|The Courier N° 158 - July - August 1996 - Dossier: Communication and the Media - Country Report: Cape Verde (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)|
|Communication and the media|
by Renaud de la Brosse
The author, who works at the Panos Institute in Paris, reflects on the pros and cons of new information technology for countries in the South and on their chances of success.
The Internet has become such a craze amongst users in Third-World countries (researchers, teachers, businesses,, liberal professions, etc.) that it amply demonstrates that a real and genuine need is being met, despite adverse comments from its detractors. The rapid increase in the number of connections to the network in the North is mirrored by an exponential growth in the South. Africa is a good example of the possibilities offered by access to the global network whilst at the same time revealing the technical and financial restrictions facing countries in the South.
Almost all of Africa's 55 countries are today connected to the network, from South Africa, which has over 800.000 computers, to Uganda, which has just a few thousand. The importance of the Internet in Africa must be viewed less in terms of the number of computers (means of access to the Internet) and more in terms of the constant increase it represents in numbers of subscribers to the network. In the last six months alone, the number of subscribers increased by over 50%, whilst the increase in France, for example, was only 20%. Another telling figure is the number of host computers per 1.000 inhabitants, which rose by 147% in South Africa between 1994 and 1995 whereas the increase for Taiwan and Australia was 83% and 50%, respectively!
Because it is under-supplied in communications equipment, Africa is starting out with a disadvantage compared with other continents. However, the recent G7 Conference on Information and Development, which took place in mid-May in Midrand in South Africa, brought together 40 countries and 18 intergovernmental organizations and made it possible 'to build a bridge between developed countries and developing countries' so that the latter are not excluded from the world of new information technologies. The benefit to be gained from the Net for the Black Continent lies in the fact that African surfers are anxious to break free from their scientific, cultural or economic isolation which comes not only from relationships between Africa and the rest of the world, but often from relationships between regions and countries on the African continent itself.
As in Europe and the United States, scientists and researchers in Africa are the first to have understood the importance of the Net and there are now - in French speaking Africa - networks such as the Intertropical Computer Network, which groups together approximately 3000 surfers in 11 countries. The importance of the Internet for these researchers is manifold; in most countries, the education system is in grave crisis, essentially because of diminishing budget resources which for years, on account of structural adjustment measures, have been melting away. This explains the absence of libraries or documentation centres. The Internet is therefore becoming a stopgap measure, offering access to all current scientific production and giving African researchers the chance to publicise and gain recognition for their work outside their own continent.
Interesting experiments in North/South cooperation are also being set up, with the French-speaking Agency for Higher Education and Research currently establishing what it calls a 'virtual French-speaking campus', a kind of vast library to which affiliated universities will be connected. The project is also justified in economic terms since, through the medium of electronic mail (e-mail), which goes hand in hand with the Internet, exchanges of information will be cheaper than by fax, for example, which costs at least five times as much for the same amount of information transmitted.
Outside the academic community, heads of African businesses are also launching themselves into cyberspace, particularly in the case of several hundred of them who have grouped together within a West-African Business Network. Internet's financial viability in the South is dependent on membership of African businesses and multinational companies established in Africa. The cost of subscription is still beyond the means of private individuals and only 'institutional' subscribers are currently able to guarantee payment in the short term.
A useful tool
Many of the possibilities on offer remain to be explored, so the Internet can therefore be an important medium for promoting African culture - Niger has set up a Web via which it is possible to visit its archaeological sites and Benin has just set up a server dedicated to voodoo. In general terms, there is the challenge of mastering content, in other words the African suffers should not restrict themselves to a passive use (sleeking information from the North) but should, on the contrary, move progressively as players providing content and information. For the countries of the South, it is a matter of mastering information and preserving their culture.
The range of possibilities offered by the Net is limitless. Its development in Africa or in the South in general does, however, run up against a number of obstacles, including those of both a technical and financial nature. The importance of the Internet lies in being able to transmit greater quantities of information more cheaply than by using other communications techniques. However, the required technology is expensive and therein lies the principal difference between the North and the South.
The infrastructure which would permit rapid, longterm expansion of the Internet is nowhere near being installed in Africa, just as in the other developing countries. The continent is still under-equipped in terms of telephone lines; according to a survey by the BDT (Telecommunications Development Office), the number of main telephone lines per 100 inhabitants is less than 0.5 in sub-Saharan Africa, and in terms of equipment providing access to the Net (computer, modem, etc.). In real terms, this makes access to the network much more expensive for a user in the South than for one in the North. All these imported electronic goods are much more expensive than in the West, and this is without taking account of the additional cost, in most African countries, imposed by tariff barriers on IT goods, which are regarded with great suspicion by the authorities who perceive them as a potential danger more than as essential development tools.
The fear is that the remote transmission of data might pose a threat to less than democratic regimes. Under the pretext of 'the control of information-based wealth', a State may decide to interfere with the 'consent' or even 'suppress' a site for producing and exchanging information deemed contrary to its interests. Once more, the question of freedom of expression arises in different terms in the South and North.
The Panos Institute
The Panos Institute is a non-profit-making association set up in 1988. Together with its counterparts in London and Washington, the Paris Panos Institute founded Panos International The Institute's aim is to strengthen, particularly in Africa, local expression and information capabilities. Within the context of sustainable and better-shared development, it aims to promote the emergence of a more democratic culture and of more democratic debate. To this end, the Panos Institute runs two main programmes in west Africa from Paris and its branch offices (Senegal, Mali, Chad and Ghana).
The programme to support pluralism in matters of information, which has four major objectives: - to expand and consolidate the legal, institutional and statutory framework of pluralist-type information - to increase professionalism in the media - to give institutional support to authors in west Africa who promote pluralism in information - to contribute to the production and circulation of more diversified and more qualified information on certain priority topics such as the environment, human rights, management and prevention of conflict, etc.
The migration and cooperation programme seeks to enhance the value of the contribution made by citizens from Third World countries residing in the rich nations to development in their countries of origin.
The European Union, UNESCO and the ACCT, American foundations (Ford, Rockefeller) or German foundations, and bilateral cooperation agreements (Denmark, Netherlands, Norway, Germany, France) support the actions of the Panos Institute.