Reducing the Global Digital Divide in Sub-Saharan Africa

Reducing the Global Digital Divide in Sub-Saharan Africa

Diego Rumiany of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs discusses possible policy actions to bridge the Global Digital Divide.
Photo credit: Flickr - Valentinian's photostream
Cruising the digital divide
Global Digital Divide (GDD) defines the distance between those with global access to information and those who don't. In most of the existing GDD literature, it is argued that having global access to information is essential to achieve other development goals, meaning that by overcoming the obstacles to bridge the GDD, societies will become more productive and integrated with each other, thus reducing developing problems. The purpose of this article is to show that this reasoning is not necessarily true in Sub-Saharan Africa, where other political and economic factors need to be taken into consideration, and where empirical evidence shows that more elementary needs must be addressed first in order to increase the success rate of GDD national policies. In the first section, I define both GDD and the common benefits and obstacles argued by existing literature. In the second section, I describe some structural elements of Sub-Saharan Africa and suggest why the current "Bridge Logic" needs to be replaced. Finally, I conclude and suggest some policy implications.

1. The Bridge Logic
In Sub-Saharan Africa, the digital divide is still at its most extreme. The use of Information and Communication Technologies is still at a very early stage of development.

The digital divide is the gap between those with regular, effective access to digital technology and those without. Larry Irving, a former United States Assistant Secretary of Commerce and technology adviser to the Clinton Administration, made the term digital divide popular in a series of reports in the mid 1990's. In those reports, Digital Divide results from the socioeconomic difference between communities that in turn affects their access to digital information mainly but not exclusively through the Internet. The Global Digital Divide (GDD) is nothing more than an extension of this concept to measure the same gap both between the developed and the developing world, and among developing countries as well.

In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), the digital divide is still at its most extreme where the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) is still at a very early stage of development compared to other regions of the world. According to the United Nation Status Report of ICT in Africa, of the approximately 816 million people in Africa in 2001, it is estimated that only:

  • 1 in 4 have radio (205m)
  • 1 in 13 have a TV (62m)
  • 1 in 35 have a mobile phone (24m)
  • 1 in 40 have a fixed line (20m)
  • 1 in 130 have a PC (5.9m)
  • 1 in 160 use the Internet (5m)
  • 1 in 400 have pay-TV (2m)

When surveying the different literature, it is usually argued that these are the main benefits of bridging the GDD:

  • Provide better means of communication
  • Integrate economic activities (specially Agro-business which represents 80% of African economic activities)
  • Make public services more efficient (usually named as E-Government, E-Health, E-education, etc.)
  • Improve infrastructure and productivity
  • Improve Democracy and participation mechanisms

However, according to organizations such as the United Nations ICT Task Force, bridging the GDD in SSA presents the following obstacles:

  • ICT growth tends to be concentrated only in big cities.
  • Lack of transport networks to install ICT infrastructure.
  • Low-education and "Brain Drain"
  • Political and economic instability
  • Capital scarcity and no entrepreneurship promotion

Important development goals depend on reducing the GDD, which is measured by the Internet Access indicator, is used as a reference for how well Africa is connected to the world, usually labeled as "Africa Access".
The main proxy for measuring the GDD is Internet Access, and sometimes is even used as a proxy of the technology penetration in the society. The current logic of reducing the GDD implies that very important development goals depend on reducing the GDD which is measured by this Internet Access indicator as a reference for how well Africa is connected to the world, usually labeled as "Africa Access".

Consequently, the Bridge Logic implies the need to overcome these obstacles in order to cross the GDD gap and acquire the existing benefits on the other shore by connecting SSA countries among themselves and to the world. I argue that this logic conditions the way in which many GDD programs are designed for SSA.

2. Basic Steps and Real Obstacles

One of the main problems with GDD (as it occurs with some other development concepts) is that it is a concept born in the developed world, and applied to the developing world afterwards. Consequently, one of the weaknesses of the translation of GDD into concrete developmental policies in SSA is the creation of two implicit assumptions:

  1. Most of the basic issues required to reduce the Digital Divide that were solved a long time ago by developed countries were solved by SSA countries as well.
  2. The socio-economical environment of SSA can be assimilated to the one existing in the developed world, and in the cases it cannot, it's due to certain conditions that are actually consequences of the GDD. These assumptions are the foundation over which the GDD Bridge is constructed.

Basic Steps

When one of the Directors of the five Internet Service Providers in Zambia was questioned about the low usage of Internet for sustainable development, he simply argued that most people prefer to spend their hard earned cash on buying food to fill their stomachs as opposite to surfing the Net. There are many issues often ignored in GDD programs and usually are the ones not that evident in the developed world. The impossibility to use computers due to lack of electricity (a precious resource in SSA) is a technical problem, but the incapability to use it because of lack of basic education, malnutrition, poverty or just disinterest is a socioeconomic one.

