Has Internet policy had any effect on Internet penetration in Sub-Saharan Africa?

There is a consensus among researchers that ICT is an engine for growth, and it’s also considered by the OECD to be a part of fundamental infrastructure, like electricity and roads. The last decade has seen a rapid growth of Internet access across Africa, although it has not been evenly distributed. Some African countries have an Internet penetration of over 50 percent (such as the Seychelles and South Africa) whereas some resemble digital deserts, not even reaching two percent. Even more surprisingly, countries that are seemingly comparable in terms of economic development often show considerable differences in terms of Internet access (e.g., Kenya and Ghana).

Being excluded from the Internet economy has negative economic and social implications; it is therefore important for policymakers to ask how policy can bridge this inequality. But does policy actually have an effect on these differences? And if so, which specific policy variables? In their Policy & Internet article “Crossing the Digital Desert in Sub-Saharan Africa: Does Policy Matter?”, Robert Wentrup, Xiangxuan Xu, H. Richard Nakamura, and Patrik Ström address the dearth of research assessing the interplay between policy and Internet penetration by identifying Internet penetration-related policy variables and institutional constructs in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is a first attempt to investigate whether Internet policy variables have any effect on Internet penetration in Sub-Saharan Africa, and to shed light on them.

Based on a literature review and the available data, they examine four variables: (i) free flow of information (e.g. level of censorship); (ii) market concentration (i.e. whether or not internet provision is monopolistic); (iii) the activity level of the Universal Service Fund (a public policy promoted by some governments and international telecom organizations to address digital inclusion); and (iv) total tax on computer equipment, including import tariffs on personal computers. The results show that only the activity level of the USF and low total tax on computer equipment are significantly positively related to Internet penetration in Sub-Saharan Africa. Free flow of information and market concentration show no impact on Internet penetration. The latter could be attributed to underdeveloped competition in most Sub-Saharan countries.

The authors argue that unless states pursue an inclusive policy intended to enhance Internet access for all its citizens, there is a risk that the skewed pattern between the “haves” and the “have nots” will persist, or worse, be reinforced. They recommend that policymakers promote the policy instrument of Universal Service and USF and consider substituting tax on computer equipment with other tax revenues (i.e. introduce consumption-friendly incentives), and not to blindly trust the market’s invisible hand to fix inequality in Internet diffusion.

We caught up with Robert to discuss the findings:

Ed.: I would assume that Internet penetration is rising (or possibly even booming) across the continent, and that therefore things will eventually sort themselves out — is that generally true? Or is it already stalling / plateauing, leaving a lot of people with no apparent hope of ever getting online?

Robert: Yes, generally we see a growth in Internet penetration across Africa. But it is very heterogeneous and unequal in its character, and thus country-specific. Some rich African countries are doing quite well whereas others are lagging behind. We have also seen known that Internet connectivity is vulnerable due to the political situation. The recent shutdown of the Internet in Cameroon demonstrates this vulnerability.

Ed.: You mention that “determining the causality between Internet penetration and [various] factors is problematic” – i.e. that the relation between Internet use and economic growth is complex. This presumably makes it difficult for effective and sweeping policy “solutions” to have a clear effect. How has this affected Internet-policy in the region, if at all?.

Robert: On the one hand one can say that if there is economic growth, there will be money to invest in Internet infrastructure and devices, and on the other hand if there are investments in Internet infrastructure, there will be economic growth. This resembles the chicken and egg problem. For many African countries, which lack large public investment funds and at the same time suffer from other more important socio-economic challenges, it might be tricky to put effort into Internet policy issues. But there are some good examples of countries that have actually managed to do this, for example Kenya. As a result these efforts can lead to positive effects on the society and economy as a whole. The local context, and a focus on instruments that disseminate Internet usage in unprivileged geographic areas and social groups (like the Universal Service Fund) are very important.

