Access to information

While the phenomenal growth and influence of the internet enables individuals and groups to easily access information on any topic, the credibility of such information has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years with the growth of so-called “fake news” – information that may be biased and is often factually incorrect. One of the many things we teach our students at various universities around the world is the ability to access information on a topic that not only reflects a diverse group of opinions but which is also accurate and reliable. In order to be useful and credible, research must be independent, critical and balanced. But even this can sometimes prove to be difficult, particularly when funding agencies or governments exert pressure to ensure that research findings are disseminated uncritically. On other occasions, researchers may practice self-censorship for fear of antagonising powerholders. 

A major difficulty facing many of my students and colleagues in Africa relates to their inability to access quality academic journals. A part of the problem is under-funded public and university libraries, which simply do not have the resources to pay for very expensive subscriptions. The growing popularity of e-journals, some of which are also “open-access”, meaning that everyone has access to the articles as long as one has access to a fast internet connection, has enabled many of my colleagues and students to access first-rate academic journal articles. However, even this comes with a catch – the Internet speeds in many parts of the world are exceedingly slow, and even downloading a small pdf file can prove to be a frustrating experience.

A recent report on worldwide broadband speeds released last month by Cable, a UK-based organisation, paints a particularly distressing picture of Africa. The study, which involved millions of speed tests in over 200 countries, finds that although the average download speeds at the global level has increased by 20 percent, the only bright spot in Africa is Madagascar where average internet speed is over 20Mbps – placing it 33rd globally. By contrast, many countries – including Malawi – enjoy average speeds of around 1MBps. Despite being one of the continent’s poorest countries, Madagascar outperforms many other economically better-off countries in the region. The country’s impressive internet connections are mainly due to the East African Submarine Cable System – a 10,000 km undersea fibre optic cable system that connects Madagascar’s cities to the internet. Indeed, while accessing the internet has never been cheaper, the digital divide between countries remains huge. The report concludes that despite its size, “Africa is a long way behind the rest of the world when it comes to broadband provision, relying primarily on wireless (WiMAX, 3G, 4G) connectivity rather than cables to cover its vast spaces”.

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