A New Primer on The Political Economy of African AI

Governments, think tanks and firms anticipate that artificial intelligence (AI), and the role of digital technology more broadly, will have a significant impact on Africa’s development, particularly due to the fact that African countries rely on imported AI-systems. The development of AI is already taking place in a very specific global context. 

In its current form, large technology companies like Meta, colloquially known as ‘Big Tech’, generate tremendous revenues by exploiting the unpaid labour of their users, then commodifying those users’ data for brokerage. These same firms create and implement automated decision-making algorithms to make work more productive; but the routine sorting and prediction done by algorithms is used to leverage inequalities for vast profits. These firms lobby governments to rewrite tax codes, booking profits in tax havens, while also exploiting clickworkers in the Majority World. 

These dynamics are not unique to the US. They are found in all major centres of power, including Europe and China, all of which are themselves competing at the global level for their model of economic governance to prevail. As well as a potential risk for greater inequality, there is also potential opportunity in AI and digital technology tools. A number of international landmark documents and charters from the continent recognise these as powerful tools to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Africa’s Agenda 2063.

With these stakes in mind, this primer covers some preliminary elements required to attain a better working familiarity with a critical political economic analysis of AI in African post-colonial settings for practical policy purposes. The primer consolidates major political economy approaches and concepts required by policy researchers and makers to better conceptualise the increasingly complex politics and economics around AI in Africa as it is shaped by the forces and tensions of global capitalism. The primer moves from general issues to those especially acute for Africans. Its aim is to focus on how Africa relates to, and participates in, global technological developments. The purpose of the primers is to enable greater understanding and knowledge of global political economy as context for AI in and for Africa with intention of enabling better policy analysis and formulation and greater agency in global governance.