How are new information and communication technologies contributing to democratic development in Africa? How can the international community support these? This paper argues that political instability and violence in Africa are often the products of rumour and misinformation. It highlights how new information technology is improving information-sharing, education, and accountability. Policy initiatives should focus on encouraging the further development of reliable and innovative communication institutions. These are indispensable paths to greater security, democratic stability, and development.
Over the past five years, the annual growth rate for mobile telephony in Africa has been 65 per cent, more than twice the global average. Information technology has changed who can access and deliver information as the cost of information has dramatically reduced. For instance, mobile telephony allows NGOs to organise disparate and often marginalised populations into new kinds of organisation and types of group activity. These activities include financial services, healthcare, collective security, and human rights monitoring. Data transmissions (such as texting and digital maps) are perhaps the most important aspect of communicating via mobile phone in Africa.
While these new technologies can be used for less positive purposes, overall they are enhancing human security and sustainable economic development across the continent. For example:
- The rapid expansion in data transmission is dramatically improving the capacity for oversight in Africa. During the 2010 constitutional reform referendum in Kenya, an SMS-based monitoring mechanism called Uchagazi strengthened Kenyans’ confidence in the balloting.
- International peacekeeping organisations use cellular telephony to extend their reach into otherwise inaccessible areas. Information technology is also improving real-time responsiveness to civilians at risk in conflict zones.
- In 2006 in Zimbabwe, following Robert Mugabe’s ban on foreign reporters and intimidation of local journalists, high-resolution, commercial, remote-sensing satellites captured evidence that the community of Porta Farm in Zimbabwe was destroyed by police and military forces.
- Africa’s many information technology innovations have been – and are now – developed on the continent. Kenyan information technology (IT) developers created the Ushahidi platform in response to the instability and violence following the 2007 national elections.
Africa has therefore realised impressive progress in its information and communications environment over the last decade. International policy responses must help to strengthen and expand these trends – with the aim of supporting responsive African information initiatives.
- Innovation centres should be assisted with grants, technical exchanges, and infrastructure support. Yet African initiatives must remain African. International assistance should be collaborative.
- Statistical evidence points to a gender gap in the ownership of mobile phones, with fewer women in the developing world owning and using mobile phones. Assistance efforts should give special priority to the empowerment of women and to helping to close the mobile gender gap.
- International lending agencies should support initiatives that raise the standards of journalism education in Africa. Representatives of the international community with a presence in Africa should also lead by example and proactively engage African journalists.
- Research is needed concerning the political, economic, and security implications of local networks created by mobile telephony and related technologies.