How ready is Africa to join the knowledge economy?

Changes in the ways knowledge is created and used are driving economic and social development worldwide. Ugandan school by Brian Wolfe (Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0).

“In times past, we searched for gold, precious stones, minerals, and ore. Today, it is knowledge that makes us rich and access to information is all-powerful in enabling individual and collective success.” Lesotho Ministry of Communications, Science and Technology, 2005.

Changes in the ways knowledge is created and used—and how this is enabled by new information technologies—are driving economic and social development worldwide. Discussions of the “knowledge economy” see knowledge both as an economic output in itself, and as an input that strengthens economic processes; with developing countries tending to be described as planning or embarking on a journey of transformation into knowledge economies to bring about economic gain. Indeed, increasing connectivity has sparked many hopes for the democratisation of knowledge production in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite the centrality of digital connectivity to the knowledge economy, there are few studies of the geographies of digital knowledge and information. In their article “Engagement in the Knowledge Economy: Regional Patterns of Content Creation with a Focus on Sub-Saharan Africa”, published in Information Technologies & International Development, Sanna Ojanperä, Mark Graham, Ralph K. Straumann, Stefano De Sabbata, and Matthew Zook investigate the patterns of knowledge creation in the region. They examine three key metrics: spatial distributions of academic articles (i.e. traditional knowledge production), collaborative software development, and Internet domain registrations (i.e. digitally mediated knowledge production).

Contrary to expectations, they find distribution patterns of digital content (measured by collaborative coding and domain registrations) to be more geographically uneven than those of academic articles: despite the hopes for the democratising power of the information revolution. This suggests that the factors often framed as catalysts for a knowledge economy do not relate to these three metrics uniformly.

Connectivity is an important enabler of digital content creation, but it seems to be only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition; wealth, innovation capacity, and public spending on education are also important factors. While the growth in telecommunications might be reducing the continent’s reliance on extractive industries and agriculture, transformation into a knowledge economy will require far more concentrated effort than simply increasing Internet connectivity.

We caught up with Sanna to discuss the article’s findings:

Ed.: You chose three indices (articles, domain registration, collaborative coding) to explore the question of Africa’s “readiness” to join the knowledge economy. Are these standard measures for the (digital) knowledge economy?

Sanna: Academic articles is a measure often used to estimate knowledge-rich activity, so you could consider it a traditional variable in this area. Other previous work measuring the geographies of codified knowledge have focused on particular aspects or segments of it, such as patents, citations, and innovation systems.

What we found to be an interesting gap in the estimation of knowledge economies is that even if digital connectivity is central to the knowledge economy discourse, studies of the current geographies of digital knowledge and information on online platforms are rare. We argue that digitally mediated participation in information- and knowledge-intensive activities offers a metric that closely measures human capacity and skills. An analysis of digitally mediated traces of skills and information might thus complement the knowledge economy discussion and offer a way to better detect the boundaries of contemporary knowledge economies. To address the gap of research on digital content, we examine the geography of activities in collaborative software development (using the GitHub platform), and the registration of top-level domains. While there are other indicators that we could have included in the analysis, we selected these two, as they have a global reach and because they measure two distinct, but important segments of knowledge economy.

Ed.: To what extent do the drivers commonly associated with knowledge economies (e.g., GDP, broadband Internet, education, innovation) explain the patterns you found? And what were these patterns?

Sanna: While connectivity plays a role in all three categories, it seems to have a strong effect only on digital content creation. Conversely, the production of academic articles is more strongly related to GDP than to connectivity. Innovation capacity appears to have a positive relationship to all three content types. Education as a topically narrower variable appears, perhaps unexpectedly, to be related only to variance in academic articles.

In terms of the patterns of these variables, we find that the geographies of collaborative coding and domain registrations are more uneven than the spatial distribution of academic authoring. Sub-Saharan Africa contributes the smallest share of content to all three categories, providing only 1.1% of academic articles. With 0.5% of collaborative coding and 0.7% of domain registrations, SSA produces an even smaller share of digital content.

While comparison across absolute numbers informs us of the total volume of content creation, it is useful to pair that with a standardised measure that informs us of the propensity of content creation across the populations. Considering the most productive countries in terms of their per capita content creation suggests geographies even more clustered in Europe than looking at total numbers. In SSA, the level of individual countries’ content production falls within the two lowest quintiles more often in the case of collaborative coding and domain registrations than with academic articles. This runs contrary to the expectation of contemporary digitally mediated content being more evenly geographically distributed than traditional content.

Ed.: You measured “articles” by looking at author affiliations. Could you just as well have used “universities” as the measure? Or is there an assumption that connectivity will somehow encourage international co-authorship (does it?)—or that maybe “articles” is a better measure of knowledge quality than presence of universities per se?

Sanna: We chose this indicator, because we consider scientific output in the form of academic articles to represent the progress of science. Publication of academic articles and the permanent scientific record they form are central for the codification of knowledge and are a key enabler of knowledge-intensive processes. Beyond being an indicator often included in the knowledge economy indices, we believe that academic articles offer a relatively uniform measure of knowledge-intensive output, as the process of peer-reviewed publishing and the way in which it constructs a permanent scientific record are rather similar around the world. In contrast, other systems for knowledge-intensive outputs such as registering patents and innovation systems are known to be vary greatly between countries and regions (Griliches, 1990).

