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This Internet influence on rural development is converting me from a lurker
to an occasional pitcher.
 
In The Gambia, where I come from, we have rural telephone services right to
the easternmost village. Someone in Basse can call collect their relatives
in Michigan from a card or cash-run telephone booth, or from a 'Telecentre'.
This is thanks to a fibre-optics backbone running from the capital Banjul
all the way to the end of the country on the one side of the River Gambia, a
microwave backbone on the other bank, ALCATEL and the French (though nothing
you get from the French is without strings).
 
The Gambia Telecomms (GAMTEL) also has has a packet-switched data network
and offered celluar telephone services for several years, and is very
progressive in planning rural Internet services. A brilliant young engineer
called Sankung Sawo has been brainstorming with the finest minds at the ITU,
ECA etc, and has several excellent project ideas in the pipeline. The only
problem is that because there is uncertainty over the political future (the
current military government is due to expire this autumn but nothing is
certain) no one at the highest levels of management at GAMTEL feels able to
make brave decisions about using this excellent backbone to develop rural
Internet services.
 
My belief is that even in a country with 35 % adult literacy, with few rural
roads, with serious malaria problems, and virtually no natural resources to
speak of, the Internet can be developed to aid the rural people. In any
event, you only have to look at the statistics being put out in advance of
the 'Cities Summit', HABITAT II, to realise that in 20 years time, rural
life as we know it will be well-nigh extinct [sorry, I don't have the stats
at hand but the prognosis is alarming]. As the rural-urban drift phenomenon
continues, however -- as people move into poorly-planned and
already-bursting cities -- the problems of sanitation, poor health, infant
mortality etc will not disappear. They will intensify.
 
So all those who have romantic visions of rural Africa should wise up and
realise that wherever people are, they need the basics of development. They
have political and civic rights, but also economic and social rights - the
right to health, to work, to clean potable water, to education, adequate
dwelling, etc.
 
If the Internet can be developed in Africa with these sine qua non goals in
mind, then fine. We should not make the mistake, as historically we have
done, of espousing wholesale Northern models of development. We should adapt
whatever technology is out there and can help us, and not waste time with
anything that is not useful in the specific African contexts in which we live.
 
Footnote: Zimbabwe, where I live, has excellent roads -- 50 times better
than The Gambia -- a a number of spectacular buildings. Harare is considered
one of the few countries in Africa Europeans would most like to live. But
check this: the Internet is not officially sanctioned and the one active
'full Internet' provider cannot guarantee its subscribers easy dial-in
access because the PTC is among the worst I have seen. Investors are being
driven away by poor telephony, and the local private sector is being
discouraged from competing.
 
By now everyone must know about the experience of Strive Masiyiwa and
EcoNet. This former PTC employee, with 40 per cent overseas investment,
wanted to establish a cellular telephone network -- which given the abysmal
state of telephony made perfect sense. He first challenged the state
monopoly in court and won. Then was restrained by presidential decree from
going ahead. he is now challenging the decree. Meanwhile, the PTC has
announced it too will launch a cellular network. Why did the government have
to wait for someone in the private sector to win in court before it decided
to improve telephony?
 
My point is that there are different situations in every African country,
and each has to be tackled. Trite statements about rural Internet solutions
will not solve anyone's problems.
 
Finally... I'd like to congratulate Sunday Folayan, who clearly knows what
he is talking about, for his enervating contributions. Dr Lisse, abrasive
'flamer' though he might be, has some good practical experience and lots of
figures to back him up, and should also be listened to. Cochrane is doing
good work in communicating the Leland stuff to a wide constituency and I
wish more people 'up there' would do more to ensure that the African
perspective is considered in planning Africa's Internet future.
 
Cheers
Peter
25.04.96
 
At 11:46 24/04/96 -5, Jeff Cochrane wrote:
>Dr Richard Heeks argues:
>
>> Roads provide essential goods and services to African villages;
>> computer networks don't.
>
>I wonder, if we installed a telephone in an African village, would
>that be better?  Judging from Dr. Heeks' implicit definition of
>"goods and services", I gather that a telephone would not be any
>better.  Yet people seem to like telephones.
>
>I recall a village leader in Sierra Leone arguing forcefully for my
>assistance in acquiring a public telephone for his town.  He
>couldn't be bothered with email, however.
>
>Cheers!
>Jeff @ Washington, DC, USA
>
>AfricaLink -- http://www.info.usaid.gov/alnk
>Tel 1-703-235-5415
>Fax 1-703-235-3805
>
>
 
Peter da Costa
Regional Director for Africa
Inter Press Service (IPS) Third World News Agency
127 Union Avenue, P.O. Box 6050, Harare, Zimbabwe
Tel: (263-4) 790104/5  Fax: (263-4) 728415
E-mail: <[log in to unmask]> or <[log in to unmask]>
Home Pages:
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