Thursday, April 14

Red Herrings

Teachers as DJs?

Ethiopia, one of the lowest users of information technology in the world has signed with Cisco Systems to expand internet service from the current 30,000 users to 500,000 users. 6,200 miles of fiberoptic cable is being laid and the government has invested $40 million in developing internet service.
Premier Meles Zenawi said information technology lay at the heart of transforming the impoverished country where millions are dependent on foreign aid.
"We are fully committed to ensuring that as many of our poor as possible have this weapon that they need to fight poverty at the earliest possible time," Meles told a gathering of government ministers and information technology experts.

"We plan to ensure universal access and Internet connectivity to all the tens of thousands of rural kebeles (districts) of our country over the next two to three years," he said.
"Poverty is rooted in lack of knowledge," he said. "Internet technology is all about the distribution of knowledge."

The prime minister added that information technology could be used for "e-schools," improving governance and e-healthcare. It is launching "schoolnet" which will provide 450 secondary schools around the country with Internet access and will link all regional and district government offices.

"Healthnet" will connect all referral hospitals around the country as the basis for a nationwide tele-medicine infrastructure.

"Not long ago many of us felt that we were too poor to afford to seriously invest in information and communication technology," Meles told government ministers and experts.

"We were convinced that we should invest every penny we have on securing the next meal for our people. We did not believe serious investment in ICT had anything to do with facing the challenges of poverty that kills. Now I think we know better," he added.
These aims, why don't we call them Internet Miracle Development Plans (IMDP) or Internet Development Led Industrialization (IDLI), are certainly admirable ... but as usual we have our two cents to add for consideration.

We wrote a series of posts titled ‘Information De-Evolution’ about the history of information technology and computing in Ethiopia. We concluded that absolute government control had hampered its development at every stage, particularly in terms of hostility to the internet and indifference to telecommunications.

In addition to questioning the governments monopoly role in this realm we wonder if this is the best way to spend the scant resources available for Ethiopia‘s growth. Harsh practice and tightening laws against the free flow of information in all media made us concerned that belated internet expansion was a sign of government confidence that internet use could be reliably managed and monitored.

The murderous communist junta, the Dergue, that ruled for 17 years championed the spread of literacy. That was a good aim in its own right, of course, but literate Ethiopians only had the freedom to read the government's own propaganda and to study endless volumes of the collected speeches of Leonid Brezhnev.

Because of human nature and because of the state of affairs in Ethiopia, widespread access to the internet will necessarily result in harsh words about the government in forums, blogs and other settings as well as exposure to unapproved sources of information. Today, even severely restricted freedom of the press only exists in places like Addis Ababa where a nice impression has to be made for foreign aid donors.

Knowledge is certainly a factor in poverty but even a nation where every citizen had an advanced university degree would be bitterly poor without ideas, policies, and institutions friendly to development. They would be in particular trouble if their rulers also made every effort to maintain rule by creating suspicion between groups - those who studied liberal arts against the engineers versus the scientists - a sort of official academic federal tribalism if you will.

The sudden discovery that information technology will usher in an age of plenty without the requirements of development such as private property rights, a friendly atmosphere for investment, political enfranchisement and a free market economy must be viewed with a very jaded eye.

No country has ever escaped or improved on the litany of third world misery without those and other basic factors lacking in Ethiopia because of political and ideological decisions. Let us take a look at a previous gold plated venture into technological solutions to simple problems.

Meskel Square reported on a visit to a rural school
The scenery was stunning and the rural development sites we visited (with the UN's World Food Programme) were fascinating. But, for me, they were topped by a visit to a remote high school, a day-and-a-half's trip on rocky, unmade roads south of Addis Ababa.

As we walked up to one of the outdoor classrooms, we heard the voice of a Maths teacher going into great detail about the angles of a parallelogram. When we went in, we found the 60 or so students were all taking their lesson from a professor speaking through a state-of-the-art Samsung plasma video screen that would be way beyond the budget of many schools in the UK. The lesson was being beamed in from Addis via a huge satellite dish outside through a rack of Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) receivers.
Later on the author reconsiders
Two days ago, an Ethiopian student commented on my post about the screens.

“At school the English in plasma is not good for me , It is too fast and too short, the supporting materials are not easily available particularly for those of us out side Addis. My teachers are not some times sure of the subject may be because of the English like my self. Most students are not happy with the plasma. We would like to get copy of the CDs so we could study at our own time. Please help us.”

Then today, the Rev Andrew Proud, vicar of St Matthew's Anglican church in Addis Ababa, had this to say on his weblog Arat Kilo.

“There have been two major impacts of this technology here so far: only those who have good English are able to keep up with the lessons, most students are beginning to feel left behind; and the teachers have become supervisors and technicians, turning the equipment on and off at the beginning and end of each session. The students even refer to them as DJs.”

