Inequality is “the defining challenge of our time,” former US President Obama said in 2013. Last week at a conference in Kigali Rwanda, participants revisited these words to expound on the danger of rising inequalities, which were said to be opening Africa to new vulnerabilities, including possible domination. Like a nagging pain that keeps on recurring, income inequality remains a major challenge in our time.
Many African countries, including Kenya, form the leading pack of countries with the highest income disparity. In spite of the fact that this is a serious economic issue in the country’s endeavour for sustained stability for economic progress, it is virtually never addressed.
Yet we know that although inequality manifests physically, it also does the same in the digital space where those who control online content influence behaviour and actions.
It is perhaps why the issues of social justice as a mitigating factor of inequality are never brought to the fore. At the Kigali conference, Prof. Laura Czerniewicz of the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching, University of Cape Town, said in her presentation that what happens online shapes and augments what happens in the physical world; power dynamics online echo, refract and reshape global socio-cultural dynamics; in a knowledge society, what counts as valid legitimate knowledge is increasingly determined online (if its not online it does not exist), and the material world is produced and reinforced by online language, content and algorithms. Prof. Czerniewicz was reinforcing why Africa needs Nancy Fraser’s concept of “participatory parity” that seeks to address disparity. It does so through arrangements, which enable all to participate in, and be represented, as equals in the inextricably interconnected virtual and material worlds. In reality this never happens since the creators of content shape the global socio-cultural dynamics.
The tragedy is the fact that Africa, a major consumer of online content, contributes less than one percent of the content and there is no where to validate such content for information hungry, online dependent citizens. New language translation algorithms are being developed sometimes without the input of the native speakers.
Africa has opened herself to serious manipulation by those who control content across platforms. The solution is not running away from online but to reflect on the past and think about a future without the culture. Prof. Czerniewicz warned that the algorithms whose products we have come to love are not neutral.
They are designed by humans with existing biases and assumptions, reflect existing beliefs, are built on existing educational practices and have become engines of value risking exacerbating and accelerating inequalities and privilege.
The emerging digital platform economy is yet to be understood. Although some of these digital platforms are mega companies, such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, Salesforce, Alibaba and Uber their disruption especially on matters taxation and redefinition of corporate structure remain a thorny issue across the world.
These persistent disruptions are coming as the world ushers in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In it, we Africa shall either leapfrog or falter into oblivion, and that is perhaps why at the conference, we had a lively mock debate and the motion was “This House believes Africa has nothing to fear from a ‘fourth industrial revolution’ and should seize the opportunity it represents.
”In the end, the motion was defeated owing to the fact that the continent may enter into new age of exploitation by western enterprises in control of these frightening new technologies. However, there must be a concerted African strategy to encourage growth of innovations from the continent and become participants rather than just consumers of Western technologies
Bottom line; Africa needs to invest in education and build human resource capacity to comprehensively deal with income inequalities as a mitigation measure for the emerging radical changes on how we socialize, work, compete for the share of profits and create value in the economy.
In the absence of this, Africa remains vulnerable to manipulation by others for years to come. Africa must therefore discard AU’s Vision 2063 and leverage on SDGs to make leaders accountable soon and not when they are dead.