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Using the Internet for social change in Africa

15 May, 2008
By Allison Orr

On 7 and 8 May, about 400 delegates from 33 countries met in Windhoek, Namibia, as part of the IST Africa 2008 conference.  IST-Africa 2008 is the third in an annual series of conferences which bring together delegates from commercial, government and research organizations from Africa and Europe to work towards bridging the digital divide.  The main topic of the conference was to discuss how to use information and communication technology (ICT) to advance socio-economic development in Africa.

Opening the conference, Namibian Education Minister, Nangolo Mbumba described an ICT education program that had begun being rolled out at schools, called Techn/Na, which is aimed at integrating ICT into the education system and has already won awards both internationally and locally as being a well-developed enhanced ICT learning programme.

The use of ICT with innovation as a driving force can curb poverty and rural under-development," Mbumba said.  He also highlighted the problem Africa faces with a general lack of in-house expertise as recruiting and retaining sufficiently quality specialists is a problem.

Bridging the digital divide between Africa and Europe is an enormous task however.  While the head of the United Nations International Telecommunications Union (ITU) recently noted that Africa has been the fastest growing economy worldwide in communication technology over the past three years, most of this appears to be in the mobile phone sector.  Growth in Internet access is still lagging.  In 2007, there were an estimated 50 million Internet users in Africa, an average of only one person in 20.  In sub-saharan Africa, only about 3 per cent of the population is online.

This hasn’t stopped the Internet becoming a useful tool for activists in some African countries.    Sokwanele-Zvakwana is a pro-democracy civic organization in Zimbabwe using new media tools as part of its non-violent campaigns for democracy and rule of law.  They created a Google map for mapping election rigging using data from their Zimbabwean Election Watch series.  They are also on Facebook, have a channel on YouTube and a Flickr account showing an Album of Terror of state brutality.  Zimbabweans have also been blogging, using the Internet as an outlet for political discussion and commentary which would otherwise be closed in a country where media freedom is extremely restricted.  Global Voices has put together a list of Zimbabwean bloggers writing on the elections.

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