Africa: tools of liberation

About the author
Patricia Daniel is senior lecturer in social development at the Centre for International Development and Training, University of Wolverhampton, England.

What kind of technology best helps people in Africa to empower themselves?

A discussion with openDemocracy's deputy editor David Hayes provoked a memory of a Financial Times article in which the then head of the United Nations Development Programme (now deputy secretary-general) Mark Malloch Brown contrasted his view of Africans' development needs with the vision of the philanthropist Bill Gates.

Mark Malloch Brown's view, in David's paraphrase (for the source still proves elusive), was that the priority for Africans is not large buildings or installations, but access to new technology - for with that, people will invent new uses and expand their lives, in the process becoming agents of change rather than (as they are often depicted) passive recipients of aid.

I'm finishing this report in Bamako, Mali in my mobile office. Today it's an open-air café called Relax, where they sell good chocolate cake. I have my Ikatel mobile - it's the best way to contact people because everyone I know in Bamako has at least one mobile and Ikatel covers all urban areas up to Kidal in the far northeast.

The radio is blaring: it's one of the numerous private FM radio stations with a lecture from the imam (it's Friday) on the evils of female genital mutilation. I'm reading one of Bamako's many weekly newspapers while I wait for Harmani Kargne from United Nations Volunteers, to come and tell me about his information and communications technology (ICT) work with decentralised government.

Next door is the Ikatel internet centre, where I can surf for around £1 an hour. That's how I learned that Jamana - Mali's first multimedia cultural cooperative - produces "newspapers for the illiterate" on audio-cassette (Jamana was set up in 1983, as the mouthpiece of Alpha Konaré's opposition party). And I was able to contact several African NGOs from Senegal to South Africa by email.

Mali, like neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso, is near the bottom of the Human Development Index, yet even here you can see the range of ICT in operation. I may be a visiting journalist, but there are a lot of Malians from all walks of life who conduct their business affairs exactly like me.

As Bakari Bonkano of Radio Kandi in Benin says, "We wait too often for others. It is up to us. Today we need to be connected, but whether we are connected to the internet or not, we are on the move."

Patricia Daniel is senior lecturer in social development at the Centre for International Development and Training, University of Wolverhampton, England. She is involved in a study on gender, peace and stability in Mali, in collaboration with the University of Bamako and the Centre for Democracy and Development in Lagos. Her website is here

Also by Patricia Daniel in openDemocracy:

"Mali: everyone’s favourite destination" (11 May 2006)

"Africa: ask the women" (3 August 2006)

"Soldiers without guns" (3 November 2006)

The information society

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) hosted by the United Nations brings together civil society, government and the private sector in an attempt to develop a global framework to deal with the problems posed by the information society, and to take advantage of the opportunities it presents.

The wide-ranging discussions of the second summit, held in Tunis in November 2005, were overshadowed by the launch there of the (Nicholas) Negroponte $100 laptop and the buy-in to the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) concept, which Kofi Annan has called "an expression of global solidarity".

Whatever the merits of the Negroponte OLPC, which are discussed in more detail below, this is a long-term education project, still to be piloted, and, even if successful, is not going to solve all Africa's problems on its own.

Meanwhile, governments and civil society have been waiting for the implementation of the WSIS process, including a critically needed increase in donor and business funding to develop ICT infrastructure in Africa, as identified in the regional preparatory meeting in Accra in February 2005.

But the Negroponte hype has also overshadowed existing realities:

  • that Africa already has a certain capacity in respect of ICT
  • that there are many other innovative projects from which lessons can be learned
  • that there is a wide range of research literature, available on the web, which could be built on in new developments.

The APC Africa ICT Policy Monitor (a South Africa-based NGO, supported by the International Development Research Centre [IDRC] in Canada), provides national IT statistics online in a form which makes it easy to compare access to technologies in different countries - and to see the wide disparities that exist between them (see Table 1)

Table 1

 

Mali

Senegal

South Africa

Population (millions)

11.3

10

43.6

Literacy rate

27.2

39.3

86

Gross national income per capita

240

470

2600

TVs per 1,000 people

17

79

152

Radios per 1,000 people

180

126

338

Telephone mainlines per 1,000 people

4

25

112

Mobile phones per 1,000 people

4

31

252

Personal computers per 1,000 people

1.2

18.6

68.5

Internet users (thousands)

30

100

3068

The IDRC itself has carried out extensive mapping of interconnectivity in Africa, providing a baseline for future development. This includes the availability of public Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSAT) licences for corporate communication, which are crucial in facilitating networks and internet links for small companies, NGOs, schools: only eleven countries have these, including Mali, Nigeria and Zambia but not Senegal, Uganda or South Africa.

