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The Impact of Connectivity in Africa: Grand Visions and the Mirage of Inclusive Digital Development

My colleagues Nicolas Friederici, Sanna Ojanperä, and I have recently finished a paper in which we analyse ‘Grand Visions’ of how Internet connectivity affects development in Africa. In the paper, we contrast these visions with the actually available empirical evidence to support those claims. You will be able to read our full conclusions in the paper below:

Friederici, N. Ojanperä, S., and Graham, M. 2017. The Impact of Connectivity in Africa: Grand Visions and the Mirage of Inclusive Digital Development. Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries. 79(2) 1-20. 

We show that the evidence base to support the claim that Internet connectivity has a vast positive or “transformative” impact on development in Africa is thin. More worryingly, once we see the techno-determinist and modernist assumptions at the core of many visions, visions of rapid development precipitated though ICTs might not just fail to achieve their goals (even on their own terms), they could actively undermine those very efforts in a world of scarce resources.

Here are some excerpts as a preview of the paper:

Development has always grappled with why some people and places have much more than others. Yet much of that conversation is lost within contemporary discourses of ICTs and development. As states and organisations rush to develop policies and plans to build drones and balloons, lay fibre-optic cables, and find other ways to connect the disconnected, much is said about the power of ICTs to positively transform the world’s most underprivileged people and places.

This is because ‘self-evident’ discourses of connectivity, like modernist visions before them offer a powerful, aspatial and ahistorical teleology (Graham et al., 2015). This allows policymakers to point to new technological fixes instead of focusing on how the political economy of any given context works to allocate power and wealth.

Visions and aspirations of transformation through connectivity are thereby able to drive concrete government projects and development funding. Hardly any dependable aggregate figures of funding and subsidies are available; many development actors are not accountable to tax payers (such as philanthropic organisations) and thus do not disclose their spending. Heeks (2009) uses official development assistance data as a proxy and concludes that ‘hundreds of millions of US dollars per year are invested in [ICT for development] projects; and that tens of billions of US dollars per year are invested in… infrastructure.’ The World Bank, as an example of a large development organisation, spent US$4.2 billion for ICT programming from 2003 to 2010 (Independent Evaluation Group, 2011), and is currently investing about US$1.2 billion in grants and loans for regional connectivity infrastructure programmes in Africa (Navas-Sabater, 2015). Rockefeller’s digital jobs programme, as an example of an initiative without infrastructure investments, provides US$100 million across Africa. Irrespective of how we measure the specifics, it is clear that huge sums have been, and continue to be, invested in the area.

Admittedly, it is impossible to establish a direct, causal connection between the discourses we have outlined and the myriad decisions that go into such ‘digital development’ spending. Still, our analysis highlights the ubiquity and assertiveness of discourses that are optimistic about the impacts and potentials of connectivity. It is clear that the productive power of these discourses provides a fertile ground for the argumentation of actors seeking to set up connectivity infrastructure, run Internet-related development projects, or sell equipment and services connected to the agenda (see (Graham, 2015) for an example of how Kenyan ICT firms strategically deploy visions of changing connectivity). As just one example, in a recent presentation, the World Bank summarized the rationale for investments in a fibre network in Central Asia in unequivocal terms: ‘Improved Internet connectivity = Economic benefits’ (Navas-Sabater, 2015, p. 4). Such a simple rationale can only be credible if the audience is sufficiently credulous, and this credulity is what discourse produces.

Discourses of development have always produced and reproduced the very objects of their ‘concern’ (Escobar, 1995). We can take a lead from Ferguson’s (1994) prompt to ask ‘what do aid programmes do besides fail to help poor people?’ Our worry here is not just that the significant resources invested in connecting Africa’s disconnected will be wasted. It is rather that the Grand Visions of connectivity will themselves lead to an exacerbation of the very things that they purport to solve. For instance, by framing inequality as something that can be effectively tackled with more connectivity, we might take away focus from the structural economic processes bringing about widening inequalities. What is worse than a developmental intervention not working is believing that an important issue has been effectively addressed when it, in reality, clearly hasn’t.

It is possible that contemporary Grand Visions of connectivity are truly reflective of a promising future for ICTs and economic development. But it is equally possible that many of those visions are hugely overblown. The current evidence base is mixed and inconclusive. We therefore need to ensure that we do more to ask the organisations and entities who produce Grand Visions to justify their claims, refusing that it is self-evident that ICTs will automatically bring about development.

(Cross-posted from Mark Graham’s blog.)

Related work:

Graham, M. 2015. Contradictory Connectivity: Spatial Imaginaries and Techno-Mediated Positionalities in Kenya’s Outsourcing Sector. Environment and Planning A 47 867-883 (pre-publication version here).

