Author Archives: drenchar


And another semester bites-the-dust. I know I’m not alone when I say this was the most fun IDEV class I’ve taken here at Tulane–can’t wait for Ds for D.

One of the most salient lessons I’ll take away from this class is that data can be very deceiving–not necessarily an epiphany, but nonetheless an important and reacurring theme for the semester and the field. My semester’s research was focused on Rwanda, a country acclaimed for its rapid development in the last decade, which, in-part, ICT initiatives are responsible for. Reading through the various reports regarding Rwanda’s ICT accomplishments, and even walking through the impeccably clean streets of the capital city of Kigali, one cannot help but join in on the praise. But the reality is that the overwhelming majority of the Rwanda’s “meteoric development” has only occurred in two cities: Kigali and Butare. The rest of Rwanda, rural Rwanda, well-outside the scope of these regarded ICT initiatives and home to more than 80 percent of the population, remains largely unchanged since 2000. Electricity is scarce, to say nothing of Visa’s mobile banking initiatives, city-wide-wifi, and the other impressive ICT projects we’ve read about. So, data that reflects rapid development in a few areas doesn’t mean things on the ground are as impressive. It’s like the barrier to entry and content relevancy; if a country has 98 percent internet and moblie reach, but only 50 percent of the content is relevant, and only 15 percent of the population can actually afford access to it, what’s so impressive about the first figure? 

Something that will help me as a development professional, is also what I think to be the most important theoretical framework, which is that projects should be demand driven. We talked a lot about the “if you build it, they will come” complex built into a lot of failed ICT initiatives; such supply driven initiatives, like Mr. Vota so eloquently explained to us on Tuesday, don’t really inspire the change and development they wish to achieve. Thus, extensive market/stake-holder research is critical to a projects success. Anything less is blind-ambition, or worse, laziness.

The Final Word

Now that the global social-media network and development critics alike have had sufficient time to ponder, and as news spreads that Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, is in peace talks, what is the final verdict on Kony 2012? We know now that the campaign was a bit misleading, as it inferred that Kony and his rebel army were still committing atrocities in northern Uganda, while they had actually been in hiding somewhere in either South Sudan, C.A.R or Congo (we now know C.A.R.) for some six years, depleted and in dissaray. When this came to be known in the Western World, along with questions about Invisible Children’s finances and its founder, there was a tremendous backlash against the advocacy group. As quick as it came, Kony 2012 went from being the most passionate and popular humanitarian advocacy campaign since Save Darfur, to a laughing stock and seriously “uncool.” Consequently, the campaign’s untimeliness and inaccuracies prevented Invisible Children from fulfilling its goal of having people all over the world marching for Kony’s arrest–assumedly, people didn’t want to be associated with such a failure.

But was it such a failure? The fact is, hundreds of millions of people are now aware of Kony and his atrocities. In the words of a professor of mine while I studied abroad in Gulu, Uganda, “Before Kony 2012, no one gave a shit. At least people know now.”

This may be true, but the video inappropriately characterizes the situation in northern Uganda, sidestepping more relevant and pressing issues. Ultimately, I feel the final word of Kony 2012 is left up to Ugandans; so, I present to you the following videos from a Ugandan advocacy group named “Uganda Speaks,” the first, representing the views of my professor, and the second of many Acholi:

As a sort of epilogue, I offer yet another video that I feel is very important not just in talks about Kony, but all humanitarian media initiatives. Kony 2012 further painted a picture of Uganda, and Africa as a whole, as a place of unimaginable savagery, violence and anguish. Though readers and contributors of this blog are probably well-versed in the tragedies of Africa’s past and present, war and suffering are not the entire picture.

Google and The Storm

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The past 24 hours in the Philippines have been hell. Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms ever recorded, roared across the Pacific nation yesterday, leaving a trail of soaked destruction. With wind gusts of up to 235 mph winds, 15.75 inches of rain, and 45 foot waves (!??!), it is no surprise that the initial projected death toll is rising above 1,200 already. BBC reports another 12 million people are displaced, searching for remnants of their washed away lives amongst the unrecognizable ruins of the places they once called home.

188228-typhoon-haiyan-fcd02, the philanthropic arm of Google, is doing its part for the relief efforts in two ways via Google Crisis Response. First, it set-up a webpage, called Person Finder, for those looking for loved-ones and/or checking in themselves to let others know that they are in fact alive. Google based the open-source platform off of the Katrina PeopleFinder Project in 2005, and it has been creating Person Finder pages for major disasters since.