Development by country

The WSIS process has highlighted the role of civil society as a serious partner in building the continent's information society, particularly in holding governments to account - and the crucial role of the media in ensuring this happens.

APC supports more in-depth ICT monitoring reports for each country, carried out by national experts. For example, the Kenya report by Muriuki Mureithi describes work by civil society in creating awareness and providing training for ICT, lobbying for email services as well as for improved policy and regulatory frameworks. Now they have "shifted focus to higher values of internet rights as a means to guarantee access to information that underlies basic freedoms and human rights".

The role of government is similarly crucial in establishing national policy for the development and use of ICT (including the use of ICT in education, which will be relevant to the Negroponte project). In this respect, many countries have a long way to go. For example, it took four years before Botswana, in September 2006, published its draft bill permitting community broadcasting.

Modise Maphanyane, national director of the Botswana-based Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), says: "Botswana is the only country in southern Africa without community-broadcasting services. This does not augur well for the democratic credentials that have been credited to this country."

Uganda was the first country to make a national commitment to ICT development, through liberalisation of the airwaves, privatisation of telecommunications services and infrastructure development (including the road network) to bring technology to rural areas. But 70% of ICT infrastructure is still urban and IT contributes only 0.5% to GDP.

And who benefits? Research carried out by the Kampala-based ISIS-WICCE shows clearly that the majority of individual women and women's NGOs can't afford access to the technology and even if they do, can't find the content which they need to solve fundamental problems in their own lives - including food security and conflict management. Since rural women are the backbone of the country, this means that, despite increased technology, Uganda continues in persistent poverty.

This real issue of rural development has been raised by donors as Rwanda unveils its Vision 2020 project, which aims to rapidly transform a depressed agricultural economy into one driven by ICT. If it works, the percentage of Rwanda's workforce involved in farming will drop from 90% to 50% in fifteen years and the country will become a regional ICT hub. Rwanda also aims to have all secondary schools connected to the internet by 2007.

A report from Rwanda suggests that "donors are cautious, they say ICT is not the main priority"(see Xan Rice, "Poverty-stricken Rwanda puts its faith and future into the wide wired world", Guardian, 1 August 2006). It's interesting that, while (on paper) signing up to the top-down, western-driven OLPC concept, donors are less enthusiastic when a recipient country develops its own vision for the future.

The civil-society dynamic

The fact is that African civil society and the not-for-profit sector, including the online press, have already been using ICT in innovative ways for development and empowerment.

All Africa.com (based in Mauritius) is one of the world's largest internet content sites, which aggregates and indexes content from over 125 African news organisations, plus more than 200 other sources.

Enda Cyberpop (an initiative of Environmental Development Action in the Third World, based in Dakar) is a "network of networks" which exists to develop a meta-analysis of the use of information technologies in Senegal, starting from the existing practice of its members - who they are and what they do; how they produce indigenous content; how they contribute to the fight against poverty through local development. Its social networks include: alternative education projects; rural women; traditional practitioners; ICT experts in local economy; researchers and editors.

SANGONet, based in South Africa since 1987, provides a resource for the whole of southern Africa, supporting the development of NGO capacity in use of ICT. It works closely with the Community Development Resource Association (CDRA) in South Africa; it runs Nuggets, an online discussion forum, facilitating the exchange of perspectives and experience on development practice.

Both organisations promote the use of open-source software. It's interesting that while South Africa has the highest level of connectivity in Africa; it also has the highest costs. This has been a result of the government-supported monopoly of Microsoft/Wintel (an alliance that Microsoft itself discarded in October 2006) which reflects close United States links with the new South Africa. As a pro-open source civil-society petition in August 2005 states: "ICT procurement by government accounts for more than 50% of the ICT market and significantly influences the types of ICT systems being supplied and supported in the country."

In Uganda, ISIS-WICCE have developed a multimedia, multi-pronged approach to bring women under the ICT umbrella. This included training, opening a women's cybercafé, collecting women's stories and basing content on real urgent needs. Working with different technology and developing partnerships (including the Women of Uganda Network [Wougnet]) created a synergy, which has had concrete results in a wider sense of empowerment. In particular, their radio talk shows on violence against women, especially war victims and refugees, raised awareness among the international community and prompted donor support to address these issues.