Ed.: How much of the low Internet perpetration in large parts of Africa is simply due to large rural populations — and therefore something that will either never be resolved properly, or that will naturally resolve itself with the ongoing shift to urban centres?

Robert: We did not see a clear causality between rural population and low Internet on a country level, mainly due to the fact that countries with a large rural population are often quite rich and thus also have money to invest in Internet infrastructure. Africa is very dependent on agriculture. Although the Internet connectivity issue might be “self-resolved” to some degree by urban migration, other issues would emerge from such a shift such as an increased socio-economic divide in the urban areas. Hence, it is more effective to make sure that the Internet reaches rural areas at an early stage.

Ed.: And how much does domestic policy (around things like telecoms) get set internally, as opposed to externally? Presumably some things (e.g. the continent-wide cables required to connect Africa to the rest of the world) are easier to bring about if there is a strong / stable regional policy around regulation of markets and competition — whether organised internally, or influenced by outside governments and industry?

Robert: The influence of telecom ministries and telecom operators is strong, but of course they are affected by intra-regional organisations, private companies etc. In the past Africa has had difficulties in developing pan-regional trade and policies. But such initiatives are encouraged, not least in order to facilitate cost-sharing of large Internet-related investments.

Ed.: Leaving aside the question of causality, you mention the strong correlation between economic activity and Internet penetration: are there any African countries that buck this trend — at either end of the economic scale?

Robert: We have seen that Kenya and Nigeria have had quite impressive rates of Internet penetration in relation to GDP. Gabon on the other hand is a relatively rich African country, but with quite low Internet penetration.

Read the full article: Wentrup, R., Xu, X., Nakamura, H.R., and Ström, P. (2016) Crossing the Digital Desert in Sub-Saharan Africa: Does Policy Matter? Policy & Internet 8 (3). doi:10.1002/poi3.123

Robert Wentrup was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Why we shouldn’t believe the hype about the Internet “creating” development

Vast sums of money have been invested in projects to connect the world’s remaining four billion people, with these ambitious schemes often presenting digital connectivity as a means to achieve a range of social and economic developmental goals. This is especially the case for Africa, where Internet penetration rates remain relatively low, while the need for effective development strategies continues to be pressing.

Development has always grappled with why some people and places have more than others, but much of that conversation is lost within contemporary discourses of ICTs and development. As states and organisations rush to develop policies and plans, build drones and balloons, and lay fibre-optic cables, much is said about the power of ICTs to positively transform the world’s most underprivileged people and places.

Despite the vigour of such claims, there is actually a lack of academic consensus about the impacts of digital connectivity on economic development. In their new article, Nicolas Friederici, Sanna Ojanperä and Mark Graham review claims made by African governments and large international institutions about the impacts of connectivity, showing that the evidence base to support them is thin.

It is indeed possible that contemporary grand visions of connectivity are truly reflective of a promising future, but it is equally possible that many of them are hugely overblown. The current evidence base is mixed and inconclusive. More worryingly, visions of rapid ICT-driven development might not only fail to achieve their goals — they could actively undermine development efforts in a world of scarce resources. We should therefore refuse to believe it is self-evident that ICTs will automatically bring about development, and should do more to ask the organisations and entities who produce these grand visions to justify their claims.

Read the full article: Friederici, N., Ojanperä, S., and Graham, M. (2017) The Impact of Connectivity in Africa: Grand Visions and the Mirage of Inclusive Digital Development. Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, 79(2), 1–20.

We caught up with the authors to discuss their findings.

Ed.: Who is paying for these IT-development projects: are they business and profit-led, or donor led: and do the donors (and businesses) attach strings?

Nicolas: Funding has become ever more mixed. Foundational infrastructure like fibre-optic cables have usually been put in place through public private partnerships, where private companies lay out the network while loans, subsidies, and policy support are provided by national governments and organizations like the World Bank. Development agencies have mostly funded more targeted connectivity projects, like health or agricultural information platforms.