The second initiative is Google Crisis Response’s “Typhoon Haiyan Crisis and Relief Map” that is now up and running and expanding. The crowdsourced map provides users with the location of evacuation centers, crisis areas, and relief drop zone areas. Other users have added the placement of hospitals, command-posts, police stations, etc.

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One of my initial thoughts was that it’s awfully unlikely that those affected by the storm are able to access and use this available information to their advantage — my guess is that WiFi and the likes aren’t up and running quite yet.  But, with further investigation, it appears that this map may be more geared toward users that can use the given information to offer help, rather than receive it. The map also shows landslide/flood prone zones, areas of concern/news and the path of the storm, among other things, which could be helpful to the myriad of aid organizations that are no-doubt gearing up to lend a helping hand.

In class we often discussed the validity of crowdsourced crisis maps, and how incorrect or misplaced information could hinder the reputation and/or usefulness of these ICTs. For some reason I trust Google….I know I shouldn’t, but, that’s another blogpost. Here’s my thinking: Google is a household-name, its free, easy, big, innovative, etc. and it employees some of the smartest people in the world. Thus, I feel that if any organization has the means and wherewithal to provide a valid crisis mapping service, it’s Google. More importantly (and probably more true), is that people will go to Google before they go to Ushahidi or some government/aid org. website to check a crisis map, or use something like Person Finder, simply because its Google–not necessarily because Google is “the standard,” but because its the most familier. I feel like this is a new and potentially dangerous phenomenon where people put a lot of faith in the validity and efforts of Google, Facebook and Apple (again, another blogpost). But, to put it another way: if Apple started producing crisis maps or had a Person Finder, wouldn’t that be the first one you checked?

Murphy’s Law and E-voting in Kenya

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The fallout of Kenya’s 2007 elections left 1,200 people dead and thousands more displaced after mass-speculation of rigging. For the general elections last Spring, the Kenyan government decided to use “e-vovting” in effort to curb corruption, increase voter turnout and restore its citizens faith in democracy. It was supposed to be the most modern election in African history, in accordance with Kenya’s desire to become a regional ICT-hub. Polling stations had laptop registration centers, computerized voting kiosks with biometric identification thumb pads, and a realtime SMS vote count relay. Quite an ambitious project for any country, let alone one where only 23 percent of its citizens have access to electricity.

Alas, it didn’t work, as NPR reported in March,

First the laptops ran out of battery power. Organizers had failed to consider that African school buildings, where many of the polling stations were situated, don’t have electric outlets. Then the biometric identification kits started to crash. Poll workers didn’t have the PIN numbers and passwords they needed to restart the software. Paper ballots were rolled out and voter lines slowed to a crawl, forcing some voters to wait seven to nine hours in the hot sun to cast their ballots. Voting concluded on Monday, but the tech hiccups did not. A bizarre computer bug multiplied the number of disqualified ballots by a factor of eight, leaving Kenyans livid and demoralized for several days in the belief that more than a quarter-million votes had been summarily tossed out in the incredibly tight race. The SMS-relay system overloaded, too, forcing election officials to airlift poll workers to Nairobi by helicopter to hand deliver the results.

Quite the trifecta from technology hell; nearly every trepidation that citizens and governments alike have when it comes to implementing e-voting became a reality. Fortunately, Kenyan’s displayed an impressive amount of patience and no violence occurred.

Some of the lessons from this rather uninspiring  implementation of e-voting are  obvious — i.e. best check to see if there’s anywhere to power all this technology. It also leaves us with a larger, more disheartening question: can full scale political e-voting work in the developing world? E-voting has been successful in many European countries, but when a country’s ICT infrastructure is as limited as or worse than Kenya’s, maybe using ICTs to leapfrog development deficiencies isn’t the most appropriate approach. The stakes are too high.

Ki-Fi? It’s Not a Lie

If you find yourself wandering the streets of Kigali anytime soon, and are desperately searching for the nearest internet Café to check the latest post on this blog , stop — WiFi is now free and city-wide. The Rwandan Government, Rwandan Hotel & Restaurant Association, and local telecommunication companies collaborated to develop this–what I think we can all agree is an awesome–service to increase ICT use and create an “enabling environment.” Providing free, universal internet access is one way to breakdown the digital dive and barriers to entry.

