Research 2015: The Digital Divide in LDCs of Africa with Focus on Ethiopia

The Digital Divide in LDCs of Africa with Focus on Ethiopia

Elizabeth Cox


While Western nations bask in the light of expanding global knowledge society benefits, less developed nations (LDCs) lag behind. Through connectivity via electronic means, citizens of developed nations gain access to information economy markets as well as the means to wield group political power. Even though shared human knowledge should theoretically be ubiquitous and not dependent upon material wealth, knowledge is, in fact, being packaged and distributed as an esoteric commodity available to those who are privileged to ‘connect’ mainly through possession of or access to electronic devices and Internet.

Nowhere is the digital divide more pronounced and economically segregationist than on the continent of Africa where the poorest countries in the world are located. Most of the countries designated by the United Nations as least developed are located in Africa (GPF, 2014). Ethiopia is on the top ten poorest nations list with 67% of the population in in poverty; 30% living on less than $1.25 per day (MPI, 2014). What is the state of ‘knowledge society’ in Africa? How is the inequity of the knowledge society gap reflected, localized, and magnified in the nation of Ethiopia?

Like other nations in Africa, Ethiopia has suffered from corrupt governments and political instability; even as Western scholars and leaders have promoted democracy as the ultimate system for germinating political freedom. The democratic dream has been an elusive but highly promoted goal in Ethiopia and other African nations. As the second most densely populated nation in Africa, Ethiopia is often the focus of international aid efforts and investment strategies, even as the nation harbors an excessively narrow and repressive media environment (Smith, 2014).

While overall economic growth has been spurred by Western aid over the last decade, disenfranchised Ethiopian farmers and other hard-working citizens have experienced incarceration and torture for speaking out about their economic hardships (Smith, 2014).

The Human Rights Watch investigation has exposed a media environment in Ethiopia that is totally controlled by the government. Surveillance of personal communications in the nation is appallingly intrusive; the government has complete access to all records of personal phone use. It is interesting to note that the presence of a U.S. military base in Ethiopia has led some political activists to posit that there is some form of Western support for the repressive media policy that grips Ethiopia (Smith, 2014).

Mimicking the ‘Chinese economic model’, the Ethiopian government acknowledges no connection between economic development and democratic principles. Leadership treats Ethiopian ‘tycoons’ with deference, while the rights of ordinary citizens to pursue their farming or other desired work unfettered are suppressed. Farmers have been displaced from their lands to make way for large lucrative industrial use of lands. Disjunction between economic progress and political freedom mirrors the chasm blocking citizens’ access to global knowledge society (Smith, 2014).

Public communication is the center of the democratic system and process. Media studies scholar Nicolas Garnham posits that in order to vote effectively, citizens must have “equal access to sources of information” as well as equal opportunity to participate in debates around political issues. Further, Garnham argues that changes in media structure or policy (whether related to economic cause or to public discourse) are political issues that are equal in importance to the democratic principle of proportional representation (Garnham, 2004).

First World efforts to intervene

As previously mentioned, Western-originated aid projects aimed at improving quality of life for Africans have proliferated in the last few years. This increase is due in part to the publication of articles by renowned Western economists spotlighting hardships experienced by citizens of Africa’s LDC nations. Western governments have also focused on the plight of Africans by creating policy initiatives directed toward promoting development in Africa (Easterly, 2009).

Two general approaches have been utilized by Western interventionists in the effort to aid development: 1) the ‘transformational’ approach and 2) the ‘marginal’ approach (Easterly, 2009). The transformational approach favors actions that promulgate accelerated overall social and economic change in order to bring Africa out of poverty. Transformational approach has been generally less successful in terms of quantitative positive results and has been characterized by frustration linked to poor results. Frustration, in turn, has led to tendencies to ramp-up or increase efforts based on the assumption that amplification of failed techniques will then yield better results. On top of these faulty techniques to aid Africa, there exists a dynamic which economist William Easterly has termed ‘the cycle of ideas’, whereby failed ideas are set aside or forgotten only to be resurrected and tried again later. The cycle is perpetuated, as Western organizations evidence a sort of learning disability when it comes to systematic analysis of what works and what does not work to help African nations develop (Easterly, 2009).

