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Wawa Ngenge is from the Cameroun. He is an agricultural economist trained in the US. He now works for the UNDP in Cameroun where he is the national co-ordinator of the sustainable development networking programme. This programme provides connectivity, training and support to help launch Internet activities in a country and keep them sustained. See www.sdnp.undp.org. He is also provisional Vice President of the planned ISOC chapter in the Cameroun.

This interview with Wawa took place in San Jose California during INET99, the Annual Global Internet Summit organised by the Internet Society.

Survival and the Internet in Africa

What do you see as the relationship between the Internet and basic needs of countries in Africa.

The Internet is the most recent of many technologies introduced into developing countries. Each technology came with a lot of dreams. The post office, for example, replaced the drum signals and the smoke signals. As the number of people grew it became more and more difficult to communicate with smoke signals and drums. Smoke doesn't go across oceans. It goes with a lot of difficulty across mountain ranges. So when the post office and writing came, it was said that this was going to solve all our problems...

Before you didn't need to send messages across the great water. The perception of distance was quite different...

You are right. The need to send messages way beyond the community was created. At the time, the concern was to get the message to the next community and that community would take it beyond if necessary. Each technology came with a lot of dreams, but none of those technologies themselves had the solution to the basic problems: water, food, housing and clothing. Writing came, the post office came, the telegraph came, the telephone came and now the Internet. These technologies will not solve the basic problems. They will contribute to solving them, because the solution to problems involves searching for solutions. This in turn means exchanging information. Somebody may have already solved the problem somewhere else. The theory is that, by having easy access to a solution developed elsewhere, the time it takes for me to look for a solution is shortened. This is the basis of development using new technologies. The coming of new technologies then contributes to the development process but in itself is not sufficient to guarantee development.

...is there not a risk that solutions taken from elsewhere might not be appropriate? ....

The concept of inappropriateness is time-based. At each point in time, it depends on the constraints we are faced with. Right now, many people in developing countries are more concerned with dealing with the four basics I mentioned rather than worrying about whether a culture is preserved or not. If we are going to use the Internet as a development tool and there are people that feel that parts of their culture need to be defended, then we need to teach them how to use the Internet in order to sustain, store and propagate elements of that culture. If the communal model of Internet access is better in certain areas and does not simply exist because people do not have the means to acquire individual computer for access, then it deserves to be put on the Internet so that other people can share it. But if it is there by default because there isn't anything else, that is a different problem, one of development. And we have to deal with it. That is why we are talking of going beyond access to analysing the societal impact of communication. For example, how does a community which speaks one language change when they are forced to use a different language in order to get onto the Internet? We are not talking about languages like mine, Limboun, which is not generally written, but languages like French and German. For us it is more fundamental because we are dealing with oral cultures.

There is much more to the issue of Internet and development and the issue of Internet and society than the question of connectivity. Connectivity is very important, but we have to go deeper into the fundamental problems of survival in order to make the Internet help us attain the goal of making life on the planet more comfortable for more people rather than more uncomfortable for more people. The challenge is to know whether beyond bringing sockets and access we can actually help people to integrate these tools so as to improve their lives.

...Is there a framework in the Cameroun for finding solutions to these problems using new technologies? ...

There is no framework yet. We are still dealing with the problems of privatisation and liberalisation of telecommunications and the introduction of competition. We are far away from thinking about the questions that are going to be raised by the growth of the Internet in the Cameroun. We have to be careful that the technology does not prevent us from thinking about our problems. That the technology becomes the dog and society becomes the tail. We allowed that to happen with reading and writing, we allowed that to happen with the post office, we allowed it to happen with the telephone. Now with the Internet, we have the experience of what other technologies did when we introduced them. We need to maintain society as the dog and keep this Internet technology as the tail. Let the dog wag the tail and not the reverse. That is what Christine Maxwell said to me this morning.

...There has been a lot of talk about developing countries leapfrogging problems ...

Culture cannot leap forward. You can leapfrog technology. You can go from the drum to the telephone very quickly. But as a society you cannot leapfrog. To be able to do so would imply having a destination that is well defined. Societies don't work like that. Actually, we fiddle our way forward. The politicians would like us to believe that they have a nicely defined world towards which they are going... We want to stay alive in this world. We want to fight disease. We want to be able to communicate with each other. We want to be able to communicate instantly to keep in touch in the global world. The need for communication fits into the search for survival means and for means of a more comfortable existence and such societal issues cannot be leapfrogged.

Wawa Ngenge, San Jose, California.
Interview by Alan McCluskey at INET99

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Created: June 23rd, 1999 - Last up-dated: June 23rd, 1999