With contributions from
US Agency for International Development
What governments should really fear is not rebels Governments are irritated about the Internet. Although they recognize
that the Internet The competition between market forces and national security needs
in the jungle but a communications expert.
- Linda Main
bears the prospect of substantial economic wealth for their societies, they find its
libertarian culture and contempt for national borders subversive and frankly terrifying.
- Marc Holitscher
will characterize the contest for Internet control.
- Giampiero Giacomello
What governments should really fear is not rebels
Governments are irritated about the Internet. Although they recognize
that the Internet
The competition between market forces and national security needs
It could be argued that growth in speculation about the impact of the Internet on modern society is exceeded only by the growth of the Internet itself. Articles routinely trumpet the perceived positive aspects of the Net, such as its supposedly decentralized, empowering nature, or the triumph of the global information infrastructure (Holitscher; Hoffman 2001; Halavais 2000). More recent analyses have highlighted potential problems of this global communications system, from the promotion of "American values" to the potential imperialism of a global e-commerce system and the need to "tame the net" through global governance (Giacomello; Main 2001).
And yet, many of these studies focus narrowly on the technical side of Internet development, with intricate discussions of bandwidth and packet-switching; or they engage in intellectual discourse about the effect of the Internet on the nation-state as a theoretical construct (Holitscher; Lloyd 2000). Less has been said about the effect that growth in Internet access is having on the relationship between state and society, particularly in the developing countries of Africa, and what the implications are for the political and economic development of these states.
In this article we discuss some of the impacts of the spread of the Internet on state-society relations in Africa. Specifically, we argue that the most profound effect of the Internet in these developing countries is to shift the balance of power between states and citizens, altering not only the "terms of the debate" if you will, but perhaps the debate itself. Looking at examples in Africa, we observe the consequences of these changing relationships played out in the political, economic and social arenas. Finally, we offer some suggestions on future trends.
Any discussion of the impact of the Internet in Africa requires a little perspective on the relative "spread" of the Internet to Africa as compared to the rest of the world. According to the latest report by Mike Jensen (2001), as of November 2000, all 54 countries and territories in Africa had achieved permanent connectivity. In addition, Nigeria's recent liberalization of telecom regulation holds the potential to vastly expand access and affordability in Africa's most populous state. Recent estimates of the total number of Internet subscribers in Africa are around 1.3 million. Of these, approximately 250,000 are in North Africa, and 750,000 in South Africa, with 300,000 divided among the remaining countries. The total number of users is estimated to be about 4 million - which works out to 1 per 200 people, compared with 1 to 30 worldwide and 1 to 3 in North America/Europe. Nonetheless, the growth of cybercafés throughout Africa is strong, which provides access to much larger numbers of people by removing the equipment barrier, though high cost remains an issue. The largest groups of users in Africa are non-governmental organizations (NGOs), private companies and universities.
Ironically, despite the more limited overall access to the Internet in these less developed countries, its impact is disproportionately greater because of the widespread problem of lack of access to information generally. For example, in African countries where democracy is a relatively new concept, access to a variety of information sources remains a challenge. Governments often control traditional means of communication, such as radio, newspapers or television; they may do so either directly (through regulations restricting private ownership) or indirectly (by raising the costs of obtaining licenses, newsprint, etc., for independent news media). In fact, even the most restrictive countries in Africa, such as Chad, Eritrea, and Sudan, allow the existence of independent media, though many, such as Zimbabwe, use regulatory boards to limit the number of private media that are allowed to operate. Moreover, in most of these countries the regulatory environment in which the independent press operates is sufficiently restrictive - with numerous laws against all manner of things such as sedition, threats to national security, "professional errors," etc. - and interpretation of these laws is sufficiently broad so as to effect widespread self-censorship. More subtle, but equally effective, is the imposition of extremely high licensing fees for both print media and radio, such as in The Gambia, and more recently Uganda and Kenya. In other countries like Namibia and Zambia, economic pressure has been applied to the independent press through withdrawal of government advertising, or import duties on equipment such as printing presses.