We didn’t use the number of universities as an indicator of the knowledge economy, because we wanted to look at measures of knowledge-intensive content-creation. While universities educate individuals and increase the nation’s human capital, this ‘output’ is very diverse and looks very different between universities. Further, we wanted to assess whether education in fact drives the development of knowledge economy, and used a measure of enrolment rates in secondary and tertiary education as an explanatory variable in our analysis.

Ed.: There’s a lot of talk of Africa entering the “global” marketplace: but how global is the knowledge economy—particularly given differences in language and culture? I imagine most cultural and knowledge production remains pretty local?

Sanna: The knowledge economy could be seen as a new dynamic stage in the global economic restructuring, where economic processes and practices that place greater emphasis of intellectual abilities take place in the context of an increasingly interconnected world. To the extent that African information- and knowledge-intensive goods and services compete in these global markets, one could consider the region entering the global knowledge economy. While the markets for knowledge-based goods and services may be smaller in various African countries, many produce regionally or nationally and locally targeted knowledge-rich products. However, this understanding of the concept of knowledge economy tends to focus on commercial activities and scientific and technical knowledge and neglect indigenous, local or cultural knowledge. These types of knowledge have a higher tendency of being tacit rather than codifiable in nature. Unlike codified knowledge, which can be recorded and transmitted through symbols or become materialised in concrete form such as tools or machinery, tacit knowledge takes time to obtain and is not as easily diffused. While these tacit types of knowledge are prevalent and carry significant value for their users and producers, they are less easily converted to commercial value. This makes their measurement more challenging and as a result the discourse of knowledge economies tends to focus less on these types of knowledge production.

Ed.: Is the knowledge economy always going to be a “good” thing, or could it lead to (more) economic exploitation of the region—for example if it got trapped into supplying a market for low-quality work? (I guess the digital equivalent of extractive, rather than productive industries like call centres, gig-work etc.)

Sanna: As is the case with any type of economic activity, the distributional effects of knowledge economies are affected by a myriad of factors. On one hand, many of the knowledge- and information-rich economic activities require human capital and technological resources, and tend to yield goods and services with higher value added. The investment in and the greater presence of these resources may help nations and individuals to access more opportunities to increase their welfare. However, countries don’t access the global information- and knowledge-based markets as equal players and the benefits from knowledge economies are not distributed equally. It is possible that exploitative practices exist in particular where institutions and regulatory practices are not sufficiently powerful to ensure adequate working conditions. In a previous study on the Sub-Saharan African gig economy and digital labour—both areas that could be considered to form part of the knowledge economy—some of the authors found that while a range of workers in these domains enjoy important and tangible benefits, they also face risks and costs such as low bargaining power, limited economic inclusion, intermediated value chains leading to exploitation of less experienced workers, and restrictions in upgrading skills in order to move upwards in professional roles.

Ed.: I guess it’s difficult to unpack any causation in terms of Internet connectivity, economic development, and knowledge economies—despite hopes of the Internet “transforming” Sub-Saharan African economies. Is there anything in your study (or others) to hint at an answer to the question of causality?

Sanna: In order to discuss causality, we would need to study the effects of a given intervention or treatment, as measured in an ideal randomised controlled experiment. As we’re not investigating the effect of a particular intervention, but studying descriptive trends in the three dependent variables using the Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) method of estimation in multiple linear regression framework, we cannot make strong claims about causality. However, we find that both the descriptive study of RQ1 as well as the regression modeling and residual mapping for RQ2 offer statistically significant results, which lend themselves for interpretations with relevance to our RQs and that have important implications, which we discuss in the concluding section of the article.

Read the full article: Ojanperä, S., Graham, M., Straumann, R.K., De Sabbata, S., & Zook, M. (2017). Engagement in the knowledge economy: Regional patterns of content creation with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. Information Technologies & International Development 13: 33–51.

Sanna Ojanperä was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

How useful are volunteer crisis-mappers in a humanitarian crisis?

Impromtu tent cities set after an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince Haiti on January 12, 2009. Image: United Nations Development Programme (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

User-generated content can provide a useful source of information during humanitarian crises like armed conflict or natural disasters. With the rise of interactive websites, social media, and online mapping tools, volunteer crisis mappers are now able to compile geographic data as a humanitarian crisis unfolds, allowing individuals across the world to organise as ad hoc groups to participate in data collection. Crisis mappers have created maps of earthquake damage and trapped victims, analysed satellite imagery for signs of armed conflict, and cleaned Twitter data sets to uncover useful information about unfolding extreme weather events like typhoons.

Although these volunteers provide useful technical assistance to humanitarian efforts (e.g. when maps and records don’t exist or are lost), their lack of affiliation with “formal” actors, such as the United Nations, and the very fact that they are volunteers, makes them a dubious data source. Indeed, concerns have been raised about the quality of amateur mapping and data efforts, and the uses to which they are put. Most of these concerns assume that volunteers have no professional training. And herein lies the contradiction: by doing the work for free and at their own will the volunteers make these efforts possible and innovative, but this is also why crisis mapping is doubted and questioned by experts.

