In post-COVID-19 reconstruction, policymakers must invest in innovative technologies to overcome barriers to inclusive development

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Cristina Duarte is Special Adviser for Africa to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and the former Minister of Finance of Cape Verde.

Africa has experienced strong economic growth for most of the 21st century, mainly due to strong global demand for commodities. But the “Africa Rising” story that has accompanied this growth is primarily a story of increasing GDP, which is too one-dimensional. In fact, Africa’s economic growth has failed to generate many good jobs — deferring, once again, the benefits of the demographic dividend of a large working-age population. Because there are fewer older and younger people who need help than working-age people, the dividend is supposed to free up resources that can be spent on inclusive development.

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Instead, African policymakers have continued to believe for nearly half a century that achieving “development” is about managing poverty – in other words, equating business. development to poverty reduction. The shift from the industrialization program at the start of the post-independence period to that of poverty reduction is one of the main reasons for the continent’s economic malaise. As the African Innovation Summit (2018) said, the development agenda has shifted from socioeconomic transformation to the lowest common denominator, poverty management.

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To generate economic growth that leads to sustainable development, Africa must focus on the retention and creation of wealth, better management of its resources, promotion of inclusion, progression in global value chains, diversification of its economies, optimization of the energy mix and development of human capital. the center of policy making. For this to happen, African policy must encourage investment in research, development and innovation (R & D & I) to restart the continent’s economic structures and technologically catch up with the rest of the world. Innovation, and the digital information technology that accompanies it, has become a necessary component of any effort to address challenges such as food security, education, health, energy and competitiveness. The world is driven by innovation: unless African policymakers reap the potential benefits of R & D & I, the global divide will continue to widen. The problem is that innovation is discussed and debated, but not strategic.

An opportunity to go digital

It is here, paradoxically, that the COVID-19 pandemic, despite all the economic and social devastation it has caused, offers an opportunity for African countries to innovate and go digital. African countries will have to rebuild their economies. They shouldn’t just fix them; they should redo them, with digitization in mind.

So far, civil societies seem to be more ready than policy makers to embrace digital technology. Without government help, the digital technology industry has grown in Africa, through incubators and start-ups, technology hubs and data centers. Information and communication technology (ICT) activities are spreading across the continent and young Africans are responding with digital technology to the challenges posed by COVID-19. For example, at an ICT center in Kenya, FabLab created Msafari, a people-tracking application that tracks the spread of infections. A similar application, Wiqaytna6, has been developed in Morocco. In Rwanda, the government is demonstrating what enlightened policies can accomplish. The country has invested heavily in digital infrastructure: 90% of the country has access to high-speed Internet and 75% of the population owns cell phones. At the start of the pandemic, Rwanda used this technological feat to develop real-time digital mapping to track the spread of COVID-19, extended telemedicine to reduce clinic visits, and created chatbots to educate people. about the disease.

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These are promising initiatives, but digitization is not widespread in Africa. Rwanda is the exception. Only 28% of Africans use the internet, a digital divide that is preventing the continent from taking full advantage of the capacity of digital technology to mitigate some of the worst effects of the pandemic.

This slow diffusion of Internet technology also makes it difficult for the continent to overcome obstacles to sustainable development. To generate transformative growth, digitization cannot be left primarily to civil society and the private sector. The socio-economic divide in Africa is fueling the digital divide, and vice versa. Digitization must be forcefully reinforced by policy makers to unlock structural transformation.

Numeric fraction

When assessing the digital divide, it is important to remember that the issue is not limited to internet access. How the use of the Internet benefits the user is also a factor. The goal of digitization should not only be greater consumption; it must strengthen the resilience of civil societies, which requires a clear regulatory framework and an educated population.

