The globalisation of world markets has emerged as one of the greatest challenges facing developing countries in the last few decades, as they fear marginalisation through unfair competition. But the information revolution, which came with globalisation, has turned out to be the most irresistible outcome of the new world order.
Technological advances, especially in the information sector, have dramatically lowered costs of communication, and countries that moved fast in creating a conducive environment are now enjoying the multiplier effect of their investments. Realising this, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) held its 1999 Consultative Conference in the Zambian capital Lusaka on 12 February under the theme: "SADC in the Next Millennium: Opportunities and Challenges of Information Technology".
The conference was attended by ministers from all the 14 SADC member states, the organisation's international cooperating partners and representatives of the private sector, the labour movement and non-governmental organisations.
The conference was officially opened by Zambian President Frederick Chiluba who underscored the need for both regional and international cooperation saying it was vital to "promote transfer of science and technology to developing countries."
President Chiluba added that "southern Africa cannot fully benefit from the new information technology if there is no supportive framework for transfer of technology."
SADC Executive Secretary, Kaire Mbuende, who also addressed the conference said a new approach to development was needed for the region to enter the new millenium without problems such as high child mortality, gender imbalance and poverty.
"We look at information technology, not as an end in itself," Mbuende said, adding, "It is a tool that can be used to advance development in all spheres of life [including] facilitation of trade and investment, education and training which are key to economic growth and development."
Uschi Eid, German Federal Deputy Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development addressed the conference on behalf of the international cooperating partners. She expressed her government's willingness to help Africa. She said Germany, which currently holds the European Union (EU) rotating presidency, was going to launch a debt relief initiative at the just ended World Economic Summit in Cologne.
On effective regional cooperation, the German minister said: "Past experience has shown that the objective of a development community is only likely to be achieved if coordination and supranational tasks are performed by independent, efficient, joint institutions."
Regarding the theme of the conference, Eid said "the march of information and communication technology into ever more areas of business and society cannot be stopped. These technologies have become the vehicle and the driving force behind globalisation. There is not a single country or a single region that is exempt from their impact.
"All must face up to the challenges they [information technologies] present. They present opportunities, and these can be drawn on for sustainable development. Yet they also pose risks, and these risks must be minimised."
The conference noted that rapid changes had taken place in information and communications systems ranging from satellite dishes to fibre optics, faxes to Internet - the fastest-growing consumer service the world has so far experienced.
"Global information super-highways have been developed and through them, decisions are now being made quicker than ever before," says the conference theme document which was tabled for discussion by South African Minister of Posts, Telecommunications and Broadcasting, Jay Naidoo, a firm believer of public-private sector joint ventures in the development of the communications industry.
The impact of communications and information technologies (IT) is promising to be even more dramatic in the next millenium, says the theme document, adding: "IT is changing every aspect of human life, communications, trade, manufacturing, services, culture, entertainment, education, research, national defence and global security.
"These developments are revolutionising the way societies interact, how they set their national and development agendas, conduct their business and compete in the international market."
For southern Africa, the advancement of IT is both an opportunity to eradicate poverty, and a challenge to improve productivity and competitiveness in a world that is fast becoming one village.
SADC has registered positive economic growth in the last few years, averaging 4.1 percent in 1996 and 2.2 percent in 1997. But these positive growth rates have not been high enough to have a significant impact on job creation and poverty alleviation, some of the greatest challenges that are faced not just by the region, but all other developing countries.
While notable strides have been made in connecting most major urban centres in southern Africa to the Internet and other information technologies (IT), a lot still needs to be done, especially in rural areas where limited access has often been cited as a major drawback to increased economic activity in the region.
The Lusaka conference learnt that most countries in southern Africa still rely heavily on transmitting information through faxes and couriers, despite the fact that most them have established communications networks that provide the backbone for Internet-based communications.
Internet-connectivity in the region is low partly because of low penetration of personal computers and low telephone density. Available statistics show that there is an average of two computers per 100 people in SADC, and only five people for every 100 have access to a telephone.
Internet users are estimated at 930,000 in SADC or one user for every 204 inhabitants, compared to the world average of one user per 40 inhabitants. There is one user for every four to six people in North America and Europe.
The average for SADC drops to about 1:5,000 if South Africa, which has 900,000 users, is factored out. Zimbabwe with its 10,000 users is the next highest while the remaining 20,000 are shared among 12 of the 14 SADC countries.
With the exception of South Africa, all the other countries have Internet connectivity concentrated only in the capital city or the second largest urban centre. This has resulted in the exclusion of citizens in remote areas, and limited economic growth.
Realising the challenges at hand as the region enters the next millenium, the SADC consultative conference endorsed the conclusions and recommendations of working groups that included the need to: