. Currently, many African countries rely heavily on satellite connections for internet and telephone calls ."
The capacity benefits from these cables will be extraordinary.
In South Africa the cables "will help to push up South Africa's bandwidth capacity 120 times to around 10 terabits per second by 2011". There is no reason to suspect that the improvement will not be of a similar magnitude in the numerous other countries connecting.
And there is every expectation and prediction that the benefits will not just be related to speed. Coverage will increase dramatically and price should decrease precipitously.
Though originally intended for the East African countries that could feed off the cable as it heads down the East coast, there are now ambitious plans for a West African connection also - "A consortium of telecoms operators have signed a deal that would pave the way for the laying of South Africa's undersea cable around West Africa to Europe, local telecoms firm Telkom (TKGJ.J) said on Wednesday " Search anywhere in Google or other web search engines and you will see further coverage.
This is a huge development policy opportunity:
- Digital technologies help drive economic growth.
- Digital technologies help people communicate with each other in order to organise for the development and progress they desire.
- Effective and efficient media increasingly require digital technology processes and action.
- Important information can be more easily shared - and updated - through digital technology processes.
- Improved participation in political processes and more open and accountable governance benefits greatly from the use of and access to digital technologies [just ask Fujimori in Peru].
So, rather than spend all this time and money focusing on the smaller, micro-level planning that all development projects and initiatives undertake, why are we not spending much more time and effort, together, looking at planning how to reconfigure development action, including funding priorities, in Africa, in the light of the benefits these cables could bring? [We could even use digital processes for inclusive and participatory planning!]