The Digital Pulse: The Current and Future Applications of Information and Communication Technologies for Developmental Health Priorities

Chapter 2 - ICT for Development: A Review of Current Thinking

Section 3: The Middle Road

The African Internet: Impact, Winners and Losers

Wainaina Mungai


This paper is an attempt to analyze the African Internet experience and its impact on general development initiatives. The author introduces some original concepts derived from a review of Internet economics in an attempt to measure the effects that the Internet and ICTs are having on Africa. A Conceptual Framework is presented to facilitate this understanding. This is followed by a review of the status of the African Internet (in terms of connectivity and content) and a discussion of its “elusive” potential to contribute to human development. The paper then presents a selection of anecdotal evidence that examines both the winners and losers in reflection of the goals and terms of reference set out in the Digital Opportunity Initiative (DOI) based on the UN Millennium Declaration.

Key Points

The author argues that the development of effective Internet policy is dependent on a broad and in-depth analysis that is not technologically deterministic or influenced by prior reasoning. Impact analysis must use both quantitative and qualitative methods, and R & D should produce applications that are unique to Africans. The author observes that new technologies are almost always destructive as well as creative, a point that is reinforced in the section on winners and losers.

The Conceptual Framework presented is a synthesis of other models (Internet Counts, Technology Transfer) and is a response to the question: “What will the Internet mean for development?” This model is admittedly reductionist and attempts to assess the overall impact of ICTs on a system by aggregating its impact on subsystems, such as the individual, the family, and economic sectors of a country. There are three levels in the quantitative study of Internet impact: 1) Penetration levels; 2) levels of Utilisation; 3) and the Impact on subsystems.

Analysis takes into account the policy and socio-economic environment of a country and assumes that the overall system (e.g. national ICT policies) affect the various subsystems. There are several principles governing the way ICTs affect a socio-economic system, which are driven by technological innovation, the economics of networks, and the effects of new applications. Because of the diverse ways in which these forces and ICTs affect the different subsystems, the author argues that small, sectoral studies are required before multi-dimensional strategies can be properly developed. The author also notes that establishing causal links is difficult because of the way ICT effects mix with other phenomenon.

The theoretical section is followed by a brief review of the status of the African Internet and presents various figures that measure both Penetration and Utilization. The numbers clearly demonstrate that African lags far behind the world on Internet usage, though there has been considerable growth in the last five years. On the issue of ICT impact on human development efforts, the author urges caution and will only conclude that ICTs may be considered as potential enablers and catalysts for the strengthening of existing initiatives. The author notes that while there are many efficiency gains to be had they can be dependant of issues like user attitudes and the organization and management of institutions.

The author moves to a review of the Winners and Losers, the positive and negative impacts, of the African Internet. The categories are broken down along the lines of the development imperatives identified at the UN Millennium Summit. The winners include: health sectors, which have benefited from Internet-based interventions and knowledge; economic opportunity, which has increased through bridging the opportunity gaps of technical marginalization; empowerment and participation benefits from better government service delivery; education, which has moved to improve ICT capacity; and the environment, which has seen the globalization of issues and an improved potential for mobilization. However, as with all problems, there are losing issues brought about by the Internet as well. These include both physical and virtual braindrain (virtual being a situation wherein resident nationals are occupied with projects based in other countries); issues of opportunity costs relative to other initiatives and development efforts; a history of poor implementation; the increased premium on information secrecy and bureaucratic administration processes that are explained by organization theories; women – who continue to be shut out from many of the benefits; illiteracy – which has not been markedly improved as a result of Internet practices, and; the rural-urban divide that is actually reinforced by unequal penetration.

The author concludes by suggesting that if the Internet is properly employed as an enabling device it can contribute to the development goals of Africa. Three of the most pressing issues for policy makers are how to balance capacity and economic opportunity so as to stem the brain drain, how to strike a balance between technology and the need for preservation of cultural heritage, and the creation of customized strategies that address the differing socio-economic sectors whilst maintaining reference to national strategies.

Source: Wainaina Mungai, ”The African Internet: Impact, Winners and Losers” a paper received from Dr. Chivyanga, City University, UK.