|Africa and the Middle East 2008
|Changing lives with ICTs
|Nigerian Child Welfare Fund (NCWF)
Joshua Omorere is the President of the Nigerian Child Welfare Fund (NCWF). He began his career with the NCWF while studying at university. The NCWF is a non-governmental organisation committed to assisting orphans, the sick, the afflicted and other challenged persons in Nigeria irrespective of their ethnic and religions background. It helps, for example, poor parents send their children to school and pay their medical bills. Mr Omorere holds a BSc Microbiology from the Ambrose Alli University Ekpoma, Nigeria, and a Diploma in Programming, Maintenance and Service of HP and Compaq Systems, from the MBM Computer School – affiliated with IBM – in Warri, Nigeria.
Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) are serving an important role in the transformation of the African continent. In addition to the much discussed contributions of ICTs to health, education and government services, they also are advancing the causes of NGOs and civil society projects. ICTs are helping find peaceful solutions to social and political problems by providing a platform – a powerful political voice – for the common citizen. A number of sites dedicated to combating social problems in the region have also arisen.
Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) are powerful tools. They have played a great role in our lives, bringing incalculable benefits and have become part and parcel of our daily activities. ICTs have facilitated a wide range of our activities and have helped us discover new ideas and information from around the globe. ICT solves problems, makes peace, publicises electoral campaigns and can politically mobilise citizens to the point where, as recent history shows, even presidents can be forced to step down. In the Philippines, large scale demonstrations organised via cell phones and SMS (short message service) were a major factor in forcing President Joseph Estrada to resign. ICTs helped bring about change without violence. ICTs help implementing peace-building activities by: 1) providing people with information; 2) helping people understand and process information; 3) improving decision making; 4) reducing scarcity; 5) supporting relationships; and 6) helping people understand one another. How do ICTs aid these peacemaking activities? Providing information strengthens the ties between individuals and communities and improves their ability to share, learn and interact with one another. Greater information also improves the ability to understand situations and act accordingly. Personal communication devices, mobile phones, can dramatically increase the flow of information, even where ICTs are generally not available. For instance, in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa the UmNyango Project <http://www.fahamu.org/> is using SMS so that those with cell phones can access information and report violence against women and children, as well as violations of women’s right to own land. Geographic information systems (GIS) – software that captures, stores, and analyzes data tied to geographic locations – can be used to help track refugee movement, maintain observation of borders (which are often not obvious from the ground), and record where atrocities have occurred. Names and borders are often in flux in turbulent areas, making electronic maps constructed using geographic coordinates much more reliable than paper maps. Amnesty International is now inviting citizens to monitor high resolution satellite imagery focused on 12 villages in high risk areas in Sudan, via their website Eyes on Darfur http://www.eyesondarfur.org/. Technology can improve decision making by providing access to data and help to interpret it and even point out the likely results of decisions, given the environment in which decisions are made. ICTs can be a tremendous help to those trying to maintain or form new relationships. The ability to communicate through the written word, photos, sound clips, video clips, and web cameras can keep people connected regardless of how geographically far apart they are. Social networking tools and other social networking sites, for example, help like-minded individuals connect and collaborate on issues, causes and projects of shared interest. For instance, the peace movement in the United States has used these sites to find new supporters, and organise rallies, marches and protests. In May 2007 gunmen raided Al Wafa Net, an Internet cafe, in the Khan Yunis camp in Gaza. They held 17 young men who were using the computers at gunpoint and destroyed the computers – apparently because they were used to spread ideas they opposed. Increased understanding – of different cultures, languages, and concerns – can go a long way toward reducing conflict. Communication technologies, especially the Internet, can make distant situations more understandable and other people seem more like us. For example: ICTs can be a huge aid in the effort to build lasting peace, by helping people communicate, view information, make decisions, and understand each other better. Limitations Some of the limits to the spread of ICTs in rural areas are surmountable; others require a shift in both personal and organisational communications and working habits which may take a while to change. ICTs rely on physical infrastructures for electricity and telecommunications and even when such infrastructures are in