The new initiative is called “Smart Kigali” and is one of the hundreds of ICT development efforts under Rwanda’s ambitious National Information and Communication Infrastructure plan (the country’s ICT policy), and free Wi-Fi is just the first step. The other efforts are not necessarily as exciting, but are arguably more important; The City of Kigali is working  with Google to publish a detailed online map of the city — i.e. Google Maps (currently, only general boarders and main streets are available).

The government is also implementing automated taxi meters in the cabs throughout the city to enforce a standardized fare. “Far-based conflict” is a major concern apparently; I buy it; there’s definitely a special “Muzungu” price.

All of these efforts are part of the Rwandan governments appeasement to private investment and Westerners in general. How many African cities have detailed google maps, free Wi-Fi and taxi-meters that help prevent foreigners from getting totally taken advantage of? As Mayor Ndayisaba put it, “We need Kigali to be an exemplary city. We do not need to copy other cities, we want cities to copy Kigali.”

That’s enough, Invisible Children

I am not a fan of Invisible Children. They may have good intentions, but they have horrible foresight and in many cases their efforts do more harm than good. Consider the following:

In an effort to bridge the communication gap between the vulnerable and isolated villages of the eastern DR Congo and the Central African Republic, the ever-so-dramatic political action group has set out to create a radio network that helps villages warn and notify each other of threatening (LRA) Lord Resistance Army  movements. The creatively named “Early Warning Radio Network” consists of  38 long-range, high-freqency, two-way radios, each of which is operated by local village volunteers.  The network’s creators hope a radio warning from a town could prepare nearby towns of potential similar attacks. With this warning, villages in the vicinity could in some way prepare for such an event and  possibly evacuate.

Without even going into the issues of sustaining this operation, the plan has horrendously backfired; there have been multiple reports that the radio networks  have actually made towns more vulnerable. Since these radios generally serve as the only ICTs in the region, the Congolese Army–which is on the hunt for LRA rebels–often uses them to communicate, consequently making radio-enabled villages not just supply/recruiting centers for the LRA, but strategic targets. Now the rebels  go-about looking for villages with radios to destroy them and kill their operators — certainly not the effect Invisible Children was going for.

Rwanda: An African Tech Hub?

Aware of the “leap-frog” potential of ICTs, the East-African nation of Rwanda, impaired by a lack of natural recourses, overcrowding, wide-spread poverty and a particularly violent past, is determined to become the region’s technological-hub. A grand ambition for a small agrarian society, but given the country’s meteoric development in the past decade under the stringent, but efficient, rule of President Paul Kagame, it’s a realistic one.

Rwanda is marginalized geographically, economically and politically; other than tea and coffee, it has no inherent natural recourses, its landlocked with not the best of neighbors — e.g. the D.R.C., with which Rwanda has had ongoing conflict since 1994. Thus, it makes sense that the Government of Rwanda is trying to take advantage of a commodity that is cheaply exportable anywhere in the world at the dial of a phone number or click of button: ICT services. To this end, the Rwandan government has invested massive amounts of money towards the development of a first-class, globally-appealing ICT infrastructure, in the hopes that they can foster a competitive ICT-private sector — the Government of Rwanda is rather explicit about this . For example, the following graphic from Rwanda’s initial ICT strategy document depicts the government’s desired transition from an agrarian based economy to a service based economy of which ICT is the main component:

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This is still a work in progress. Despite unparalleled investment and attention towards ICT sector development, Rwanda somewhat lags behind its neighbors when it comes to service exports, as seen in the data table below from the World Bank.

Screen Shot 2013-09-30 at 6.05.38 PMThese relatively low numbers are mostly due to an inexperienced, uneducated population when it comes to ICTs, something the government is determinedly addressing through hundreds of education initiatives, including ICT specific universities and an ICT park in the capital city of Kigali.

The ultimate fruition of Government of Rwanda’s goals may have yet to be realized, but it is a work-in-progress, and the country has come a long way since the 1994 war. Rwanda continues to invest millions of aid and  1.6 percent of its GDP towards ICT sector development annually. One thing is for certain: the Rwandan government certainly believes ICTs are its ticket to middle income status.