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.

Appreciating the Value of ICT Infrastructure in the Developing World

Sitting at a local coffee house wondering why the free wireless internet access is slow, it is easy to be indignant. Indignant that the coffee house owner could possibly be so arrogant as to provide poor quality Internet access while I camp out with an hour old latte, updating important Facebook communities with my plans for watching television this evening.

How are we supposed to live like this? Are we supposed to live like we are in a third world country while slurping our specialty coffee?

A third world country like Ghana, Vietnam, or Palestine? If I was living in say, Somalia, I would be one of 1.14% of people within the country that have Internet access. In fact, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in all of Africa there was only 4.7% of the entire population with access to Internet-enabled infrastructure or technology.

Why do we care?

Consider this – when an economy fails, and people get hungry, what is the first thing they do? Well, in most cases they fall into either a war, or become refugees. In most cases a combination of both. When you have large numbers of potentially uneducated, poorly trained refugees entering your country or society, you have a burden on your own economy and infrastructure.

Education is the KeyOn the other hand, if developing countries have access to technology, such as that made possible through Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICT), there is a much better chance those countries will be better positioned to not only improve the knowledge and abilities of people in developing countries, but the potential of creating an environment to stimulate employment and trade.

The faster we advance and innovate in developed countries such as the United States, the wider the ICT knowledge and capacity gap becomes between us and the developing world. ICT drives the potential for a developing country to develop many of the basic skills needed for a country or society to compete, or at least become functionally competitive in their region.

The key to becoming a knowledge economy is education. Basic ICT infrastructure is required to bring the tools to a country allowing students and workers to gain the knowledge, skills, and training needed to function in the modern world.

Who Drives ICT In the Developing World?

Many Americans understand the value of supporting ICT infrastructure projects. Bill Woodcock from the Berkeley-based Packet Clearing House (PCH) leads a committed group of engineers who not only spend a lot of time evangelizing ICT development, but also roll up their sleeves and provide assistance in locations around the world needing direct human training and support. The PCH is a “proponent of neutral independent network interconnection and provider of (Internet) route-servers … worldwide.   The PCH provides “equipment, training, data, and operational support to organizations and individual researchers seeking to improve the quality, robustness, and accessibility of the Internet.”

The PCH team travels the globe, offering their services to any country with a need.

John Gerlich, a former “lifer” telecom engineer from Las Vegas, does similar work, spending most of his pre-retirement time giving back to the telecom community in need. Splitting his time between locations such as Ghana and Palestine, his motivation is giving people the tools to communicate. Makes no difference if the WorldBank is funding his projects, USTDA or USAID – the end justifies the means. His success is delivering a new ICT infrastructure to a location where none existed, or there was a limited ICT capability, before he arrived.

International organizations from around the world have tried promoting development of ICT, some with great success, others stuck in international bureaucracies and politics that slow down projects, and some (mostly independent non-governmental organizations) which are able to operate and contribute with little or no politics. Some very aggressive organizations supporting ICT infrastructure in developing countries include:

  • UNDP (United Nations Development Programme)
  • US AID
  • JICA (Japan)
  • ZDT (Germany)
  • US TDA
  • And others

Some Additional Thoughts on ICT and a Knowledge Based-Economy

When was the last time you went to a fast food restaurant? Did you notice the counter staff had microphones, and entered the fast food order into a computer for processing within the “cloud” of the restaurant? Is it possible you cannot even work in a fast food restaurant without a good diffusion of ICT knowledge in your life?

Now consider a world where nearly half the people cannot even function at the level that would allow them to take an order for a hamburger. As we in countries such as the US continue to focus our research and development energy on advancement of cloud computing, 4G, and determining if there is water on Mars, there is a very large percentage of the global population that would not be able to turn on a laptop computer.

The UNCTAD says that even basic access to and knowledge of basic ICT “can make a substantial and positive difference to the economic performance of developing countries’ companies and businesses.” Access to technology and ICT knowledge has a proven positive impact on productivity and business success. For developing countries, this productivity may result in improvements in environmental impacts of doing business, better quality of life, better use and exploitation of national natural resources, and better communication and appreciation of everybody’s place in a global economy and community.

Some Final Selfish Thoughts on ICT in Developing Countries

As I take my feet off the railing facing the pier jutting into the Pacific Ocean, and begin turning off my laptop computer, I see a group of recent economic immigrants scrounging for the basic necessities of life. They are happy to be in the United States, but still hungry. Coming to the United States has not solved their life problems. They are confronted with limited job opportunities based on the economic situation, lack of training, lack of language skills, and lack of education. They are preyed on by human coyotes representing gangs and the vile “underworld” of refugee life.

I know the same scene is repeated in Europe, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, and other countries supporting large refugee and immigrant communities.

If those persons had access in their home countries to adequate education, ICT infrastructure, and the resulting potential business opportunities. Access to the cross-border knowledge and communication needed to support trans-national business. Access to knowledge-based jobs, and support from governments well-educated in the power of societies with strong diffusion of ICT knowledge to contribute and function in a global community.

There are many people and institutions committed to making this happen. While we continue to knock off lattes and scones at the coffee shop, they are on the edge, working with governments to develop policies, as well as breaking finger nails installing ICT infrastructure shoulder-to-shoulder in the underprivileged world.

I applaud the efforts of that community, and urge all of us to take a moment or two in between funny cat videos on YouTube to learn more about how we can make the world a better, safe, and productive place through knowledge. Rock on Bill and John, and all the others out in the global field tonight helping others.

John Savageau, Long Beach

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