Fahamu (Oxford)

Africa: Are 'African Lions' Really Roaring?

(Page 2 of 5)

opinion

Though all were soon subsequently unveiled as ruthless dictators, Afro-optimism was revived thanks to the 2001 New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad) and its 2003 African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM). But the programmes' champion, Thabo Mbeki, was fired by his own party in 2008, and the two other highest-profile African Union (AU) leaders were the tyrants Zenawi (the lead AU climate negotiator and APRM chair still today) and Moammar Gaddafi (recent AU president). Nepad and the APRM were written off.

THE BROKEN ICT TECHNO-FIX

One oft-cited reason for the new Afro-optimism fad is cellular telephony access in many areas that were formerly off-grid for communications. Recall that similar high hopes for raised productivity through leapfrogging led to the last quarter-century's microfinance fantasies. But it has become clear in recent months in India (with its 200,000 farm suicides) as well as the microdebt mecca of Bangladesh that there was too little economic space to allow women to borrow at high interest rates so as to compete in glutted petty commodity markets.

The bank's most recent Africa policy paper argued that the 'success of Information and Communications Technology (ICT), especially mobile phone penetration, shows how rapidly a sector can grow. It also shows how the public sector can set the conditions for the exponential growth of a vital industry that could transform the continent.'

The reality is less encouraging. Although Africa is better with cellphones than it was without (say, 15 years ago), the actual performance of the industry reveals telling weaknesses. These include the role of multinational capital in sucking out profits and dividends, the lack of genuine competition (collusion is notorious even in the largest economy, South Africa), relatively high prices for cellphone handsets and services, and limited technological linkages to internet service.

Last year, a report ('Towards evidence-based ICT policy and regulation') by Johannesburg researchers Enrico Calandro, Alison Gillwald, Mpho Moyo and Christoph Stork unveiled a host of ICT deficiencies, because although 'the mobile market, has experienced significant growth, outcomes have been sub-optimal in many respects.'

For example, the authors argue, cellphone penetration 'figures tend to mask the fact that millions of Africans still do not own their own means of communication.' Moreover:

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