By investigating crisis-mapping volunteers and organisations, Elizabeth Resor’s article “The Neo-Humanitarians: Assessing the Credibility of Organised Volunteer Crisis Mappers” published in Policy & Internet presents evidence of a more professional cadre of volunteers and a means to distinguish between different types of volunteer organisations. Given these organisations now play an increasingly integrated role in humanitarian responses, it’s crucial that their differences are understood and that concerns about the volunteers are answered.

We caught up with Elizabeth to discuss her findings:

Ed.: We have seen from Citizen Science (and Wikipedia) that large crowds of non-professional volunteers can produce work of incredible value, if projects are set up right. Are the fears around non-professional crisis mappers valid? For example, is this an environment where everything “must be correct”, rather than “probably mostly correct”?

Elizabeth: Much of the fears around non-professional crisis mappers comes from a lack of understanding about who the volunteers are and why they are volunteering. As these questions are answered and professional humanitarian actors become more familiar with the concept of volunteer humanitarians, I think many of these fears are diminishing.

Due to the fast-paced and resource-constrained environments of humanitarian crises, traditional actors, like the UN, are used to working with “good enough” data, or data that are “probably mostly correct”. And as you point out, volunteers can often produce very high quality data. So when you combine these two facts, it stands to reason that volunteer crisis mappers can contribute necessary data that is most likely as good as (if not better) than the data that humanitarian actors are used to working with. Moreover, in my research I found that most of these volunteers are not amateurs in the full sense because they come from related professional fields (such as GIS).

Ed.: I suppose one way of assuaging fears is to maybe set up an umbrella body of volunteer crisis mapping organisations, and maybe offer training opportunities and certification of output. But then I suppose you just end up as professionals. How blurry are the lines between useful-not useful / professional-amateur in crisis mapping?

Elizabeth: There is an umbrella group for volunteer organisations set up exactly for that reason! It’s called the Digital Humanitarian Network. At the time that I was researching this article, the DHN was very new and so I wasn’t able to ask if actors were more comfortable working with volunteers contacted through the DHN, but that would be an interesting issue to look into.

The two crisis mapping organisations I researched—the Standby Task Force and the GIS Corps—both offer training and some structure to volunteer work. They take very different approaches to the volunteer work—the Standby Task Force work can include very simple micro-tasks (like classifying photographs), whereas the GIS Corps generally provides quite specialised technical assistance (like GIS analysis). However, both of these kinds of tasks can produce useful and needed data in a crisis.

Ed.: Another article in the journal examined the effective take-over of a Russian crisis volunteer website by the Government, i.e. by professionalising (and therefore controlling) the site and volunteer details they had control over who did / didn’t turn up in disaster areas (effectively meaning nonprofessionals were kept out). How do humanitarian organisations view volunteer crisis mappers: as useful organisations to be worked with in parallel, or as something to be controlled?

Elizabeth: I have seen examples of humanitarian and international development agencies trying to lead or create crowdsourcing responses to crises (for example, USAID “Mapping to End Malaria“). I take this as a sign that these agencies understand the value in volunteer contributions—something they wouldn’t have understood without the initial examples created by those volunteers.

Still, humanitarian organisations are large bureaucracies, and even in a crisis they function as bureaucracies, while volunteer organisations take a nimble and flexible approach. This structural difference is part of the value that volunteers can offer humanitarian organisations, so I don’t believe that it would be in the best interest of the humanitarian organisations to completely co-opt or absorb the volunteer organisations.

Ed.: How does liability work? Eg if crisis workers in a conflict zone are put in danger by their locations being revealed by well-meaning volunteers? Or mistakes being being made on the ground because of incorrect data—perhaps injected by hostile actors to create confusion (thinking of our current environment of hybrid warfare).

Elizabeth: Unfortunately, all humanitarian crises are dangerous and involve threats to “on the ground” response teams as well as affected communities. I’m not sure how liability is handled. Incorrect data or revealed locations might not be immediately traced back to the source of the problem (i.e. volunteers) and the first concern would be minimising the harm, not penalising the cause.

Still, this is the greatest challenge to volunteer crisis mapping that I see. Volunteers don’t want to cause more harm than good, and to do this they must understand the context of the crisis in which they are getting involved (even if it is remotely). This is where relationships with organisations “on the ground” are key. Also, while I found that most volunteers had experience related to GIS and/or data analysis, very few had experience in humanitarian work. This seems like an area where training can help volunteers understand the gravity of their work, to ensure that they take it seriously and do their best work.

Ed.: Finally, have you ever participated as a volunteer crisis mapper? And also: how do you the think the phenomenon is evolving, and what do you think researchers ought to be looking at next?

Elizabeth: I haven’t participated in any active crises, although I’ve tried some of the tools and trainings to get a sense of the volunteer activities.

In terms of future research, you mentioned hybridised warfare and it would be interesting to see how this change in the location of a crisis (i.e. in online spaces as well as physical spaces) is changing the nature of volunteer responses. For example, how can many dispersed volunteers help monitor ISIS activity on YouTube and Twitter? Or are those tasks better suited for an algorithm? I would also be curious to see how the rise of isolationist politicians in Europe and the US has influenced volunteer crisis mapping. Has this caused more people to want to reach out and participate in international crises or is it making them more inward-looking? It’s certainly an interesting field to follow!

