Educational Unsustainability in Sub-Saharan Africa: In Search of Counter-Narratives to Policy Pressures and Exponential Tech Growth

  • Michael Gallagher Centre for Research in Digital Education, Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh, UK


The educational systems of sub-Saharan Africa have become increasingly entangled in a network of global actors: supranational and national policy, non-government organisations (NGOs), funders, and commercial organizations wanting to capitalize on perceived gaps in local capacity. Education is being renegotiated through an explicit, inexorable link to technology, an explicit call to rapidly construct technological markets for education throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and an implicit erosion of local educational autonomy as a result. This research interrogates commercialised edtech policy in sub-Saharan Africa and explores its effects on how educational infrastructure is being built and imagined in higher education. This obscures local context and educational practice with a global, marketized and standardised new ‘normal’ which carries with it considerable ecological implications. There is an explicit need for a rethinking of local educational autonomy in face of policy pressures which are stimulating a largely unsustainable acceleration of educational technology. This paper seeks to interrogate what methods exist for adaptation of policy targets and the creation of autonomous spaces for deliberation and adaptation consistent with horizontalism, including participatory approaches, degrowth approaches, rights to repair, and community-owned technologies. Without this, the acceleration of edtech, e-waste, and the global imaginaries of digital education are likely to continue.

Key words: Horizontalism, edtech, Sustainable Development Goals, Policy, Sub-Saharan Africa


Adam, T. (2019). Digital neocolonialism and massive open online courses (MOOCs): colonial pasts and neoliberal futures. Learning, Media and Technology, 44(3), 365-380.

Ahmed, S. I, Jackson, S. J., & Rifat, M. R. (2015). Learning to fix: Knowledge, collaboration and mobile phone repair in Dhaka, Bangladesh. ICTD ’15, Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development, USA, 4, 1–4:10. doi:10.1145/ 2737856.2738018

Akinyemi O, Alege P, Osabuohien E, Ogundipe A (2015) Energy security and the green growth agenda in Africa: exploring trade-offs and synergies. Department of Economics and Development Studies, Covenant University, Nigeria.

Ambole, L. A., Swilling, M., & M’Rithaa, M. K. (2016). Designing for informal contexts: A case study of Enkanini sanitation intervention.

Ancelovici, M. (2016). 7 Occupy Montreal and the Politics of Horizontalism. Street Politics in the Age of Austerity, 175.

APC (2019). BOSCO Uganda. Available:

Arevian, A. C., O'Hora, J., Jones, F., Mango, J., Jones, L., Williams, P. G., ... & Wells, K. B. (2018). Participatory Technology Development to Enhance Community Resilience. Ethnicity & disease, 28(Suppl 2), 493-502.

Asante, K. A., Amoyaw-Osei, Y., & Agusa, T. (2019). E-waste recycling in Africa: Risks and opportunities. Current Opinion in Green and Sustainable Chemistry.

Asante, K. A., Agusa, T., Biney, C. A., Agyekum, W. A., Bello, M., Otsuka, M., ... & Tanabe, S. (2012). Multi-trace element levels and arsenic speciation in urine of e-waste recycling workers from Agbogbloshie, Accra in Ghana. Science of the Total Environment, 424, 63-73.

Auld, E., Rappleye, J., & Morris, P. (2019). PISA for Development: how the OECD and World Bank shaped education governance post-2015. Comparative Education, 55(2), 197-219.

Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann,P. (2017). The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna.

Bayne, S. (2018). Posthumanism: a navigation aid for educators. On Education: Journal for Research and Debate, 1(2).

Bentley, C. M., Nemer, D., & Vannini, S. (2019). “When words become unclear”: unmasking ICT through visual methodologies in participatory ICT4D. AI & SOCIETY, 34(3), 477-493.

Chadwick, A., & Dennis, J. (2017). Social media, professional media and mobilisation in contemporary Britain: Explaining the strengths and weaknesses of the Citizens’ Movement 38 Degrees. Political Studies, 65(1), 42-60.

Daum, K., Stoler, J., & Grant, R. (2017). Toward a more sustainable trajectory for E-waste Policy: A review of a decade of E-waste research in Accra, Ghana. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(2), 135.

Davies, J. S. (2012). Why Hierarchy Won't Go Away: Understanding the Limits of'Horizontalism'. Available at SSRN 2066812.

Dearden, A., & Haider Rizvi, S. M. (2015). ICT4D and participatory design. The international encyclopedia of digital communication and society, 1-8.

Demaria, F., Schneider, F., Sekulova, F., & Martinez-Alier, J. (2013). What is degrowth? From an activist slogan to a social movement. Environmental Values, 22(2), 191-215.