Recently, philanthropic foundations and tech corporations have increased their footprint, for instance, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Digital Jobs project or Facebook’s Open Cellular Base stations. So we are seeing an increasingly complex web of financial channels. What discourse does is pave the way for funding to flow into such projects.

The problem is that, while private companies may stop investing when they don’t see returns, governments and development funders might continue to pour resources into an agenda as long as it suits their ideals or desirable and widely accepted narratives. Of course, these resources are scarce; so, at the minimum, we need to allow scrutiny and look for alternatives about how development funding could be used for maximum effect.

Ed.: Simple, aspirational messages are obviously how politicians get people excited about things (and to pay for them). What is the alternative?

Nicolas: We’re not saying that the rhetoric of politicians is the problem here. We’re saying that many of the actors who are calling the shots in development are stubbornly evading valid concerns that academics and some practitioners have brought forward. The documents that we analyze in the article — and these are very influential sources — pretend that it is an unquestionable fact that there is a causal, direct and wide-spread positive impact of Internet and ICTs on all facets of development, anywhere. This assertion is not only simplistic, it’s also problematic and maybe even dangerous to think about a complex and important topic like (human, social) development in this way.

The alternative is a more open and plural conversation where we openly admit that resources spent on one thing can’t be spent on another, and where we enable different and critical opinions to enter the fray. This is especially important when a nation’s public is disempowered or misinformed, or when regulators are weak. For example, in most countries in Europe, advocacy groups and strong telecoms regulators provide a counterforce to the interests of technology corporations. Such institutions are often absent in the Global South, so the onus is on development organizations to regulate themselves, either by engaging with people “on the ground” or with academics. For instance, the recent World Development Report by the World Bank did this, which led the report to, we think, much more reliable and balanced conclusions compared to the Bank’s earlier outputs.

Ed.: You say these visions are “modernist” and “techno-determinist” — why is that? Is it a quirk of the current development landscape, or does development policy naturally tend to attract fixers (rather than doubters and worriers..). And how do we get more doubt into policy?

Nicolas: Absolutely, development organizations are all about fixing development problems, and we do not take issue with that. However, these organizations also need to understand that “fixing development” is not like fixing a machine (that is, a device that functions according to mechanical principles). It’s not like one could input “technology” or “the Internet,” and get “development” as an output.

In a nutshell, that’s what we mean when we say that visions are modernist and techno-determinist: many development organizations, governments, and corporations make the implicit assumption that technological progress is fixing development, that this is an apolitical and unstoppable process, and that this is working out in the same way everywhere on earth. This assumption glances over contestation, political choices and trade-offs, and the cultural, economic, and social diversity of contexts.

Ed.: Presumably if things are very market-led: the market will decide if the internet “solves” everything: ie either it will, or it won’t. Has there been enough time yet to verify the outcomes of these projects (e.g. how has the one-laptop initiative worked out)?

Nicolas: I’m not sure I agree with the implication that markets can decide if the Internet solves everything. It’s us humans who are deciding, making choices, prioritizing, allocating resources, setting policies, etc. As humans, we might decide that we want a market (that is, supply and demand matched by a price mechanism) to regulate some array of transactions. This is exactly what is happening, for instance, with the spread of mobile money in Kenya or the worldwide rise of smartphones: people feel they benefit from using a product and are willing to pay money to a supplier.

The issue with technology and development is (a) that in many cases, markets are not the mechanism that achieves the best development outcomes (think about education or healthcare), (b) that even the freest of markets needs to be enabled by things like political stability, infrastructure, and basic institutions (think about contract law and property rights), and (c) that many markets need regulatory intervention or power-balancing institutions to prevent one side of the exchange to dominate and exploit the other (think about workers’ rights).