The Shuttleworth Foundation was established by a South African entrepreneur in 2001 and invests in projects which "offer unique and innovative, albeit high-risk, solutions to educational challenges in an African society".

Of particular relevance to the Negroponte project is Shuttleworth's Open Source School Curriculum Development project, aiming to create a better, more flexible and more locally appropriate curriculum through collaboration and peer production. What is particularly important about their approach is the inclusion, not only of teachers and pupils, but of the whole community, in curriculum development.

However, they have identified certain problems in the process: including lack of access to the internet; lack of confidence and capacity among educators and trainers; and lack of alignment to national curriculum. They are currently carrying out research in communities to get a much more detailed idea of what people actually want and need.

It's interesting that many of these innovative home-grown organisations are supported by IDRC. In contrast, the United States Agency for International Development (Usaid), which is a big international player promoting ICT in Africa, working through the US-based Academy for Educational Development, the DOT COM Alliance and Grameen Foundation USA, as well as subcontracting to INGOs - tends to provide top-down projects which they see as "fitting into USAID's strategic purpose for the country'.

Equality and the information society

Africans themselves have been at the forefront of raising awareness that ICT is not gender-neutral. The African Women's Development and Communication Network (Femnet) and the APC carried out a joint assessment in 2000. And the Gender Caucus for the World Summit of the Information Society 2003 was formed at the regional preparatory conference in Mali in May 2002.

The purpose of the caucus was to ensure that women's rights were acknowledged and that women, including members of civil-society organisations, be included in WSIS processes. However, there is little reference to gender issues in the 2005 WSIS reports, nor in discussions around the Negroponte project.

Enda/Osiris research (supported by the IDRC) on the gender digital divide in six countries in francophone Africa, assessed use of the computer, the internet and cell-phones. Results show that women have one third less chance than men to benefit from the information society. "Access is less of a problem than control, content and capacity. Only the young population who have attended school until secondary level have an equal chance, but African women are likely to occupy a secondary role as consumers".

This issue is relevant to the Negroponte project because the sad fact is that there are still more boys than girls in school in Africa, especially at secondary level.

Unesco, which has the mandate to move forward the implementation of WSIS, also highlights other aspects of inclusion and equality, for example ICT for linguistic minorities, the handicapped and the (still large) illiterate population - as well as cultural diversity. Their work promotes the importance of "information societies" rather than the accepted concept of "the information society" which Unesco claims "does not take into account the potential of the ICT revolution for human development - the individual capacity to use technology in their own way for their own benefit."

In other words, Unesco campaigns around the cognitive rather than the digital divide between north and south. "Entry into cyberspace exposes (Africans) to inevitable cultural domination from other societies who have content on the internet", Muriuki Mureithi says. The aim is not necessarily for Africa to buy into what is already available in the west, but to develop their own technological solutions and produce their own content, as we can see many NGOs already doing.

This is not a divide between the "information poor" and the "information rich" as so often described, but the divide between "internet empowerment" and "internet power".

It's the singer not the song

The real question is perhaps not "what type of technology is best for empowerment?", but also "what type of empowerment is best for technology?" This section discusses the crucial issues of control, content and capacity in relation to specific technologies.

The mobile village

All evidence points to the fact that "there is a clear practical distinction between phone and Internet access: the former has much greater local market demand than the latter" (Sarah Parkinson, IDRC research). Mobiles are easy to use, encourage the development of basic literacy, and the owner has control over content and use. Mobiles help to cut down on wasted journeys and provide easy access to a whole range of user-determined services. Where there is no electricity, they can be recharged with a small generator or new batteries.

The use of the mobile phone for rural development was pioneered by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, whose founder Mohammad Yunus won the Nobel peace prize in October 2006. Basically this involved the loan of one mobile phone to one woman per village as a business venture for her and as a communal resource. Women phone-owners testified to the variety of uses for economic and social purposes (market prices, banking, family contacts) important for isolated communities and especially for women whose mobility is culturally restricted.

The Grameen project has been influential in many countries. There are several key aspects to its success:

  • it was developed by a national organisation
  • it targeted the poorest, that is, rural women, as key actors
  • one mobile per village promoted social cohesion rather than individualism
  • this was a hard-nosed business venture - the women had to repay the price of the phone and also pass over a high percentage of the price of each phone call from her clients to Grameen Bank
  • there was universal network coverage.

According to Mary Allen, coordinator of Sahel Eco in Mali, infrastructure - network coverage and electricity supply - is the crucial issue. "Once the infrastructure is there, there's no need for a ‘project' to encourage mobile use, it happens automatically - with, for example, the local midwife's mobile being used as a community resource at the health centre."