Read the full article: Resor, E. (2016) The Neo-Humanitarians: Assessing the Credibility of Organized Volunteer Crisis Mappers. Policy & Internet 8 (1) DOI:10.1002/poi3.112.

Elizabeth Resor was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

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

The last decade has seen a rapid growth of Internet access across Africa, although it has not been evenly distributed. Cameroonian Cybercafe by SarahTz (Flickr CC BY 2.0).

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

It’s about time. However, despite enthusiasm, there is a lack of academic consensus about the impacts of digital connectivity on economic development. Image: Nicolas Friederici.

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 organisations 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 analyse 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 organisations 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 organisations are all about fixing development problems, and we do not take issue with that. However, these organisations 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 organisations, 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, prioritising, 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 organisations (governments, global consultancies, multilateral development organisations, 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.

New Report: Risks and Rewards of Online Gig Work at the Global Margins

The cartogram depicts countries as circles sized according to dollar inflow during March 2013 on a major online labour platform. The shading of the inner circle indicates the median hourly rate published by digital workers in that country. See the report for details.

The growth of online gig work—paid work allocated and delivered by way of internet platforms without a contract for long-term employment—has been welcomed by economic development experts, and the world’s largest global development network is promoting its potential to aid human development. There are hopes that online gig work, and the platforms that support it, might catalyse new, sustainable employment opportunities by addressing a mismatch in the supply and demand of labour globally.

Some of the world’s largest gig work platforms have also framed their business models as a revolution in labour markets, suggesting that they can help lift people out of poverty. Similarly, many policymakers expect that regions like Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia can capitalise on this digitally mediated work opportunity as youth-to-adult unemployment rates hit historic peaks. More broadly, it has been suggested that online gig work will have structural benefits on the global economy, such as raising labour force participation and improving productivity.

Against this background, a new report by Mark Graham, Vili Lehdonvirta, Alex Wood, Helena Barnard, Isis Hjorth, and David Peter Simon, “The Risks and Rewards of Online Gig Work At The Global Margins” [PDF] highlights the risks alongside the rewards of online gig work. It draws on interviews and surveys, together with transaction data from one of the world’s largest online gig work platforms, to reveal the complex and sometimes problematic reality of this “new world of work”.

While there are significant rewards to online gig work, there are also significant risks. Discrimination, low pay rates, overwork, and insecurity all need to be tackled head-on. The report encourages online gig work platforms to further develop their service, policymakers to revisit regulation, and labour activists to examine organising tactics if online gig work is to truly live up to its potential for human development, and become a sustainable situation for many more workers.

The final section of the report poses questions for all stakeholders regarding how to improve the conditions and livelihoods of online gig workers, particularly given how these platforms have become disembedded from the norms and laws that normally regulate labour intermediaries. Specific questions that are discussed include:

  • Is it necessary to list nationality on profile pages? Will online gig workers receive formal employment contracts in the future?
  • What formal channels could exist for workers to voice their issues? Where should governments regulate online gig work in the future?
  • Will governments need to limit online gig work monopolies? And how will governments support alternative forms of platform organisation?
  • What online forms of voice could emerge for workers, and in what ways can existing groups be leveraged to promote solidarity?
  • To what extent will companies be held accountable for poor working conditions? Do platforms need a Fairwork certification program?

The report also offers suggestions alongside the questions, drawing on relevant literature and referencing historical precedents.

Read the full report: Graham, M., Lehdonvirta, V., Wood, A., Barnard, H., Hjorth, I., Simon, D. P. (2017) The Risks and Rewards of Online Gig Work At The Global Margins. Oxford: Oxford Internet Institute.

Read the article: Graham, M., Hjorth, I. and Lehdonvirta, V. (2017) Digital Labour and Development: Impacts of Global Digital Labour Platforms and the Gig Economy on Worker Livelihoods. Transfer. DOI: 10.1177/1024258916687250

The report is an output of the project “Microwork and Virtual Production Networks in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia”, funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), grant number: 107384-001.

What Impact is the Gig Economy Having on Development and Worker Livelihoods?

There are imbalances in the relationship between supply and demand of digital work, with the vast majority of buyers located in high-income countries (pictured). See the full article for details.

As David Harvey famously noted, workers are unavoidably place-based because “labour-power has to go home every night.” But the widespread use of the Internet has changed much of that. The confluence of rapidly spreading digital connectivity, skilled but under-employed workers, the existence of international markets for labour, and the ongoing search for new outsourcing destinations, has resulted in organisational, technological, and spatial fixes for virtual production networks of services and money. Clients, bosses, workers, and users of the end-products of work can all now be located in different corners of the planet.

A new article by Mark Graham, Isis Hjorth and Vili Lehdonvirta, “Digital labour and development: impacts of global digital labour platforms and the gig economy on worker livelihoods”, published in Transfer, discusses the implications of the spatial unfixing of work for workers in some of the world’s economic margins, and reflects on some of the key benefits and costs associated with these new digital regimes of work. Drawing on a multi-year study with digital workers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-east Asia, it highlights four key concerns for workers: bargaining power, economic inclusion, intermediated value chains, and upgrading.