In Africa, it is not just Internet connectivity that is lacking. The same goes for other basics, including electricity, literacy, financial inclusion and regulation. The result is that people are unable to use the digital solutions available. In addition, a large part of the African population is still grappling with deadly problems such as conflict and food insecurity, which make daily survival their only goal. Millions of Africans are not only on the wrong side of the digital divide, they are also on the wrong side of many divides – they lack basic health services and utilities such as electricity, clean water, education and health care. COVID-19 has exacerbated their plight as lockdowns and social distancing have made many public services accessible only online. The terrible truth is that these hundreds of millions of people have been left behind, and unless African policymakers realize that access to digital technologies is an essential tool for socio-economic inclusion, progress will be limited to those with electricity and telecommunications services, further isolating the vast majority without such access. The gap will widen.

The profound disruption generated by the pandemic has opened up opportunities for society remaking that are subtle. These are moments that test the vision and leadership of decision makers. As McKinsey & Company (2020) noted, the “COVID-19 crisis contains the seeds of a large-scale reimagining of Africa’s economic structure, service delivery systems and social contract. The crisis is accelerating trends such as digitization, market consolidation and regional cooperation, and creating important new opportunities, for example the promotion of local industry, the formalization of small businesses and the modernization of urban infrastructure. 19 disruptions, it must not return to a pre-pandemic reality.

The time is now. As Africa rebuilds itself from the disruptions of COVID-19, it must not revert to a pre-pandemic reality; it must build a better reality that recognizes the need for innovation, in particular digital technologies. It is the precondition for victory over its myriad development challenges, such as poverty, health, productivity, competitiveness, economic diversification, food security, climate change and governance.

Receptive to change

Over the past five years, changes have taken place in Africa, suggesting that the continent may be receptive to building better rather than just rebuilding. Liu (2019) identified three major African initiatives that signal such receptiveness to change:

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which aims to create a single market with a combined GDP of over $ 3.4 trillion and comprising over one billion people;

The South African government’s new Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution of the World Economic Forum (WEF), for dialogue and cooperation on the challenges and opportunities presented by advanced technologies;

WEF’s Africa Growth Platform, which aims to help businesses grow and compete internationally, leveraging Africa’s entrepreneurial activity, 13% more in its initial phase than the world average.

These ongoing initiatives could be a game-changer and bring the top-down dimension of the digital switchover to life.

So far, the change has come almost only from the bottom up. More than 600 technology hubs, places designed to help start-ups, have sprung up across the continent. Three have achieved international recognition: Lagos in Nigeria, Nairobi in Kenya and Cape Town in South Africa. These technology hubs are home to thousands of start-ups, incubators, technology parks and innovation centers driven by the private sector and young people who, despite adversity, are aware of how self-employment is linked to innovation. .

Lack of public policy

Things are less promising from top to bottom. According to a WEF 2018 report, 22 of the 25 countries analyzed had no ecosystem-based public policy for innovation.

Investing in large-scale digitization, both geographically and sectorally, is crucial not only to address socio-economic issues, but also to address the challenges of peace and security. And that stimulates economic growth. A study by the International Telecommunication Union found that a 10 percent higher mobile broadband penetration would generate a 2.5 percent increase in Africa’s GDP per capita.

But digital solutions cannot be achieved in a vacuum. Policymakers need to make the implementation of digital technologies part of an innovation ecosystem, and there is no time to waste. Well-calibrated regulatory frameworks, investments in infrastructure, digital skills and financial inclusion must be priorities.

Most research shows that digital technologies are essential to address socio-economic challenges. They are often described as the unique ingredient Africa needs to take the leap towards sustainable and inclusive economic development. From an economic point of view, better information and communication technology democratizes crucial information for production and market agents, making value chains more efficient and products and services more affordable. And the most vulnerable will benefit.

However, the massive adoption of digital technologies also means that policymakers need to be aware of the complex legal and ethical impact of technology on society, including privacy, data and tax evasion. This is especially true in Africa, where weak institutions may not be strong enough to defend the rights and interests of their people against those of the market.

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