That was the provocative suggestion that Harry de Backer, a telecommunications expert and former adviser to the EU delegation to the African Union, put to the second session of the 2012 Africa/EU Cooperation Forum on ICT, being held this week in Lisbon, Portugal.
De Backer pointed to the first decade of the millennium, when many governments were expressing their conviction about the importance of ICTs in development – and the need to provide generous support for projects in this field, for example, in the two components of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).
“In the period 2001 to 2007, ICTs were on the radar,” he said, with strong enthusiasm from European governments, particularly those in the north of the continent such as Sweden and Finland.
In contrast, he said, the attention currently being paid to ICTs in development debates was low. “Either the radar is failing, or there is nothing on it,” Backer said. “The momentum seems to have gone.”
When challenged, development agencies tended to argue that ICTs were the responsibility of the private sector, or that there was already a strong ICT component in individual projects so extra funding was not required, or that broadband would expand under its own moments.
But, said Backer, ICT was more than mobile telephones, it was the whole infrastructure of the knowledge economy; integrating ICT into a project was more than just procuring a personal computer; and broadband was not likely to find its own way “to every god-forsaken village” in a developing country.
“There is a real problem with development aid,” said Backer. “Africa needs capacity building, it needs the creation of a level playing field so that the private sector is willing to invest, and it needs honest public-private partnerships.”
The solution did not lie in more international conferences like WSIS. What was needed were smaller meetings involving a range of stakeholders that included EU member states, African regional economic communities, and interested parties from industry and the services sector.
“The economic climate is not on our side,” he admitted. But there was a need both for more talking between the African Union and the European Commission about what needed to be done, and for more lobbying of development agencies.
A strong take-home message for all participants in the Lisbon meeting.