In each case, it is thus a matter of evaluating what mixture of technology, markets, and protections works best to achieve the best development outcomes, keeping in mind that development is multi-dimensional and goes far beyond economic growth. These evaluations and discussions are challenging, and it takes time to determine what works, where, and when, but ultimately we’re improving our knowledge and our practice if we keep the conversation open, critical, and diverse.

Ed.: Is there a consensus on ICT and development, or are there basically lots of camps, ranging from extreme optimists to extreme pessimists? I get the impression that basically “it’s complicated” — is that fair? And how much discussion or recognition (beyond yourselves) is there about the gap between these statements and reality?

Nicolas: ICT and development has seen a lot of soul-searching, and scholars and practitioners have spent over 20 years debating the field’s nature and purpose. There is certainly no consensus on what ICTD should do, or how ICTs effect/affect development, and maybe that is an unrealistic — and undesirable — goal. There are certainly optimistic and pessimistic voices, like you mention, but there is also a lot of wisdom that is not widely acknowledged, or not in the public domain at all. There are thousands of practitioners from the Global North and South who have been in the trenches, applied their critical and curious minds, and seen what makes an impact and what is a pipe dream.

So we’re far from the only ones who are aware that much of the ICTD rhetoric is out of touch with realities, and we’re also not the first ones to identify this problem. What we tried to point out in our article is that the currently most powerful, influential, and listened to sources tend to be the ones that are overly optimistic and overly simplistic, ignoring all the wisdom and nuance created through hard scholarly and practical work. These actors seem to be detached from the messy realities of ICTD.

This carries a risk, because it is these organizations (governments, global consultancies, multilateral development organizations, and international tech corporations) that are setting the agenda, distributing the funds, making the hiring decisions, etc. in development practice.

Read the full article: Friederici, N., Ojanperä, S., and Graham, M. (2017) The Impact of Connectivity in Africa: Grand Visions and the Mirage of Inclusive Digital Development. Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, 79(2), 1–20.

Nicolas Friederici was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Is China shaping the Internet in Africa?

World Economic Forum
The telecommunication sector in Africa is increasingly crowded. Image of the Panel on the Future of China-Africa Relations, World Economic Forum on Africa 2011 (Cape Town) by World Economic Forum.

Ed: Concerns have been expressed (eg by Hillary Clinton and David Cameron) about the detrimental role China may play in African media sectors, by increasing authoritarianism and undermining Western efforts to promote openness and freedom of expression. Are these concerns fair?

Iginio: China’s initiatives in the communication sector abroad are burdened by the negative record of its domestic media. For the Chinese authorities this is a challenge that does not have an easy solution as they can’t really use their international broadcasters to tell a different story about Chinese media and Chinese engagement with foreign media, because they won’t be trusted. As the linguist George Lakoff has explained, if someone is told “Don’t think of an elephant!” he will likely start “summoning the bulkiness, the grayness, the trunkiness of an elephant”. That is to say, “when we negate a frame, we evoke a frame”. Saying that “Chinese interventions are not increasing authoritarianism” won’t help much. The only path China can undertake is to develop projects and use its media in ways that fall outside the realm of what is expected, creating new associations between China and the media, rather than trying to redress existing ones. In part this is already happening. For example, CCTV Africa, the new initiative of state-owned China’s Central Television (CCTV) and China’s flagship effort to win African hearts and minds, has developed a strategy aimed not at directly offering an alternative image of China, but at advancing new ways of looking at Africa, offering unprecedented resources to African journalists to report from the continent and tapping into the narrative of a “rising Africa”, as a continent of opportunities rather than of hunger, wars and underdevelopment.

Ed: Ideology has disappeared from the language of China-Africa cooperation, largely replaced by admissions of China’s interest in Africa’s resources and untapped potential. Does politics (eg China wanting to increase its international support and influence) nevertheless still inform the relationship?

