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UNDP report under fire in Africa

by Katy Salmon

Nairobi, 12 Jul 2001 (IPS) - Can new technologies play a leading role in reducing poverty in Africa, as suggested by the United Nations’ annual Human Development Report?

Critics in Kenya argue that the UN Development Programme (UNDP), which released the report this week, is being unrealistic as much of Africa simply lacks the infrastructure to support these new technologies.

Only 2% of the world’s computers are in Africa, and 75% of those are in South Africa. Some two billion people, a third of the world’s population, do not even have access to electricity. Many of them live in Africa.

The critics say the majority of people in Africa lack the skills to handle technologies like computers. For example, 53% of Kenyans do not even complete their primary education.

“We need to go back to the basics such as literacy and school enrolment to have an informed public. If you don’t, it’s difficult to create the critical mass to help us move forward,” says Miriam Were of the University of Nairobi.

Poor political leadership can also be blamed for Africa’s technological backwardness.

Kenya’s opposition parliamentarian Shem Ochuodho says the government has been talking about making an Information Technology policy for the last ten years but has done nothing about it. “Hypocritical political leaders just pay a lot of lip-service. If we implemented 20% of what we say, we’d have gone a long way,” he says.

He points to the Kenyan government’s reluctance to liberalise the telecommunications sector. Until late last year, Kenya only had one state-owned mobile phone company. Safaricom was expensive. Now, with the licensing of a second company, prices have fallen dramatically, enabling more consumers to afford mobiles.

Ochuodho says the government still refuses to let go of its monopoly and allow Internet Service Providers to use cheaper technology that would make the Internet much more affordable for ordinary consumers.

John Mugabe works for the African Centre for Technology Studies, an organisation that helps African governments review and articulate their technology policies.

Mugabe says that many African countries lack strategies to specifically promote science and technology. “Many of the science and technology policies in Africa were written in the 1970s and 1980s and the emphasis was on creating science bodies as opposed to targeting particular areas of technologic development. It’s time that African countries refocused their policies to new imperatives,” he says.

Mugabe says economic targeting is another common problem. “Many African countries tend to spread their resources in research and development very thinly. They don’t focus on one area and get that one area well developed. So it’s a challenge to set priorities in agriculture, in human health and address those problems, as opposed to moving into all research and development areas and abandoning some of them too early.”

Mugabe also believes Africa suffers from a dependency syndrome. “Many of us in Africa have been brought up to perceive of technological development as the responsibility of the developed world and for us it’s essentially an issue of receiving,” he says.

“As new problems emerge that are not on the agenda of the developed world, African countries are going to be forced to start investing in science and technology. They cannot leave their future to the North,” he says.

“Africa is going to have to start innovating. New technology-based enterprises are going to have to emerge, not just to use technology but to create new technologies as well,” Mugabe says.

This year’s Human Development Report is the first to include a Technology Achievement Index, which ranks countries according to their achievements in creating and using technology.

For example, communications technology is an excellent way of increasing people’s access to information and education. It costs less than 10 cents to email a document from Kenya to Chile, compared to $10 for a fax and $50 to send it by courier.

“It’s truly a breakthrough technology for democracy and expansion of knowledge for poor people,” says Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, lead author of the UNDP report.

UNDP says it is vital that there is more public sector funding for initiatives like low-cost computers and wireless connectivity for poor people and isolated communities. “We can’t count on the private sector alone to do the job,” says Fukuda-Parr.

UNDP suggests that rich countries and international financial institutions support a global effort to create incentives and new partnerships for research and development. It also wants high tech companies to devote a percentage of their profits to research on non-commercial products.

Mugabe says it is important for Africa to start participating in the global discussions on technology. “If the African countries aren’t influencing investment in research and development, many of the technologies that are going to be put out are going to be technologies that are suited to other societies,” he says.

“Politicians must go out and say these are the kinds of problems that pertain to Africa. They must have a strategy on how to influence private industry investment. It’s an issue of creating incentives for industry to work on Africa’s problems,” he says. – SUNS4936

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