Allen also points out that one reason for the success of the mobile is the predominantly oral culture of Africa, in addition to the fact that for a majority of people, sustainable livelihoods rely on maintaining a wide range of family and social relationships. The mobile makes this possible.

For example, in Mali, whose GDP relies on money transfers from its large migrant population overseas, people need to keep in regular touch with family members abroad. The money transfer process can now also be made by mobile SMS messaging from France - a much easier and safer method than sending a man from the city to the village with a suitcase full of cash. (However, in some countries, banking regulations have been tightened due to recent terrorist activities.)

One attempt to replicate the Bangladesh experience is the Village Phone Uganda (pilot) project, although this does not just target women as phone owners. The project is funded by Usaid in partnership with the Mobile Telephone Network (MTN) and Grameen USA. But this project has run into problems with competition from other products and restrictions on deployment. In other words, it's now the wrong model in the modern context. The proposed solution (tariff reductions) is not a holistic approach, since the project remains disconnected from other initiatives.

In general those countries who have liberalised their telecoms markets, including issuing mobile-phone licenses to private operators, including international firms, and have ended state telecoms monopolies, have seen relatively rapid mobile-phone penetration. In Mali, competition is driving down prices so much it is now possible to get a free SIM card with the first £2.50 pay-as-you-go card, mobiles are easily replaceable and there's a thriving informal sector in recycling phones.

In celebration of the democratising power of the mobile phone, my boss Philip Dearden mailed me from Nepal:

"Here in Kathmandu the power of mobiles is just amazing. The pro-democracy group has a small protest and with a few mobiles suddenly everyone is present and the city comes to a complete standstill!!! Of course the police and army are also using them so response times are fairly quick. Meanwhile all the taxi drivers have to ring each other on their mobiles to find out which roads are blocked and all the development consultants have to ring the donors to apologise for being late to meetings! Great fun as long as it doesn't get nasty. And the mobile phone network companies are doing very well!"

However, in Ethiopia in 2005, the use of SMS messaging was banned by the government, following post-election demonstrations and violence.

The community-radio instrument

But since there is not universal mobile network coverage in African countries, Ruth Ojiambo Ochieng concludes: "Community radio broadcasting still remains the most appropriate ICT for rural communities." As Isis-Wicce discovered in Uganda, "suitcase radio brings women's voices out of the margins".

In Mali there are more than 150 private or community FM radio stations. Sadou Yattara, former president of the Press Association here, told me: "Because of widespread illiteracy and rural isolation, the radio is the most effective means of communication. Each village has at least one radio and people often get together to listen to it."

Broadcasts can contribute to conflict prevention by creating local social cohesion, promoting participation, developing contact between the people and their decentralised elected officials and between communitiies of different ethnic groups. They help to inform people of their rights and responsibilities as citizens, raise current issues and promote discussion of shared problems. In a country beset by natural disasters such as drought and flooding, they can act as an early-warning system, be used to contact emergency services and to check on arrival of food supplies. In border communities, the radio can also contribute to cross-border collaboration.

Programmes include themes relevant to women, such as family health; discussions between women or youth groups; soap operas incorporating social themes like cross-border trafficking; and advocacy on the importance of education for girls.

One of the first community-radio stations in Mali was set up by SOS Sahel UKl in 1994 in the district of Bankass, in the isolated Pays Dogon, not far from the border with Burkina Faso. Radio SENO is still operating, providing a small income for one or two people. It provides light entertainment, mainly music from the region; a "lost and found" service, which helps to cut down on motor-bike theft, cattle rustling and police corruption; and acts as a noticeboard for community activities.

The president of the blacksmiths' federation of Bankass highlights the benefits of this: "Before, I had to put 5,000 CFA of petrol in a motorbike and go round all the communes to tell members about a meeting. Now I pay 1,000 CFA for a radio announcement."

In the contested north of Mali, the conflict management through community radios project, funded by Usaid and run by Africare, installs solar-powered radio stations to bring development to hard to reach locations, decrease isolation, and increase communication.

The project has involved training of women journalists. Africare coordinator Sheryl Cowan told me that this has had a wider knock-on effect, helping to promote the participation of women in local decision-making. Each radio station is run as a private enterprise, with a small, community-elected management committee, which includes at least one woman, normally the treasurer - a criterion established by communities themselves.

Elsewhere in Africa, the original hand-crank radio is still going strong, and radio is still used in schools for interactive radio instruction (IRI).

