What the German government thinks a “Strategic Partnership for a ‘Digital Africa’” should look like

It was coincidence that the #HackingTeam story broke while I was drafting this post.
In one way, these two posts are very much unrelated, but in other ways there is a narrative that binds them together: While
‘digital development’, ICT4D and ICT4Bad happen right here and now, the German ministry for development cooperation (BMZ) presents a policy document entitled Strategic Partnership for a ‘Digital Africa
that is much more a contribution to development discourse bullshit bingo than to innovative digital strategies. 
 
I don’t know whether the fact that the document’s generic language could be used for pretty much any development topic, the one-sided embracement of ‘the private sector’ or the blatant ignorance of ‘digital development’ in Africa are the most striking aspects of this policy document, but it is a very revealing example of how a traditional bilateral agency thinks about ICT4D.


Digital Africa presumably starts with assembling IT hardware...


The world of words of the BMZ
For someone who is professionally interested in development language, discourse and communication the interchangeable language is almost too easy to point out: If you change 2-3 words, this could easily be sold as a Strategic Partnership for Education, Maternal Health, Rural Agriculture or Inclusive Governance:

The strategic partnership aims to effectively support and underpin private investment and responsible business in the ICT sector through development cooperation measures. This will enable the sustainable management of economic results, and deliver positive economic, social and environmental benefits for the population of Africa.
But my favorite bullet point is along the lines of the infamous ‘your call is important to us’ customer service phone hotlines:
To support innovation and innovative approaches in partner countries, the BMZ will make this a cross-cutting issue in all priority areas for sustainable and inclusive development in Africa.
Just add ‘innovation’ to the ‘gender’, ‘participation’, ‘good governance’ and ‘peacebuilding’ cross-cutting themes and miracles will happen…

You may want to argue that this is only a short strategic policy document, but if the ICT sector is about to transform Africa, why do you send out the message that this is just another trend or fad in development policy thinking? It is the same thinking that on the one hand encourages participation (‘we would be pleased if you could join us’) and then only provides an email and phone number.

ICT4D is apolitical, of course
I don’t just want to blame German development bureaucrats; I have been to several events recently where politicians, policy-makers, academics and civil society representatives sit around tables and discuss ‘the Internet’ like it’s 2004. None of the debates we currently have in the global North (net neutrality, WWW infrastructure, surveillance, privacy, oligopolistic structures etc.) is discussed in the context of ‘Africa’. ‘Africa’ is still a mystical place where Google and Microsoft support education, open data activists hold governments accountable and mobile phones improve the lives of men, women and children. Oh, and there are start-ups and incubators that can’t wait to scale up their ideas for the greater good, you know, ‘disrupt’ like the good people in the Silicon Valley…

A very successful medium-sized German IT company has been selling surveillance technology to autocratic regimes in the Middle East and Africa-which actually reminds us of the importance of the #HackingTeam for foreign and development policy…but ICT4D is not political in official strategic documents and there will only be benefits that governments are happy to embrace all throughout ‘Africa’.

A digital strategy for ‘them’ – not for ‘us’
Another interesting aspect in many discussions, including this policy document, is the one-sided nature of digital development: We just continue sending tools to ‘Africa’. A bit of ‘dialogue’ and ‘networking’, some ‘basic infrastructure’ support, a bit of ‘training’, ‘long-term investment’ and the call for integration of ‘disadvantaged sections of the population (especially women and youth)’ and we will see growth, inclusive growth, of course.
Other than stressing the role of the ‘private sector’ (which has been done now for 10, 15 years) there is nothing in this document that suggests that ‘we’ on the donor and development implementation side are affected by the digital revolution in any way. The BMZ’s ways of working or its thinking around strategies seem to be unaffected by the speed and pervasiveness of change and innovation in ‘Africa’. 

Doesn't anybody think about the children, you know, those in blue school uniforms that signify 'the future'?! The private sector probably does, spreading electronic devices across the continent...

Is there really a role for a German development ministry in digital development?

I don’t think this is a simple, maybe even rhetorical question. As a recent article points out, a lot of interesting and innovative digital work happens outside the traditional realm of development cooperation. When global companies and/or venture capital move in or citizens develop unique solutions to local problems one of the last things that is needed are traditional, relatively small, bilateral donor agencies. Almost by definition innovation does not start in the offices of a ministry and inside bureaucratic structures. While those actors convene another conference or round-table to discuss a 2-page policy document, real change happens in real time ‘on the ground’. 

One of secretaries of state in the BMZ is already saying all the right words:
Let us take digitalisation seriously. Let us use the potential of ICT for development, address the digital and educational divide and build on that resourcefulness in our partnerships by advocating for digital rights and engaging in dialogue with the tech community, software developers, social entrepreneurs, makers, hackers, bloggers, programmers and internet activists worldwide.
But that doesn’t automatically mean that there is a full understanding of what those terms mean and how willing governments and other development actors are to embrace makers, hackers, bloggers’...it's easily said in the context of the re:publica conference.
Possibly entry points could be in communication, advocacy and ‘leading by example’: Push for ‘open development’ approaches, be the accountable and transparent organization you expect others to be, embrace digital strategies internally and be a critical voice in domestic or European debates. The most obvious approach for a political institution is to re-politicize an agenda, be a (small) critical voice when surveillance, democracy and other digital topics are debated, say, open educational resources, for example.

As I highlighted on this blog before, such an engagement was impossible under the previous minister, an arms lobbyist in disguise.
But Germany and the BMZ should take bolder steps to create a meaningful global digital strategy beyond ‘Africa’ and disrupt old habits and policy-bubble-speak!

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