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Nancy Hafkin

Many political philosophers agree on the equalizing and empowering potential of Information and Communication Technologies; embracing them with great enthusiasm. Applied ethicists such as Emma Rooksby even believe that the access to information - made possible by these technologies - should be considered a primary good. However, due to this importance, there is equally an increasing concern over the uneven distribution of this great ‘information wealth’ - often dubbed the ‘digital divide’.

U.S.-born Africanist Nancy Hafkin expressed similar concerns already at the end of the 1970s with regard to the African continent. She voiced her concern especially in the context of education: “Many university libraries hadn’t gotten new books or journals for more than a decade. [...] This was the beginning of an information age, and Africa had no entry to it. Those that had the least access to information needed it the most”

At the time of voicing these concerns, Nancy had already relocated to Africa herself some years before. While her husband was contributing to the building of an equitable new order in Ethiopia, Nancy found herself a small assignment at the African Training and Research Center for Women in Addis Ababa. This part-time job would be the stepping stone to becoming the head of the Pan African Development Information System (PADIS), slowly introducing the entire continent to the world of ICT.

PADIS first started to use electronic networking in 1988, exchanging information using low-cost, modem-based electronic communications. This was a daunting task: modems were slow, constantly broke and costs were astronomically high - even ignoring the fact that, at times, they had to be smuggled in due to strict regulations. In 1990, though, new and cheap store-and-forward technologies, such as FidoNet and uucp, made it possible to set up the first email networks of Africa; providing low-cost email, file transfer and database access. Under Nancy’s watch, 24 African countries set up their first email networks between 1991 and 1995; an accomplishment for which she would eventually be inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012. Notably, all this was done using dial-up connections on regular telephone lines; full Internet TCP/IP connectivity was not yet possible. That would happen another five years later, when Eritrea would become the last African country to obtain full Internet connectivity. Nancy herself was only a witness of that, though, for she retired three years earlier in 1997.

To say the least, throughout her career, Nancy has maintained a focus on the importance of women in technology: “if a country does not invest in female resources, it loses half of the productivity it might have”. The topic would become thematized in her post-retirement years. Notably, she co-wrote the book ‘Cinderella or Cyberella?’, in which she discusses how ICT can be used for the overall empowerment of women.

Nancy Hafkin


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