Why Africa Must Demand a Fair Share in AI Development and Governance

Haileleol Tibebu / May 1, 2024

Clarote & AI4Media / Better Images of AI / AI Mural / CC-BY 4.0

Artificial intelligence stands to remake economies, societies, and power structures around the globe. Yet, the development and governance of this transformative technology remain heavily concentrated within the Global North. This dynamic not only risks widening existing inequalities but also deprives the world of Africa's valuable contributions and unique perspectives in shaping AI's future. Africa, comprising a significant fraction of the world's population and facing distinct challenges, has both the right and urgent need to demand a fair share in AI development and governance.

Economic Equity and Self-Determination

The current landscape of AI development resembles a neocolonial form of resource extraction. Africa often finds itself relegated to the role of a data mine, where personal information, cultural patterns, and knowledge are collected to fuel AI models in the North. However, the economic benefits generated from this data rarely return to the communities from which it was extracted. This one-way flow of data perpetuates a cycle of economic dependency, stripping Africa of agency in the burgeoning AI-powered economy.

Denying Africa the tools and capacity for AI development forces its people into the role of mere consumers of technology crafted elsewhere. This hinders the establishment of local AI industries, stifles innovation, and cements a power imbalance where the Global North dictates the terms of technological advancement. Crucially, Africa possesses unique challenges and opportunities that AI could address, from optimizing agriculture in diverse climates to improving public health infrastructure. Locally developed AI solutions, sensitive to on-the-ground realities, are far better equipped to solve these challenges than externally imposed, one-size-fits-all models.

Political Power and Representation

The concentrated power over AI development presents a fundamental challenge to the principle of self-determination. African nations, like any sovereign entities, have the right to meaningfully contribute to the governance structures shaping a technology that will heavily influence their futures. Yet, algorithmic bias remains rampant. AI systems trained and fine-tuned primarily on data from the Global North often encode and amplify existing societal inequalities, potentially creating new forms of discrimination tailored to the unique contexts of Africa.

International AI governance standards are being shaped at this very moment, yet the voices of Africa are frequently marginalized in these discussions. Standards formulated without diverse input risk reflecting the interests and priorities of those already in power. This could inadvertently enshrine harmful biases or overlook the specific concerns of Africa in global AI standards.

Unchecked AI development raises significant sovereignty concerns. The technology's dual-use nature, applicable for both beneficial and harmful purposes like surveillance and social control, is of particular alarm. Africa must develop the capacity to build and deploy AI systems that are accountable to local populations, align with human rights principles, and can act as a bulwark against potential misuses that threaten the autonomy and freedoms of its citizens.

Cultural Preservation and Decolonization of Knowledge

AI's current trajectory threatens to drown out linguistic diversity. The dominance of a few Global North languages in most AI language models creates an inherent barrier for vast populations within Africa to fully participate in the digital world. This risks accelerating the decline of already marginalized languages and dialects within an increasingly AI-dependent society.

The datasets used to train AI models play a pivotal role in shaping the knowledge they generate. A reliance on predominantly Western datasets reinforces existing power structures and perpetuates a singular, dominant worldview. Empowering Africa to develop AI rooted in its own cultural experiences and knowledge systems is essential for decolonizing technological knowledge production. This offers a pathway to creating alternative narratives and perspectives that enrich the global AI landscape.

Africa harbors a wealth of indigenous knowledge, including traditional medicine practices, ecological understanding, and more, passed down through generations. AI has the potential to preserve and revitalize these knowledge forms, but only if developed in a way that centers the communities where this knowledge originates. AI development led by Africa can safeguard this knowledge for future generations, ensuring respect for intellectual property rights and preventing exploitation by external actors.

Ethical Considerations and Preventing Harm

The uneven impact of AI-driven automation poses a dire threat to Africa. Nations with economies heavily reliant on manufacturing or lower-skilled labor face a high risk of widespread job displacement. Without proactive measures to mitigate this harm, including upskilling programs and social safety nets tailored to local contexts, Africa could be plunged into further economic hardship.

Without precise attention to fairness and safeguards, AI tools can become instruments of discrimination and fuel existing injustices. Marginalized groups within Africa are particularly vulnerable to the misuse of algorithms in sensitive domains like predictive policing or social welfare allocation. Ensuring algorithmic accountability within Africa is critical to preventing the reinforcement of societal biases and protecting human rights.

The immense computational resources required to train and run complex AI models carry substantial environmental costs. Ironically, Africa, which contributes the least to climate change, typically bears the brunt of its effects. A failure to address the unequal distribution of both the benefits and harms of AI will increase this global inequity.

Building Strategic Alliances in Africa

The path towards an equitable and inclusive AI future demands collective action. Africa must forge strategic alliances to amplify its voices on the global stage, solidifying their right to shape a technology that will profoundly impact its societies. It's imperative that African experts not only demand a seat at the table in all AI standard-setting bodies and governance forums, but also actively shape the agenda. Funding mechanisms that directly support AI capacity building in Africa are urgently needed to address the current imbalance. International collaborations centered on ethical data sharing, guided by principles of fairness and respect for the rights of data subjects, must become standard practice. Finally, Africa must champion the development and implementation of strong ethical frameworks, ensuring that AI remains a tool for progress rather than becoming an instrument of harm or a perpetuator of inequality.


Haileleol Tibebu
Dr. Haileleol Tibebu is an AI scientist at the University of Houston, where he focuses on advanced research in responsible artificial intelligence. He has previously served as a lecturer and researcher at Loughborough University London. His research interests lie at the intersection of autonomous sy...