One evaluation of an IRI project in Guinea illustrates the realities of using any ICT technology in rural areas. Lessons learned include the following advice: "put the antenna on top of a cupboard for better reception." This is easier than the solution for users of one Senegalese mobile-phone company: a rural complainant in the press suggests you can only get adequate reception "on top of the minaret!"

Computers in education

The West and Central African Network for Research in Education (Rocaré), has recently completed a study (also supported by IDRC) on ICT and the quality of education in five west African countries. This shows that currently access to and use of, computers in schools is weak, despite strong mobilisation of the equipment.

(In Mali each secondary school is supposed to have a computing lab, but some don't have electricity or phone access. The country has just received 680 computers through Nepad for primary schools. Many of these are allegedly collecting dust in the principal's office).

In an open discussion on the findings, Bonaventure Maiga, technical advisor to Mali's ministry of education, warned that "computers are not the magic wand which will help resolve all our problems without certain conditions. We need to put in place a policy to determine the process... We need to identify appropriate pedagogical approaches in order to maximise their use. We need to develop strategies for maintenance and to evaluate how computers can be effectively integrated into the teaching programme..." (L'Essor en ligne, 10 February 2006).

The same principles will need to be applied if and when the Negroponte laptop comes online.

In many technical respects the "green machine" positively addresses some of the key issues. It is hardy for use in difficult physical conditions; it will be foot-powered; it will use open-source software; any two laptops will connect to each other automatically, so instant messaging, collaborative writing and other innovative peer learning will be possible in class.

It will extend the range of the wireless network, but until the private sector provide universal internet coverage, this will still exclude the most remote areas. And, anyway, the oral culture may mean that the internet is used more for Skype than for research, as it is already in many cybercafés in Bamako.

The project will also work through education ministries, so there is the opportunity to develop a systematic approach to their use. But as Maiga points out, this is not a quick fix.

In 2005, a worldwide independent evaluation of Unesco's support for Education For All, indicated that the World Bank's large scale, top-down, economists' approach to education is not necessarily the best model. As any parent in Mali will tell you, increasing the quantity of children in school, to meet the Millennium Development Goals target, actually equates with decreased quality of education - since existing classrooms are now even more overcrowded (120 in a secondary classroom is not unknown) while donor funding for teacher recruitment and training remains problematic and the democratically decentralised education officers do not have the resources to actually visit outlying schools.

The case study of Burkina Faso, which I carried out as part of this evaluation, also indicated that "education for all" was more effectively being carried out by local NGOs and community-based private contractors, who are better equipped to provide appropriate education for both adults and children in local languages and promote community participation in education initiatives.

In other words, the laptop will not bring the dividends envisaged without corresponding attention to those other aspects of education, which still need to be fixed. Even in Nigeria - one of the countries buying in to the first phase of the OLPC roll-out, and which proudly hosted the Digital World conference (12-13 September 2006) - the five-year World Bank funded Basic Education project has yet to be completed.

Another issue is the economy of scale. The countries which have signed up for the laptop (one million each for China, Brazil, South Africa and Nigeria) are bigger and wealthier than others. Even $100 per laptop is a lot for a country like Mali... Could this be perpetuation of inequality? Because even in Nigeria, not every child is going to get one - at first, they are likely to be given out to schools in urban areas.

Namibia's information minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah has cautioned that the issue of environmental consequences might also have been overlooked. "How do we take care of disposing these laptops when they have reached their living age? What do we do with them when they are no longer useful?"(New Era, Windhoek, 22 November 2005).

Could OLPC be the 21st-century version of 1970s tractors - rusting at the side of the road through lack of spare parts and genuine technical capacity in use and maintenance?

The telecentre solution

The problem with large-scale, top-down projects is that they so often forget the crucial aspect of ownership on the ground. This is why small-scale developments, properly nurtured, can be more successful and sustainable.

An alternative solution to providing universal access to ICT is the telecenter or community multi-media centre. In Mali, Usaid has funded Community Learning and Information Centres (Clics) in thirteen communities. The Clics, based eiher in the mayor's office or a local radio station, offer a range of fee-for-use services for individual community members. After two years, the results show that seven out of thirteen Clics have the potential to become sustainable, although they are persisting problems with internet connection and electricity supply. On average, only 13% of clients are women: the project has attempted to address this by giving out vouchers.