China’s efforts in Africa during decolonisation were closely linked to its efforts to export and strengthen the socialist revolution on the continent. Today the language of ideology has largely disappeared from public statements, leaving less charged references to the promotion of “mutual benefit” and “sovereignty and independence” as guides of the new engagement. At the same time, this does not mean that the Chinese government has lost interest in engaging at the political/ideological level when the conditions allow. Identity of political views is not a precondition for engagement anymore but neither is it an aspiration, as China is not necessarily trying to influence local politics in ways that could promote socialism. But when there is already a resonance with the ideas embraced by its partners, Chinese authorities have not shied away from taking the engagement to a political/ideological level. This is demonstrated for example by party to party ties between the Communist Party of China (CUC) and other Socialist parties in Africa, including the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Representative of the CUC have been invited to attend the EPRDF’s party conferences.

Ed: How much influence does China have on the domestic media / IT policies of the nations it invests in? Is it pushing the diffusion of its own strategies of media development and media control abroad? (And what are these strategies if so?)

Iginio: The Chinese government has signalled its lack of interest in exporting its own development model, and its intention to simply respond to the demands of its African partners. Ongoing research has largely confirmed that this ‘no strings attached’ approach is consistent, but this does not mean that China’s presence on the continent is neutral or has no impact on development policies and practices. China is indirectly influencing media/IT policies and practices in at least three ways.

First, while Western donors have tended to favour media projects benefiting the private sector and the civil society, often seeking to create incentives for the state to open a dialogue with other forces in society, China has exhibited a tendency to privilege government actors, thus increasing governments’ capacity vis-à-vis other critical components in the development of a media and telecommunication systems.

Second, with the launch of media projects such as CCTV Africa China has dramatically boosted its potential to shape narratives, exert soft power, and allow different voices to shape the political and development agenda. While international broadcasters such as the BBC World Service and Aljazeera have often tended to rely on civil society organisations as gatekeepers of information, CCTV has so far shown less interest in these actors, privileging the formal over the informal and also as part of its effort to provide more positive news from the continent.

Third, China’s domestic example to balance between investment in media and telecommunication and efforts to contain the risks of political instability that new technologies may bring, has the potential to act as a legitimising force for other states that share concerns of balancing both development and security, and that are actively seeking justifications for limiting voices and uses of technology that are considered potentially destabilising.

Ed: Is China developing tailored media models for abroad, or even using Africa as a “development lab”? How does China’s interest in Africa’s mediascape compare with its interest in other regions worldwide?

Iginio: There are concerns that, just as Western countries have tried to promote their models in Africa, China will try to export its own. As mentioned earlier, no studies to date have proved this to be the case. Rather, Africa indeed seems to be emerging as a “development lab”, a terrain in which to experiment and progressively find new strategies for engagement. Despite Africa’s growing importance for China as a trading and geostrategic partner, the continent is still perceived as a space where it is possible to make mistakes. In the case of the media, this is resulting in greater opportunities for journalists to experiment with new styles and enjoy freedoms that would be more difficult to obtain back in China, or even in the US, where CCTV has launched another regional initiative, CCTV America, which is more burdened, however, by the ideological confrontation between the two countries.

As part of Oxford’s Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy‘s (PCMLP’s) ongoing research on China’s role in the media and communication sector in Africa, we have proposed a framework that can encourage understanding of Chinese engagement in the African mediasphere in terms of its original contributions, and not simply as a negative of the impression left by the West. This framework breaks down China’s actions on the continent according to China’s ability to act as a partner, a prototype, and a persuader, questioning, for example, whether or not media projects sponsored by the Chinese government are facilitating the diffusion of some aspects that characterise the Chinese domestic media system, rather than assuming this will be the case.

China’s role as a partner is evident in the significant resources it provides to African countries to implement social and economic development projects, including the laying down of infrastructure to increase Internet and mobile access. China’s perception as a prototype is linked to the ability its government has shown in balancing between investment in media and ICTs and containment of the risks of political instability new technologies may bring. Finally, China’s presence in Africa can be assessed according to its modality and ability to act as a persuader, as it seeks to shape national and international narratives.