As ever more policy-makers, governments and organisations turn to the gig economy and digital labour as an economic development strategy to bring jobs to places that need them, it is important to understand how this might influence the livelihoods of workers. The authors show that although there are important and tangible benefits for a range of workers, there are also a range of risks and costs that could negatively affect the livelihoods of digital workers. They conclude with a discussion of four broad strategies – certification schemes, organising digital workers, regulatory strategies and democratic control of online labour platforms—that could improve conditions and livelihoods for digital workers.

We caught up with the authors to explore the implications of the study:

Ed.: Shouldn’t increased digitisation of work also increase transparency (i.e. tracking, auditing etc.) around this work—i.e. shouldn’t digitisation largely be a good thing?

Mark: It depends. One of the goals of our research is to ask who actually wins and loses from the digitalisation of work. A good thing for one group (e.g. employers in the Global North) isn’t necessarily automatically a good thing for another group (e.g. workers in the Global South).

Ed.: You mention market-based strategies as one possible way to improve transparency around working conditions along value chains: do you mean something like a “Fairtrade” certification for digital work, i.e. creating a market for “fair work”?

Mark: Exactly. At the moment, we can make sure that the coffee we drink or the chocolate we eat is made ethically. But we have no idea if the digital services we use are. A ‘fair work’ certification system could change that.

Ed.: And what sorts of work are these people doing? Is it the sort of stuff that could be very easily replaced by advances in automation (natural language processing, pattern recognition etc.)? i.e. is it doubly precarious, not just in terms of labour conditions, but also in terms of the very existence of the work itself?

Mark: Yes, some of it is. Ironically, some of the paid work that is done is training algorithms to do work that used to be done by humans.

Ed.: You say that “digital workers have been unable to build any large-scale or effective digital labour movements”—is that because (unlike e.g. farm work which is spatially constrained), employers can very easily find someone else anywhere in the world who is willing to do it? Can you envisage the creation of any effective online labour movement?

Mark: A key part of the problem for workers here is the economic geography of this work. A worker in Kenya knows that they can be easily replaced by workers on the other side of the planet. The potential pool of workers willing to take any job is massive. For digital workers to have any sort of effective movement in this context means looking to what I call geographic bottlenecks in the system. Places in which work isn’t solely in a global digital cloud. This can mean looking to things like organising and picketing the headquarters of firms, clusters of workers in particular places, or digital locations (the web-presence of firms). I’m currently working on a new publication that deals with these issues in a bit more detail.

Ed.: Are there any parallels between the online gig work you have studied and ongoing issues with “gig work” services like Uber and Deliveroo (e.g. undercutting of traditional jobs, lack of contracts, precarity)?

Mark: A commonality in all of those cases is that platforms become intermediaries in between clients and workers. This means that rather than being employees, workers tend to be self-employed: a situation that offers workers freedom and flexibility, but also comes with significant risks to the worker (e.g. no wages if they fall ill).

Read the full article: Graham, M., Hjorth, I. and Lehdonvirta, V. (2017) Digital Labour and Development: Impacts of Global Digital Labour Platforms and the Gig Economy on Worker Livelihoods. Transfer. DOI: 10.1177/1024258916687250

Read the full report: Graham, M., Lehdonvirta, V., Wood, A., Barnard, H., Hjorth, I., Simon, D. P. (2017) The Risks and Rewards of Online Gig Work At The Global Margins. Oxford: Oxford Internet Institute.

The article draws on findings from the research project “Microwork and Virtual Production Networks in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-east Asia”, funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), grant number: 107384-001.

Mark Graham was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Examining the data-driven value chains that are changing Rwanda’s tea sector

Behind the material movement that takes tea from the slopes of Rwanda’s ‘thousand hills’ to a box on a shelf in Tesco, is a growing set of less visible digital data flows. Image by pasunejen.

Production of export commodity goods like tea, coffee and chocolate is an important contributor to economies in Africa. Producers sell their goods into international markets, with the final products being sold in supermarkets, here in the UK and throughout the world. So what role is new Internet connectivity playing in changing these sectors—which are often seen as slow to adopt new technologies? As part of our work examining the impacts of growing Internet connectivity and new digital ICTs in East Africa we explored uses of the Internet and ICTs in the tea sector in Rwanda.

Tea is a sector with well-established practices and relations in the region, so we were curious if ICT might be changing it. Of course, one cannot ignore the movements of material goods when you research the tea sector. Tea is Rwanda’s main export by value, and in 2012 it moved over 21,000 tonnes of tea, accruing around $56m in value. During our fieldwork we interviewed cooperatives in remote offices surrounded by tea plantations in the temperate Southern highlands, tea processors in noisy tea factories heavy with the overpowering smell of fermenting tea leaves, and tea buyers and sellers surrounded by corridors piled high with sacks of tea.

