|The Courier N° 153 - Sept - Oct 1995 - Dossier: Southern Africa - Country Reports: Namibia; Djibouti (EC Courier, 1995, 96 p.)|
'Over half of mankind has never dialled a telephone number. There are more telephone lines in Manhattan than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.' These words were spoken by South African Vice-President, Thabo Mbeki, at a G-7 meeting in Brussels in February. It is difficult to imagine a better way of alerting the leaders of the world's most powerful nations to the canner facing the developing countries in a world which is on the threshold of a new information age. The danger, quite simply, is that these countries risk being disconnected. It was an appropriate moment to make the point as the G7 had on their agenda, the definition of future world communications networks.
Mbeki's call appears to have been heeded. The proposals offered by this notable guest at the gathering of the world's seven richest countries and of the European Commission have been taken into consideration. Even better, they have been followed up quite quickly, at least by the Commission which has relayed the demands of its South African partner to the G7. The position of Nelson Mandela's South Africa as a pole of attraction and a driving force for development in the Southern African region is in step with the Commission's development policy, which has long favoured regional intervention. It is also in keeping with the options taken up by the EU, in the context of various Councils of Ministers, to make telecommunications the focus of Community development and an important element of its policy of cooperation with the developing countries.
Many politicians in these countries, not to mention some European specialists, see information and communications technologies as superfluous-or at least as a luxury rather than a priority. What they fail to take into account is that the world economic context, with its emphasis on liberalisation, privatisation and the globalisation of commerce, leaves little choice but to participate in new methods of communication. The alternative would be economically disastrous. Nor do they mention in their analyses the example of the South East Asian nations, which are growing apace, now that the telephone has been made available to their people.
The experience of the EU may be of particular interest to developing countries. It has had to tackle a number of issues on a regional scale - issues such as liberalisation versus monopoly, the balance between public and private sector participation, providing services to rural areas, modernising networks and so on. Generally speaking, the EU encourages regional integration among its developing country partners and this aspect is seen as an important factor in development. Telecommunications are in the vanguard of this support for regional integration. SADC, for example, which recently welcomed South Africa as a full member, is receiving more than ECU 120 million in Community aid for the period 1990-1995, the first item being the Transport & Communications sector.
In the field of communications technology, there is obviously a great disparity between the developing and the industrialised nations. 'Teledensity' (the number of telephone lines per 100 inhabitants) stands at 44 in the European Union, with relatively significant variations - from 32 in Portugal to 57 in Denmark. The figure is above 30 in all industrialised countries but averages less than 5 in African states. There is also an astonishing disparity between developing countries as well as within them - notably as between urban and rural areas. For example, teledensity in Argentina is 11 as against 2 in Botswana, while 90% of the telephone lines in India are in urban areas.
EU aid to developing countries in the field of telecommunications is covered by the Commission's own budget and by the European Development Fund (EDF), with possible injections of cash from the European Investment Bank (EIB). The Commission budget relates more specifically to association and cooperation agreements with third countries, while ACP states are eligible for resources under the Lomonvention. These come in the form of grants from the EDF (paid into by EU Member States) which are managed by the Commission, and loans from the EIB, either from its own resources or from risk capital provided under the Convention. For the period 1990-95, the Lomonvention funds amounted to ECU 12 billion. The breakdown was ECU 10.8bn in the EDF which includes risk capital (ECU 825m) and interest rebates (ECU 280m) and ECU 1.2bn from the ElB's own resources. The recently concluded mid-term review of LomV, which has still to be ratified, sets aside ECU 12.6bn for the EDF (including risk capital of ECU 1bn and interest rebates of ECU 370m) and ECU 1.6bn under the ElB's own resources.
In ACP countries and more particularly in Africa, the Commission has promoted the development of rural tele-communications services and equipment for satellite transmissions. There have been major EDF-financed projects for rural areas in Mozambique (ECU 13m) and Tanzania (ECU 25m). In the field of satellite communications, ECU 38m has been spent on a project for civil aviation safety in West and Central Africa, while there have been four projects aimed at solving the specific problems of small island countries in the Pacific. The latter include funding for Intelstat B land stations for satellite telecommunications serving Western Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Kiribati. The EIB has contributed to projects in Kenya, Senegal and Zimbabwe, as well as to regional schemes. Between 1975 and 1993, the total amount allocated for Commission and EIB telecommunications projects in the ACPs and overseas territories was ECU 418m. This represents almost half the total funds provided for this sector under the EU's cooperation policy covering the developing countries and the nations of Central and Eastern Europe.