So far we have employed this framework only to look at Chinese engagement in Africa, focusing in particular on Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya, but we believe it can be applied also in other areas where China has stepped up its involvement in the ICT sector.

Ed: Has there been any explicit conflict yet between Chinese and non-Chinese news corporations vying for influence in this space? And how crowded is that space?

Iginio: The telecommunication sector in Africa is increasingly crowded as numerous international corporations from Europe (e.g. Vodafone), India (e.g. Airtel) and indeed China (e.g. Huawei and ZTE) are competing for shares of a profitable and growing market. Until recently Chinese companies have avoided competing with one another, but things are slowly changing. In Ethiopia, for example, after an initial project funded by the Chinese government to upgrade the telecommunication infrastructure was entirely commissioned to Chinese telecom giant ZTE, which is partially owned by the state, now ZTE has entered in competition with its Chinese (and privately owned) rival, Huawei, to benefit from an extension of the earlier project. In Kenya Huawei even decided to take ZTE to court over a project its rival won to supply the Kenyan police with a communication and surveillance system. Chinese investments in the telecommunication sectors in Africa have been part of the government’s strategy of engagement in the continent, but profit seems to have become an increasingly important factor, even if this may interfere with this strategy.

Ed: How do the recipient nations regard China’s investment and influence? For example, is there any evidence that authoritarian governments are seeking to adopt aspects of China’s own system?

Iginio: China is perceived as an example mostly by those countries that are seeking to balance between investment in ICTs and containment of the risks of political instability new technologies may bring. In a Wikileaks cable reporting a meeting between Sebhat Nega, one of the Ethiopian government’s ideologues, and the then US ambassador Donald Yamamoto, for example, Sebhat was reported to have openly declared his admiration for China and stressed that Ethiopia “needs the China model to inform the Ethiopian people”.

Iginio Gagliardone is a British Academy Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford. His research focuses on the role of the media in political change, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the adaptation of international norms of freedom of expression in authoritarian regimes. Currently, he is exploring the role of emerging powers such as China in promoting alternative conceptions of the Internet in Africa. In particular he is analysing whether and how the ideas of state stability, development and community that characterize the Chinese model are influencing and legitimizing the development of a different conception of the information society.

Iginio Gagliardone was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Seeing like a machine: big data and the challenges of measuring Africa’s informal economies

The Juba Archives
State research capacity has been weakened since the 1980s. It is now hoped that the ‘big data’ generated by mobile phone use can shed light on African economic and social issues, but we must pay attention to what new technologies are doing to the bigger research environment. Image by Nicki Kindersley.

As Linnet Taylor’s recent post on this blog has argued, researchers are gaining interest in Africa’s big data. Linnet’s excellent post focused on what the profusion of big data might mean for privacy concerns and frameworks for managing personal data. My own research focuses on the implications of big (and open) data on knowledge about Africa; specifically, economic knowledge.

As an introduction, it might be helpful to reflect on the French colonial concepts of l’Afrique utile and l’Afrique inutile (concepts most recently re-invoked by William Reno in 1999 and James Ferguson in 2005). L’Afrique utile, or usable Africa represented parts of Africa over which private actors felt they could exercise a degree of governance and control, and therefore extract profit. L’Afrique inutile, on the other hand, was the no-go area: places deemed too risky, too opaque and too wild for commercial profit. Until recently, it was difficult to convince multinationals to view Africa as usable and profitable because much economic activity took place in the unaccounted informal economy. With the exception of a few oil, gas and mineral installations and some export commodities like cocoa, cotton, tobacco, rubber, coffee, and tea, multinationals stayed out of the continent. Likewise, within the accounts of national public policy-making institutions, it was only the very narrow formal and recordable parts of the economy that were recorded. In a similar way that economists have traditionally excluded unpaid domestic labour from national accounts, most African states only scratched the surface of their populations’ true economic lives.