But behind the material movement that takes tea from the slopes of Rwanda’s ‘thousand hills’ to a box on a shelf in Tesco, is a growing set of less visible digital data flows. Whilst the adoption of digital technologies is not comprehensive in the Rwandan tea sector (with, for example, very low Internet use among tea growers), we did find growing use of the Internet and ICTs. More importantly, where they were present, digital flows of information (such as tea-batch tracking, logistics and sales prices) were increasingly important to the ability of firms to improve production and ultimately to increase their profit share from tea. We have termed this a ‘data-driven value chain’ to highlight that these new digital information flows are becoming as important as the flows of material goods.

So why is tea production becoming increasingly ‘data-driven’? We found two principal drivers at work. Firstly, production of commodities like tea has shifted to private ownership. In Rwanda, tea processing factories are no longer owned by the government (as they were a decade ago) but by private firms, including several multinational tea firms. Prices for buying and selling tea are also no longer fixed by the government, but depend on the market—flat rate prices stopped at the end of 2012. Data on everything from international prices, tea quality and logistics has become increasingly important as Rwandan tea firms look to be part of the global market, by better coordinating production and improving the prices of their tea. For instance, privately owned tea factories (often in remote locations) connect via satellite or microwave Internet links to head offices, and systems integration allows multi-national tea firms the ability to track and monitor production at the touch of a button.

Secondly, we need to understand new product innovation in the tea sector. In recent years new products have particularly revolved around growing demand in the retail market for differentiated products—such as ‘environmental’, fair trade or high quality teas—for which the consumer is willing to pay more. This relates most obviously to the activities in the fields and tea processors, but digital information is also crucial in order to allow for ‘traceability’ of tea. As this guarantees that tea batches have satisfied conditions around location, food safety, chemical use, fair labour (etc.) a key component of new product innovation is therefore data—because it is integral to firms’ abilities to prove their value-added production or methods.

The idea of agricultural value chains—of analysing agricultural production from the perspective of a fragmented network of interconnected firms—has become increasingly influential in strategies and policy making supported by large donors such as the World Bank and the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD), an agency of the UN.

These value chain approaches explore the amount of economic ‘value’ that different actors in the supply chain are able to capture in production. For instance, Rwandan tea farmers are only able to capture very small proportions of the final retail prices—we estimate they are paid less than 6% of the cost of the eventual retail product, and only 22% of the cost of the raw tea that is sold to retailers. Value chain analysis has been popular for policy makers and donors in that it helps them to formulate policies to support how firms in countries like Rwanda improve their value through innovation, improving processes of production, or reaching new customers.

Yet, at the moment it appears that the types of analysis being done by policy makers and donors pay very little attention to the importance of digital data, and so they are presenting an unclear picture of the ways to improve—with a tendency to focus on material matters such as machinery or business models.

Our research particularly highlighted the importance of considering how to adapt digital data flows. The ways that digital information is codified, digitised and accessed can be exclusionary, reducing the ability for smaller actors in Rwanda to compete. For instance, we found that lack of access to clear information about prices, tea quality and wider market information means that smallholders, small processors and cooperatives may not compete as well as they could, or be missing on wider innovations in tea production.

While we have focused here only on tea production, our discussions with those working in other agricultural sectors—and in other countries—suggest that our observations have significance across other agricultural sectors. In agricultural production, strategy, policy and researchers mainly focus on the material elements of production—those which are more visible and quantifiable. However, we suggest that often underlying such actions is a growing layer of digital data activity. It is only through more coherent analysis of the role of digital technologies and data that we can better analyse production—and build appropriate policy and strategies to support commodity producers in sectors like Rwandan tea.

Read the full report: Foster, C., and Graham, M. (2015) Connectivity and the Tea Sector in Rwanda. Value Chains and Networks of Connectivity-Based Enterprises in Rwanda. Project Report, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.

Chris Foster is a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. His research focus is on technologies and innovation in developing and emerging markets, with a particular interest on how ICTs can support development of low income groups.

Why haven’t digital platforms transformed firms in developing countries? The Rwandan tourism sector explored

Tourism is becoming an increasingly important contributor to Rwanda’s economy. Image of Homo sapiens and Gorilla beringei beringei meeting in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park by Andries3.

One of the great hopes for new Internet connectivity in the developing world is that it will allow those in developing countries who offer products and services to link to and profit from global customers. With the landing of undersea Internet infrastructure in East Africa, there have been hopes that as firms begin to use the Internet more extensively that improved links to markets will positively impact them.

Central to enabling new customer transactions is the emergence of platforms—digital services, websites and online exchanges—that allow more direct customer-producer interactions to occur. As part of our work exploring the impacts of growing internet connectivity and digital ICTs in East Africa, we wanted to explore how digital platforms were affecting Rwandan firms. Have Rwandan firms been able to access online platforms? What impact has access to these platforms had on firms?

Tourism is becoming an increasingly important contributor to Rwanda’s economy, with 3.1% direct contribution to GDP, and representing 7% of employment. Tourism is typically focused on affluent international tourists who come to explore the wildlife of the country, most notably as the most accessible location to see the mountain gorilla. Rwandan policy makers see tourism as a potential area for expansion, and new connectivity could be one key driver in making the country more accessible to customers.

Tourist service providers in Rwanda have a very high Internet adoption, and even the smallest hotel or tour agency is likely to have at least one mobile Internet-connected laptop. Many of the global platforms also have a presence in the region: online travel agents such as Expedia and work with Rwandan hotels, common social media used by tourists such as TripAdvisor and Facebook are also well-known, and firms have been encouraged by the government to integrate into payment platforms like Visa.

