An outdated self-understanding prevents Europe from working with developing countries towards a common digital future.

Europe, the fortress that everyone wants to storm. A Europe whose values and economy must be protected against immigrants from Africa and other parts of the world. This is the rhetoric that the leading development politicians are applying in Germany today: “Europe’s fate and future is decided on the African continent,” said Development Minister Gerd Müller in the Presse Release about the Marshall Plan with Africa of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. Unfortunately, this does not mean that Africa is becoming increasingly important as a business partner and engine for digital innovation. Instead, their concern is about ensuring that jobs are created in Africa and that we limit the effects of climate change to prevent millions of people from migrating to Europe. As response to the provocative question: “Are hundreds of thousands sitting on packed suitcases in Africa?” posed by the BZ-Journalist, Günter Nooke the Africa Commissioner of the Federal Government answered in October 2018: „We do not know that. But many are thinking of emigrating. Almost always the dream destination is Europe“.

Collaboration as an opportunity for all

We live in an increasingly digital economy. Unfortunately, Europe does not shine in terms of digital innovation. Europe would be well advised not to see itself as a guardian of wealth and moral while seeing countries of the global South, especially countries in Africa, only as a petitioner and recipient of our attention. In comparison to the US and China, Europe is a minor player that, from the point of view of the big digital companies, is trying to slow others down by regulatory measures such as the GDPR. In an axis between Silicon Valley platform economics and Chinese social credit systems, Europe will only be relevant in the future if we learn to cooperate. In many African countries, digitization is much higher on the civic and political agenda than in Germany. Many governments are showing great interest and willingness to invest in the development of digital infrastructure. The classic separation between developing countries and industrial nations in terms of digital innovation no longer exists. The understanding that development cooperation is a reciprocal exchange in which both sides work together under the premises of partnership and mutual learning should underlie modern development cooperation.

Innovation is digital, transparent, open and self-determined

The future of development cooperation is digital, transparent, direct and self-determined. Digital instruments can enable new forms of cooperation. Direct communication with various organizations, stakeholders, and citizens is possible, as well as open processes and open data. This potential must be used to replace old, non-transparent structures in favor of new, more participatory and more transparent ones. In addition, the recipients and funding instruments should be revisited. Today, development cooperation usually takes place between government institutions and within the framework of collaboration with large companies and other large and established organizations. Innovation does not. Innovations are emerging in civil society-driven hubs, makerspaces, startups, grassroots organizations and other local initiatives. Innovative solutions to social and economic needs are emerging in many countries, from the production of educational materials to the provision of blood supplies, which often compensate for lack of public services and infrastructure. Today all development organizations set up their own accelerator programs because it is attractive to promote startups. Instead, development cooperation could provide greater equality of opportunity and support existing local initiatives: e.g. promoting diverse, small actors to develop and scale effective solutions through publicly available, transparent measures. Preferably open (in the sense of open source), replicable and adaptable solutions should be promoted. Governments could be helped to establish new collaborations and forms of cooperation with innovative and established grassroots actors.

The future lies in local citizen-driven initiatives

An example of social innovation and new forms of cooperation is the  Global Innovation Gathering (GIG)), a network of hubs, makers and innovators from around the world who represent a new form of international collaboration and sustainable and social tech development. Members of the network are committed to developing relevant technologies adapted to the local context in their countries, rather than importing unitary solutions. GIG members support each other and work together for the goals of the network: “We believe in active citizenship, in doing instead of waiting and in the development through grassroots initiatives”, it says in the statutes of the association. The members represent over 40 countries. For example, they build makerspaces in Iraq, provide emergency relief with DIY solutions in Nepal and Syria, and change learning methods in schools in Brazil. Among them is the organization Field Ready, which has been providing emergency relief in disaster areas for years by producing 3D printed products. For example, in Haiti, where there were no umbilical braces after the 2010 earthquake – Field Ready supplied local clinics with their home-made solutions.  Kumasi Hive’s Makerspace in Ghana works with both the technical university and local artisans to locally produce and tailor innovations for agriculture, health and education to local needs. AB3D builds 3D printers from recycled materials.

Development for all sides

The approximately 150 members of the network create open, innovative solutions and spaces for others to develop such, they exchange their work and work on joint projects. The #i4Policy initiative, launched by members of the network, aims to connect governments with grassroots actors in order to better understand the needs of this stakeholder group and to create appropriate regulations and frameworks for innovation. Through various proprietary formats such as “policy hackathons”, creative collaboration with the goal of promoting progressive innovation policy takes place among actors who would otherwise not meet. The network creates new exchange formats nationally and internationally, face to face encounters and develops forward-looking themes and project formats. Thus it proofs to big development organizations that all involved sides can only profit from a development cooperation that focuses on local actors and understands how to use digital technologies. 

Originally published at tbd  on February 28, 2019

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