The Economist (2018). A Bridge too far: Bridge Academies battles its enemies. Available:

Escobar, A. (2019 August). The Global Doesn’t Exist A contribution to the GTI Forum: Think Globally, Act Locally?. Available:

Ferreira, G. M. D. S., & Lemgruber, M. S. (2019). Great expectations: a critical perspective on Open Educational Resources in Brazil. Learning, Media and Technology, 44(3), 315-326.

Gallagher, M. (2019 In Review). Nexus of Policy and Compliance: The Rhetorical Practices of (Digital) Higher Education in LMICs.

Gallagher, M., & Knox, J. (2019). Global technologies, local practices. Learning, Media and Technology, 44(3), 225-234.

Grek, S. (2009). Governing by numbers: The PISA ‘effect’ in Europe. Journal of education policy, 24(1), 23-37.

GSMA (2019). The Mobile Economy 2019. Available:

Habitat III (2017). The New Urban Agenda. Available:

Hartman, J. D. (2017). Glocalism: Situating global civic engagement in the local community. In Convergence of Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Global Civic Engagement (pp. 151-169). IGI Global.

Haucke, F. V. (2018). Smartphone-enabled social change: Evidence from the Fairphone case?. Journal of Cleaner Production, 197, 1719-1730.

Hawari, M., & Hassan, M. H. (2008). E-waste: Ethical implications for education and research. IIUM Engineering Journal, 9(2), 11-26.

Heikkurinen, P. (2018). Degrowth by means of technology? A treatise for an ethos of releasement. Journal of Cleaner Production, 197, 1654-1665.

Henry, J. V., Oliver, M., & Winters, N. (2019). Global-local divides and ontological politics: feminist STS perspectives on mobile learning for community health workers in Kenya. Learning, Media and Technology, 1-17.

Houston, L., & Jackson, S. J. (2017). Caring for the “next billion” mobile handsets: Proprietary closures and the work of repair. Information Technologies and International Development, 13, 200-214.

ITU (2017). Global E-waste Monitor 2017. Available:

Jackson, S. J., Pompe, A., & Krieshok, G. (2012). Repair worlds: Maintenance, repair, and ICT for development in rural Namibia. CSCW ’12 Proceedings of the ACM 2012 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, USA, 107–116. doi:10.1145/2145204.2145224

Kerschner, C., Wächter, P., Nierling, L., & Ehlers, M. H. (2018). Degrowth and Technology: Towards feasible, viable, appropriate and convivial imaginaries. Journal of cleaner production, 197, 1619-1636.

King, M., Forsey, M., & Pegrum, M. (2019). Southern agency and digital education: an ethnography of open online learning in Dili, Timor-Leste. Learning, Media and Technology, 44(3), 283-298.

Kostakis, V., Latoufis, K., Liarokapis, M., & Bauwens, M. (2018). The convergence of digital commons with local manufacturing from a degrowth perspective: two illustrative cases. Journal of Cleaner Production, 197, 1684-1693.

Kshetri, N., & Voas, J. (2018). Blockchain in developing countries. It Professional, 20(2), 11-14.

Lupton, D., & Williamson, B. (2017). The datafied child: The dataveillance of children and implications for their rights. New Media & Society, 19(5), 780-794.

Malmodin, J., & Lundén, D. (2018). The energy and carbon footprint of the global ICT and E&M sectors 2010–2015. Sustainability, 10(9), 3027.

Manders-Huits, N., & van den Hoven, J. van den. (2009). The Need for a Value-Sensitive Design of Communication Infrastructures. In P. Sollie & M. Düwell (Eds.), Evaluating New Technologies (pp. 51–60). Springer Netherlands.

Marcus, D. (2012). The horizontalists. Dissent, 59(4), 54-59.

Matogoro, J. (2018). Piloting the use of TV white space for community networks in rural Tanzania. Available:

Max, E., & Berman, J. (2018). Bridging the Mobile-Electrification Gap: The Potential for Privately Subsidized Phone Charging in Rural Africa. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 37(3), 74-86.

Mekonnen, Y., & Sarwat, A. I. (2017, June). Renewable energy supported microgrid in rural electrification of Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2017 IEEE PES PowerAfrica (pp. 595-599). IEEE.

Metri, N. (2019). The Zaria Community Network and Culture Hub. Available:

Meyer, H. D., and A. Benavot. 2013. “PISA and the Globalization of Education Governance: Some Puzzles and Problems.” In PISA, Power and Policy: The Emergence of Global Educational Governance, edited by H. D. Meyer and A. Benavot, 7–26. Didcot: Symposium.