The mobile phone has undoubtedly changed the way private companies and public bodies view African economies. Firstly, the mobile phone has demonstrated that Africans can be voracious consumers at the bottom of the pyramid (paving the way for the distribution of other low-cost items such as soap, sanitary pads, soft drinks, etc.). While the colonial scramble for Africa focused on what lay in Africa’s lands and landscapes, the new scramble is focused on its people and markets (and workers; as the growing interest in business process outsourcing demonstrates).

Secondly, mobile phones (and other kinds of information and communication technologies) have created new channels of information about Africans and African markets, particularly in the informal sector. In an era where so much of the apparatus for measuring Africa’s economies has been weakened, this kind of data reaps enormous potential. One might say that the mobile phone and the internet have made former parts of l’Afrique inutile into l’Afrique utile — open for business, profit, analysis, and perhaps, control.

The ‘scramble for Africa’s data‘ is taking place within a particular historical trajectory of knowledge production. Africa has always been a laboratory for Western scientists and researchers, with local knowledge production often influenced by foreign powers and foreign ideas (think back to the early reliance on primary products for export, to which the entire colonial system of economic measurement and development planning was geared). Within the contemporary context of ever-expanding higher education and dwindling finances for local research, African academics and researchers have been forced to take on more and more consultancies and private contracts.

This ‘extraversion’ of African institutions of higher education has contributed to a re-orientation of the apparatus for academic research towards questions posed from outside. Within state bodies, similar processes are underway. Weakened by corruption, Structural Adjustment Policies (SAP), and pervasive informal economic activity, management of the economy has migrated from state institutions into the better paid offices of NGOs, consultancies and private companies. State capacity to measure and model is presently very weak, and African governments are therefore being encouraged to ‘open’ up their own records to non-state researchers. It is into this research context that big data emerges as a new source of ‘legibility’.

ICTs offer obvious benefits to economic researchers. They have often been heralded as offering potentially more democratic and participatory kinds of ‘legibility’. Their potential partly lies in the way that ICTs activate ‘social networks’ into infrastructures through which external actors can deliver and extract information. This ‘sociability’ makes them particularly suitable for studying informal economic networks. ICTs also offer the potential to modernise existing streams of data collection and broaden intra-institutional coordination, leading to better collaboration and more targeted public policy. In our project on the economic impacts of fibre optic broadband in East Africa, we have seen how institutions such as the Kenya Tea Board and the Rwandan Health Ministry are better integrating their information systems in order to gain a better national picture, and thereby contribute to industrial upgrading in the case of tea or better public services in the case of health. Nevertheless, big data is not accessible to all, and researchers must often prove commercial or strategic value in order to gain access.

Use of ‘big data’ is still a growing field, born within the discipline of computer science. My initial interviews with big data researchers working on Africa indicate they are still figuring out what kinds of questions can be answered with big data and how they might justify themselves and their methodologies to mainstream economics. Big data’s potential for hypothesis-building is somewhat at odds with the tradition of hypothesis-testing in economics. Big data researchers start with the question, ‘Where can this data lead me?’ There is also the question of how restricted access might frame research design. To date, the researchers that have been most successful in gaining access to African big data have worked with private companies, banks and financial institutions. It is therefore the incorporation and integration of poor people into private sector understandings that big data currently seems to offer.

This vision of development fits into a broader trend. Just as Hernando de Soto has argued that development is hampered by the exclusion of poor people from formalised property rights, proponents of microcredit have likewise argued it is the poor’s exclusion from financial institutions that limit their ability to develop self-sustaining enterprises. Researchers are therefore encouraged to use big data to model poor peoples’ actions and credit worthiness to incorporate them into financial systems, thereby transforming them from invisible selves into visible selves.