It is a useful cautionary tale for tech cheerleaders like me who automatically assume that hi-tech advances are good things in themselves. It is also something that Bono might want to consider before pushing on with his plan to connect every Ethiopian school and hospital to the internet.

Maybe we should be looking for something lower-tech, something that actually works.
There are simply no shortcuts to development and education. One must wonder why Ethiopia is always discovering some new theory of development and governance. A few weeks ago $122 billion in foreign aid over the next ten years was to fall from the sky and solve all problems while today it is the miracle of technology. Somewhat undercover of late but the real basis of governance is an abiding faith in the familiar and manifest failures native to Marxist-Leninism to maintain the status quo.

Consider what is now being planned. Ethiopia earns almost no significant amounts of hard currency beyond the coffee crop that is valued only in the hundreds of millions to finance all the activities of a government for 70 million people. Foreign aid makes up the bulk of every budget dollar spent and the lion’s share of all development dollars.

$40 million (if this is actually done it will be more than that) is a whole lot of money and policies such as the new internet miracle plan are more indicative of the development priorities of foreigners than it is Ethiopians - who figure that they might as well embrace it once the decisions are made in Washington or Brussels - and they figure everyone will get some good press in the bargain. So the IMDP is actually the Bono plan whether or not Bono is actually involved.

In any case half a million fiber optically linked computers in three years is impossible. Imagine that the cable is laid and the proper monitorring systems are imported (probably from China) to prevent 'anti-revolutionary democracy' uses of the new technology.

Can Ethiopian society be reasonably expected to purchase, maintain and absorb 500,000 computers in a three year period? That is anywhere from a quarter to half a billion dollars worth of hardware. Perhaps what is really planned here is a government intranet.

The Red Herring Debate

One question raised by the Internet Miracle Development Plan (IMDP) is what else the money could be spent on or how it can be managed so the situation where teachers became DJs and there is less learning going on is not repeated in other fields of government and health. How many teachers could have been trained or paid for the cost of those plasma screens?

Indeed, how many teacher’s colleges, schools and textbooks could have been had for that price? What happens when the technology fails? There is no infrastructure to fix it when that inevitably happens and who will profit from the import of so many high priced items? Are donor governments keeping their constituents happy by insisting on particular brands of computers and plasma screens?

All of which leads to the real issue here: does the whole explosion of information technology really have much to offer a country like Ethiopia which is lacking so many of the basic policies to get on the first ladder of development to begin with?

This question was debated by Ethiopians and others after a 2000 editorial in Red Herring Magazine. It makes for disturbing reason in some ways but is worthy of consideration.
The wretched of the earth

What technology means to the third world.

I am in Ethiopia, on holiday, in the holy town of Lalibela, where a 12th-century Ethiopian king carved a series of churches from the living rock of the mountain. It is the day before Christmas according to the Orthodox Ethiopian calendar. There are priests and pilgrims. There are beggars, too -- hundreds of them, all of them hungry, all of them miserable, most of them sick, most of them deformed.

I have never been anywhere so poor.

With me I have a dog-eared copy of The Economist. A leader asks, "Will developing economies really be left behind by the information technology revolution?" and answers No. The British news magazine writes, "The information technology revolution is ... the main driver of growth, and ... some people worry that the gap between the developed and less-developed countries [will] widen further."

But people shouldn't worry, The Economist argues, because, "The IT revolution need not prevent emerging countries from growing at an even faster pace [than America] ... Poorer countries can copy those technologies at relatively low cost." Sooner rather than later, the leader concludes, poor countries will catch up with the rich.

I'm reminded that retired admiral Bill Owens, the co-CEO of Teledesic , a company that is building a satellite network that will offer cheap broadband data and voice services, once said to me, "Can you imagine what a Teledesic disc, beaming broadband technology into an African village would mean?"

Now that I have seen the African village of Lalibela, I can answer: No. I cannot imagine it. The Economist, and Admiral Owens, are wrong.

Both imagine a future where poor countries leap over an entire stage of industrialization and take their place in a global economy. There are two things wrong with this triumphalist millenarianism. One, it is at odds with the reality of life in a very poor country; two, it is at odds with economic theory.
Most of Ethiopia's population works the fields; the rest work for the state; only 8 percent of Ethiopians work for private enterprises. While most Ethiopians are dignified, pious, temperate, and hardworking, they are also ignorant and illiterate peasants. What would information technology do for such a place? No one would know what to do with it, and even if they did, it would change little about people's lives.

The economic theory behind the idea that technology will quickly enrich the third world is suspect, too. Robert Lucas, the University of Chicago economist, whose theories were the inspiration for The Economist's leader, believes that once poor countries start growing, they grow at a rate of 2 percent per year plus a margin proportional to the gap between the country and its richer neighbors.

But is there any reason to believe such a thing? There are two reasons for economic growth: capital investment, or an increase in productivity. Ethiopia has neither.