Northern Hemisphere UN member nations including England, Germany, Japan, and the U.S. have pledged billions to help bring Africa out of poverty during the first decade of the 21st century. On the list of aid priorities agreed upon in the 2000 UN Summit ‘Millennium Development Goals’ to be achieved by 2015 were the following objectives for Africa:

  • Reduce poverty by one half
  • Achieve universal primary school enrollment
  • Reduce infant mortality
  • Increase gender equality
  • Create more availability of clean water

These goals were even more ambitious considering the context of civil wars and fragile governments prevalent in the region. Forgiveness of loan debts has also been part of the agenda promoted to help bring African nations out of poverty (Easterly, 2009).

The ‘marginal’ approach to aid has yielded some success in enhancing quality of life for individual Africans. While much of the Western effort to aid Africa has been fraught with pressure to ‘push’ for rapid change, efforts toward more incremental gradual changes have had greater positive results. Small programs aimed at helping specific groups in a community in specific ways have been the most successful programs. Top-down management style and centralized development planning are characteristic of transformational approach. Marginal approach programs are not centralized and rely on grassroots individual agency and implementation. African traditions and social norms must be taken into consideration when outside sources of aid attempt to rapidly inject change into social systems that have evolved over the millennium. (Easterly, 2009).

Economic theories pushing ‘balanced’ all-at-once growth progress in Africa versus those touting ‘unbalanced’ incremental growth have been debated by Western scholars for decades. Proponents of general equilibrium put forth that help from prosperous Northern Hemisphere nations may be a necessary intervention to spur escape from the poverty trap. All & all, the debate implies that the Western scholarly perspective on Africa’s struggle is most astute; and that a Western-outsider solution will provide the magic panacea. Structural adjustment practices have added fuel to the debate as part of the transformational approach to social and economic advancement (Easterly, 2009).

The ‘invisible hand’ philosophy of mainstream market economists postulates that economic problems will self-correct in a free market environment. Lack of access to markets of the global information economy precludes the free market solution to Africa’s digital disconnect (Easterly, 2009). In sociologist Manuel Castell’s view, informational capitalism is a new form of capitalism that was born of the 1970’s economic crises rooted in dependence on production of material goods and crystalized by monopoly oil production’s stranglehold on Western culture. Development of new information technologies provided a way out of the dilemma (Frank Webster, 2004). Widespread open citizen access to information society bridges which in turn connect and underpin information economy markets may very well provide a route for Africans searching for the path out of poverty and injustice.

In this charged atmosphere of conflicting political and economic theories, stirred by the greed of ‘boom’ economics, smelted with human rights violations, and tempered by African cultural traditions and mores, the sword of the ‘knowledge society’ phenomenon is poised to strike on behalf of the most vulnerable of our global neighbors – those citizens who have been impoverished and exploited for most of modern times on the continent of Africa.

The nature of digital divide

What factors are to be taken into consideration when formulating a macro definition of ‘digital divide’? The scope of the term digital divide encompasses both technological and human factors. Digital divide refers to both lack of Internet access and how effectively available access is utilized and information is gleaned by consumers. Manuel Castells’ definition of digital divide includes “inequality of access to the Internet”; he sees access as “a requisite for overcoming inequality in a society which dominant functions and social groups are increasingly organized around the Internet”(Castells, 2002). Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has put forth that the freedom to communicate freely and transnationally must be acknowledged as a basic human right of global citizens and as important as food, shelter, and jobs (ITU, 1999). Closing the global digital gap will require changes to the structure of societies as well as adoption of innovative technology (Fuchs & Horak, 2008).

Social media scholar Christian Fuchs describes the nucleus of societal structure as consisting of three subsystems: 1) the economic system – concerned with property and material values 2) the political system – where power is distributed and decisions are collectively made; 3) the cultural system – where skills, meaning, and competencies are developed (Fuchs & Horak, 2008). These subsystem categories echo sociologist/philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s view of society as structured around designations of economic, political, and cultural capital (Fuchs & Horak, 2008). Societies having higher levels of material wealth accompanied by more access to education are more likely to have the access to information technology that is critical to success in the emerging global information society and connected markets.