So, in the case of Rwandan tourism, Internet connectivity, Internet access and sector-wide platforms are certainly available for tourism firms. During our fieldwork, however (and to our surprise) we found adoption of digital tourism platforms to be low, and the impact on Rwandan tourism minimal. Why? This came down to three mismatches—essentially to do with integration, with fit, and with interactions.

Global tourism platforms offer the potential for Rwandan firms to seamlessly reach a wider range of potential tourists around the globe. However, we found that the requirements for integration into global platforms were often unclear for Rwandan firms, and there was a poor fit with the existing systems and skills. For example, hotels and lodges normally integrate into online travel agencies through integration of internal information systems, which track bookings and availability within hotels. However, in Rwanda, whilst a few larger hotels used booking systems, even the medium-sized hotels lacked internal booking systems, with booking based on custom Excel spreadsheets, or even paper diaries. When tourism firms attempted to integrate into online services they thus ran into problems, and only the large (international) hotel chains tended to be fully integrated.

Integration of East African tourism service providers into global platforms was also limited by the nature of the activities in the region. Global platforms have typically focused on providing facilities for online information, booking and payment for discrete tourism components—a hotel, a flight, a review of an attraction. However, in East Africa much international tourism is ‘packaged’, meaning a third-party (normally a tour operator) will build an itinerary and make all the bookings for customers. This means that online tourism platforms don’t provide a particularly good fit, either for tourists or Rwandan service providers. A tourist will not want the complication of booking a full itinerary online, and a small lodge that gets most of its bookings through tour operators will see little potential in integrating into a global online platform.

Interaction of Rwandan tourism service providers with online platforms is inevitably undertaken over digital networks, based on remote interactions, payments and information flows. This arms-length relationship often becomes problematic where the skills and ability of service providers are lower. For example, Rwandan tourism service providers often require additional information, help or even training on how best to use platforms which are frequently changing. In contexts where lower cost Internet can at times be inconsistent, and payment systems can be busy, having the ability to connect to local help and discuss issues is important. Yet, this is the very element that global platforms like online travel agents are often trying to remove.

So in general, we found that tourism platforms supported the large international hotels and resorts where systems and structures were already in place for seamless integration into platforms. Indeed, as the Rwandan government looks to expand the tourism sector (such as through new national parks and regional integration), there is a risk that the digital domain will support generic international chains entering the country—over the expansion of local firms.

There are potential ways forward, though. Ironically, the most successful online travel agency in Rwanda is one that has contracted a local firm in the capital Kigali to allow for ‘thicker’ interactions between Rwandan service providers and platform providers. There are also a number of South African and Kenyan online platforms in the early stages of development that are more attuned to the regional contexts of tourism (for example Safari Now, a dynamic Safari scheduling platform; Nights Bridge, an online platform for smaller hotels; and WETU, an itinerary sharing platform for service providers), and these may eventually offer a better solution for Rwandan tourism service providers.

We came to similar conclusions in the other sectors we examined as part of our research in East Africa (looking at tea production and Business Process Outsourcing)—that is, that use of online platforms faces limitations in the region. Even as firms find themselves able to access the Internet, the way these global platforms are designed presents a poor fit to the facilities, activities and needs of firms in developing countries. Indeed, in globalised sectors (such as tourism and business outsourcing) platforms can be actively exclusionary, aiding international firms entering developing countries over those local firms seeking to expand outwards.

For platform owners and developers focusing on such developing markets, the impacts of greater access to the Internet are therefore liable to come when platforms are able to balance between global reach and standards—while also being able to integrate some of the specific needs and contexts of developing countries.

Read the full report: Foster, C., and Graham, M. (2015) The Internet and Tourism in Rwanda. Value Chains and Networks of Connectivity-Based Enterprises in Rwanda. Project Report, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.

Chris Foster is a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. His research focus is on technologies and innovation in developing and emerging markets, with a particular interest on how ICTs can support development of low income groups.

The economic expectations and potentials of broadband Internet in East Africa

Ed: There has a lot of excitement about the potential of increased connectivity in the region: where did this come from? And what sort of benefits were promised?

Chris: Yes, at the end of the 2000s when the first fibre cables landed in East Africa, there was much anticipation about what this new connectivity would mean for the region. I remember I was in Tanzania at the time, and people were very excited about this development—being tired of the slow and expensive satellite connections where even simple websites could take a minute to load. The perception, both in the international press and from East African politicians was that the cables would be a game changer. Firms would be able to market and sell more directly to customers and reduce inefficient ‘intermediaries’. Connectivity would allow new types of digital-driven business, and it would provide opportunity for small and medium firms to become part of the global economy. We wanted to revisit this discussion. Were firms adopting internet, as it became cheaper? Had this new connectivity had the effects that were anticipated, or was it purely hype?

Ed:  So what is the current level and quality of broadband access in Rwanda? ie how connected are people on the ground?