Mor, Y., Warburton, S., & Winters, N. (2012). Participatory pattern workshops: a methodology for open learning design inquiry. Research in Learning Technology, 20.

Nemer D (2015b) Rethinking digital inequalities: the experience of the marginalized in community technology centers. Dissertation, Indiana University.

Okon U (2014) ICT for rural community development: implementing the communicative ecology framework in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria. Inf Technol Dev 21:297–321. doi:10.1080/ 02681102.2015.1007819

Rastogi, C. (2018). M-Kopa Solar: Lighting up the Dark Continent. South Asian Journal of Business and Management Cases, 7(2), 93-103.

Redfield, P. (2016). Fluid technologies: The Bush Pump, the LifeStraw® and microworlds of humanitarian design. Social studies of science, 46(2), 159-183.

Riep, C. B. (2017). Making markets for low-cost schooling: the devices and investments behind Bridge International Academies. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 15(3), 352-366.

Samerski, S. (2018). Tools for degrowth? Ivan Illich's critique of technology revisited. Journal of cleaner production, 197, 1637-1646.

Schneider, F., Kallis, G., & Martinez-Alier, J. (2010). Crisis or opportunity? Economic degrowth for social equity and ecological sustainability. Introduction to this special issue. Journal of cleaner production, 18(6), 511-518.

Selwyn, N. (2016). Education and technology: Key issues and debates. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Selwyn, N. (2009). The ‘new’ connectivities of digital education. In Michael W. Apple, Stephen J. Ball, Luis Armando Gandin (Eds.) The Routledge International Handbook of the Sociology of Education. London: Routledge.

Sitrin, M. (2007). Ruptures in imagination: Horizontalism, autogestion and affective politics in Argentina. Policy & Practice-A Development Education Review, (5).

Sjøberg, S. (2015). PISA and Global Educational Governance-A Critique of the Project, its Uses and Implications. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education, 11(1).

Suh, S., Bergesen, J., Gibon, T. J., Hertwich, E., & Taptich, M. (2017). Green Technology Choices: The Environmental and Resource Implications of Low-Carbon Technologies. United Nations Environment Programme: Nairobi, Kenya.

Sultana, F. (2018). An (Other) geographical critique of development and SDGs. Dialogues in Human Geography, 8(2), 186-190.

Sultana, S., Guimbretière, F., Sengers, P., & Dell, N. (2018, April). Design within a patriarchal society: Opportunities and challenges in designing for rural women in bangladesh. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (p. 536). ACM.

Tenhunen, S. (2018). A Village Goes Mobile: Telephony, Mediation, and Social Change in Rural India. Oxford University Press.

Truby, J. (2018). Decarbonizing Bitcoin: Law and policy choices for reducing the energy consumption of Blockchain technologies and digital currencies. Energy research & social science, 44, 399-410.

UN (2016). Sustainable Development Goals. Available:

UNCTAD (2019). The impact of rapid technological change on sustainable development: Report of the Secretary-General. Available:

UNDRR (2015). Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. Available:

UNESCO (2019). ICT in education. Available:

UNESCO (2015). Qingdao Declaration, 2015: Seize Digital Opportunities, Lead Education Transformation. Available:

UNESCO (2016). Education 2030: Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action for the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning. Available:

Unterhalter, E. (2017). Negative capability? Measuring the unmeasurable in education. Comparative Education, 53(1), 1-16.

Vallauri, U. (2009). Beyond e-waste: Kenyan creativity and alternative narratives in the dialectic of end-of-life. International Review of Information Ethics, 11(October), 20-24.

Van der Velden, M., & Mörtberg, C. (2015). Participatory design and design for values. Handbook of Ethics, Values, and Technological Design: Sources, Theory, Values and Application Domains, 41-66.

Weller, M. 2015. “MOOCs and the Silicon Valley Narrative.” Journal of Interactive Media in Education 2015 (1): 1–7. doi: 10.5334/

Wolfenden, F., & Adinolfi, L. (2019). An exploration of agency in the localisation of open educational resources for teacher development. Learning, Media and Technology, 1-18.

Wood, L. J. (2010). Horizontalist youth camps and the Bolivarian revolution: A story of blocked diffusion. Journal of World-Systems Research, 16(1), 48-62.

World Economic Forum (2019). A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot. Available:

Yoon, K. (2006). The making of neo-Confucian cyberkids: Representations of young mobile phone users in South Korea. New Media & Society, 8(5), 753-771.

Yoon, K. (2003). Retraditionalizing the mobile: Young people's sociality and mobile phone use in Seoul, South Korea. European journal of cultural studies, 6(3), 327-343.