The Internet has provided exposure to a myriad of alternative viewpoints on a regular basis for the first time in many countries. The growth in Internet access throughout Africa and the fact that such access is rarely restricted, even in countries that impose significant constraints on print and broadcast media, may be a reflection of its relative newness, and lack of knowledge on the part of governments about how to control it. In the short run, this has allowed the independent media in many countries to take advantage of this window of opportunity to establish a significant presence online. A quick check reveals 19 countries in sub-Saharan Africa which have one (or more) newspapers available on the Net. Many of the countries with online papers are not known for a liberal press environment. And yet these sites exist, and continue to operate. A recent study notes:
The lessons of Zambia and other countries have not been lost on their contemporaries. In some cases, governments are gaining ground in terms of their ability to control the Internet as a tool for independent and (often) political expression. This is facilitated when the government is the owner of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and can control the content that is accessible to citizens. A recent article on China in the Christian Science Monitor argues that:
By contrast, the impact of the Internet in the developed countries of Europe and North America has been primarily in the realm of electronic commerce. The rather freer flow of information in these countries, and the already existing avenues for political participation, mean that the Internet has not significantly affected ordinary people's political interaction with the state, though it has strengthened the ability of marginalized and fringe groups to network - with mixed results. Although it has been argued that bringing marginalized groups together can positively affect their ability to become politically active, which is assumed to be a benefit to representation, at the same time this encourages greater cleavages within societies as individuals begin to self-identify more and more narrowly. If the definition of a nation-state is the coincidence of geography and culture, then the segmentation of societies through the Internet could have negative implications for the nation-state as we now know it. In addition, the role of the Internet in allowing groups with violent or otherwise threatening intentions (such as hate groups or terrorist organizations) to better coordinate and network has been well documented by organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center (also see Goldberg; Page 2000).
|State-Society Relationships in the Internet Era|
We believe that the Internet can and does profoundly affect the political relationship between state and society in Africa in much the same way that globalization has affected the economic one - by removing power from the exclusive possession of the state and dispersing it outward, not only to society in general but to external actors as well. While this change is desirable in the long run, it presents serious short-term challenges as state and society struggle to redefine their roles within the old framework of the nation-state. As we have seen in the transitions to democracy around the world, any shift in the balance of power within a state carries the potential for severe political disruption. The risk is particularly great in Africa, where states have already experienced extreme fluidity in the state-society relationship during the previous decade of "democratization." This is compounded by the fact that these states were creations of the colonial era, and in many cases have never been entirely under the control of their leaders. As a recent Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) report notes:
In Africa and elsewhere, elite pacts - defined as situations where elites see advantages to a negotiated solution of transferring power rather than fighting to retain it - have proven to be one method by which political change has occurred without violence. What is not clear, however, is whether such pacts could be utilized to minimize the potential for political violence nowadays, when the threat to elites is not only political but economic as well. The global economy dramatically lessens the ability of elites within states to control economic assets: specifically, it is not possible to be part of the global economy without permitting the mobility of capital. Mobility of capital imposes its own set of conditions, i.e. there must be stability and good governance which provide the promise of a significant return on investment. This entails a number of requirements in terms of privatization, anti-corruption and political liberalization that undermine the traditional economic monopoly of elites in developing countries. As a consequence, elites have less incentive to sacrifice political power in the interests of securing their economic dominance. At the same time, within the state, this diffusion of power and authority has strengthened societal actors. As Holitscher notes, with reference to Mathews (1997):
|A Few Final Thoughts|
The ECA Report notes that:
A recent editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle highlights the nexus where political and economic imperatives meet:
Other countries, such as Eritrea and Sudan, while aware of the potential economic boost that the Internet represents, shy away from these market-opening steps, for fear of undermining the political and economic status quo. However, the very processes they are resisting will lead to the downfall of that strategy. Factors such as the increasing mobility of African businesspeople and the globalization of markets are leading to vastly greater consumer awareness of the pricing and availability of the Internet in neighboring countries. This, in turn, is increasing consumer pressure and dissatisfaction with elements of the status quo such as long queues for telephone lines, corruption, high prices and poor services. This increased dissatisfaction builds pressure for change, and in several African countries, major policy breakthroughs can be attributed in part to such heightened consumer demands.
The task facing development practitioners, therefore, is to continue to build awareness in these countries - on the part of policy makers, influential consumers such as businesspeople, and the general public - of the relative ease with which the shortage of access can be remedied, and the long-term benefits that may result.
As with all technologies, the value of the Internet is ultimately dependent on the skills of those who use it. We have seen that some countries have chosen to view it as another threat to hegemony, and responded accordingly. Some may opt to follow their example because of similar fears. Others have sought to take advantage of the opportunities the Internet presents for greater communication, e-commerce, and trade. There are powerful arguments about both the benefits and the costs of this technology, particularly with regard to the state-society relationship. But it must be remembered that this is a relatively young technology. Even some of the most imaginative thinkers did not predict the role that the personal computer would play in our lives. Similarly, we have only just begun to imagine the possibilities that the Internet and other technologies hold to transform the way the world defines itself. We cannot know the future, but we believe that at the very least, the Internet represents a potent force for political, economic and social change.
 The views expressed here are the opinions of the authors and do not represent official policy of the US Agency for International Development.
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