The impossibility to use computers due to lack of electricity (a precious resource in SSA) is a technical problem, but the incapability to use it because of lack of basic education, malnutrition, poverty or just disinterest is a socioeconomic one.
Technology is one path in which a society evolves in order to become more efficient to achieve sequential sets of goals. However, the only way that this evolution can occur is by acknowledging and incorporating the benefit of each goal into the society, so that it becomes naturally enforced to perform the next step. A few years ago, a very well-known Director of a Nigeria's premier technology research firm said: "It appears that the sun has begun to shine on Africa. Yes, the continent missed the agrarian revolution. Yes, she missed the industrial revolution. But she earnestly longs not to miss the information revolution." 2

What SSA really seems to miss is how to synchronize "revolutions" and "evolutions". There are certain steps you cannot skip, and introducing advanced technology to any country requires something more important that infrastructure or know-how, but the awareness of a society that this is the next step they need to do. The problem with ICT in Africa is that "it has all too often been a case of solution in search of problems" 3

Real Obstacles

Not all the problems are conceptual. A very pragmatic aspect to reduce the GDD in SSA is the socio-economic environment in which ICT is introduced. There are three important effects that the well-intended introduction of ICT is creating in the continent which tend to be ignored both by GDD literature and development programs.

  1. Personal Rule: As many other goods in SSA, ICT is still treated as a private good instead of a public good. Among other things, that implies that it is always conceived to be traded, and the government uses it as an economic and power source. The GDD program always requires to be profitable for both the foreign technology partner and the personal ruler. Take the example of Simputer, an Indian product intended to be a sub- USD 200 device, which ended up costing around USD 400 in most Sub- Saharan countries. The difference is not just transportation or intermediation cost, but government and private (usually foreign) profit.
  2. Enclave Economies: ICT doesn't go to cities, but to enclave economies all over SSA. The reason is "Business" and follows the pattern of the concept introduced in the previous section. If you want to implement advanced technology, you will do it in places where the infrastructure is ready, knowhow can be easily obtained, FDI is somehow proved to be profitable and government support exists. In most SSA countries, those places are the enclaves and in those places is where most of the successful projects of introduction of ICT into the continent reside. One of the most important examples of this is the government investment in developing the "National ICT Backbone" in Nigeria in order to provide international access to their growing oil business.
  3. Civil Conflicts: ICT penetration, if not properly managed has the potential to increase inequality and tension. As we indicated, GDD has two dimensions: the digital divide between SSA and the rest of the world and the digital divide among SSA countries. However, a third dimension might be added: the digital divide within the country. In a very revealing article, Steve Onyeiwu shows important variations in the way ICT evolved in SSA countries, but in the cases where the ICT growth was concentrated in the enclaves (such as the cases of Congo and Nigeria with an above-average ICT index in SSA) it didn't help to improve democracy, participation and economic integration as it was intended.

In a fragmented country, ICT might have the opposite effect and could potential widen the gap among the information-haves and the informationhave- nots.

Among others, these three structural elements of SSA need to be seriously considered when deploying GDD programs, as they are more sounded obstacles than the urban bias, lack of infrastructure, low education and political instability per se.

3. Conclusions and Policy Implication

In this paper, I tried to review the Bridge Logic of reducing the Global Digital Divide, as applied to SSA. Recent failures in GDD programs might justify the argument that the current obstacle-benefit approach to cross the gap tends to be ineffective to ensure sustainable development in the region. Instead, I first proposed that the concept of ICT introduction in a society need to be respected. Within that concept, I then suggested that three different structural problems of SSA, often ignored by GDD programs, need to be evaluated and researched when designing GDD policies in this region. Finally, I would like to stress the role of the national government in the design and execution of GDD policy. The government is probably the only actor capable of fully understanding the proper rhythm of ICT introduction in the country and it is also the one who should balance down the profit-seeking impulse of internal and external actors around the very aggressive Technology and Communication industry. As Russel Southwood wrote: "Doing good and doing business can overlap but they are not always the same thing". 4

1 Prepared for "African Development Economy" course of Prof. Booi Themeli, Fordham Univeristy, New York, August 2006.

2 E-Drug, "Internet Access still a nightmare in Africa",, 01/07/03.

3 Russel Southwood, Balancing Act, Issue 180-03, "Africa's Digital Divide Initiatives - Time for a Reality Check - An Off-the-record briefing", November 2003.

4 Russel Southwood, ibid.


George Sciadas, "Monitoring the Digital Divide", ORBICOM - Unesco Chairs in Communication, 2002.

United Nations ICT Task Force Working Group on the Enabling Environment, "Open Access for Africa. Challenges, Recommendations and Examples", 2005.

United Nations ICT Task Force, "Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) in Africa - A Status Report, Prepared by Mike Jensen, 2002.

United Nations ICT Task Force, UNICTTF III/2002/12, "Background paper on ICT-for-Development in Africa, Prepared by Dr. Joseph Opaku, Sr., 2002.

Dr. Nii Narku Quaynor, "Africa's Digital Rights", United Nations ICT Task Force UNICTTF III/2002/16.

"Digital Bridge to Africa: The launch of the Digital Diaspora Network - Africa (DDN-A)" Final Report of the Meeting Held July 12, 2002 at the United Nations, New York.

"Information and Communication Technologies for Development in Africa: Volume 1 - Opportunities and Challenges for Community Development", International Development Research Centre, 2003.

Steve Onyeiwu, "Inter-Country Variations in Digital Technology in Africa. Evidence, Determinants and Policy Implications", United Nations University, World Institute for Development Economics Research, July 2002.

Russel Southwood, Balancing Act, Issue 180-03, "Africa's Digital Divide Initiatives - Time for a Reality Check - An Off-the-record briefing", November 2003.

Fola Odufawa, "How the rest can catch up with the West", The Development Gateway, November 2003.

Contributed by Diego Rumiany, staff member of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA). Reprinted with permission from Development Gateway.

To read another Global Envision article about the digital divide, see PCs for the Poor: As Good as Their Hype.

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