If only this was a tale of thrills and great adventure in the land formerly know as the Gold Coast. Re-living the pleasures of the gold explorers of centuries past, or the horrors of Africans in the prime of their lives dragged in slavery.
But alas, this is not the case; the streets are not paved with gold, but lined with countless hawkers, selling everything from foodstuffs to fake manufactured goods. A Ghanaian colleague laments "They are selling dog collars, when we don't have dogs in Ghana". A hyperbole, but the point is clear. And yet, at least for some, there is indeed a pot of gold somewhere, if the number of Benzes, BMWs, Jaguars, Range Rovers and the like, whizzing past the hawkers, are anything to go by.
I was in Accra to attend the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) African Region preparatory committee conference for the second phase of the WSIS due to be held in Tunis, Tunisia in November 2005. Such conferences are always nice to attend, a chance to exercise your intellectual muscle in the company of the leading minds in the information Society in Africa and globally, while working for the good of mankind. The A-list of ICT in Africa was present, and even if you would consider yourself lucky to be on the F-list in the social and/or economic circles in your home country, this was your opportunity to be a "somebody". You can go home and hold you head high and say I contributed to making decisions that will affect the whole world.
But did we make decisions that improve the lives of ordinary people; my thoughts are drawn back to the hawkers, risking their lives dodging traffic in the scorching heat just to earn a few Cedes (the local currency) for that night's meal. I'm filled with compassion for them, especially when one young lady approaches our car as we stop at a traffic light. Unfortunately for her, we are not buying anything, but we have time to speak to her as a fellow human being. Its heartbreaking to find out that she recently finished high school, but was unable to go on to tertiary level education. No one will even consider her for a "decent" job with only a high school certificate, but she has used her canning, self motivation and hard work to make a living, and isn't this what the potential employers that turned her away were looking for.
As I enter the Accra International Conference Center for another day of meetings, the question for me is; how can ICT be used to intervene positively in her life as well as keep the millions of young girls and boys in school from ending up with a career in "car-dodging". What are we doing about it? I sit in a few meetings to find out. On occasion I venture to make a contribution, but pressed for time, the meeting chairperson can only give the floor to so many as time will allow, and by default A-list members get first take. I make a mental note to speak to one of my friends among the conference organisers about the time provided for contributions from the house, and I'm even more encouraged about the organisation of future events, when the chair of one of the sessions (a cabinet minister from South Africa) notes that the organisers should have had a smaller panel, with more time for contributions from the house. But I digress.
What are we doing to improve the lives of ordinary people like the hawker, Miss Ghana, (I unfortunately, didn't get her name)? I'd imagine the youth and gender caucuses would be here specifically to address this young lady's issues, so what were their recommendations? From the youth caucus; maximize the use of ICTs in the creation of employment and 'wealth' opportunities for youth and governments should commit resources and political will towards the translation of past recommendations into visible and sustainable action. The gender caucus suggested ensure political commitment and implementation of gender equality and address women's economic empowerment issues in order for them to effectively participate and benefit from ICTs. They and other caucuses and groups also make mention of the Millennium Development Goals or MDGs and WSIS targets on poverty reduction, health services, access to information, governance etc.
All this is nice and dandy, but what does it really mean. It is my personal (un-researched) opinion that most of Africa will not meet these targets. What with armed conflict in more countries on the continent than I'd like to count, including my own, Uganda, constitutional violations, corruption etc, who are we fooling, but ourselves. I brought this up with a delegate at the conference, and to say I was disappointed with the response I got, is putting it diplomatically. The image of Miss Ghana, sweat running down her beautiful face in free-flow mode, and the millions of poor taxpayers whose money paid for delegates to attend the conference to make wise choices for them, flash across my mind. What will I tell her the next time I stop at "her" traffic light.
It's great that we have global targets to guide our activities, but if we know that we won't meet those targets, we should have a back-up plan in place already. For instance, if we can't make all the MGDs in 2015, what plans do we have to meet any missed targets by a later date, say 2020, or are we waiting for the rest of the world to meet the 2015 targets, set new targets for 2030, then we shift focus to those targets irrespective of whether or not we met the 2015 targets. Among my learned friends in the ICT sector, there is a sweet phrase "leapfrog". New information and communication technologies will help us leapfrog this, that and the other. But are we forgetting that there is a process to everything, one must crawl before you can walk, walk before you can run and run before you can leap. Ask any athlete worth his/her salt about the value of a good run-up before a jump. The question then is where is Africa, are we crawling, walking, or running, to take full advantage of this leap-frogging ICT revolution.
I leave you with what, for me at least, was the most enduring image from the conference. What are we doing in the ICT4D campaign, running with the horses or sleeping with the dogs?