Local players in the ICT sector have expressed pessimism over the liberalization of trade in ICT services saying, West Africa stands to lose heavily unless national policies were reviewed to promote indigenous creativity and innovation.
The participants, who comprised experts from major telecom operators, Internet Service Providers, small scale operators in the software development sector and the media, indicated that, West African countries were being forced to open up their markets without being able to evaluate the cost and gains of the liberalization of ICT services.
This came out at a focused group discussion held by the Science and Technology Policy Research Institute (STEPRI) of Ghana last Wednesday as part of the LICOM project, a sub-regional study, which aims at contributing to a better understanding of international challenges of the liberalization of trade in ICTs under the WTO's General Agreements on Trade in Services (GATS).
The project, which comprised four countries, Ghana, Nigeria Senegal and Benin, also intends to encourage the formulation of public policies conducive to the development of ICT and private sector in the sub-region.
The participants also advocated a harmonization of national policies on ICTs and telecommunications in the region within the ECOWAS legal framework in the sector.
Even those who supported the liberalization of the sector in the light of the global GATS, which Ghana was a signatory, cautioned that the national efforts must be pursued with the recognition that the private sector's role was critical to the overall growth of the industry.
The group that appeared to be the most worried as it came up at the discussion was the software developers, who strongly intimated that current legislations on ICTs in the Ghana give them limited space to develop their creativities because of low recognition.
They said government definition of the ICT sector rested only on the so called “giant” operators such as mobile telecom operators and until recently the Internet Service Providers.
“But the small software developers who mostly comprised young graduates with fresh minds and constituted the majority of about 70 percent, are not so much counted,” they indicated.
Giving an overview of the LICOM project, Dr Godfred Frempong, Director of STEPRI said ICT domination in West Africa is still overwhelming and therefore there was the need to streamline public polices for member countries to take advantage of the numerous services and products the sector offers.
He said the ICT sector ought to be facilitated in its assimilation into the socio-economic activities of countries and this required commitment from governments and all stakeholders within the region.
Dr Frempong, who has carried many research activities in the field of ICT in Ghana, identified difficulties to access to finance, lack of human resources and inadequate policies as some of challenges the liberalization of ICTs poses to West Africa.
Under human resource for instance, he said, currently in Ghana, due to the inadequate expertise, many companies were using all kinds of means to poach skills workers from sister operators.
“This means that the few experts we have, kept moving from one company to another. We need to assist public policy making institutions to get deeper understanding of the trade liberalization on ICT goods as well as build more capacities,” he added.
The International Development and Research Centre (IDRC) are funding the LICOM project with PANOS Institute of West Africa coordinating with the support of Ghana's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research through STEPRI.