What is digital colonialism

Digitization in Africa and the contribution of ethics to a new research agenda

Ethical questions of digitization in Sub-Saharan Africa concern e.g. unequal power relations between global IT companies and African governments and citizens, digital colonialism, access barriers to ICT, (digital) illiteracy, the “digital divide” between the sexes and the marginalization of others Population groups such as ethnic minorities. In the project "Ethical Implications of IT Exports to Sub-Saharan Africa" ​​(ELISA), which was funded from 2016 to 2019 by the Platform 4 Initiative of the University of Tübingen, we at the IZEW have dedicated ourselves to these questions. International actors from various scientific disciplines discussed this with stakeholders from practice in order to expand the exchange in interdisciplinary and global contexts. An important goal was to include the perspective of those actually affected. The inter- and transdisciplinary dialogue is an urgently needed contribution to the debate about fair digitization in terms of sustainable development on the African continent. Ethics can and must also make its contribution here.

Digitization processes in Africa are more and more in the focus of the media, also in the Global North: Africa is presented as a continent of untapped digital potential and as the home of start-ups and international technology centers, which is now able to overcome the digital divide to the Global North through a rapid development. Transnational companies offer a growing number of services on the continent. African and European governments, China, the USA, development organizations, civil society actors and researchers are increasingly promoting, implementing or analyzing digitization processes in Africa.

As part of the international conference "Digitalization in Africa: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Technology, Development, and Justice" at the IZEW in September 2018, the project staff were able to exchange ideas with experts from science and practice. Here, some specific desiderata for ethical research were identified, which particularly concern questions of global justice:

(i.) Neocolonialism: From a postcolonial perspective, the digitization processes in the Global South give cause for concern, as the dominance of non-African actors and information and communication technologies (ICT) - and the associated values, goals and dependencies from other cultural contexts - resembles colonial structures. The decisive factor here is the technology-ethical perspective, according to which technologies have a strong influence on societies and are therefore not value-neutral, but rather certain values, assumptions and interests are inscribed in them, which in the case of non-African ICT, for example, are "exported" to Africa.

(ii.) (Infra-) structural access barriers: These include strong regional differences in access to the Internet and ICT, including infrastructural deficits such as an insecure power supply, high costs of the Internet (e.g. mobile data), as well as from governments (power- ) "Internet shutdowns" carried out for political reasons.

(iii.) Social inequalities and individual barriers to access: Skills such as (digital) literacy and (English) language skills are crucial to facilitate or even enable access to ICT. Since illiteracy and language barriers are still widespread in some social groups such as ethnic minorities or rural populations, ICT cannot be used as originally intended by the developers. Existing social inequalities such as educational differences thus create access barriers - and are in turn exacerbated by access to ICT.

(iv.) Digital divide between the sexes: One form of social inequality that was particularly in focus at the conference relates to women's access to ICT. Social, economic and political barriers often (completely) limit this access. This also includes maintaining traditional gender roles. Women still have lower ICT skills, have fewer devices and therefore less access.

These topics can be pursued in future projects, ideally in cooperation with scientists from the countries concerned. The ELISA project has made a contribution to strengthening the topic of "digitization in Africa" ​​in the German research landscape. Further reports and research articles on the topic can also be found in the special issue "Digitization in the Global South" in the journal Technology Assessment in Theory and Practice (TATuP), 28/2 2019,


Laura Schelenz, Jessica Heesen, Maria Pawelec, Kerstin Schopp