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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

ICT: Experts canvass practical liberalisation

A one-day workshop on impacts of liberalisation of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) trade services, was held in Lagos, recently. REMMY NWEKE who participated, reports on the need for African countries to enthrone policies that could engender economics beyond immediate shoreslines by walking the talk.

Despite the level of growth recorded in the past 10 years of the Global System for Mobile communication (GSM), which invariably gave rise to the recognition of the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector, experts are of the opinion that more legal frameworks are needed to further strengthen the market.

This is mostly in the area of engendering liberalization of ICT beyond the shores of individual countries on the continent, particularly in West Africa where there are a mixture of both Anglophone and Francophone nations with seemingly language barrier.

These were some of the opinions highlighted at the recently held one-day workshop on ‘The impact of Liberalization on trade in ICT goods and services’ organized by the Faculty of Social sciences, University of Lagos and led by the trio of Prof. Tayo Fakiyesi of department of Economics, Prof. Ike Mowete of Engineering and Prof. Peter Fogam of department of commercial law, all of the University of Lagos (UNILAG); as part of efforts at disseminating their finds under LICOM’s Nigeria project.

The workshop, which witnessed a good number of stakeholders, mostly from the academia, saw experts urging telecommunication companies in the country to challenge the academia by endowing chairs on technological research across the nation’s higher institutions.

All those who presented papers during the workshop were of the opinions that the sector needs to be improved to fast track economic development of the nation towards stimulating means to encourage inter-country commerce.

Introducing the project in an overview, Prof. Mowete said that it was initiated by Dakar-based Panos Institute of West Africa (PIWA) under the sponsorship of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada, with focus on the impact of international liberalization of trade in ICT services, the implications of implementation for public policies in West Africa.

According to him, the studies on this project covered Benin, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal, noting that in Nigeria, a UNILAG team executed the project, which included three professors, stressing that the objectives of the scheme includes to contribute to a better and informed understanding of the challenges of liberalization of trade in ICT services in the sub-region.

The study, Mowete said, was situated within the framework of the World Trade Organisation (WTO)’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) as basic policy implementation strategies. He also listed some specific objectives to include the identification and analyzing key legal provisions, deduce the perception of sector stakeholders about risks and challenges, characterize the ICT sector with particular reference to the services sub-sector, estimate the costs and assess the merits claimed by liberalization as well as recommendations and disseminate, accordingly.

Specifically, he said that four separate investigations were carried out beginning with a critique of the legal provisions as they concerned trade in ICT services, followed by a survey of ICT services sector in Lagos, which is the hub of ICT market in the country. This attempt came on the heels of the questionnaire survey to obtain perception of players and finally, a cost-benefit analysis.

He disclosed that the purpose of the workshop was to present the outcomes of the studies across the three professors covering the key three sectors to drive trade liberalization beyond any given shores, pointing out that Prof. Fogam would provide the legal provisions, himself would take on the characterization and perception, Prof. Fakiyesi would dwell on costs and benefits.

In his paper, Prof. Peter Fogam noted that despite the rapid development recorded in ICT in the country, the sector is still bedeviled with a high level of inconsistency on ICT policy. Underscoring the fact that total application of ICT in most developing countries are hindered by the lack of comprehensive legal and regulatory frame work. He said that, though, Nigeria has taken a bold leap forward by legal and regulatory measures on ground, but there is need to improve on it.

He also said that the ever changing nature of ICT industry is such that it’s difficult to imagine the challenges that these measures may face in future, therefore, much are yet to be done to meet these challenges.

“Nevertheless, what exist today by way of national communication policy and Communications Act 2003, underscores the facts that a sustainable ICT industry in Nigeria needs an environment of trust created through legal and regulatory apparatus,” he declared.

Fogam equally said that the opportunity brought about by ICT needs a strict legal and regulatory environment for proper coordination, noting that the present ICT status in the country, have been influenced by policies and statutes.

ICTs, the professor of law said, have led to the convergence between the media and the telecommunications in such a way that today, it is possible for one to read newspapers online and listen to radio stations across the globe from different websites through multimedia connectivity.

He stressed the importance of ICT in the affairs of any nation, saying that it cannot be overemphasized, because ICT enhances economic growth through competition, and consistently increases trades and investments. Maintaining that ICT enables the modernization of private sector through improved market access, sales, trade and facilitation of research and development, asserting, “ICT has a very broad range of application that span across various sectors of health, education, agriculture, e-government and e-economic.”

In his contribution at the workshop, an economist, Prof. Fakiyesi reflected on the fact that ICT in the country has raised the level of employment opportunities, but solicited for strict regulatory measures that would check some fraudulent practices associated with it.

According to him, the growth of ICT in the country has its negative effects, including the use of these technologies to commit crimes and fraudulent practices, warning that the negative side has assumed publicity because it has been exploited by some Nigerian youths.

However, against the aforementioned demerit, Fakiyesi said ICT sector has lifted the nation’s economy and there is need for stakeholders to work towards improving the sector for more financially viable growth and development, pointing out that “ICT has raised employment and investment in the country and it has come to stay. It has reduced cost of trade and increased productivity.”

The economist further decried that apart from the improvement on the economy, ICT has also enhanced falsehood, dissemination of harmful information, as well as fraudulent activities in the transaction of businesses.

ICT, he said accounts for about 1.62 per cent of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with over 50.90 per cent growth, just as ICT has substantially contributed to the nation’s growth, especially since 2000 when the sector was practically liberalized.

On the benefit drivable to Nigerians, Fakiyesi said that the increased development has to match with level of service provided, stressing that benefits outweigh demerits in terms of services, but services must improve.

Prof. Fakiyesi pointed out that why academic communities seem not to be involved in the research leading to ICT innovations was due to lack of professional endowed chair in the nation’s tertiary institutions by operators in the sector, which has not been helpful.

He decried the absence of political will by those in government to give the academia the opportunity to research on ICT, but prefer expatriates to supply all that is needed in the sector.

"The environment is not conducive, the political will has not given us the opportunity to work towards research, not that we cannot do good jobs but the political will is not there. The essence of this workshop is to create more ICT businesses in Nigeria and we’re ready to work towards the improvement of ICT sector,” he said.

Universities and some professionals, he said, needed to be consulted when policies on ICTs are being formulated, especially from the tertiary institutions, alleging that some of the people who are making policies on ICT today are not professionals.

And cited an instance with the United Kingdom and American telecommunication companies who go around the universities endowing chairs for research on how to improve their services, insisting that the network providers, should be able to identify their needs and get to the universities to research on these areas.

"In United Kingdom ICT companies go around to universities to establish chairs for research. MTN, Glo and Zain should come to us for research, they should tell us what they want and guide us on how they want it, we’re ready to do research, but these people are not ready to encourage research work in the country. The research should be under their guidance, and the findings should be theirs,’’ he said.

However, deductible from the above workshop is that there is still a long way to go, but if every other country in the sub-region could improve on their policies, definitely the economic activities in the region would increase to provide a better lifestyle to the populace, despite the negative aspects.

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