place, difficulties arise when they are poorly maintained or too costly to use. ICTs are dependent on national policy and regulation for telecommunications and broadcasting licences. They require initial capital investment for hardware and software. They also are dependent on the skills and capacity necessary to use, manage and maintain the technology effectively. Matching the most appropriate communications technology with people’s needs and capabilities is a crucial task for ICT providers. Aside from the telephone, the majority of information exchanged via ICTs, whether in text format or broadcast orally, takes place in the languages of developed countries. Steps must be taken to address the needs of other languages and cultures and make ICTs accessible to all of Africa’s people. This will require significant investment and support for local content for broadcasting and Internet and local software design. Small and medium enterprises – SMEs SMEs face barriers to growth from poor communications between suppliers and markets and poor or inadequate information regarding market conditions (pricing, demand, trends). The greatest barriers to businesses generally, whether ICTs are used or not, are: limited access to capital for equipment or raw material; a shortage of adequately skilled personnel; and a lack of business management expertise or business model. Lack of capital for innovation is a common impediment to growth. Research suggests that strengthening local capacity is crucial to enable small-scale enterprises to carry out necessary administration and business forecasting and to be able act upon the new information delivered over ICTs. In Botswana, China, Nigeria and Ghana, telephone services were found to be the most popular initial investment for businesses. SME’s demand for basic telecommunication services (telephones and fax) is growing as is their demand for more advanced ICT services such as email and Internet access, although these are still too expensive for many. In many countries the prohibitively high cost of Internet subscriptions, long distance calls and the paucity of relevant business content, mean in the short term, the benefits of information delivery systems and networks cannot be fully exploited by SMEs. Findings Although examples of good, practical, approaches to ICT projects are emerging, failures are still being downplayed and accurate evaluations of SME progress are rarely available. More rigorous monitoring and evaluation of projects, especially when donor-funded, are required. However, the framework and guidelines for measuring impact are largely insufficient. Organisations require working methodologies and support to carry out evaluation studies. Increased access to information by SMEs can give them greater control over supply and delivery chains and wider access to markets, thus overcoming barriers to economic development. However, accommodating all sectors of society – particularly rural communities, women and the disabled – in the transition from traditional to the new knowledge-based societies is an urgent issue for policy makers. ICT strategies, for example, that specifically target women and young girls are needed. Purely market driven approaches will do to serve the market, but they will not serve the needs of those unable to pay. Whilst private sector ICT providers should be encouraged to provide services to rural areas, there is a role here for donors to meet ICT needs in areas where the private sector is unlikely to venture in the short term. Studies show the importance of the telephone and the radio in changing the lives of the poor. The telephone is by far the most common communication technology to positively affect rural livelihoods (market and trading information, emergency and disaster communications, strengthening kinship relations, health services) and is the backbone of ICT service in most regions. Africa Pulse (http://www.africapulse.org), an information portal for the civil society sector participants in the Southern African Development Community is helping bring ICTs to Africa. Africa Pulse uses state-of-the-art technology and allows organisations throughout the region to publish content directly on the site, whether it be news of the arrest of a journalist in Zambia, the HIV/Aids crisis in South Africa, a profile of an organisation’s work in Tanzania, the devastation caused by a flood in Mozambique, an analysis of the war against Unita, or an election update from Harare. Organisations, academics, journalists, researchers, activists and unions are free to publish any material on the portal that is relevant to society and to the region. There is space on the site for organisations to alert the sector to events such as protests, book launches, seminars or campaigns and even to advertise job vacancies. A database of website addresses, searchable by category and country on anything from education, conflict and governance, to democracy and human rights provides a valuable resource to the sector. In West Africa, Kabissa is doing a wonderful job enabling civil society organisations to publish their content on the www.kabissa.org portal, which displays the activities of civil society organisations in West Africa. ICT has added meaning to our lives and is improving them on a daily basis. ICT is helping to reduce poverty and achieve the Millennium Development Goals in Africa, via the worldwide Global Call To Action Against Poverty coalition on the Internet.