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Civil Society ignores ICTs at their peril

by workshop participant, Brenda Burrell, was invited to participate in the ICT Policy and Civil Society in Africa Workshop held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 6 - 10, 2002.

As the only representative from civil society in Zimbabwe, this was both a privilege and a great responsibility.

Currently a dictatorial regime intent on retaining power at any cost controls Zimbabwe. The Government's monopoly of key mass media tools such as radio and television means that Zimbabweans and other citizens of the regional and international communities are presented with the ruling party's version of democracy in Zimbabwe.

It is in this context that I assess the presentations made at the recently ended ICT Policy and Civil Society Workshop held in Addis Ababa.

Much of the information was very useful and provided an overview of the UN's contribution towards the formalisation of ICT policy in Africa. According to UNECA's website, there is no formal government policy process for developing a national information infrastructure in Zimbabwe. African Information Society Initiative (AISI) initiated its promotion of National
Information and Communications Infrastructure (NICI) plans and strategies in African countries in 1995. It is disappointing to note that Zimbabwe appears to have made no progress in this regard.

If this is the case, then APC's proposed training module entitled "ICT Policy and Civil Society" has come at exactly the right time. Civil society in Zimbabwe is well established and connected via email, telephone and fax. It is however under extreme pressure as government seeks to exert its influence and control over the non-profit sector. Despite this, I am persuaded by Peter Benjamin's overview of the training material that Zimbabweans ignore ICTs at their economic peril. Civil society in general has failed to keep up with the enormous strides taken in the field of ICTs and their significance has yet to be fully appreciated

African countries need to work together to build a future for the generations that follow. A future where Africa becomes the preferred home of our youth, unlike the situation in Zimbabwe where the "brain drain" of professionals has impacted negatively on progress particularly in key sectors like health and education.

I believe that we need to encourage peer review amongst African countries - where the best practises amongst us are lauded and promoted, and the worst are openly criticised and rejected. This is indeed a challenge but one we must take up with commitment and enthusiasm if democracy and good governance is to become a reality throughout Africa.

The purpose for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) scheduled for December 2003, is to develop a "common vision and understanding of the information society and the adoption of a declaration and plan of action for implementation by Governments, international institutions and all sectors of civil society". Unless African civil society informs itself of the issues at hand and advocates vigorously to be included at this level of policy formulation, it is likely that the WSIS resolutions will have little bearing on the daily realities of African people.