Chris: Internet access has greatly improved over the previous few years, and the costs of bandwidth have declined markedly. The government has installed a ‘backbone’ fibre network and in the private sector there has also been a growth in the number of firms providing Internet service. There are still some problems though. Prices are still are quite high, particularly for dedicated broadband connections, and in the industries we looked at (tea and tourism) many firms couldn’t afford it. Secondly, we heard a lot of complaints that lower bandwidth connections—WiMax and mobile internet—are unreliable and become saturated at peak times. So, Rwanda has come a long way, but we expect there will be more improvements in the future.

Ed: How much impact has the Internet had on Rwanda’s economy generally? And who is it actually helping, if so?

Chris: Economists in the World Bank have calculated that in developing economies a 10% improvement in Internet access leads to an increase in growth of 1.3%, so the effects should be taken seriously. In Rwanda, it’s too early to concretely see the effects in bottom line economic growth. In Rwanda, it’s too early to concretely see the effects in bottom line economic growth. In this work we wanted to examine the effect on already established sectors to get insight on Internet adoption and use. In general, we can say that firms are increasingly adopting Internet connectivity in some form, and that firms have been able take advantage and improve operations. However, it seems that wider transformational effects of connectivity have so far been limited.

Ed: And specifically in terms of the Rwandan tea and tourism industries: has the Internet had much effect?

Chris: The global tourism industry is driven by Internet use, and so tour firms, guides and hotels in Rwanda have been readily adopting it. We can see that the Internet has been beneficial, particularly for those firms coordinating tourism in Rwanda, who can better handle volumes of tourists. In the tea industry, adoption is a little lower but the Internet is used in similar ways—to coordinate the movement of tea from production to processing to selling, and this simplifies management for firms. So, connectivity has had benefits by improvements in efficiency, and this complements the fact that both sectors are looking to attract international investment and become better integrated into markets. In that sense, one can say that the growth in Internet connectivity is playing a significant role in strategies of private sector development.

Ed: The project partly focuses on value chains: ie where value is captured at different stages of a chain, leading (for example) from Rwandan tea bush to UK Tesco shelf. How have individual actors in the chain been affected? And has there been much in the way of (the often promised) disintermediation—ie are Rwandan tea farmers and tour operators now able to ‘plug directly’ into international markets?

Chris: Value chains allow us to pay more attention to who are the winners (and losers) of the processes described above, and particularly to see if this benefits Rwandan firms who are linked into global markets. One of the potential benefits originally discussed around new connectivity was that with the growth of online channels and platforms—and through social media—that firms as they became connected would have a more direct link to large markets and be able to disintermediate and improve the benefits they received. Generally, we can say that such disintermediation has not happened, for different reasons. In the tourism sector, many tourists are still reluctant to go directly to Rwandan tourist firms, for reasons related to trust (particularly around payment for holidays). In the tea sector, the value chains are very well established, and with just a few retailers in the end-markets, direct interaction with markets has simply not materialised. So, the hope of connectivity driving disintermediation in value chains has been limited by the market structure of both these sectors.

Ed: Is there any sense that the Internet is helping to ‘lock’ Rwanda into global markets and institutions: for example international standards organisations? And will greater transparency mean Rwanda is better able to compete in global markets, or will it just allow international actors to more efficiently exploit Rwanda’s resources—ie for the value in the chain to accrue to outsiders?

Chris: One of the core activities around the Internet that we found for both tea and tourism was firms using connectivity as a way to integrate themselves into logistic tracking, information systems, and quality and standards; whether this be automation in the tea sector or using global booking systems in the tourism sector. In one sense, this benefits Rwandan firms in that it’s crucial to improving efficiency in global markets, but it’s less clear that benefits of integration always accrue to those in Rwanda. It also moves away from the earlier ideas that connectivity would empower firms, unleashing a wave of innovation. To some of the firms we interviewed, it felt like this type of investment in the Internet was simply a way for others to better monitor, define and control every step they made, dictated by firms far away.

Ed. How do the project findings relate to (or comment on) the broader hopes of ICT4D developers? ie does ICT (magically) solve economic and market problems—and if so, who benefits?

Chris: For ICT developers looking to support development, there is often a tendency to look to build for actors who are struggling to find markets for their goods and services (such as apps linking buyers and producers, or market pricing information). But, the industries we looked at are quite different—actors (even farmers) are already linked via value chains to global markets, and so these types of application were less useful. In interviews, we found other informal uses of the Internet amongst lower-income actors in these sectors, which point the way towards new ICT applications: sectoral knowledge building, adapting systems to allow smallholders to better understand their costs, and systems to allow better links amongst cooperatives. More generally for those interested in ICT and development, this work highlights that changes in economies are not solely driven by connectivity, particularly in industries where rewards are already skewed towards larger global firms over those in developing countries. This calls for a context-dependent analysis of policy and structures, something that can be missed when more optimistic commentators discuss connectivity and the digital future.

Christopher Foster was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Is China shaping the Internet in Africa?

CAPE TOWN\SOUTH AFRICA, 06MAY11 – The Panel during the Future of China-Africa Relations session held at World Economic Forum on Africa 2011 held in Cape Town, South Africa, 4-6 May 2011. Copyright (cc-by-sa) © World Economic Forum ( Eric Miller

Ed: Concerns have been expressed (e.g. 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 (e.g. 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.