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ICT: Chicken or Egg?

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News, from IT News Africa, where a new report from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) tells us what we already know: Africa lags behind the developed world when it comes to ICT. Other headlines straight off the presses: the Pope might be Catholic.

Although the report is based on data collected in 2007, I don’t think too much will have changed since then. The only real change is that Mauritius pips the Seychelles to the top spot for internet access in Africa compared my own brief survey.

I’m not sure why IT News Africa appear to be surprised that the poorest countries in the world would also be the ones with the worst rankings for progress in ICT. Maybe they haven’t heard of Maslow. They do, however, make the very good point that without investment in education and infrastructure, African countries will continue to lag and may even fall further behind in their development.

This brings up an interesting “chicken or egg” scenario, as the Kenyan Treasury carries out cost-benefit analyses on its budget: should they invest in infrastructure or education first? On the one hand, without the necessary base on which to build, the best-educated workforce in the world would still struggle to make any impact. On the other, giving those already in a position to do so the opportunity to compete internationally could generate extra tax revenues, which could then be ploughed into education to bring up the next generation of a technologically-competent workforce.

Naturally, the ideal situation would be for the government to be able to do both. But have you seen our overcrowded primary schools? Imagine trying to ensure that every child enrolled were given computer training as part of the curriculum next term. And of course, if all these new people suddenly logged on to the internet, our already mediocre traffic speeds would grind to a halt. It’s a delicate balancing act to negotiate competing objectives within a constrained budget. The cake can only be cut so many times.

The problem, though difficult, isn’t surmountable: our shiny new fibreoptic undersea cable has reached Mombasa, and once fully linked up to existing communications networks, should improve internet speeds in the country. The Kenyan ICT sector is already vibrant and growing, and will continue to do so if given adequate support and minimal political inteference. So, if we take that as a given, it appears that the main focus should be on education. It is there though, that efforts are likely to be less sure-footed.

Already, the government has far too much input into the educational system and has managed to alienate the teachers’ union. The dream of computers – or even just one computer – in every school is a dream, as long as we can’t even guarantee that every school has electricity. On top of that, we can’t be sure we have enough teachers with the requisite knowledge of IT to teach the children!

IT News Africa does not need to call on the “developed world to step in with assistance in the forms of sharing of knowlege and technologies.” They are perfectly willing to help if we show we’re ready to learn. What it should be calling for is for increased government attention on education planning and investment in technology for schools. Those of us who are already part of the ICT sector have made a start. Those who are still learning should be given the chance to take advantage of the same opportunities.

[Image by Hitchster]

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