Critics of microfinance have cautioned that incorporating poor people into globalised structures of finance makes them more vulnerable to state interference in the form of taxes and to debt and international financial crises. It is also unclear what the drift into the private sector might do to wider understandings of poverty. While national measures situate citizens as members of national or collective groups, mobile financial innovations often focus on the individual’s financial records and credit worthiness. It remains to be seen whether this change of focus might move us away from more social definitions for poverty towards more individual or private explanations.

Likewise the flow of digital information across geographical space has the potential to change the nature of collaboration. As Mahmoud Mamdani has cautioned, “The global market tends to relegate Africa to providing raw material (“data”) to outside academics who process it and then re-export their theories back to Africa. Research proposals are increasingly descriptive accounts of data collection and the methods used to collate data, collaboration is reduced to assistance, and there is a general impoverishment of theory and debate”. This problem could potentially be exacerbated by open data initiatives that seek to get more people using publicly collected data. As Morten Jerven writes in his recent book, Poor Numbers, interactions between African data producers and users are currently limited, with users often unable to effectively assess the source and methods used to collect the original data. Nevertheless, such numbers are often taken at face value, with dubious policy recommendations formed as a result. While multiple sources of data (from the public and private sector) can help increase the precision of research and lead to better conclusions, we do not understand how big data (and open data) will impact the overall research environment in Africa.

My next project will examine these issues in relation to economic studies of unemployment in Egypt and financial inclusion in Uganda. The key objectives will be to improve our understanding of how data is being collected, how data is being communicated across groups and within systems, how new models of the economy are being formed, and what these changes are doing to political and economic relationships on the ground. Specifically, the project poses six interrelated questions: Where is economic intelligence and expertise currently located? What is being measured by whom, and how, and why? How do different tools of measurement change the way researchers understand economic truth and construct their models? How does more ‘legibility’ over African economies change power relations? What resistance or critical thinking exists within these new configurations of expertise? How can we combine approaches to assemble a fuller picture of economic understanding? The project will emphasise how economics, as a discipline, does not merely measure external reality, but helps to shape and influence that reality.

How we measure economies matters, particularly in the context of ever increasing evidence-based policy-making and with increasing interest from the private sector in Africa. Measurement often changes and shapes our realities of the external world. As Timothy Mitchell writes: “the practices that form the economy operate, in part, to establish equivalences, contain circulations, identify social actors or agents, make quantities and performances measurable, and designate relations of control and command”. In other words, researchers cannot make sense of an economy without first establishing a research infrastructure through which subjects are measured and incorporated. The particular shape, tools and technologies of that research infrastructure help frame and construct economic models and truth.

Such frames also have political implications, as control over information often strengthens one group over others. Indeed, as James C. Scott’s work Seeing Like a State has shown, the struggle to establish legibility over societies is inherently political. Elites have always attempted to standardise and regularise more marginal groups in an effort to draw them into dominant political and economic orders. However, legibility does not have be ‘top-down’. Weaker groups suffer most from illegible societies, and can benefit from more legibility. As information and trust become more deeply embedded within stronger ties and within transnational networks of skill and expertise, marginalised ‘out groups’ are particularly disadvantaged.

While James C. Scott’s work highlighted the dangers of a high modernist ‘legibility’, the very absence of legibility can also disempower marginal groups. It is the kind of legibility at stake that is important. While big data offers enormous potential for economists to better understand what is going on in Africa’s informal economies, economic sociologists, anthropologists and historians must remind them how our tools and measurements influence systems of knowledge production and change our understandings and beliefs about the external world. Africa might be becoming ‘more usable’ and ‘more legible,’ but we need to ask, for whom, by whom, and for what purpose?

Dr Laura Mann is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. Her research focuses on the political economy of markets and value chains in Africa. Her current research examines the effects of broadband internet on the tea, tourism and outsourcing value chains of Kenya and Rwanda. From January 2014 she will be based at the African Studies Centre at Leiden University. Read Laura’s blog.