Life without Internet in Ethiopia

For the first time in over ten years, I spent the night without Internet access. Ten years of working in remote parts of Mongolia, Vietnam, Palestine, Indonesia, and other small and developing countries, and in March 2010 I finally hit the access wall. My hotel in Addis Ababa does not have Internet access. And not a single WiFi or wireless connection available nearby.

Maybe it is just not realistic to believe that in the year 2010 travelers or residents of a major city like Addis Ababa would enjoy the same sense of Internet entitlement we enjoy in other parts of the world.  It is probably more realistic to think fresh water is a higher priority than Facebook.  Probably a higher priority to think that basic nutrition is a higher priority to some people in the world than Twitter.

Having been plucked up from the opulence of Burbank, California, where Friday afternoon brought the amusement of watching about 50 SUVs and minivans queuing to pick up elementary and middle school children, as it is not reasonable to expect children to walk more than 100 yards from school to home, being denied email and net access for a night is shocking.

Does the Opulent World Owe the Developing World Anything?

There is an old phrase explaining that “nobody likes a victim.”  When natural disasters occur, wars create a large number of refugees, or other events propel people to leave their homelands for safer places, the countries and people who are forced to absorb those refugees normally look at them with contempt.  It is one thing to watch the impact of a typhoon or earthquake on a country via CNN, and maybe donate a few dollars to help bring food, but in most cases we want to watch a different story on the next day’s news, and we rarely welcome refugees with open arms into our community.

 Easy to understand why.  As a society and culture, wealthy countries have normally built their communities with hard work, and the residents enjoy the quality of life they’ve built.  Visitors are welcome, but communities often find it difficult to absorb new people, particularly those with no money or have lost nearly everything they owned, into a community with a stable economy, school system, and social system.

We have some compassion for those who are in need, but much like driving past a major automobile accident on the freeway, we feel compelled to look, but then we drive past and soon forget the tragedy another human being is going through a few miles back on the road.

How We Reduce the Burden, and Strengthen our Global Community

For sure, Internet access may not purify or deliver water to those with a basic need.  However education delivered to all levels of economic or social groups will potentially bring better intellectual capacity to those residents and leaders in poor and developing countries to plan for the future, with the ever-increasing capacity of taking care of their own problems.  Educated people in most cases are simply better prepared to respond to disasters and problems when they occur.

Internet access is a very powerful tool in bringing basic and advanced education to any part of the world with a connection.  When a student in Addis Ababa, or any other part of the country, has the same access to online lectures, course materials, and even formal education programs over the Internet, the national capacity for dealing with topics ranging from developing water strategies, to energy, to agriculture, to entertainment all become one small step easier to attain than if the developing country had to do it on their own.

But what about UN and other NGO Programs?

Like the community that does not want to be burdened with a long term, recurring commitment to absorbing refugees, global philanthropy has a time threshold.  New disasters are happening daily.  New wars are popping up around the world at the same rate as ever, and when your own disaster is falling behind the front page in priority, then it is the people of that location or country who eventually have to solve the problems on their own.

There are simply not enough resources, emotionally or economically to go around.

There is one common characteristic of communities which handle disaster better than others.  They are well educated.  California handles earthquakes and wildfires without bringing the state to a halt.  France handles major flooding and other weather-related disasters, Okinawa finds Super-Typhoons a passing amusement, and Japan has tsunami response down to a science.

Sure, those countries have money, but even Japan and Germany started out with nearly no resources after the second war, and now are both economic powers.  It is education, and the resolve of an educated society.

Back to the Internet

Delivering online resources to poor countries is becoming cheaper and more powerful every day.  Wireless technologies are making fixed copper a legacy, and the cost of Netbooks and powerful workstations is dropping every day.  Localization and language translation are becoming more powerful every day.

Don’t stop delivering clean water, but let’s carefully consider the long term impact of delivering a tool to the nations of the world, including the area I stayed in Addis Ababa, and give everybody access to the same intellectual development tools as our kids in Burbank.

Check out resources published by the World Bank, United Nations Development Program (UNDP), US Agency for International Development (USAID), and others to find how we might better support development of eLearning in the developing world, as well as development of basic infrastructure.

About johnsavageau
Another telecom junkie who has been bouncing around the international communications community for most of the past 35 years.

9 Responses to Life without Internet in Ethiopia

  1. Pingback: Life without Internet in Ethiopia |

  2. Michael says:

    The real issue for lack widespread of internet access in Ethiopia is political.
    The government controls all forms of media in the country, including the internet.
    In fact, they block a lot of internet sites and blogs that are opposed to them.

    Making internet access easy for the populace would mean they would lose the control they have over the media, so it’s in their own interest not to let it happen.

    This is not an issue of aid, there are plenty of Ethiopians within the country and abroad that have the technical know how and the possibility to raise funds to facilitate the a much improved internet access, but this wouldn’t fit the government’s agenda.

