A Marshall Plan with Africa: Placing Digitalisation in the Service of Sustainable Development

IASS responds to new initiative by Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development

By Kerstin Fritzsche

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“We need a new pact on the future between Europe and Africa” – this is the central message of the Cornerstones for a Marshall Plan with Africa, a discussion paper published by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development on 18 January 2017. The subject of digitalisation looms large in the paper, most prominently across the fields of education, health and energy, but also in connection with the wider economic development of the African continent. “Our goal”, the paper states, “is to promote the fair and open development of a digitalised world.”

But what precisely does that mean? What is the “digitalised world” and how can we ensure its fair and open development? What specific challenges does digitalisation present to developing countries?

The significance of emerging Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and digitalisation in development contexts has been the subject of considerable debate within academia for several decades. One insight that can be gleaned from these discussions is that in addition to its many positive effects, such as improved access to education and health services and broader participation in economic and social life, digital technologies frequently present developing countries with unintended consequences and challenges. Digitalisation has the potential to alleviate inequalities, but it can also exacerbate them under certain circumstances – for example, when access to technology or knowledge is unevenly distributed across societies. Issues around data security and privacy have also been subject to considerable scrutiny in recent years, prompted by conflicts, the uncertain status of civil society organisations in many developing countries, and the almost unlimited scope of digital surveillance technologies.

Digitalisation will also play a significant role in reshaping existing global value chains. Development approaches that build on a particular niche in the international division of labour could be turned upside down in the process. While this will create numerous opportunities, the demand for improved infrastructure, regulatory frameworks, and workforce expertise that is likely to accompany this shift will prove challenging for many countries – and not only in the Global South.

There is also uncertainty around the environmental consequences of digitalisation: on the one hand, there is hope that it could foster both “smarter” energy and resource consumption and the development of new, ecological materials with the capacity to reduce environmental impacts. But some researchers fear that digitalisation could simply fuel what already amounts to the unbridled consumption of planetary resources, creating unintended rebound effects and increasing demand for critical raw materials, with all the environmental impacts that this would entail.

What, then, can be done to ensure that the emerging “digitalised world” is both sustainable – in the social, economic, and environmental sense – and equitable, so that it provides greater opportunity for all without endangering the natural environment?

Finding answers to this question is among the objectives of the project “Digitalization and Impacts on Sustainability” at the IASS, which will examine sustainability challenges around Industry 4.0, e-governance, participation and digitalisation in developing and newly industrialized countries countries. Researchers working on this project have issued a statement on key aspects of the Marshall Plan with Africa, drawing attention to several of the considerations noted above. The Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) sought to engage in a constructive discussion around its Cornerstones of a Marshall Plan with Africa through a dedicated online platform for public dialogue. Our statement can be found among the comments published online on the BMZ website and is also available as a download here.

Header image: istock/subman

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