Author: Thi Nguyen
Source: Letaba Herald
Sylvie*, a 21-year-old high school graduate in Kigali, Rwanda, has been managing a clothing shop for almost a year, where she hopes to create more manufacturing jobs for low-income youth. As a young woman who grew up among the rural poor, she struggled with finding stable employment. Now, she attributes her breadwinning career to nothing other than having access to the Internet. Sylvie said, “Since the government expanded Internet connectivity to rural communities, schoolgirls have been able to learn professional skills online, build our networks, and make a difference in their community. I wish I had the Internet when I was in high school”.
Sylvie is among many success stories that illustrate how Internet access, supported by the United Nations’ Fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), can provide lifelong learning and advancement opportunities to underprivileged youth in Africa (The Internet Society, 2017; Mancharia, 2014). However, to upper secondary school students in Burundi, a neighboring country of Rwanda, the Internet remains an unfamiliar concept. According to UNESCO’s Education Progress Report, all upper secondary schools in Burundi provide electricity, but only 7% provide Internet access, which is the widest gap among all surveyed countries. This datum demonstrates a trend of Internet use consistent with that of the entire Burundi’s population: currently, only around 10% of Burundians have access to the Internet (CIPESA, 2016).
The Impact of Post-War Economic Challenges
The lack of Internet access is among many shortcomings in Burundi post-Civil War. The ethnic violence between the Tutsi and Hutu factions between 1993 and 2003 also left the Burundian school system in shambles for most of the 2000s. In 2004, upon receiving foreign aid to rebuild school infrastructure in the country, the Burundian government adopted the national “Information and Communications Technology” (ICT) as a part of its developmental policy, with expectations that ICT could catalyze the improvement of both access to and quality of education (Hare, 2007).
Despite having this policy in place, ICT uptake in Burundi is severely low, with most of ICT facilities concentrated in the capital city of Bujumbura, where wealthy groups and multinational companies are located. The rural population, which accounts for 87% of the total population (IndexMundi, 2018), have almost zero access, which shows that the digital divide in Burundi is extremely large.
While recognizing ICT as an enabler in access and quality in education, Burundi does not provide a specific policy or documentation method to support ICT use in the education sector (Hare, 2007). Government officials claim that this problem is due to the lack of funding, coupled with the fact that schools’ priorities still rest on stabilizing the language of instruction, recruiting teachers, and providing minimal facilities to sustain an acceptable quality of education (Harerimana, 2019; Stamm, 2019). Not to mention, Burundi’s heavy dependence on subsistence agriculture poses barriers to its participation in the 21st-century global economy (Nkurunziza, 2005). This condition makes the Internet, a pathway to the global knowledge society and job market, become unthought-of to a majority of Burundi’s population.
Burundi’s history of conflict and ongoing resistance against the government have made the idea of providing Internet access to students deeply controversial. In the midst of an authoritarian crackdown, Internet blockages are extremely common, and Burundian media workers are constantly subjected to censorship. State surveillance has also resulted in imprisonments and executions of many Internet users who were suspected to be political dissidents (Hare, 2007). Meanwhile, regional unrest has also reignited ethnic tensions and homicide, which contributes to waves of vulnerable Burundians fleeing their homes to seek refuge every year (Steers, 2019).
Because the right to information is not explicitly protected in Burundi’s Constitution (Hare, 2007), and widespread political conversations under an authoritarian leadership can jeopardize lives, not much about Burundi’s current crisis is discussed within the nation’s public or shared with the world (Graham-Harrison, 2016). The limited ICT engagement reflects this condition. As a result, Internet connectivity, while internationally recognized as an indicator of access to quality education (ITCU-UNESCO Broadband Commission, 2013), remains absent from Burundi’s school curriculum.
Internet Access as a Tool for Development
City of Bujumbura, Burundi. Source: WikiCommons
In a resource-poor and unstable country, adolescents should be introduced to lifelong learning through the Internet so that they can live up to their full potential and contribute to the motherland. Internet skills can translate to access to a much wider range of information and resources as well as new ways of teaching and learning. Both can enhance educational welfare, helping to achieve Education for All and other SDG goals (The Internet Society, 2017).
In Rwanda, Burundi’s neighbor with a similar history and developmental status, universal Internet access is used as a tool to help redistribute resources, mitigate ethnic polarization, and attract foreign investment (Herath, 2018; Howard, 2014). Young entrepreneurs and community leaders like Sylvie are indeed the by-product of Rwanda’s capacity-building and community healing efforts. Burundian students deserve the opportunity that Sylvie has received to venture beyond the boundaries of their upbringings. Limiting Internet access means restricting their ability to learn about the world and find innovative solutions to improve their lives and those around them, which can impede development and global integration.
The Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) has also highlighted the role of ICT in promoting human rights, which included the rights to educational attainment, freedom of expression, and social justice (IHRB, 2017). In other words, when all citizens are equipped with a tool to freely learn, grow, and make changes in governance, the country’s safety, institutional stability, and socioeconomic prosperity will significantly improve.
In Burundi, the idea of universal Internet service seems threatening to Pierre Nkurunziza’s leadership, since there have been public protests against what’s considered the administration’s abuse of power over the past decade. If Internet access in education were to be up for discussion, policymakers and advocates would need to envision Burundian citizens’ educational needs in relation to the country’s political circumstances. The goal and challenge would be to facilitate the transformation of individual lives, the economy, and the society while ensuring the overall domestic security.
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