Closing the digital divide requires material access to hardware, software applications, and networks; at the same time, usage skills and competencies to operate hardware and software must be acquired via social learning channels or school systems. Government institutions and agencies must support citizens’ universal rights of access to information online: the knowledge distribution system. Benefits of open access must be of value to individuals and to society as a whole (Fuchs & Horak, 2008). The dilemma: even as wealth is key to access to modern technology, adoption of modern technologies by citizens of Ethiopia is key to alleviation of poverty.

Considering that social learning is the prevalent way of sharing and distributing knowledge of technology in less developed countries, the importance of social networking channels cannot be overstated (Liverpool-Tasie & Winter-Nelson, 2012). Even though ICT (information and communication technology) services are relatively inexpensive in Ethiopia, high tax rates on devices have made the price of ICT devices unaffordable for low income citizens. (Ethiopia’s device tax rates are higher than those of neighbor countries.) Wireless equipment is pivotal to technological advancement. According to data gathered by a major wireless phone service provider, access to emerging markets in the region is reliant on wireless devices more so than on computers (ICTET, 2010). 2009 statistics placed the number of wireless subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa at 39% of population; but the Ethiopian percentage lagged at a dismal 5% of population. Add to this bleak picture the prediction by marketers that wireless devices, not PCs, will provide the main points of access to Internet for consumers in new emerging markets (ICTET, 2010).

Channels of social learning and networking are a conduit for political upheaval and rebellion where citizens are repressed or over-surveilled. Oppressive governments typically seek to stifle citizen communication via social media platforms in order to deter groups from forming alliances to work for political reform.

                                         Political aspects of the digital divide problem

What are government and NGO organizations doing to enhance progress toward global knowledge society integration for Ethiopia and Africa as a whole? Has intervention by Western organizations yielded positive outcomes?  At the Okinawa Summit of 2000, G8 nations promoted a new impetus to ‘bridge the digital divide’ in Africa – sidestepping focus on issues of critical importance to Africa including general poverty and burdensome debt. The driving premise for this emphasis on bridging the divide is the theory/prediction that ‘knowledge economy’ will hold the brightest future promise for post-industrial societies (Alden, 2003).             Critics of the G8 initiative question why the digital divide is weighted as a top development issue. Supporters of the initiative see technological advancement in Africa and the Southern Hemisphere in general as the platform to ‘leapfrog forward’ into post-industrial knowledge society status (Alden, 2003).

Existing communication infrastructure in Africa is outdated, dilapidated, and mainly composed of wire cable used for land line services. African governmental telecom monopolies encumber efforts aimed at improvement of infrastructure. In spite of the political and structural quagmire, technophiles see the antiquated infrastructure as a boon to acceptance and creation of new information networks and tout WIFI via satellite connection as a way to virtually leap over problems inherent in old land line systems. Western political consensus generally supports this perspective (Alden, 2003).

Success of East Asian economies as a result of strong export-led economic growth has undermined some of the Northern political resolve to tackle Southern poverty by means of economic aid. The ‘trade not aid’ approach solution has gained popularity. An Aspen Institute report analyzing the effects of information access as a remedy to poverty recommended a combination of technological advancement and traditional economic aid methods as the best formula (Alden, 2003).

The Western technology boom of the late 1990’s helped solidify belief in the efficacy of a development agenda rooted in eliminating digital divide in Africa. But even as cellphone use in the African continent is growing rapidly, WFI access lags far behind. WIFI is a crucial element in order for the ‘leapfrog theory’ to be born out boosting Africa into 21st century multimedia competency (Alden, 2003).

Ambitious Western (i.e. World Bank) efforts to materialize online distance learning systems and eliminate the necessity for local teachers and school buildings have foundered, due in great part to lack of electricity. Insecure electrical services fraught with surges and failures damage hardware components. Computer maintenance is expensive. Slow download speeds are counterproductive in a virtual classroom setting (Alden, 2003).

Added to maintenance problems, the high degree of illiteracy in Ethiopia makes utilization of the Internet resources extremely challenging (Alden, 2003). This cultural deficit in terms of technology skills required to reap benefits of connectivity is an elephant-in-the-room that First World politicians often overlook when formulating grandiose ‘leapfrog’ schemes to fix Africa’s information society deficit.

