15.03.2004 Feature Article

Facts and Hypes of Information and Communications Technology

Facts and Hypes of Information and Communications Technology
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Many books and articles have been written about the birth, growth and business opportunities that the Information and Communications Technology promises to the “Third World economies” as a result there is no need to repeat here.

My article will therefore focus on the facts and hypes about what ICT promises to developing economies and will limit my scope to Ghana as a nation.

Much of the on going debate surrounding the use of ICT as a means of generating quick wealth, bridging the digital divide and consequently accelerating national development is clearly a hype (there are also clearly some opportunities that I cannot deny)

I must admit though, it is very ironic that someone like me who makes a living from ICT is writing such article. On the flip side, I wouldn't have been able to write this article if I am not working in this “new” frontier. It is also the insight and the know-how I have acquired as a Technology Architect, working in cooperate America that has compelled me to write this article about the facts and hypes of the limitations of ICT in a developing economies such as Ghana.

To set records straight I am not suggesting that we should go back to the old ways of doing business as a nation. The questions I have about ICT also apply to all previous technological breakthroughs starting from steam engine invention to sending man to the moon. In all technological breakthroughs mankind is promised of new opportunities that would erase poverty from the phase of this planet, bridging the gap between the “haves” and “have nots.” I assume that the problem may lie in the fact that we are so desperate for a quick fix that to our problems of poverty that we just jump at anything that promises glimmer of hope. We have tried implementing all IMF and World Bank policies and yet we keep getting poorer and poorer. It is just funny to think that ICT is the silver bullet that is going to solve our socio-economic problems. The fact still remains that most of the world's problems are man-made mainly political, economic and cultural. In order to solve these problems they should be tackled with careful planning using complicated and sustainable interventions. Most of the time the outcome may not be visible immediately, however the end results may prove to be positive.

After all the hypes of “dotcoms” in the late nineties we all saw what happened, when “dotcoms” became “dotbombs”. Clearly the western world has learned what the internet cannot do. We should therefore as a nation take time to study anything that can potentially have a profound impact on our society. It has become a buzz word in many developing countries that “we missed the boat for industrial revolution and we shouldn't miss this new bold world of ICT.” What the government needs to do is real assessments and impact of ICT on the socio-economic life of the nation.

It is just amazing that as a developing nation and people we have not still escaped the hype of how this new medium, ICT, will be a shortcut to reduce our poverty and probably solve all our socio-economic woes. I must say with authority as a Technology Architect that ICT cannot solve the problems of bad economic decisions and choices. It is so interesting how even some of the world leaders have bought into this hype. I quote our own honorable U. N. chief's comment. "For developing countries, the digital revolution offers unprecedented opportunities for economic growth and development, as entrepreneurs from Bangalore to Guadalajara to Dakar will testify.” Mr. Annan with all due respect you may be right or wrong. The fact is ICT is so “new” that any predictions without enough data to substantiate it may be a failure. There are compelling arguments going on now that should developing countries focus the very limited resources on ICT and ignore basic clean water, basic free education and other necessities of life that are hard to come.

ICT is not going to level the playing field and make information freely available to anyone anywhere at anytime as it is being preached now. Information is never free, and I know that some may disagree but here are the facts. The internet is simply priced beyond the reach of many people in our country. Computers are still very expensive and prices for phones aren't cheap in Ghana considering how much an average worker makes per month. The cost of unlimited broadband access to the internet in the United States is around $40+ dollars. This cost by all calculations will be more expensive in Ghana. In Ghana it is a luxury to have an unlimited broadband access to the internet. I don't know of many homes in Ghana that can afford such luxury. Many companies probably may not even be able to afford this “luxury.” All the information on the internet cannot solve our socio-economic problems. For information to be truly available and useful people should be able to cheaply afford and access it anywhere at anytime and that is not the case in our dear motherland, Ghana.

The other hype I have read about is the ICT solving our socio-economic problems and the examples and comparisons that are used in the arguments are India and other countries that are using ICT to solve their socio-economic problems. While there is no question about the fact that India has been able to take advantage of ICT. There are some hard facts that we need to analyze to make such comparisons. India started planning for the benefits they are reaping now in the seventies, when military dictators were making “coup detats” in most of the developing countries including Ghana.

As a nation what we need to do is to set our priorities right by fixing our crucial infrastructures such as electricity. It is not uncommon in Ghana in the year 2004 to still experience unexpected “light off.”

The invention of short wave radio was one of the most marvelous achievements of human kind. Radio could be used to disseminate information to remote areas in the country that don't even have clean water let alone electricity and computer with internet access. What makes us think that we could use the internet for national development if we could not effectively use radio to disseminate information such as health issues for the masses to make informed decisions about their health? I know the limitations of radio waves but it is also a form of an ICT.

Another hype that I am surprised that our educational ministers are buying into is hooking up many classrooms in Ghana to the internet. There is nothing wrong if you can afford it. Please do not forget how you are going to pay and maintain these systems over their life cycle. Here are the facts. Having internet access is not cheap. You need to provide for Hardware (servers and clients), Network (bandwidth, switches and routers) and Software (servers, development tools, firewalls, applications, etc) and most important of all People to develop, support and maintain the network (programmers, designers, content providers, support and administrators)

The twenty first century belongs to nations who have clear national agenda. It takes more than just having internet access in classrooms. My question is, please help me understand how will ICT help us develop our economy when our current educational system that is producing graduates do not have the core skills such as math, science, liberal arts, etc? There are many schools in Ghana that have their roofs falling and before we think of hooking them to the internet with the limited resources for buying software and hardware we need to use these resources to renovate these crumpling structures. We need to train our teachers to be competent, provide free food and text books for primary school children. Simply put we need free education for at least the early stages before we can even think of ICT else we are bound to fail since our priorities are not set right. It is just like putting a square peg in a round whole, they say.

As a nation we need to ask ourselves what is more important to us? Do we need to have safe drinking water for the entire country, fix our broken schools, provide at least affordable healthcare for our citizens or hook schools to high speed internet access? It would be nice to have all but can we afford it all? Let's even put all the hypes aside, to effectively make use of ICT we need new behaviors and priorities with renewed mindset. The fact of the matter is ICT cannot and should not replace the “structured” way of building a nation. The bottom line is ICT is a tool and to use this tool effectively you need to have your critical infrastructures in place. I must reiterate that ICT is not the silver bullet to solve our socio-economic problems.

I will borrow a phrase from an MIT Professor Kenneth Keniston. He warns the hopes that "information and communication technologies could enable even the poorest of developing countries to `leapfrog' traditional problems of development — so as to move them rapidly into the modern Information Age — are largely built on an empirical vacuum."

Professor you are right and I am on the same page with you. We shouldn't neglect the basic fundamentals of national development. What we need as a nation is a solid national agenda with all parties on board irrespective of who is in power, etc. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

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