ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, promotes the socio-economic development of West Africa's population by working to maintain a peaceful and stable environment for economic and social development. ECOWAS, working together with NEPAD, is putting in place a series of measures designed to build the region's ICT infrastructure. Despite notable differences in the ICT policies of its member states, ECOWAS has promoted an agenda designed to build the needed ICT infrastructure and train people to use it effectively.
Introduction The Economic Community of West African States, (ECOWAS) is a grouping of 15 countries in West Africa, namely, Benin, Burkina-Faso, Cabo Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo. ECOWAS covers a land area of 5 million square kilometres with a population of about 210 million inhabitants. The goals of ECOWAS may be summarized as follows: · To promote cooperation and development in the socio-economic sectors; · To enhance the standard of living of the community citizens; · To maintain peace and stability as a conducive environment for economic and social development. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development, NEPAD is the expression of the will of the African people to position the continent on the road towards sustainable development. As a marked departure from earlier ill-fated plans, African leaders decided that NEPAD would be homegrown and monitored by using a peer-review arrangement. This would ensure that ideas, programmes and projects to be conceived and implemented under NEPAD would be internalised, ab initio, and would be in line with internationally accepted accountability and good governance. Information and communication technology (ICT) is the convergence of a variety of computer based and communications technologies and the Internet, which integrates elements of these components in a global multimedia transmission and communication delivery platform. This paper attempts to examine the challenges and opportunities for the deployment of ICT to improve the lot of ECOWAS citizens within the framework of NEPAD. The future - and indeed the present - belongs to those societies who develop and maintain a knowledge-based economy. ICT in ECOWAS The major objectives of ECOWAS in the ICT sector are: · to develop a regional information and regional infrastructure; · to harmonise national ICT policies in an integrated regional ICT policy; · to implement the plans and programmes of the ICT policies for the overall well being of the Community citizen. The emphasis is, therefore, not so much on the sophistication and quantity of the technologies deployed but on their effectiveness in addressing very serious social-economic problems facing the ECOWAS Member States. The current situation of ICT in ECOWAS may be summarized by a humbling catalogue of weaknesses, including: · digital divide between Africa (particularly West Africa) and the developed world; · wide gap in ICT access between urban, suburban and rural areas; · very low access to telephone and internet; · application development and delivery for crucial sectors such as education, health, trade, and education, are at best at an embryonic stage. The ICT activities at the ECOWAS Executive Secretariat are covered under three Departments: · Infrastructure Department – telecommunications infrastructure and postal services; · Community Computer Centre – information technology (IT) including internet services; · Information Department – broadcasting and mass media application including local cultural content. The Departments have harmonized their work programmes to ensure an integrated ECOWAS ICT programme in the context of NEPAD implementation. ECOWAS's strategic objectives for ICT are: · attain 10% teledensity and Internet access by 2007 (currently 1%) · achieve total interconnection of telecommunication networks by 2005, and · reinforce human capacity and develop effective partnerships between the public and private sectors and civil society to mobilise resources to implement ICT programmes. The ECOWAS Vision for the ICT Sector follows: “To establish in the West African region by 2008, an information society based on development and the promotion and large-scale deployment of ICT in order to ensure economic growth and stability, democracy, good governance and peace”. ICT cuts across sectors, strengthening regional integration by supporting educational, health, trade, customs union, transport, agriculture and environmental programmes. ICT projects that will be implemented under NEPAD include: · strengthen existing training institutions to produce a pool of highly skilled ICT personnel; · develop an administrative Intranet for member states to facilitate exchange of administrative documents, immigration and customs controls, trade flows, etc.; · identify implementation of regional projects on telemedicine and the establishment of a database including formal and traditional medicine and pharmacopoeia; · establish a regional facility to assemble computers, related peripherals and accessories; · develop accessories, delivery of sartorial information and commercial systems for education, health, transport, trade and commerce; · support the development of regional radio and television spots and programmes with local content; · enhance the ECOWAS Secretariat's capacity to effectively implement ICT projects and goals for a West African information society. ECOWAS Achievements in the ICT Sector: The current status of ICT implementation in ECOWAS member states is a mixed grill. The member states' reforms of the telecommunications sector are at various stages: · 10 countries out of 15 have established regulatory telecommunications agencies, while 2 countries opted for multi-sectorial regulatory agencies; · 10 countries have established broadcasting regulatory agencies; · 6 countries have opened up the capital of the traditional telecommunications