March 23, 2016 By Moses A. Kargbo*
Sierra Leone has launched the World Bank’s World Development Report (WDR) with calls for mobile internet service providers to lower their tariffs so that all and sundry could access the broader benefits from information and communication technology (ICT) services.
The WDR is the World Bank’s most important analytical publication which has been published annually since 1979. Each year the Report focuses on a contemporary topic of interest to the broader development community, and this year’s Report – themed ‘Digital Dividends’ – focuses on expanding the understanding of the impact of digital technologies on the lives of people in developing countries. It examines how the internet can be a force for development, especially for the poor in developing countries.
While the Report documents many profound and transformational effects of digital technology, it finds that the broader benefits have fallen short and are unevenly distributed. And to ensure that everyone benefits, it argues that technology adoption will not be enough, stressing that countries will need to address the ‘analogue components’ by strengthening regulations enabling firms to connect and compete, adapting worker’s skills to the demands of the new economy, and ensuring that institutions are accountable.
The launching ceremony at the Miatta Conference Center in Freetown on Monday March 21 attracted key stakeholders in the ICT sector, including mobile phone operators and internet service providers, as well as representatives from key government institutions and the University of Sierra Leone. The formal opening session was followed by a day’s conference on ‘ICT for Development’ themed “Affordable ICT for All”. The ceremony was organized by the Ministry of Information and Communications with support from the ICT regulator – the National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM) and the World Bank.
In his remarks, the outgoing Minister of Information and Communications, Alhaji Alpha Kanu, commended the World Bank for supporting his ministry in the past three years to develop the country’s ICT sector. The minister was particularly grateful to the Bank for providing both financial and technical assistance towards the landing of thefiber optic cable, which he said the government has been able to deploy from Freetown unto the borders with Liberia and Guinea.
“Government has tried to provide the access through the building of infrastructure for ICT services to be spread across the country,” said Mr. Kanu. “We’ve also put in place regulatory policies through NATCOM, and we are creating the enabling environment for the facility to be accessed by all Sierra Leoneans. The government will encourage citizens into digital literacy and we must ensure the learning and teaching of ICT in schools and the university.”
Minister Kanu emphasised the urgent need for ICT to be integrated into the school curriculum, starting from the primary school level to university. He said ‘Computracy’ – which he defined as literacy in computer and other technologies – should be introduced as a core subject in the school system so that “the dividends of the computer age can benefit our citizens”.
“For Sierra Leone to derive any benefit from the boom in ICT, we must innovate,” noted Kanu. “If government can’t do it alone, we should empower private institutions so that they can teach our children how to derive the benefits from ICT.”
The World Bank Country Manager, Parminder P.S. Brar, described the occasion as a historic opportunity for Sierra Leone as the launch of the Report brought together the key players in the ICT sector “to have a discussion on how to move the sector forward, how ICT can promote growth in health, education, and how it can contribute to transparency and the fight against corruption”.
He commended the government for the strides it has made in rolling out the fiber cable across the country in the last five years, noting: “The World Bank ensured the landing of the cable in Freetown but it was the government that laid the metropolitan cables in Freetown, built the national backbone, and connected the borders with Guinea and Liberia.”
He said the Bank was in full support of government’s commitment to liberalize the international gateway. He as well recognized what he referred to as the “impressive development” that has taken place at NATCOM.
“I’m impressed with the development in NATCOM since I arrived in the country six months ago, and I want to congratulate the Chairman [of NATCOM] for what has been achieved so far,” said Mr. Brar. ”We have a regulator standing up for consumers by enforcing the issue of quality of service, and this is something the Bank wants to see more.”
The World Bank country chief, however, maintained that infrastructure alone was not enough to ensure improvement in ICT, noting that it was only the beginning and that it was the Bank’s wish to see that the infrastructure was fully activated and [services] properly priced. He also voiced the importance of citizens benefitting from ICT services, and for schools and hospitals to be connected to the internet. He further expressed the need for improvement in service delivery.
NATCOM Chairman, Momoh Konte, told his audience that it was a delight working with the World Bank in building the capacity of the regulatory body to meet future challenges. He encouraged software developers both in and out of Sierra Leone to get involved in developing the country’s ICT sector.
“The infrastructure is in place while regulations to protect software developers are being developed,” Mr. Konte reported. “We appreciate the effort of the Bank towards the improvement of the [ICT] sector and we, as an institution, are committed to working with the Bank and the people of Sierra Leone to ensure accessible and affordable ICT services in the country.”
Representing the UN Country Teamin Sierra Leone, Dr. Gabriel Rugalema commended the World Bank for putting together “such a very important and impressive report on digital revolution”. He said the UN welcomed the Report, and particularly for the fact that a digital revolution has the potential to promote both national and international peace, as well as gender equality.
He assured that the UN Country Team will support moves for all of Sierra Leone to benefit from ICT services.
There was a presentation on the WDR document by the Bank’s Lead ICT Policy Specialist, Doyle Gallegos and Practice Manager, Boutheina Guermazi.
This was followed by a panel discussion on ‘Telecommunication Infrastructure in Sierra Leone (Open Access shared Infrastructure) with the discussants being representatives from mobile phone operators Airtel, Africell and Sierratel, and ECOWAN and SALCAB, and the University of Sierra Leone. The discussion was mainly centered on how mobile tariffs could be brought down so as to increase the penetration level of users; and how ICT services could benefit all Sierra Leoneans and not just those who have the means to access them.
L-R: World Bank’s Lead ICT Policy Specialist, Doyle Gallegos; Practice Manager Boutheina Guermazi; & Country Manager Parminder Brar
*The author is currently a communications consultant with the World Bank in Sierra Leone. He was until recently editor-in-chief at Concord Times.