A few years ago, South Africa decided to stop complaining about what is often called the Digital Divide separating developed and developing countries, and to start talking instead about what it described as the Digital Advantage.
The upbeat tone, emphasising the potentially transformational contribution of ICTs to development rather than the disadvantages they can create, sums up the optimism that has been a dominant theme of discussions here in Lisbon over the past two days.
The 2012 Africa-EU Cooperation Forum on ICT has been the fifth in a series of annual meetings. Each has provided an opportunity for ICT specialists and stakeholders from both Africa and Europe to explore ways of working together (next year’s meeting is likely to take place in Cairo, Egypt).
Earlier meetings focussed largely on the potential and proposals for collaboration. In contrast, this year’s was able to include concrete success stories showing how effective collaboration is already taking place – and beginning to make an impact.
One example was the launch of the UbuntuNet, part of the AfricaConnect project, which provides enhanced data exchange between researchers in the two continents (as well as in African countries themselves).
No-one pretended that difficulties – or perhaps one should say challenges – in promoting collaboration do not exist.
Barend Taute, of the CSIR Meraka Institute in South Africa, summarised these to the final session of the forum as including “funding, diversity, travel, timelines, cultural peculiarities, languages, policy and regulation, vested interests, infrastructure and human capacity”.
Quite a list.
Set against this, however, is growing political will. European governments in particular – and to a lesser extent, their African counterparts – seem convinced that, for a variety of reasons, closer collaboration on ICT projects between the two continents is desirable.
From the European point of view, this is partly based on the awareness that ICTs can significantly boost the impact of conventional aid projects (for example, in areas such as health and agriculture) by increasing the efficiency by which services are delivered.
But as participants in the meeting continually stressed, Europe and Africa also face common interests in working on ways that ICTs can contribute towards socioeconomic development, providing scope for genuine partnership.
Of course, the playing field remains far from level.
Many African countries, for example, still have a long way to go in building up their own capacity to handle and develop ICTs effectively. One speaker criticised universities who continued to turn out engineers who seem to know more about Newton’s laws of motion than how computer networks work.
The need to ensure that ICT projects are genuinely based on social need was also frequently referred to. Calls for more “bottom up approaches” and “people-centred solutions” became familiar.
And funding remains a problem. Despite increasingly funding from the European Commission, many African governments (and, it was said, some development agencies) continue to insist that ICT development is the responsibility of the private sector, ignoring the extent to which public investment is required to build the necessary capacity and infrastructure.
But if the Lisbon meeting heard numerous pleas for greater awareness by policy-makers of the need to invest in ICT projects, it also provided numerous examples that can be waved in the faces of these same policy-makers to illustrate the gains that can be generated by doing so.
Or, as Taute put it in the final session: “here are already enough good success stories to make us happy about what we are doing. The potential Digital Advantage for the continent is so big and inspiring that we can only be positive about it.”