The 'lead' department for the Commission's telecom projects in ACP countries is DG VIII (the Development Directorate General) and the focus here is mainly on providing infrastructures. Programmes implemented in other developing countries are the responsibility of either DG I (External Economic Relations) or DG XIII (Telecommunications, Information Market and Exploitation of Research). DG I deals with projects in the context of economic cooperation and generally operates in liaison with DG XIII. The latter also acts alone in areas relating to research and development or the diffusion of innovative technologies. One programme worth a mention is the support being provided for the organisation and management of various operators, currently in progress in the six countries of the Central American isthmus. This is being financed by the Commission to the tune of almost ECU 14m and actions successfully undertaken have included a telecommunications dialogue, structuring of the sector, regulation, universal access and standardisation, on both a bilateral and a regional level. Finally, in the context of research, telecommunications will henceforth be part of 'Action 2' of the IVth Framework Programme for international cooperation with the developing countries. This new situation should make it possible to develop joint R&D actions with new partners and to strengthen links which already exist in these fields.
South Africa: the ideal intermediary
The evolution of relations between the EU and South Africa, which will probably result in total or partial participation by the latter in the Lomonvention, seems to herald a change in cooperation activities in the field of telecommunications between the EU and the whole of Southern Africa. This previously segregated country is like the missing link between developing countries in Africa and the industrialised countries, in the sense that it is made up of a patchwork of areas which are lagging far behind and others which have full telecommunications facilities, with the same standards as the developed world. This was a dichotomy made possible by decades of apartheid. Another dilemma lies in the nature of town/country relationships. These are atypical, because the rural properties of large-scale farmers are far more technically advanced than the township urban areas. If 'telepenetration' is taken as a criterion, the national average is 8.9, which approaches the figure for the most advanced developing countries in Latin America. But in the townships and black rural areas the figure drops to just 2. In white districts of Durban, the figure is as high as 75, a level comparable to the Manhattan or Tokyo business districts.
South Africa has the potential to play a leading role in regional cooperation. The country has already joined the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and will soon be taking an active part in the Pan-African Telecommunications Union (PATU) and in the Southern Africa Transport and Telecommunications Community (SATTC). Its initiatives at the Brussels G-7 meeting are a good illustration of its potential. Firstly, it announced its intention to organise a conference in 1996 on the information society and developing countries. For this purpose, it has requested assistance from the European Commission - which has already responded positively. In addition to G-7 members and representatives from other developed countries, this event will bring together a selection of developing countries. It is planned for the end of the first quarter of 1996, in conjunction with two major meetings. The first, 'European Health Telematics' (18-20 April 1996), is a seminar organised by the Commission and financed by the DG XIII Telematic Programme (independently of the Community's 1995 commitment of ECU 125 million destined for the Programme for the Development and Reconstruction of South Africa). It will present the results of European research and an exhibition featuring some 15 projects. The South African government asked for it to be an illustration of the Community's AIM programme. The other meeting, 'Health Informatics in Africa' (15-17 April 1996), is a pan-African conference organised by South Africa's Medical Research Council. Further major meetings are planned.
At the Brussels G-7 meeting, Vice-President Mbeki emphasised that developing countries are eager to acquire sophisticated technologies but that they refuse to become mere importers and consumers. This was one of the 'five principles' that he formulated. The other four relate to the dynamic role which the TlCs have to play in reconstruction and development, the need for a major initiative for the Southern African region, the need for a global approach and the essential involvement of the developing countries in the creation, production and formulation of options in international cooperation. The opening up of 11 G-7 pilot projects to external partners is a good sign. From the very start of the conference, South Africa put itself forward as a candidate to take part in most of them.
South African officials say that they rely strongly on the European Union as their contact with the other developed countries. In a letter to Mr Mbeki, Commission President Jacques Santer undertook to work with the South African government to promote the success of the 'five principles'. A G7 meeting to prepare the ground for the Halifax summit was held shortly after the Brussels meeting and the Commission succeeded here in gaining official support for the South African conference on the information society and the developing countries. This was reflected in the final resolution adopted in Halifax.