monopoly to private sector participation; · 29 GSM licences have been awarded in 10 countries; · only five countries have prepared or adopted national ICT policies. At the regional level, the following achievements are worthy of note: · completion of Intelcom I Project (1984 – 1994) for the completion of 13 interstate telecommunication links; · launching of Intelcom II Project in 1997 aimed at: - establishing a 32 interstate fibre-optic link regional optical-electronic backbone; - implementation of a telecommunications information system, SIGTEL, in collaboration with ITU to provide a databank for potential investors, partners and community citizens, integrating data and graphics (maps, satellite images, etc.) as a regional telecommunications resource centre. · implementation studies for the INTELCOM II project as a private sector enterprise ECOTEL with participation of national Telcos, ECOWAS, community citizens and enterprises, and non-regional investors; · launching of a study to establish a GSM roaming facility for ECOWAS Member States; · development of a web-based trade opportunities management system (SIGOA-TOPS), to be launched in 4 countries in 2003 and in the remaining countries in 2004; · installation of the ASYCUDA computerized customs and cargo clearance system in 12 countries with migration to the latest version ASYCUDA+++ commenced in 5 countries in 2003, and the design and development interfaces for non-ASYCUDA customs automation systems in 2 Member States; · installation of EUROTRACE in 13 Member States to provide national external trade statistics; · development and adoption of a community policy and strategy for information and communication that harmonizes broadcasting policy and delivery in member states. Opportunities and Challenges The dismal status of ICT in developing countries point to measures that can enable the less-developed economies to: · leap-frog older technologies by deploying modern, cost-effective, ICT tools to achieve development goals; · learn from the implementation errors of the developed world especially regarding the social impact of ICT - it is not so much what ICT can be used for, but how far ICT should be used to implement social projects; · gain competitive advantage and improve social well-being by developing, using and selling information, knowledge and technology; with lower labour costs and the availability of most IT services technology on the web, developing economies can indeed produce and sell IT services - as seen in India and South East Asia - to the developed world. As a non-exhaustive list, we may cite the following areas where the deployment and utilizations of ICT can have a significant impact on the development process of ECOWAS Member States: · Administration and public sector service delivery -for enhanced efficiency, transparency and good governance; · Production activities and operations – using ICT tools in the design, production, warehousing, distribution and delivery of goods and services; · Agriculture operations – to improve productivity and establish a food security information system including a famine early warning system; · Rural development – to enhance extension of health, education and social services and various types of government services to rural populations; · Support trade and commerce – to facilitate global competitiveness and produce trade information for national planning. The following areas are crucial if the region is to participate in the global economy: · Education and Training – to improve access to limited educational resources and provide widespread, high quality, affordable education; · Good governance – to facilitate electronic government, good governance and the strengthening of democratic institutions; · Poverty alleviation and wealth creation – to directly raise the poor's living standards and quality of life. ECOWAS, and indeed any developing society, is faced with serious challenges of: · infrastructure – affordable and accessible telecommunications backbone and stable electrical supply; · environment – adoption and harmonization of policies and strategies related to globalisation, liberalization, deregulation, privatisation and legal issues; · technology – issues related to software acquisition and development (open source), standards and interoperability, IP address management and other Internet issues; · resources – financial, organizational and human. The Way Forward ECOWAS, in collaboration with the member states, has committed itself to the following: · Preparation and adoption of a long-term vision and policies as a road map for national and regional ICT development; · Continuing reform and restructuring of the telecommunications sector; · Introduction of new technologies and services, especially e-applications that offer cost-effectiveness, efficiency and good governance; · Extension of new technologies to rural and remote areas; · Modernizing and upgrading inter-state communication links and facilitating inter-state roaming of mobile services; · Ensuring that youth and gender balance are accorded adequate consideration in ICT plans. To this end, ECOWAS is strengthening its collaboration with technical partners, donors and investors to stimulate substantially increased investment in ICT development. In the ECOWAS region, the sector enjoys substantial potential for growth and profitability. Conclusion The ECOWAS ICT sees ICT not as an end but as a tool, a vehicle, towards achieving development and integration goals, and improving the well being of the community's citizens. Our emphasis is upon developing the ICT infrastructure needed for integrated and effective ICT deployment. The ECOWAS initiatives, programmes and projects have been harmonized and integrated with the NEPAD Action Plans to ensure a coherent ICT implementation in collaboration with other regional economic communities for the overall welfare of the African people.