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Black Star: Ghana
Jamais Cascio, 11 Mar 04

Wow.

Black Star: Ghana, Information Technology and Development in Africa is, by far, the most detailed discussion of the problems and successes in bringing information technology to the developing world. G. Pascal Zachary, a Berkeley-based writer and scholar, author of several books on technology and culture, and regular contributor to publications as diverse as AlterNet, The Wall Street Journal, and Technology Review, has an extensive article in the March 2004 edition of FirstMonday about the ongoing economic, technological, and social development in the nation of Ghana. In it, he covers the behavior of international corporations, the ongoing "brain drain" to Europe and the United States (as well as the increasingly important role of emigrés investing in Ghana), the problems with the educational system, the effects of culture, and much, much more.

Most importantly, while he details both the extensive challenges facing any attempt to build up a local information industry (and the various stumbles of previous efforts) and the hope and very real opportunities underlying the ongoing work, Zachary also lists concrete proposals for making development work in Ghana. Aimed at international investors and states, local businesses, and the government of Ghana, these suggestions are plausible and well-thought-out. Few of them are truly unique to Ghana's situation; while Black Star focuses on a single Central African nation, its lessons are applicable throughout the developing world.

Black Star is a long piece, and is written in a direct, clear style that is quite informative (although not particularly entertaining). With that in mind, if you have an interest in how information technologies can aid in the developing world -- and the real world issues such aid will confront -- I strongly suggest taking the time to read this article. In the extended entry, you'll find a number of excerpts which will give you a sense of the arguments and discussions Zachary makes.

(Thanks, Monty Zukowski for the link)

[All of these are quotes from Black Star: Ghana, Information Technology and Development in Africa]

"Often technologies from Europe and the U.S. are presented as universal tools that can be used anywhere in the world, with equal effectiveness and efficiency. The personal computer and the wireless mobile phone are adopted, essentially unchanged, in sub–Saharan Africa, not merely because these tools "solve" problems, but because they are the only tools being offered. Few specialists in information technology in the U.S. and Europe tackle problems specific to poor societies or Africa in particular. Some of the reason for the reluctance to do so is intellectual: Scientists and engineers tend to make universal claims for their knowledge and its application. But increasingly there is a realization that social and physical conditions in Africa are sufficiently different enough from the U.S. and Europe that a fresh approach to the design of information systems is preferable to the direct transfer of systems from rich nations to the sub–Saharan."

---

"The recent experience of Mobitel is a reminder that the politics of information technology can be as important as the technological issues underlying new products and services. The Mobitel case also belies the quip made to me in Accra by a British agricultural expert who declared, "Technology isn’t the issue. That can be flown in." Well, the technology was flown in and the government seized it. The technology was as good as anything in northern Europe, the hotbed of wireless innovation, but the government was troubled by the political economy of the wireless industry in Ghana. Mobitel is partly owned by a friend of the former President Jerry Rawlings. The new government — longtime critics of Rawlings and his cronies — wished to do nothing to assist Mobitel. "Payback is the one word to describe what happened," says one observer. "The political will to move forward didn’t exist even though the technology did." "

---

"Sohne thinks that African computer people are compelled to be creative and resourceful. They must live by their wits — and pluck whatever they can from the discarded high–tech materials that turn up in Accra’s digital dung heap. Sohne is committed to staying in Accra. "I have no wish to leave, and the Internet lets me live wherever I want," he says. He knows he would earn much more in the U.S. or Europe (if he could get a job there), but he hopes the scales will grow more even over time. "One day, one day, you will be able to work for clients overseas," he has written. "It’s a digital economy and software ships so easily. That’s got to be the answer. Stay a Web African ... . Don’t give up. The future of the Web African software industry lies in enabling scattered bunches of individual hobbyist programmers [like Sohne himself]. Those people who would be coding even if it didn’t pay because that is what they like doing." "

---

"The application of technology can also help to reduce the shortage of water in rural parts of Ghana. A private American aid organization, World Vision, has drilled more than 1,000 wells in remote parts of Ghana, relying on a hand–powered mechanical pump made in India to bring the water to the surface. The drilling of a well might seem to be a straightforward task, yet World Vision’s learning curve was steep. The organization chose an all–mechanical hand pump made after realizing that villagers would be unable to maintain more sophisticated pumps. There was also surprising resistance in some villages to abandoning unclean river water. World Vision engineers were once chased out of villages by elders who believed in the religious significance of river water. In response, World Vision began sending an advance team of educators to address concerns of "the power structure" of a village who might interpret the introduction of a well as "an attack on their religious beliefs." The overall lesson is that "you might be fixing the thing technically but it doesn't work unless you deal with the social issues," says World Vision’s water manager."

---

"To be sure, there are plenty of areas of Ghanaian society where information technology can help reduce inequities, starting with schools, medical clinics and hospitals, none of which routinely possess computers or Internet access. Yet the question of competing priorities looms over any proposed initiative to apply IT to an urgent, unmet social need. What might be done instead? In Accra’s main hospital, Korle Bu, the intensive care unit for newborn babies has no computer, no database on patient care, no IT resources whatsoever to apply to the treatment of ill or underweight babies. The nurse to baby ratio is roughly three nurses to 40 babies (the ratio would be nearly one–to–one in a U.S. or German hospital). IT applications can certainly improve patient care, especially if a Web link allowed nurses to immediately query a doctor in, say, New York, with a question about a baby in distress. One can imagine a network of small, inexpensive video cameras, linked to a PC, which would beam pictures across the Internet to a doctor in New York, further assisting him in the formulation of his advice. Enthusiasts of computing and communications cheer such possibilities and indeed we all should. But enthusiasm for IT must crash against the hard rock of reality of technological systems in a poor African country.

The very infant ICU that I am describing does not have a secure electricity source. When the power goes down, the incubators go dark. The hospital’s backup generator then kicks in — for a few hours. So which is more important? To install a better backup generator, so children do not die in a cold incubator, to hire more nurses, or to invest in a Web–based communications network for the purposes of improving the quality of care? Or perhaps in a country as poor as Ghana, a public hospital has no business even attempting to bring to bear the sophisticated high–tech treatments required to heal premature, underweight and sick newborns? While no country is presented with a zero–sum choice, technological options often do not complement one another but are pitted against one another. Advocates of IT for social development (as distinct from economic development) should be mindful that the universe of possibilities is wider than they usually acknowledge"

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