Mobile phone empowerment in Africa

This being the information age, it has always been pretty clear that the lack of communication infrastructure in Africa was, and is, a major obstacle to progress. The rich nations of the world can proclaim their intention to “eradicate poverty” all they want, but the real beacon of hope in Africa is not the G8, it’s a cell tower.

Richard Dowden is one of many who see the rapid development of communication infrastructure, namely mobile phone coverage, as the key to dramatic changes in Africa:

Africa is changing fast. Driving those changes are mobile phones and radio stations and China’s appetite for raw materials. The G8’s agenda of aid and debt relief may, if delivered, play a secondary role.

The internal driver is the mobile phone revolution that has transformed business and politics in Africa in the past ten years. In 2001, only 3 per cent of Africans had telephones of any sort. Now there are 50 million mobile-phone users, with numbers growing by 35 per cent a year. The phone companies completely misjudged the market – they thought that only the super-rich would buy mobiles. But it turned out that the people who really needed them were small self-employed businessmen, market women, taxi drivers and the casual workers who keep Africa going. In some areas, beer sales have plummeted as people have invested their meagre earnings in mobile phone cards instead. The pace of life has picked up hugely.

It’s good to talk – even better to sell, the New Statesman, 17th Oct. 2005
(via textually)

Politically, too, mobile phones are having an immense effect. People no longer have to walk miles to talk to a friend or colleague or to make a business deal (there was no public phone system in Africa before mobile phones and the postal service, where it existed, took days or weeks). The chat programmes on radio stations in most African countries are also enabling ordinary people to express their frustrations and to know that others share their anger about the failures and corruption of their governments. A better-informed population that can listen to its own voices will put governments under pressure. I would even suggest that the Rwandan genocide could not have happened if mobile phones had existed.

Against this background, the promised aid from the west may still play a role. But there is no guarantee that it will happen. The promises were overblown and there is no sign yet that the British government, still in the chair of the G8 and EU till the end of the year, has a coherent plan to take the process forward and persuade the other G8 leaders to deliver. The debt deal was good, but it is small beer and limited to a few countries. Debt repayments have never been the reason African governments have failed to deliver to their people. If the promised aid does materialise, much of it may be given in direct budget support to governments, and that may mean it never reaches the people who really need it. Corruption is one problem, but an even bigger one is the sheer lack of capacity, trained managers and administrators to deliver improvements. This will take time to change.

Will Africa’s fractious politics allow that change to happen? Compared to ten years ago, Africa is more peaceful. The wars that then ravaged the continent have now quietened down, largely thanks to regional or external peace missions. But in most cases, the underlying causes have not yet been resolved.

Led by South Africa, African governments have pledged themselves to adhere to higher principles. The African Union (AU), the continent-wide organisation of African states, has set high standards of democracy and human rights, mandating itself to intervene if genocide threatens. Military coups are no longer acceptable. But standards already seem to be slipping. The AU dealt with the crisis in Togo earlier this year by forcing an election, but then accepted its blatantly rigged result without a murmur. When a coup overthrew the government of Mauritania in August, the AU gave up trying to reinstate the elected government after just a few days.

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