May 28 2009

small is beautiful

by at 4:01 pm under Uncategorized

I am thinking about communication networks across the continent of Africa. In order to conceptualize the actors, and therefore the structure of their relationships, I looked for a visual representation of the existing structure of these networks. I found that representation in an image that might be familiar to many of us, by now: the lights of the world, as seen by satellite, at night. I cropped out the continent from its global context, and then circled the clusters of lights that appear across its surface.

The resulting image (below) is an approximation of the current nodal centers of development in Africa. Each of these three major regions shares some common characteristics beyond the scale of the already-existing infrastructure we find there, as evidenced by the concentration of lights at night. First, each of these three regions (West, North, and South-East) are located on the coasts, or at least with access to the sea; for example, consider the heavily lit banks of the Nile River. Second, and perhaps controversially, the social and technological structure of each of these regions was deeply affected by European colonialism. There are thus already some links, both historical and potential, between these centers of activity.

the major agglomerations of infrastructure on the continent are circled in yellow.

Africa's power nodes: the major agglomerations of infrastructure on the continent are circled in yellow.

But the key actors in this issue, of the promotion of a broader and more distributed telecommunications network across the continent, are not only these three small regions. They are, however, each multi- or trans-national , and they include the power companies such as BMI Africa, regional and continental governmental bodies like the African Union, and the councils of leaders from ethnic/language/tribal groups which have existed across national boundaries since before they were drawn, like Ewe or Xhosa peoples (in and around Ghana and South Africa, respectively). At the state level, both governmental bodies and their non-state counterparts (and rivals, like the revolutionary groups about whom we hear so often) are instrumental, as much of the infrastructure and industry in many African countries is controlled by the state.

In order to promote the establishment and development of telecommunications networks across the continent, therefore, the interests of all these disparate groups must be addressed. With the welfare of nearly a billion people at stake, issues like proprietary control of the infrastructure and access to information demand close attention. However, I would argue that a more distributed network of telecommunications would be extremely beneficial to the development of most regions of Africa, and would not disadvantage those regions which are already in a position of superiority, like the nodes circled above. In the first place, these nodes maintain their density in the face of continued development. Second, regions which are already centralized in terms of capital flows, like these regions, tend to be highly urbanized. This gives these regions a competitive advantage, as a structural point towards which more capital (including social capital) will continue to agglomerate, if only on the basis that there is already more opportunity available for individuals in those areas. This can be evidenced by the disparate financial growth of these urban areas, and their relative financial stability (with the clear, recent exception of Zimbabwe, which would take another blog post and more to analyze on its own).

There are, however, certain strategies for persuading the key actors to work towards a more distributed network for communication across Africa. Paradoxically, one of these strategies relies on influential individuals and firms who are largely located beyond the African continent itself — the members of the African diaspora with access to institutions and media at other global centers of communication. Consider, for example, the wealth of human capital invested in the Euro-American university system, and in particular, the huge number of African intellectuals, like Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie, whose blog reflects on many of these issues on at least a weekly basis. Indeed, many of these intellectuals have access to information infrastructures that could serve as influential weak links to the key players on the continent itself. The education, degree of access, and proficiency with both traditional and new media place individuals like Dr. Ogbechie in the structural hole that currently persists between Africa and the West. It is thus conceivable that the power of these small nodes can affect the future of even the largest clusters; these small actors might be the catalysts to change the very structure of the communications networks in Africa.

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