The Clics project is intended to mesh with the Malian government's ambitious aim of having each of its 700-plus rural and urban communities ("communes") interconnected. Using a different approach, United Nations volunteer Harmani Kargne, has been working with the ministry of the interior in one of the poorest regions (Mopti) to develop "cybercollectivity" between the three levels of decentralised government. This should enable information to be sent upwards from commune (local government areas) through district level to a central server at the regional assembly (and vice versa). The system was used to compile statistics for the local election results in 2004.

The work has necessarily included training for decentralised officials. While this transfer of skills has raised awareness about the usefulness of ICT in democratic governance, Kargne has also been impressed by people's enthusiasm and "their desire for innovation". A multi-stakeholder working group has been set up, to avoid duplication of activities on the ground and carry out the all-important lobbying for sufficient funding for equipment and technical assistance.

IDRC research in Uganda and South Africa on the effectiveness and sustainability of universal access centres highlights the fact that ICT needs to be integrated into national development strategies, especially in rural areas. Additionally, any integrated ICT policy has to have clearly defined action plans as well as operating in an environment where the national telecom sector is effectively regulated.

And World Bank research concludes that telecentres need to be developed as commercially viable businesses in order to survive beyond initial public support.

In contrast, the British-funded Jamaica All Age Schools project shows what is possible if the community is involved from the outset. The project, working with forty-eight remote rural communities, included the provision of three computers per school, but, like all project activities, this was dependent on school-community decisions and action. "We can only inherit the money if we unite", explained one community-participation facilitator. An adequate learning space for the "computing lab" had to be created or built and electrical wiring had to be fixed to regulation standard.

At the end of the three-year project one of the parents told me: "Twenty-five parents in our community have been trained in computer skills so far. The world is computerised, everyone is interested, even addicted, because it's fun! It's got parents visiting the school more; they come during the daytime to see if they can use the computing lab. And they're taking more interest in what their children are doing, they want to know what's going on at school, especially fathers are coming in to ask about their children's performance and behaviour."

Mary Surridge visited Jamaica again in a post-project impact assessment in 2006. The community-school planning process has been rolled out across the island at both primary and secondary level.

So when we look at inter-connectivity, we are looking at human, as well as technical, solutions - and the production of social, as well as electronic energy.

The E-governance model

One of the most interesting aspects of the OLPC project is the proposed development of a kids' creative iCommons which will provide a unique online forum for young people to share and develop their ideas.

Of course, it's not possible to write about e-democracy without talking politics. Current debates at the United Nations revolve around taking over control of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) - a not-for-profit organisation in Los Angeles which is at present overseen by the United States department for commerce - and relocating it in Geneva.

But in September 2006, the US government renewed its partnership with Icann for a further three years - at the same time consenting to a less direct form of supervision "in what experts called a big move toward private-sector control of the global network" (see Victoria Shannon, International Herald Tribune, 30 September-1 October 2006).

An argument in favour of Icann's transfer to Geneva, according to Yaya Sangaré in Jamana online, has been the possibility that the United States would block internet access in "undesirable" countries. Indeed, any national government can succeed in monitoring and censoring internet use, but only with the collaboration of the private sector (and that means largely the US-based giants Google, Microsoft and Yahoo). According to Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International, this has happened in China, Israel and Vietnam, among other countries. The intentions and actions of big business as well as states are an important factor in internet freedom.

Is knowledge of ICT a threat to governments? The Malian government recently tried an interesting experiment. Because there has been a lot of debate over the government's agreement with rebels in the north, an official website was set up, to provide explanation of the agreements as well as an open discussion forum. Journalists began to complain that some people's (controversial) contributions to the forum had not been posted. The following day when I looked at the website, the discussion forum was "closed for maintenance reasons".

Fortunately, Mali has a range of newspapers, community radios (and mobiles) through which people can continue to express their opinions freely. It might be a mistake to dismiss these other channels in the rush for OLPC.

The core principle

In the final analysis, mobiles and community radio are the technology of choice for a majority of people in Africa at the moment.

However, I wish the One Laptop One Child project well, because where there's democratisation of technology it has to have implications for a more open democracy. But I don't think it's going to succeed without drawing on lessons that have already been learned in relation to the social development issues of governance, ownership, inclusion and sustainability. There has been no discussion about who is going to provide the funding for wide-scale community consultation, integration of gender equality or capacity building and ongoing support for education departments to ensure effective use.

The conclusion is always going to be the same: for peace, democracy or development, let's leave the real decisions to the people who know what matters to them. There is plenty of existing ICT capacity in Africa, as well as the potential to continue developing it, with the right kind of support. The conclusion of the discussion that sparked this essay was right: it's empowerment not patronage that's needed.