Tuesday, April 4

The Internet Miracle Development Plan

Meskel Square looks at My Heart's in Accra on "Why TED said no to Bono". Apparently, a conference of top technologists failed to grant Bono's wish to connect every hospital in Ethiopia to the internet because many felt it was not practical and because some "felt increasingly uncomfortable working on an initiative sure to be a feather in the cap of the Zenawi government as the nation’s political freedoms were taken away.".

In the post Red Herrings we discussed the rather silly nature of the original incarnation of this proposal as being entirely impractical. We called it the 'Internet Miracle Development Plan' because "Premier Meles Zenawi said information technology lay at the heart of transforming the impoverished country where millions are dependent on foreign aid."

This from the leader of a country with no private property rights, where the ruling party and interchangeable government owned all the land and the majority of all economic activity from corner kiosks to the lion's share of billions in foreign aid. This new 'get rich quick scheme' in one of the most poorly governed, corrupt and least favorite places to invest in on planet earth.

At the time the Internet Miracle Development Plan was being first discussed the world press reacted in its customary ridiculous fashion with breathless (and brainless) headlines like this Broadband in Ireland lags behind Ethiopia. All because of 'plans to do this or that' - if any such public relations plans over the past 15 years of Revolutionary Democracy had come true Ethiopia would be a paradise today.

Instead it is only a paradise for a few of the permanent feudal revolutionary aristocracy at the top. It is amazing at times how little folks stop to think about government announcements and headlines.

After all, none of this is rocket science. Governments with policies and rhetoric like Ethiopia's have always been founts of misery. It does not matter what they SAY it matters what they DO. Try telling that to most of the international press.


Internet Miracle Development Plan

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 accountability and a free market economy must be viewed with a very jaded eye.


Teachers as DJs?

No country has ever escaped or improved on the litany of third world misery without those and other basic factors that are 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.

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?


The Basics Are Missing

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.

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.
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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