Technology has broken down barriers and ensured freedoms for millions in a way no other invention has before.
At last month’s meeting of the UN General Assembly, 91 world leaders listened to US President Donald Trump rebuke China from inside the room, but hundreds of millions of people viewed the speech on their smart devices across the globe.
However, the challenge for heads of state is to ensure that technology ushers in an age of prosperity for all citizens worldwide rather than an era of domination by a few, an all too familiar story.
This can only be achieved by improving the governance of data — how information is collected and shared — and guaranteeing that all citizens have equal appreciation of, access to and control of, the new data economy.
Harnessing the potential of technology and the data economy is essential to meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in Africa, from assisting development and accelerating prosperity to ending poverty. Unless positive action is taken, however, Africa could easily fall further behind.
Decisions taken by African leaders and policymakers over the next few years on embracing the data economy will determine the scale of the benefits the continent and its people will realise. Rather than drilling for oil, Africa should be building for the data economy. Data is now the world’s biggest, most expensive and most important commodity and no society can afford to ignore its potential.
The Brexit saga has shown Europe, if not the rest of the world, that integration is far better than disintegration. Asia continues to integrate and to construct a union with new trade agreements like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and the Mercosur trade deal between the EU and the South American bloc — Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay — has finally been agreed after 20 years of talks. Trade and integration remain an important part of a global solution for building a prosperous world.
Africa is already taking a leadership role on integration, with the recent adoption of African Continental Free Trade Area agreement. Now it must also do so on the data discussion. African countries can claim a new and more influential position in the changing world order as the international community collectively seeks to design a new multilateral architecture for collaboration on data.
Africa already has the tools with which to navigate the shifting global patterns, including its young population whose information, data and innovation will be sought by all.
There a number of steps African policymakers can undertake in order to lead the data conversation. They should make an intelligent bet on technology (as they have done on trade), allowing it to guide politics rather than vice versa. They can embrace the innovation of Africa’s youth and reject scaremongering. African leaders should create a common intellectual property rights agency to protect the continent’s valuable assets.
Economics tells us monopolies are neither fair nor efficient; data monopolies are unlikely to be any different. Given the global nature of the data economy and the cross-border capabilities that exist to collect and trade data products and services, global institutions like the UN, its affiliated organisations and the Bretton Woods institutions all have a central role to play in shaping global policy that will promote data harmonisation and interoperability, while still ensuring the collective interests of Africa.
But African leaders should learn from previous trade agreements, take a seat at the table and lead on world ecommerce and data negotiations.
The writer is the UN under-secretary general and executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa. She is speaking at the FT Africa Summit in London on October 14
Source Financial Times