ICTs in Africa: US or China?

The Chinese presence in Africa has received considerable attention recently. The China-Africa Project have been detailing media accounts about China and Africa. In a study cited by the Economist and the Congressional Research Service, NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service estimated Chinese government aid to African countries in 2007 at $25 billion. A relatively small proportion of Chinese aid can be described as “official government aid”. For the most part, it consists of loans and investments in infrastructure projects, and resource extraction.

The Dilemma at the Heart of America’s Approach to Africa, the Atlantic 15/06/2012

The Chinese presence in Africa, has also given rise of discussions comparing the approach to African development adopted by China to that of the US, and the West more broadly. A recent article in the Atlantic, summarizes the dilemma at the heart of the American approach. With questionable allies in South Sudan, Uganda and Burkina Faso, the role of the US as as an supporter of democratic governance and free institutions is less than obvious. Alternatively, the Chinese have adopted an approach which follows the principle of “doing good, while doing well”. The Chinese discourse is dominated by “win-win” situations and the strong opportunities for economic gains on the African continent. It is largely oblivious of democratic governance and institutional change.

In China, Mobile Trumps PCs In Web Access, Reuters

Within this background, it is informative to situate developments in ICT adoption and use in Africa. Telecoms and IT are sector which can be very closely related to political upheaval and change. US Internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook and Google have been present within the context of the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Lybia.  USAID, alongside with development agencies such as SIDA and CIDA, is a leading development partner in Africa which supports information technology interventions. Even though they are funded from the West, the success of IT interventions in Africa is largely dependent on cost-efficient solutions, offered in Africa by Chinese suppliers. The market for devices is flooded by Chinese phones, with features and functionalities developed in China which match the developing country context much more closely than products targeted at Western consumers. See box 2.7 for the review “Mobile Phones with Features Attract Rural Users in China and Beyond”.

Recent reports show that mobile has surpassed PC as a channel for access to the Web in China. Mobile phone access to the Internet rose by 22.2% and in rural areas 60% of Internet users were doing so via a mobile device. These trends, alongside with the specific technical advantages of Asian and Western ICT suppliers, and the strong political positions of the leaders on either side – China and the US – raise the question of dominance in the emerging ICT sector in Africa. The answer will unfold at the intersection of the rapidly evolving technology landscape and the much more inert paradigm set in politics and development aid.

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