I am at the 1st International Conference on African Digital Libraries and Archives (ICADLA-1), which is being held from July 1-3 2009 at the United Nations Conference Centre (UNCC), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The rationale for the conference is that Africa as a continent is lagging far behind in the global drive to build digital libraries and archives. As a continent, it has not engaged in any significant discussions and dialogue on strategy and policy for preserving and accessing its resources in digital form. According to the conference announcement, there is urgency to these policy discussions as major digital initiatives involving African content are currently being undertaken by non-African organisations without widely accepted protocol and agreement on issues of ownership of intellectual property rights, local African access rights, and long term sustainability.
The aim of the conference is to bring together key African and international stakeholders to discuss critical policy issues and explore approaches and challenges facing Africa in relation to the digitisation of African resources; and promote ways of strengthening, coordinating and forging stronger links between African digitisation initiatives, networks, projects and policies.
Wits is well represented at the conference, with Felix Ubogu chairing the event, and Michele Pickover and myself here as his assistants.
The first day of the conference was supposed to take the form of a Strategic Roundtable with key African regional and sub-regional organizations to advocate for the inclusion of significant library services and other knowledge input elements in African development strategies and programmes. It was organized around the theme: Building on Knowledge: IFLA Roundtable with Intergovernmental Organisations on Putting Libraries on the African Development Agenda. There were some good presentations, but there was very little discussion about the actual theme, or at least it was very tangential. It was more like a normal conference presentation set than a real round table, although there was a short discussion period at the end, where some interesting points were raised. One of them was a woman whose name I did not catch, who emphasized the need to digitize African content.
After the political opening statements we were treated to a presentation on Knowledge Management by Prof Kingo Mchombu from the University of Namibia. He urged African governments and institutions to adopt a knowledge management strategy. THen Mr Abraham Azubuike, the Chief Librarian gave a bit of a motherhood talk entitled 'Knowledge-oriented developmet: a fresh start for Africa'. I am unconvinced by some of the conclusions he drew, and I think there was some potential for mixing cause and effect. But his message was clear. Africa cannot develop if it does not take knowledge more seriously, and with that I absolutely agree.
I had a medical appointment, so I missed the talk by Prof Emmanuel Nnadozie, the Senior Economic Affairs Officer with NEPAD and UNECA. His talk was entitled 'Harnessing knowledge to accelerate the implementation of NEPAD'. Having had a project that was listed in the NEPAD Science and Technology Plan of Action, and not being able to get any response from anyone in NEPAD as to what it means or how I can use it to help NEPAD achieve its goals, I am uber-skeptical about anything NEPAD related. Before the beast can eat, it needs to wake up.
Dr. Bakri M Abul Karim, Head of the Knowledge and Virtual Resource Centre at the African Development Bank talked about all the services that his organization renders using mostly imported knowledge resources, and imported proprietary technologies. It would be nice if organizations such as the African Bank could collaborate with other African initiatives such as AVOIR and help them grow, but one of the greatest challenges to building knowledge in Africa is the failure of African organizations to take a risk and invest in African-led initiatives. Still, his organization offers an amazing array of services, and even have credit cards issued so staff can purchase proprietary licensed content online.
This was followed by a late afternoon discussion session during which various members of the audience made their own speeches, and asked a few questions of the speakers for the day. I will not try to repeat it here.
It is interesting to come to this conference after attending PASIG in Malta last week. The contrast between what we talked about in Malta, and what is happening in Africa is stark. It feels like coming from a workshop on advanced functional programming and sitting in a the first lecture on introductory visual basic, so stark is the contrast. We have the technical capacity to do awesome work in this area in Africa, but we lack the political will and organizational desire to pull it off. And so we talk some more. Perhaps tomorrow will prove me wrong. I hope so. I would love to be wrong.
Here are my tweets from the conference. Unfortunately, I will have to save them up and send them all at once because there is no Wifi in the UN International Conference Centre, despite this being 2009!