Africa's needs highlight summit challenges

The vast majority of Malians live on less than a dollar a day

Crime, disease, illiteracy and poverty are just a few of the obstacles that the international community and sub-Saharan Africa must overcome in bridging the digital divide.

This content was published on November 29, 2003 - 17:10

In the first part of its series on the World Summit on the Information Society, swissinfo takes a look at the challenges facing two very different African nations – Mali and South Africa.


Driving down the red dirt roads of Mali’s teeming capital of Bamako, it is difficult to imagine how the country’s population will ever truly become integrated into the Information Society.

At the side of the road, goats graze in mounds of garbage as women wash clothes in buckets of dirty water and men sell their wares out of thatched-roof stalls.

One of the poorest countries in the world, Mali is a place where electricity, running water, plumbing – even a roof to sleep under – are considered luxuries.

And the idea of effectively introducing information and communication technologies (ICTs) into a society where more than 60 per cent of the people live on less than a dollar a day, is a daunting one.


The digital divide takes on new meaning when you realise that less than one per cent of the population of Mali has access to a telephone.

But government officials and development specialists alike agree that traditional ICTs, like radio and telecommunications, could go a long way to improve the quality of life here.

“You don’t have to give everybody a telephone line, but if there could be one in each village or commune, that would be great,” said Melchior Lengsfeld, who heads the Mali office of Helvetas, the Swiss Association for International Cooperation.

“Of course many people are very poor, but even in rural communities you will find that when people are given the tools to communicate, their economic potential grows,” he added.

The government says it is committed to making good its pledge to provide each of the country’s 703 rural districts with telecommunication infrastructures.

But as Ousmanne Bamba of the Communications and ICT Ministry points out, such an initiative will require outside funding – something he hopes the summit will provide.

“The state cannot do this alone and we need public-private partnerships and a solidarity fund to make it happen,” Bamba told swissinfo.

“We’re at a crucial stage in these discussions and all stakeholders must be willing to compromise in order to reach a consensus on financing issues,” he added.

South Africa

In contrast to Mali, South Africa’s technological infrastructure is relatively sophisticated.

Around 40 per cent of people living in urban areas own a telephone and over half of the population has access to a computer.

But the legacy of apartheid, which marginalized blacks by excluding them from full participation in the political and economic system, is continuing to take a heavy toll on the country.

According to the World Bank, just over five million South Africans, or around 13 per cent of the population, live in “first world” conditions.

At the other extreme, around 22 million or 54 per cent of the population - the vast majority of whom are young, black and unemployed - live in “third world” conditions.


Ken Duncan, of the Swiss-South African Cooperation Initiative (SSACI), says this type of economic disparity has led to a general sense of disillusionment with democracy amongst youths.

“Several recent polls have indicated that most young South Africans, of all ethnic groups, believe that life is more difficult for youths now than it was five or ten years ago,” Duncan told swissinfo.

“Almost without exception, they cite unemployment as the main cause for this.”

Duncan believes that ICT training could hold the key to helping many young South Africans out of the unemployment trap, by allowing them to tap into a rapidly growing job sector.

And he too hopes that stronger public-private partnerships will emerge from the summit.

“The involvement of the private sector is absolutely central… not only in terms of its financial support but also the management and training it can lend in countries like South Africa,” he said.

swissinfo, Anna Nelson in Bamako and Pretoria

Key facts

Mali remains one of the world’s poorest countries and was rated 164 out of 173 in last year’s United Nations Human Development Index.
Combating poverty, illiteracy, infant mortality and a lack of basic services and communication infrastructures are key challenges faced by the government.
South Africa is among the countries with the highest income disparities in the world.
Reducing inequality and poverty, and tackling one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, as well as soaring HIV infection rates, are the main challenges.

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In brief

From December 10 to 12, politicians, representatives of civil society and business leaders will gather in Geneva for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

The aim of the meeting is to come up with an action plan to provide equal and affordable access to information for all people of the world.

Two major issues expected to come up for debate are the role of the private sector in bridging the digital divide and the creation of a solidarity fund to finance technology-related projects in developing countries.

The vast majority of sub-Saharan countries, which face significant developmental and technological challenges, are in favour of stronger public-private partnerships and the solidarity fund.

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