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AFRIK-IT  October 1999

AFRIK-IT October 1999

Subject:

ADF: A Participant's Observation

From:

Jeffrey Cochrane <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

African Network of IT Experts and Professionals (ANITEP) List

Date:

Fri, 29 Oct 1999 10:12:21 +0300

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (178 lines)

Greetings Afrik-ITes!

Closing speeches now from the floor of the African Development
Forum in the number 1 conference room of the UN's Economic
Commission for Africa, one of those grand halls with rings of desks
circling a tremendous raised podium in two tiers, lined above and
on the side with press galleries and translation booths.  I am sitting
in about the fifth row, in a small chair with fold-out desktop behind
the more comfortable armchair reserved for diplomats -- I think the
idea is that I'm supposed to whisper into my diplomat's ear so that
he or she will know what to say.

A participant from the floor of the chamber is offered the chance to
speak after he waves his country's name card in the air, and he
proceeds to observe that there are too many ideas and we risk
duplication of effort.  He therefore proposes that we take all
proposals and synthesize them into a few key action proposals for
more efficient consideration.  I listen to his French, though nearby
someone has one of those ear pieces blaring out the simultaneous
English translations.  The chair of the session politely thanks the
participant for his constructive contribution and assures that the
proposal on proposals will indeed be given careful consideration.

So it goes at the ADF.

Plenaries were sometimes interesting, though often seemed simply
opportunities for mini speeches that were of questionable interest
to anyone other than the speakers themselves.  A few stimulating
highlights -- One young man from Tchad blamed powerful Western
telecommunications companies for the high prices he pays for
calls in Ndjamena.  Another commented some minutes later about
African government monopolies that force consumers to pay high
prices.  I wonder if the two speakers heard each other and were
able to work out their differences.

A speaker from Ghana urged participants to join governments in
formulating an appropriate ICT environment in Africa, but another
from South Africa wondered if instead of focusing on what
governments should do we might instead follow a less centralized
"chaos" process of Internet development.  Adam Smith?  A
participant from Uganda criticized us for failing to trust African
governments, who are after all composed of African citizens.

A participant from Senegal observed that just two hundredths of
one per cent of his country's national budget could equip 1000
villages per year with telecenters.  Do we lack the political will, he
challenged?

Certainly some of the most interesting conversations took place in
the corridors or over lunch.  One could stand on the steps leading
down to the exhibition and teatime area and see dozens of intense
conversations, all presumably deciding the future directions of ICT
in Africa.  I watched the representative of a small NGO in West
Africa button-holing a donor representative from America.  The
SANGONeT representative rushed from one group of visitors to the
next to talk about the various networking initiatives they are
supporting -- several banners on the wall advertised a network
focusing on women's networking issues.  A Lebanon-based
distributor of American equipment manufacturers described his
various offerings.

There were also a number of ad hoc meetings organized around
common interests that often proved quite exciting.  I sat in on one
such ad hoc meeting about telecenters -- dominated by South
Africans of course.  There was quite a bit of talk about
sustainability.  Many of the participants felt donors were doing
telecenters a terrible disservice, with centers disappearing as soon
as the donor contribution stops.  By one definition, sustainable
telecenters are those that respond to a demand -- people are
willing to pay for the service offered.  How then to meet
"development" objectives where presumably people are not willing
to pay for a service?

Therein lies the dilemma.  A public call center meets a clear
demand and generates a surplus, but doesn't really teach or inform
in the active way that participants seemed to think was necessary
to satisfy a development objective.  The more development-oriented
telecenters don't seem generally to be able to cover their costs
without a donor subsidy.

Personally I wonder if we're all truly in agreement about what the
term "sustainability" really means.  I fear we confuse the terms
"need" and "demand".  The definition of the "product" we seek to
provide to satisfy either a need or a demand is also a bit muddy --
everybody knows what they're talking about, but we all seem to
know something different!

And I fear we're a bit too confident about our own capacities to be
"entrepreneurial".  One comment caused me to chuckle -- that we
could show the business community the way by finding the right
business model.  I'd like to sit in a room with small business
owners and see how they respond to such a comment!

There was a small-business consultant present at the ADF who
presented a workshop on how small businesses can today in
Africa reap tremendous rewards through electronic commerce.  The
audience was enthralled, though not always in agreement with the
points presented.  Don't we need to worry about serving our own
populations, one person asked?  "Look," responded the presenter,
"that's a problem for governments and donors.  I'm talking about the
market that exists today, and about what you can do right now with
the resources you have right now."

Business tip of the day: "IP Call Out Centers"  8*)

Over lunch I tried to sit with people I don't know.  I passed by Nii
Quaynor's table where I'm sure he was urging his lunch mates to
participate in the AfriNIC process, and sat instead with a small
group engaged in intense conversation.  I quickly discovered they
were Ethiopian educators, but they politely switched to English and
welcomed me to their group.

We munched on doro wat (chicken and boiled eggs in a sauce of
subtle sharp spices served over a fermented millet flat bread) as
well as a dozen European desserts served with strong coffee, all
complements of the organizers and their donors -- I think the main
donors were the Swiss and Dutch governments, as well as
Canada's IDRC.  Sounds frivolous perhaps to some, but lunches
and tea breaks are important places of interaction, and so the
donors played an important facilitating role by assuring that all
participants could afford to take part, not just those on international
per diems.

At my lunch with the three Ethiopians, I shared stories about what
I'd seen at universities elsewhere in Africa, and they described their
own accomplishments.  The fact that universities in Rwanda now
have satellite dishes linking them to the Internet raised a few
eyebrows.  Perhaps it is this trading of stories that is the most
important function of such grand conferences.

At another chance corridor meeting I joined a conversation with a
group of Western government officials to talk about how donors
might productively assist a few African governments in the
formulation of national information and communications
infrastructure plans.  Perhaps it is my own Peace Corps
experience that makes me a bit hesitant about focusing too much
support on government-led processes, and we discussed how to
identify those governments in Africa that seem sincere about
involving and indeed permitting leadership from community
organizations, the private sector, and so forth.

It is perhaps a telling commentary on the ADF that there did not
appear to be highly organized "government" delegations.  I was
particularly struck by the participants from Uganda, as an example,
where the small group of people clustered around the Uganda desk
(including their Minister of Ethics and Integrity) had to compete
with a Ugandan industry representative seated several rows away.

Indeed, the untold story for ADF is the way in which the organizers
chose to admit participants, selecting some for sponsorship, but
apparently allowing just about anyone who wanted to come at their
own expense to join the forum.  The name tags did not specify
"delegates," which would imply they were sent officially by their
countries.  Rather, we were all "participants."  [I wonder how many
people noticed that subtle message from the organizers.]

Kate Wild of the IDRC shook her head in fatigue at one point as
she observed that they had some 200 more participants than
expected.  There were so many people that I myself was unable to
secure that most important prize of any conference, the conference
souvenir bag.  I must protest, and I insist that my registration fee
be returned!

Cheers!
Jeff @ Addis

NB The conference registration was free.  8*)

----
Information and Communication Technology Programs
USAID/REDSO/ESA
Tel +254 (2) 862400 x2762
Email [log in to unmask]
Email [log in to unmask]
PO Box 30261
Nairobi
KENYA

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