eTransform Africa

On the last week of June in Johannesburg I attended a workshop as an external reviewer for the eTransform report on Climate change.  The World Bank Group and the African Development Bank, with the support of the African Union, intend to produce a new flagship report (“eTransform Africa Flagship”) on how information and communication technologies (ICTs), especially mobile phones, have the potential to change fundamental business and government models in key sectors for Africa.

The overall goal is to raise awareness and stimulate action, especially among African governments and development practitioners, on how ICTs can contribute to the improvement and transformation of traditional and new economic and social activities.

Furthermore, the studies should recommend ways in which to scale up the successful application of ICTs and to further operationalize their use within a number of strategic sectors, while paying appropriate attention to associated risks.

In order to provide analytical background for the study, the Partners have awarded a series of contracts to consultant firms to conduct sectorial studies of the actual and potential use of ICTs in the African economy.

The aim is to identify specific sectorial opportunities and challenges in Africa that can possibly be addressed through an increased or more efficient use of ICT, benefitting from a best practice analysis of applications around the world. Each study typically contains a scan of ICT applications in a particular sector followed by a more detailed study of two or three countries case studies, on a representative basis, chosen in conjunction with the partners. On the basis of this analysis, it should be possible to form a clearer understanding of the barriers to wider adoption and the factors for success.

These studies will then be used to assist the partners in formulating options for strategic interventions in these fields and to making appropriate recommendations.

The sector studies have been awarded as follows:

Agriculture (Deloitte);

Climate Change Adaptation (IISD);

Education (ICT Development Associates);

Financial Services (VitalWave);

• Health (VitalWave);

Delivery of Public Services (Deloitte).

In addition, two closely related cross-cutting studies will look at:

• The contribution of ICTs to regional trade and integration (ICT Development Associates);

• The local ICT sector as a platform for regional trade and integration (TNO/Excelsior).

It has been incredibly interesting to participate in this workshop for several reasons and I have to say I was quite impressed by the approach that the World Bank and the African Development Bank have taken with regard to those studies.

  1. The crowdsourcing methodology that has been used to gather feedback and to publicize the reports before the release of the final versions. The eTransform website in fact is an open platform that allows anyone that is interested to download the reports from the website (the drafts of the report for now) and to add comments or suggestions to the authors. This approach is incredibly useful and will allow, if there will be participation, to anyone that work in the field to influence the content of the reports and to add their expertise and their experiences. This participatory approach is a win to win according to me as it guarantee the possibility for practitioners but also for policy makers to participate remotely on the drafting of the reports and in this way make the reports themselves a more comprehensive overview of the field.
  2. The use of external reviewers before the release of the final reports. I was called to do an independent evaluation of the report on Climate Change since I have been working as crowdsourcing consultant for the World Bank in the Pilot Project for Climate Change and Resilience in Zambia. The bank has decided to use the reviewer not at the end of the process but in the middle, which, which all its limitations, is a very smart approach. For three days the consultants had the possibility to discuss with both the partners and the external reviewers and experts in the field about their work, and to gather feedbacks, comments and suggestions on how to move forward.
  3. The use of social media to gather feedback on the report and the integration with blogs and multimedia. The eTransform website is definitely not the classical World Bank or AfDB website: twitter feeds, blogs and comment sections allow anyone, with any means, to participate in the process and everything is open and displayed in the website as it comes through. As the reports are on the use of ICTs in Africa, this approach underlines a deep understanding of the background necessary to make those reports a serious benchmark in the WB and AfDB approach to ICTs, not only in words but also with facts.

But what do those reports means in practical terms? And why are they important?

In the past year I have been working on application of ICTs for different organizations, from small NGOs to big international organizations, and what I noticed is that the main problems on ICT4D come from the policy makers side more than from the practical implementation. Where the overall background relative to regulations, infrastructures and policies is not there to allow a broader use and implementation of ICTs, e sub-category of cheap and low cost solutions are developed and created on the ground by local organizations and groups to use and apply ICTs in the present constraints.  At the local level I would say there is more understanding of the necessary use of those tools and of their possible applications. What is missing is the high level understanding of what this means and how this affect governance and national policies.

In this regard there is a missing study in the eTransform project, which is the one that goes deeper in analyzing the impact on governance: what ICT is doing in terms of political impact on balance of powers in African countries?  – Granted, both the World bank and the AfDB are probably not the right body to conduct a study on this topic -.

What I hope is that from those studies, policy makers around Africa will have a better understanding of the necessary actions to move forward in the definition of effective policies that can, if implemented, give to their own countries a better chance to take advantage of ICTs applications.

After those 3 days of discussions, I came out with a list of issue that according to me are the main important to keep in mind in any of the fields analyzed in the reports:

  1. The importance to look for locally created and implemented technologies that are born from local needs and developed inside the local existing national conditions.
  2. The pivotal importance of a political will to lower barriers in the market for the commercialization of mobile technology, satellite technology, Internet and general ICT infrastructure.
  3. The need for Africa Countries to look more at their neighbors than at the Western World in terms of possible application of ICTs
  4. The importance in all of this of the educational and research component, which can alone increase the market, the interest, the availability and the use of ICTs.
  5. The incredible important to look at the unexpected effects of the application of technology in Africa (as in all the rest of the world). ICT4D is not just about technology or about development; it is also about politics, social behaviors, sociological equilibrium, anthropology and communities.

I urge everyone that is interested in any of the topic mentioned above to visit the eTransform website and add their comments on the reports. Since it is the first time that this kind of process is being conduct in such an open way (according to my knowledge, but happy to know if there are other cases), I think it is important to participate and to contribute to the drafting or useful recommendations for  policymakers in Africa.

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