It's not about what Africa can learn from the West, but what the West can learn from Africa

We interviewed Mirjam van Reisen, the Director of Europe External Policy Advisors, the Secretary General of the Europe External Programme with Africa (EEPA), and Professor at Leiden and Tilburg University. As an expert on the convergence of ICT and social issues in the African region, we are thrilled to have her join the 8th EAI International Conference on e-Infrastructure and e-Services for Developing Countries – AFRICOMM 2016 – taking place in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in just two weeks. The “West” has come to take many advancements in ICT for granted, but what meaning do these tools take in such a different part of the globe? And what are the takeaways? Let’s find out.
The development and uptake of ICT has been incredibly rapid in the West. What are the lessons learned from those experiences, which we can apply to the development of e-Infrastructure and services in Africa?
It is true that the ICT revolution is going really fast. I think actually that the West can learn something from Africa. What the West can learn from Africa is two things.
First of all, African inventions are showing us that the context of ICT design matters a great deal. This context matters in terms of how culture functions or what social aspects are relevant to that situation. But localization is also important to understand what technologies work or do not work.  Africa’s creativity has developed taking into account the specifics given in Africa. This shows us something in the West and that is that development is never a unilinear process. We can see that ICT design carries human intent. It is also shaped by the specifics of a certain environment.
A good example is mobile money. Because many people in Africa care strongly about relatives and communities back home and banking systems have not included such services, mobile money has been developed as a great discovery. It takes care of needs that are particular to Africa and which make very much sense in the strong social ties that are important in African settings. It has used the mobile phone technology rather than the internet which would not have worked in the African rural areas.
So we learn from this to understand system diversity and that ICT design has to be contextualized.
The second point I would like to make is that Africa is leading us in the West to reflect on how we protect ICT design as a common good that inclusively contributes to society. In the West, ICT has brought good things, but it has also created a lot of anxiety. People are losing their jobs due to automation, they feel that they have lost a human response to their problems and are treated as if they are machines. They also fear the surveillance through the internet and the mobile phone data that are available to authorities. People generally feel more vulnerable because of all the technology that is around them and replacing human dimensions.
If I travel in Africa I see that the mobile phone has brought communities together. I see lots of young people with jobs in the phone industry, technicians to repair the phones, I see that mobile money is helping people socially to improve their situation and the help them respond to crises. In Africa, the ICT has helped to increase resilience and to socially bring people together. In the West we need to learn from this.
You mention “Data revolution” in the title of your keynote; could you elaborate on what kind of revolution is taking place in Africa in terms of data and knowledge innovation?
The data revolution is a global phenomenon and Africa is part of this. Whether by phones, satellites, or any other way, data are produced and available and if these data are combined they give a lot of information. This has a lot of potential to improve things, such as for instance health care. It also offers incredible challenges. These include for instance the privacy of personal data. This is a very sensitive and important issue that we need to consider when we look at how to advance eHealth for the benefit of the populations in our societies, both in the West and in Africa. This is a common challenge we face.
In Europe we are working on a process to make data FAIR. FAIR is an acronym that stands for Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable. This protocol for data would help to use data better but to also ensure that the data are better protected.  FAIR data would then be able to be linked in a distributed internet of data – where data are available for analysis or research under well defined conditions.
ICT certainly helps facilitate collaboration and streamline processes. But how far does it reach in terms of addressing complex social issues that developing regions – especially those more impoverished – are facing? What are ICT’s limits?
ICTs have no limits but we need to understand how ICTs are used within particular social, political and cultural realities. ICTs can be used for good things but also for bad things. ICTs have unintended effects. A technical solution might create unexpected new problems because it amplifies existing power differences. A good example is human trafficking for ransom. This practice of extorting people by ICT communication and forcing payments through mobile money was not possible previously. Refugees make use of the new communication means, but the traffickers with stronger means and networks can make better use of these ICTs and therefore they have gained the upperhand allowing them to exploit migrants in more vulnerable positions.
Conversely, what kind of ICT innovations bring the most significant benefits to people in these regions? And what room for improvement is there for those innovations?
Mobile money is fantastic. It helps to link wealthier areas with more remote or isolated areas. We now see that the volume of cross-border remittances has rapidly increased. It is four times the volume of international aid. It is also elastic. Especially when situations are hard, the remittances will increase and not decrease. It is support between relatives, friends and communities and therefore, technology reaches people and households directly. This is amazing and it will strengthen solidarity networks between people in different parts of the world. It helps create a global world of Ubuntu, of care. This shows that indigenous discovery and development of ICTs in Africa is the key to moving forward in digital Africa.
I thank you for this interview and I wish you a very good conference.

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The pleasure is ours.