1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Technology and Society

Information and Communications Technologies and Social Development in Senegal: An Overview (Draft)

This is the English translation of the first report to be published by the UNRISD research project on Information Technologies and Social Development in Senegal. In it, Olivier Sagna draws on a large number of published and unpublished documents to provide an overview of what is currently known about the changing role of these new technologies in the national economy and society. His use of so-called “grey literature”—unpublished government reports, seminar papers, and evaluations by independent experts—is particularly valuable.

The author has several goals. One is to provide background for new research, which must draw on existing knowledge and then expand it. Thus he not only summarizes available studies, but also points out their biases and highlights existing gaps in the literature. In the final section of the paper, he suggests a number of subjects that could be the focus of future research.

Beyond this, a broader goal is to improve the quality of national debate on information technology policy. As Sagna notes, the problem is not a lack of interest in this issue, but rather that discussion is too fragmented to provide a basis for sustained public debate in the places where it must be held: institutions of higher learning and research, political parties and the legislature, labour unions, civic associations and the media. People are not well informed about the social, economic and political implications of the “information revolution” in Senegal; as a result, they tend to defer to the opinion of technical experts who have scant familiarity with social concerns. It seems obvious that good social science research has a critical role to play in improving the environment for informed policy choices.

The author begins with a comprehensive history of the development of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in Senegal, from the first use of the telegraph in 1859 through the remarkable expansion of telephony and the current growth of access to the Internet. The country now has one of the most highly developed telecommunications and information technology infrastructures in sub-Saharan Africa, and Sagna reviews the development of key institutions and government programmes that have made this possible. He emphasizes the important role of the Societé nationale des télécommunications (SONATEL) in building quality infrastructure and providing efficient service. The changing role of radio in Senegalese society has also been critical for the development of the country. The gradual liberalization of FM radio—to allow for private and community broadcasting, outside the immediate control of the government—was central to the process of democratization during the 1990s.

Although the government can be credited with recognizing the challenge of linking ICTs to development as early as the mid-1980s, it has proved difficult to co-ordinate and implement a series of plans and programmes that were designed to harness the new technologies to the task of overcoming existing social and economic problems. Sagna suggests that this is closely related to the fragmentation of responsibility for ICT policy in the public sector, and he shows how a behind-the-scenes battle for control has been an obstacle to implementing the coherent national policy required to close the gap between those who can afford to pay for new ICT services and those who cannot. Enlightened regulatory policy will be central to this endeavour.

The author goes on to provide up-to-date figures on the role of ICTs in the Senegalese economy. The telecommunications sector represented 2.6 per cent of gross domestic product in 1996—a figure that was expected to reach 3.5 per cent by 2000. Furthermore, in 1999, this sector grew by roughly 9.5 per cent, compared to 6 per cent for the economy as a whole. Access to both fixed and mobile telephone service expanded extremely rapidly during the 1990s—in the first instance through the remarkable economic success of small private “phone shops”, first authorized in 1992; and in the second, through a phenomenal jump in cellular telephone use during the past three years (from 7 000 to 100 000 users between the end of 1997 and the end of 2000).

Internet access has also grown, though far more slowly. The real breakthrough in Internet use came in 1996, when SONATEL and the American company MCI signed an agreement allowing technical updates that signalled the beginning of the commercial Internet era in Senegal. By 2000, there were 13 Internet service providers in the country, and approximately 8,500 registered subscribers. In addition, a dozen or more cyber cafés opened in Dakar, and more were being set up in most large provincial towns. The fact that SONATEL offers a single Internet access rate throughout the country is greatly facilitating the growth of Internet use outside the capital.

Although there is much discussion of the prospects for creative use of the Internet in Senegal’s education and health sectors, this kind of application is only in its infancy. Studies are needed of the lessons learned from early experiments. Clearly the question of cost is important. Early experience with using ICTs for distance education, for example, suggests that it is expensive; and that it has the potential to widen, rather than narrow, the differences in quality of education between better-off and worse-off sectors of the population. The same concern arises when looking at the capacity of small and medium enterprises to make good use of computers and the Internet: unless training is adequate and technical assistance at hand, investments in equipment and connectivity can be easily lost.

Government plans to establish a 195-hectare economic zone, in which high-technology enterprises could benefit from tax incentives and from synergies with neighbouring research and teaching centres—somewhat on the model of the Multimedia Super Corridor in Malaysia—have not yet borne fruit. And in the meantime, the most dynamic growth in ICT use seems to be occurring in the informal sector. Migrants are particularly important users of fixed and mobile phones, and even of e-mail and Internet telephony.

Sagna closes with a series of suggestions for in-depth research. Writing a history of SONATEL figures high on the list, both because this has been an extremely successful public corporation and because its privatization in 1996 raises a host of questions about the future. The author also feels that the “phone shops” initiative deserves to be carefully analysed, and that the implications of mobile telephony for fixed-line investments by SONATEL should be studied. In addition, the social characteristics of Internet and cell phone users should be better understood; and the impact of the changing ICT environment on young people and women is of central importance, given their pervasive marginalization in much of Senegalese society. Finally, Sagna underlines the significant role of new kinds of radio broadcasting in the democratization of Senegal and suggests more policy-oriented studies on the factors supporting or inhibiting the growth not only of private FM stations, but also of community radio.