Graham, M., Andersen, C., and Mann, L. 2015 Geographical Imagination and Technological Connectivity in East Africa. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 40(3) 334-349. (pre-publication version here).

Facebook is no charity, and the ‘free’ in Free Basics comes at a price
https://theconversation.com/facebook-is-no-charity-and-the-free-in-free-basics-comes-at-a-price-52839
Who could possibly be against free internet access? This is the question that Mark Zuckerberg asks in a piece for the Times of India in which he claims Facebook’s Free Basics service “protects net neutrality”.

Free Basics is the rebranded Internet.org, a Facebook operation where by partnering with local telecoms firms in the developing world the firm offers free internet access – limited only to Facebook, Facebook-owned WhatsApp, and a few other carefully selected sites and services.

Zuckerberg was responding to the strong backlash that Free Basics has faced in India, where the country’s Telecom Regulatory Authority recently pulled the plug on the operation while it debates whether telecoms operators should be allowed to offer different services with variable pricing, or whether a principle of network neutrality should be enforced.

Not content to await the regulator’s verdict, Facebook has come out swinging. It has paid for billboardsfull-page newspaper ads and television ad campaigns to try to enforce the point that Free Basics is good for India’s poor. In his Times piece, Zuckerberg goes one step further – implying that those opposing Free Basics are actually hurting the poor.

He argued that “for every ten people connected to the internet, roughly one is lifted out of poverty”. Without reference to supporting research, he instead offers an anecdote about a farmer called Ganesh from Maharashtra state. Ganesh apparently used Free Basics to double his crop yields and get a better deal for his crops.

Zuckerberg stressed that “critics of free basic internet services should remember that everything we’re doing is about serving people like Ganesh. This isn’t about Facebook’s commercial interests”.

Zuckerberg’s indignation illustrates either how little he understands about the internet, or that he’s willing to say anything to anyone listening.

This is not a charity

First, despite his claims to the contrary Free Basics clearly runs against the idea of net neutrality by offering access to some sites and not others. While the service is claimed to be open to any app, site or service, in practice the submission guidelines forbid JavaScript, video, large images, and Flash, and effectively rule out secure connections using HTTPS. This means that Free Basics is able to read all data passing through the platform. The same rules don’t apply to Facebook itself, ensuring that it can be the only social network, and (Facebook-owned) WhatsApp the only messaging service, provided.

Yes, Free Basics is free. But how appealing is a taxi company that will only take you to certain destinations, or an electricity provider that will only power certain home electrical devices? There are alternative models: in Bangladesh, Grameenphone gives users free data after they watch an advert. In some African countries, users get free data after buying a handset.

Second, there is no convincing body of peer-reviewed evidence to suggest internet access lifts the world’s poor out of poverty. Should we really base telecommunications policy on an anecdote and a self-serving industry report sponsored by the firm that stands to benefit? India has a literacy rate of 74%, of which a much smaller proportion speak English well enough to read it. Literate English speakers and readers tend not to be India’s poorest citizens, yet it’s English that is the predominant language on the web. This suggests Free Basics isn’t suited for India’s poorest, who’d be better served by more voice and video services.

Third, the claim that Free Basics isn’t in Facebook’s commercial interest is the most outrageous. In much the same way that Nestlé offered free baby formula in the 1970s as development assistance to low-income countries – leaving nursing mothers unable to produce sufficient milk themselves – Free Basics is likely to impede commercial alternatives.

By offering free access Free Basics disrupts the market, allowing Facebook to gain a monopoly that can benefit from the network effects of a growing user base. Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society, in India, has aptly noted that expanding audience and consumer bases have long been as important as revenues for internet firms. Against Facebook’s immensely deep pockets and established user-base, homegrown competitors are thwarted before they even begin.

Poverty consists of more than just no internet

India will not always have low levels of internet access, this is not the issue – in fact Indian internet penetration growth rates are relatively high. Instead the company sees Free Basics as a means to establish a bridgehead into the country, establishing a monopoly before other firms move in.

There is decades of research about how best to help farmers like Ganesh: access to good quality education, healthcare, and water all could go a long way. But even if we see internet access as one of the key needs to be met, why would we then offer a restricted version?

In presenting Free Basics as an act of altruism Zuckerberg tries to silence criticism. “Who could possibly be against this?”, he asks:
What reason is there for denying people free access to vital services for communication, education, healthcare, employment, farming and women’s rights?
That is the right question, but Free Basics is the wrong answer. Let’s call a spade a spade and see Free Basics as an important part of the business strategy of one of the world’s largest internet corporations, rather than as a selfless act of charity.

This article was originally posted on The Conversation