What is happening locally where government funded telecenters have been set up in rural areas of Ethiopia and other African countries (Koma, 2014)? Are people using these facilities to utilize Internet opportunities? Researchers have found most users underutilize Internet access while taking advantage of telephone access, copiers, and fax machines (Alden, 2003).

The G8 Okinawa Charter on Global Information Society (MOFA, 2000) developed at the 2000 Okinawa Summit prescribed neo-classical methods to spur economic growth through technology in Africa – an approach blind to the specific conditions of less developed nations of the South (Alden, 2003). Highly indebted poor countries (HIPCs) have been considered by the World Bank, IMF, and G8 for debt reduction and/or forgiveness (IMF, 2015), but the relief is connected to structural adjustment requirements.

African countries cannot participate effectively in e-commerce proffered by the WTO, as the continent’s access technology does not measure up to technological standards essential to equitable trade. The Web itself is largely governed and in the hands of Northern developed nations. Internet markets are geared to Northern business modes conducted to a great extent in English language (Alden, 2003). ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) serves interests of the global North, while the South is underrepresented in protocol decisions, although ICANN has announced a ‘new approach to Africa’ in 2012 with the goal of increasing presence there (White, 2012). Failure of Northern organizations to recognize and give voice to the unique economic barriers present in Africa reflects the political divide between North and South that must be bridged in order for the digital gap to be remedied.

In the early 2000’s Ethiopia’s government had already made IT a priority. E-government systems were in place and being expanded to connect the capital to outlying government offices. The country was spending one tenth of Ethiopia’s GDP per year on IT. Optical fiber was installed where possible to replace old land wiring. The goal was to connect schools and government offices via Internet and strengthen communication between government branches. Improvements to telecommunications were accomplished as a joint venture between Western contractor Cisco Systems, South African Business Connexion, and the publicly owned government-controlled Ethiopian Telecom Corporation (Cross, 2005).

The outcome of this IT push ten years later is a heavily surveilled cellphone system in Ethiopia monitored by government agencies in order to spot possible political activists and dissenting citizens. This scenario highlights the risks of empowering repressive Third World governments with superior IT, while citizens remain technologically disenfranchised.

The plight of Ethiopian women in terms of equal access represents an under layer of the tiered system of digital deprivation. Housework responsibilities, cultural traditions, social norms, and general economic marginalization serve to confine and suppress women’s acquisition of technology skills (Taddese, 2010). Feminist literature abounds with studies expounding the exploitation of women in the South, as they are denied basic rights and exploited for labor purposes. Fear that education of women through knowledge society channels may cause a shift in dogmatic cultural norms may be a factor in the slow adoption of new technologies in male dominant societies. Access to knowledge society skills and resources via the Web will help Ethiopian women overcome the gender divide over time.

Possible solutions to the digital divide dilemma

Some scholars hold the view that the digital divide will continue to broaden and fester globally in LDCs such as Ethiopia. Fuchs proffers a more positive alternative future through six possible strategies based on various premises:

1) Wait and see if technology access becomes cheaper over time, as electricity, telephone,

television, and automobiles did after their initial introduction.

2) Get less developed countries entered into global markets and competing so as to  ‘leapfrog’  typical historical stages of progress toward development.

This is possible in part because wireless technology is free of copper wire cable infrastructure requirements.

3) Injections of foreign wealth to percolate increased prosperity for LDCs thereby                                                 opening avenues of equal access.

4) Transport old computer hardware plus open source software from Western                                             developed nations to LDCs. This is weak solution, as it carries the risk of creating electronic waste sites of slower out-of-date processors lacking expansion or upgrade options. This strategy also carries the risk of another form of technology       divide between LDCs and Western counties that access the global Internet and markets using fast state-of-the art technology.

5) Do less developed nations have critical need for advanced technology at all? –  According to this premise, there are more critical problems in undeveloped nations such as health, illiteracy, lack of clean water, and lack of electricity.

6) An integrated approach incorporating redistribution of wealth on a global scale, adequate public access to computers and Internet, and implementation of health  and education systems including digital literacy training (Fuchs & Horak, 2008).