I am not arguing for hopelessness. But I do think the technology industry, and those who love it, should show less arrogance when they imagine its wonderful ability to grow economies. Most technologies would not make a difference to a country like Ethiopia. One exception is the genetically modified seeds developed by companies like Monsanto that resist drought, pests, viruses, and fungi. They might do a lot to eliminate hunger.
When you are in Ethiopia you know where you are. It is the middle ages, with Russian-made tanks trundling north to an obscure border war. It will take a while for such a place to join the developed nations of the world. Technology isn't magic.
Later, the editor describes the overwhelming reaction to his essay from Ethiopians.
Nothing we have published has ever generated such a bitter response as a recent editor's column about what technology means to the poor African country of Ethiopia.
In that column, I disagreed with an Economist leader that argued that technology would allow third world nations to develop much more quickly than developed nations, and would soon bestow upon poor countries all of the economic and political benefits the Western democracies enjoy.

I was travelling in Ethiopia at the time, and was bemused by how unknowing The Economist seemed: Ethiopians needed education, health, water, food, roads, foreign investment, and basic liberties before technology could make any difference in their lives. "Technology isn't magic," I said.

The column was posted on electronic bulletin boards frequented by the remarkably talkative, well educated, and increasingly incensed Ethiopian diaspora. In the end, we received hundreds of emails. Most were more or less insulting.

Criticism tended to follow one of three arguments. The first agreed that Ethiopia had been underdeveloped and in little condition to use technology, but noted that things were getting better. The second simply rejected the idea that technology would not make a huge difference to the country. The third took great offense at my characterization of Ethiopia as backward; in particular, readers were upset that I said that "most Ethiopians are ignorant and illiterate peasants."

For the first two arguments, I feel I have little to apologize for. Ethiopia remains underdeveloped, however much worse things were under Mengistu. And I remain unconvinced that Ethiopians would know what to do with technology even if they could afford it.

But I do apologize for any offense I caused. Such was not my purpose. For while most Ethiopians are poor and ignorant peasants, they are a great and noble people, who live in the most beautiful of African highlands. They have every reason to be proud.
Follow this link as well as this one and this one to the letters to the editor to find all manner of reactions to the essay in question - many of which are supportive. The editor’s facts and analysis are hard to deny even if his characterizations of Ethiopian poverty were problematic for some. We really doubt he intended to be offensive in any way.

Oddly enough, or in this case, quite appropriately, the term 'Red Herring' originated in the late 1800s and refers to
Something that draws attention away from the central issue, as in "Talking about the new plant is a red herring to keep us from learning about downsizing plans". The herring in this expression is red and strong-smelling from being preserved by smoking. The idiom alludes to dragging a smoked herring across a trail to cover up the scent and throw off tracking dogs.
That Ethiopia is desperately poor on a scale that exceeds ‘biblical poverty and suffering’ is evident. Right now Ethiopians manage to survive under the burden of defunct socialist policies, unworkable get rich quick schemes and insincere rhetoric about adapting the habits of successful societies.

At harvest 3,000 years and counting that should be the main cause for real offense from all observers. The Millenial Development Goals, the Internet Miracle Development Plan, and the pretense of free elections are the real Red Herrings of concern here.

What is most painful for us on the entire subject of Ethiopia and her prospects is the sense of frustration at opportunities missed on a daily basis by ruinous government policies. We recently came across this essay from EthioMedia that makes this point eloquently.
Ethiopia has the identical natural resource fundamentally responsible for the West's rise: the human mind. But it has neither the freedom nor the Enlightenment philosophy of reason, individualism and political liberty necessary for creating wealth and health. Ethiopia is mired in tribal cultures that stress subordination to the group rather than personal independence and achievement. All over Ethiopia the brutal dictators murder and rob innocent citizens, students and the opposition in order to aggrandize themselves and members of their tribes.

What Ethiopia desperately needs is to remove the political and economic shackles and replace them with political and economic freedom. It needs to depose the socialist regime and establish capitalism, with its political/economic freedom, its rule of law and respect for individual rights. And to accomplish that, it first needs to remove the philosophic shackles and replace tribal collectivism with a philosophy of reason and freedom. The truly humanitarian system is not the Marxism espoused by Western intellectuals but the only system that can establish, as it historically has, the furtherance of life on earth: capitalism.
Pride and affection for Ethiopia's ancient history and people is all well and good. However, pride and attempts to police commentary from any quarter should not shield those who keep Ethiopia in such a bad situation to begin with from criticism.

Imagine who is suffering today for the sake of the revolutionary feudal aristocracy and what all could accomplish in a free society the likes of which billions across the world have already created.

Without the basics of developing and healthy societies that are being denied Ethiopians by a selfish elite, all of those thousands of miles of fiber optic cable might as well be cut up and used to make harnesses for plows.

There are no shortcuts to development or education or healthcare or good governance regardless of publicity and every manner of miracle development plan. The government should just give the people the land they live on as a start to any sincere effort.

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