The geographical proximity between Africa and Europe has inevitably led to a long and close relationship between the two continents. Over the past few centuries, colonialism has meant that the relationship has often been a painful one, with Europe as the dominant partner reaping the greater benefits.
Today, as speakers emphasised at the first session of the 2012 Africa EU Cooperation Forum on ICT, which opened this morning in Lisbon, Portugal, the situation is very different. Cooperation between neighbours for mutual benefit is the theme of the day. And nowhere, it was stressed, is the potential for cooperation stronger that in the field of information and communication technologies.
As Moctar Yedely, head of the information society division of the African Union Commission, put it: “our relationship is something that should never fail because we are so geographically close that we have no choice but to be close and to be friends”.
Yedely stressed that ICT was about more than telephones and computers. “It is about those applications that will bring value to transforming African societies”. He added: “If a small village in Africa has access to the potential of ICT, it may bring benefits to a remote village in Europe”.
Zoran Stancic, deputy head of the European Commission’s directorate general for communication networks, content and technology (DG-Connect), emphasised that joint work on ICTs was a central element of the broader partnership between Africa and the European Union (EU).
He pointed out that the EU already recognised ICT as providing a central pillar for facilitating growth and jobs. “We see the same thing happening throughout Africa,” he said, pointing out that the number of mobile phone users in Africa had grown from 8 million to 800 million today.
Stancic said that there was an “avalanche” of new innovative solutions being developed in Africa. For example, innovation in mobile banking in Kenya was a success story that needed to be promoted in a broader context.
Cooperation in research was one way that Europe could help Africa achieve more successes. He said that there had been a constant rise in the number of African institution participating in Europe’s framework programmes, from 40 partners in the 6th Framework Programme (which lasted from 2002 to 2006) to more than one hundred in the current 7th Framework Programme.
“We see the next framework programme as an important instrument to help this flourish in the future,” Stancic added. “A proper approach to facilitating cooperation between EU researchers and researchers in Africa can bring benefits to both sides. We want to work together to support capacity building in Africa, but European scientists can also benefit from our friends and partners in Africa.”
The current challenge, both in Europe and Africa, he said, was to promote success stories in a way that would help political leaders “make the right choices in the future”.
Portugal, the host for today’s meeting – and one that has the longest links with Africa of any European country – is one country that needs little convincing.
Leonor Parreira, the secretary of state at the country’s Ministry of Education and Science, said that Portugal was committed to continuing initiatives that had already been started in area related to ICT, and to build on established alliances to evolve strong knowledge networks based on regional diversity and complementary.
“It is critical that these partnerships become sounder to overcome differences between cultures and demonstrate that we have common interests,” Parreira said. “ICT has the potential to enable this.”
Lots of fine words. The next two days will show what they mean in practice.