                                      Innovations to help resolve the energy and hardware shortages

Recent technological innovations may offer solutions to the shortage of computer hardware and shortage of electricity to charge and run hardware in Ethiopia and other less developed countries.  Lack of electricity is a major problem deterring Ethiopia’s technological advancement. According to 2014 World Bank statistics, the percentage of Ethiopia’s population with access to electricity is a dire 23% (, 2014). A 1000 megawatt geothermal plant is in the planning stages to be built in Ethiopia in the near future. Upon completion, it will be the largest geothermal operation in Africa and will provide enough power to serve approximately 2,000,000 residences in Ethiopia. The project is to be financed by private sector corporations in agreement with the Ethiopian government. President Obama has promoted a “Power Africa” initiative which is aimed at combining U.S. technology expertise with private industry interests and regulatory changes to increase energy availability to sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to these new possible sources of energy, Ethiopia has large reserves of natural gas that have not been tapped (Sauers, 2014).

One promising innovation for alleviating Ethiopia’s electricity deficit is a new product line introduced in 2015 by Tesla Motors: residential and business batteries. The residential version is labeled Powerwall Home Battery. Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk envisions the system as viable way to eventually bring electric power to those outside the grid in less developed regions (Woodyard, 2015).

Facebook has announced early in 2015 testing of a prototype solar-powered drone which can potentially provide Internet access to remote areas where Internet has not been available. The craft will have a wingspan close to that of a 737 jet plane and will run off solar panels mounted on the wings staying aloft for up to three months at time (Hurst, 2015). This project holds promise for helping Ethiopian citizens bypass bureaucracy and infrastructure failures to get Internet in rural off-the-grid areas in the foreseeable future – provided the government does not attempt to constrict and control this type of access as it has in the case of other communication channels.

A startup company in California has begun funding its new breakthrough tech innovation through Kickstarter crowd-funding online. The device called ‘Chip’ is a small computer with a 1-gigahertz processor, 512 megabytes of RAM, and 4 gigs of storage designed to retail for $9. The deck-of-cards size computer will have capability to run Chrome browser for Internet use; it will run the LibreOffice application to create documents and spreadsheets; it also supports game creation and play. Approximately 4.4 billion people globally have no access to Internet (Cava, 2015) Devices such as this cheap handheld processor may be the missing link that marginalized people of Africa and the global South have been waiting for. The first manufactured Chips will be shipped in fall 2015 to investors initially.

In 2013 Microsoft began testing a system using unused ‘white spaces’ in the TV broadcast spectrum to deliver broadband access to rural African areas. The system requires access to WIFI connected to white space stations (Kermeliotis, 2013). Since shortage of WIFI is a major block to technological advancement in rural Africa, a large scale version of the Microsoft system may be dependent on other technological breakthroughs yet to be initialized. Government stronghold on all areas of electronic communication in Ethiopia and other countries creates more hurdles in the way of implementation.

Conclusion: The information revolution

            What is the solution to global knowledge inequality? A combination of many approaches will be necessary to effectively open paths for Ethiopians and citizens of other less developed countries to further assert their rights as informed global citizens. In order to establish universal access to knowledge capital flowing in the global knowledge stream and to effectively establish truly (theoretically self-correcting) free markets, a higher consciousness must take hold in the global human psyche. World leaders and citizens of the global Internet must acknowledge the primitive barbaric nature of a world divided into information society ‘haves and have-nots’.

Perhaps the establishment of an equal-participation global information society will require much time and patience on the part of activists and advocates. History has shown that some repressive systems of segregation were only dissolved as power brokers ‘aged out’ of the political systems. Decades after the Emancipation Proclamation was put in place, African Americans were still waiting and working for reforms to take place in America to realize equality.

In the long run, actions to block the revolution of global equal access are futile and will disappear from future civilized societies as fear-mongering political leaders will age out of the global social systems. For those of us who seek more rapid change commensurate with the capabilities of the high speed electronic era, the possibilities of ‘leapfrog’ breakthroughs through never before dreamt of technologies may be the star to follow. Our collective imagination is the only limitation.


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