    Just google for Ethiopian current affairs sites and see for yourself how many of them have a “blocked in Ethiopia” badge on them.

  3. Guest says:

    Which hotel did you choose to stay and how much did you pay for it?
    Cheap hotels provide poor services and they happen to exist on every part of the world. But, whichever it was, it has led you to the discussion of some of the important problems dictating the way Africans live their lives. It is true that a lot has to be done to bring the nations out of poverity. And, it is also true that internet palys an important role in the process. That was the positive side of your article.
    But it is a bit annoying to get the wrong impression from your article- It starts with the title itslef. I personally had known plenty of small coffee shops providing free wirelss internet servises – that was back in 2007-2008. Just because one didn’t get the service from a cheap hotel ($12.00 to $20.00/night) doesn’t mean that the entire nation is on a blind spot on the internet world.
    I would be a little bit careful and fair on my selection of the hotel I stay at and a title for this article, respectively.

    • johnsavageau says:

      Thanks for your response. Everything you said is probably true, although I can only record a snapshot in time as I experience an event. This is what I experienced, which is different than any other city I have stayed in a very long time. It was not meant to be a negative article, only a single view of a single experience.

      Please tell us more about Addis. If my impression is wrong, please let us know more about what is right about Internet in Ethiopia.

  4. Zane Kent says:

    John Savageau,

    From your profile you seems a high tech gig and surprised to find out Internet access problems in Addis.

    The gov’t of Ethiopia either completely or partially block you from Internet. It depends their mood. You make it like the whole country did not have any access to the Internet. It is not true at all. Not every one starved or has no access to clean water either in Ethiopia. Please be honest. Many hotels have access with wireless in Addis, it does not mean will get Internet. Nothing to do with a technology availablity in Addis, it is up to the gov’t you will get it or not.

    You are under the assumption every one in California have access to the Internet. Not true at all. I suggest go to the poor community, especially African or Hispanic Americans. In some case some people in Addis have a better access to the Internet.

    Because you live in Burbank, California does not mean you have a better school system than in Addis.

    What Ethiopia need is a true democracy or accountable gov’t. The rest will happen like any other countries Germany or Japan.

    Mr. Zane Kent from Canada!!

    • johnsavageau says:

      Mr. Zane – thanks for your reply. Many hotels does not mean half, a quarter, a third, or any other percentage. It meanbs some hotels have Internet access. This means plenty of opportunity for development.

  5. BON says:

    NOTE: These comments are presented as received. While I do not promote politics, and try to present facts as I see them when writing blogs and articles, it is very clear some topics are very emotional for some readers. I encourage comments from all perspectives, and healthy debate on important topics.
    =====Savageau 19 Jun 2010

    Ethiopia is under sever oppresion, no free media, less internet access, low connectivity and so on….. Leave alone the internet, you can not use your mobile phone out side some major cities, imagine that!!! the price of simcard was about 35 USD for the last 6 years (you can get simcards for 50 kenyan shilings in Nairobi or for free in Johannesburg). all this happens due to Melese Zenawi’s unpopular and undemocratic regime, this is crime on humanity or Genocide as to me
    Thanks a lot!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Howard Smith says:

    John,
    A colleague of yours, Glen Robertson, forwarded this Ethiopia article since I spent 208 in Addis Ababa working on an Ethiopian Telecom Corp transformation program.
    Your observations about expanding Ethiopia’s world via the Internet is certainly on point. Our program hired 200 recent university graduates and gave them a modern office building, computer equipment and Internet access. It was difficult to focus them on using the web for assigned research when, all at once, they had the world at their fingertips.
    However, the “federal republic” is quite insecure in giving all of its citizens the same type of access. The Ethiopian Telecom Corporation’s slogan is “Connecting Ethiopia to the Future”…not the world. Internet cafes, although prevalent, are often raided by the government and closed. Multiple closings can result in “corruption” charges to the owner. Jail time usually follows. [Ethiopian jails are nothing like US jails!]
    The government has many hurdles to cross but establishing a global telecom network with competition is the necessary next step. Some enlightened ministers understand this but the Prime Minister is not so easy to convince. Meles Zelawe [sp] makes politically correct statements but actions do not follow.
    Ethiopia is a fascinating country that is paranoid in its concerns over internal safety and security. This inward focus is one of the debilitating forces at work.
    More exposure of Ethiopia and its circumstances certainly can work to change some of these “backward” positions.

    • johnsavageau says:

      That is a great overview going deeper into the realities in Ethiopia. One thing that is slightly off track – I flew Ethiopian Airlnes from DC, to Addis, to Kampala, and back. It was one of the nicer flights I have been on years. The government certainly does that part right. However Internet access is a big issue. You are right, when people are connected for the first time, and see how big and wonderful the world is, it is an absolute pleasure to watch. Not sure what the government really wants to control – guess it is true that keeping people ignorant is the best way to keep them under control.

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