Jared Cohen is a Renaissance man in the world of technology. He’s an author, a geopolitical advisor, the director of Google Ideas, and a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in addition to having served on the staffs of both Condoleezza Rice and Hilary Clinton. He’s also just 31 years old. Condi Rice said of Cohen, “He would use his position at Policy Planning to begin to integrate social media into our diplomatic tool kit. That would pay off handsomely some years later, when Twitter and Facebook became accelerants of democratic change in the Middle East.” In addition to playing an instrumental role as an advisor of US policy in Iran and throughout the Middle East, Cohen was on the ground in the 2011 Egyptian revolution during Mubarak’s overthrow, presumably as an on-the-ground orchestrator of revolutionary social media. He also played an important role in keeping Iran’s Twitter service open during the 2009 protests that took place in the country, of which he was an adamant supporter.
For those unfamiliar with Google Ideas, the project is a think tank started by Google in 2010 with a focus on technology and global initiatives. Ideas also deals with governance problems within weak and failing governments. Interestingly enough, Google considers Ideas a part of its business operations rather than a philanthropic appendage, despite its focus on technology applications within the development sector. As a director, Cohen’s primary aim has been to apply technological strategies to healthcare and other sectors within the developing world. On a related note, Cohen led several delegations under Hillary Clinton in the hopes of setting up partnerships between technology executives and stakeholders in countries like Syria, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What a guy.
In “Why Radio Matters,” Mary Myers outlines numerous applications of radio which she believes to be extremely effective if applied correctly in a development setting. Her emphasis on the ability of radio to educate and empower reminded me of a small UNESCO-funded conference I heard about recently from a friend in Nicaragua who works for AMARC (Asociación Mundial de Radios Comunitarias). Last October, female radio broadcasters from all around the country convened in Matagalpa to discuss sexism they face in their everyday lives as well as the most effective and empowering ways to discuss sexual violence on the air. Among the things highlighted by the workshop were linguistic techniques to avoid assigning blame to victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse and the importance of using “vos” rather than “tú’ whenever possible in such discussions.
The workshop followed the enactment of Nicaragua’s recent Law 779, which was officially enacted in June and essentially provides the country with a far more modern, protective set of laws surrounding issues of sexual violence, spousal abuse, and women’s rights as a whole. While the law has been seen as an impressively comprehensive step towards sexual equality in Nicaragua, it has drawn resistance from native tribal populations, such as the Mayagna Indians, who see it as a threat to their existing tribal laws. The female broadcasters at the conference discussed tactful ways to encourage sexual equality in such situations without imposing judgment on existing cultural standards. Another interesting dimension of the conference was a discussion of the problems caused by the particularly odd work hours experienced by radio broadcasters. Many of the women ended or began work at odd hours in the morning and different radio stations had various ways of ensuring that they were at least somewhat protected while walking to and from work on deserted streets.
The first World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) took place in 2003 in Geneva, Switzerland, and the second UN-sponsored summit was held two years later in Tunis. The concept of the WSIS was actually initially proposed to the UN by the Tunisian government via the ITU, and it was subsequently decided that the summit should be split up into two separate phases. The UN saw this meeting as an opportunity more deeply incorporate ICTs into its existing strategies for achieving the MDGs. The central objective of these summits was to address the global digital divide, with the greatest emphasis placed on the internet sector. Representatives from 175 countries attended the Geneva summit, where a Plan of Action as well as a Declaration of Principles were established. According to the plan of action laid out at the 2003 summit, the Action Lines of the WSIS are:
C1. The role of public governance authorities and all stakeholders in the promotion of ICTs for development
C2. Information and communication infrastructure
C3. Access to information and knowledge
C4. Capacity building
C5. Building confidence and security in the use of ICTs
C6. Enabling environment
C7. ICT Applications:
C8. Cultural diversity and identity, linguistc diversity and local content
C10. Ethical dimensions of the Information Society
C11. International and regional cooperation
The 2005 summit in Tunisia led to the establishment of the polarizing Internet Governance Forum as well as the drafting of the Tunis Commitment and the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society. This summit further solidified the idea that universal and affordable internet access should be the ultimate goal of this governing body and set the ambitious goal of providing online access to 50% of the world’s population by 2015. A WSIS forum has been held annually since 2006 to discuss progress in accomplishing the original goals and to share ideas about ICT implementation.
I recently learned about a subset of the Federal Communications Commission called WISENET: Women in ICTs Shared Intelligence Network. The network exists entirely online and aims to aggregate knowledge, experiences and data related to women in ICTs. In their own words,
WISENET (Women in ICTs Shared Excellence Network) is a convening platform that aims to leverage the experience, resources and connections of the international ICT community to better the situation of women, their communities and their countries. The platform will include the redesigned blog, news, events, and research.
WISENET is a key part of the International Bureau’s Women’s Initiative: Going Mobile and Connecting Women. Through the Initiative, we hope to collaborate on how to best use ICTs for development and motivate women to pursue careers in technology.
One exceptionally useful feature of the website is a oft-updated congregation of news links regarding women in ICTs—a topic which receives far too little media coverage. I’ve had a difficult time in the past finding news articles or current events relevant to our class discussions, and the first few links I tried here were great. The WISENET site also features a blog with posts from high-ranking administrators at various NGOs and government offices. Finally, there’s an impressive compilation of research on gender and ICT-related issues. More than anything else it looks like a way for English-speaking development workers to share ideas rather than a hands-on consumption-side ICT tool, but it’s still an incredibly useful resource. I have no way to tell how much traffic the site gets, but I hope someone out there is making use of it.
I spent this past summer interning at a tiny NGO in rural Southwestern Nicaragua and while there I lived in a homestay with a Nicaraguan family. One of the things that initially struck me as odd regarding the familial situation was that despite not having access to running water or basic sanitation in the household, the family of four owned seven cell phones between them. I soon learned that this was not at all uncommon in the region; many of the adults I met in this extremely impoverished area owned between 2 and 4 cell phones. It was explained to me that the nature of cell phone companies in the country made it more affordable to carry phones from multiple carriers rather than just one. Phone companies favor (or in some cases, exclusively offer) “in” calling, and cell phones are extraordinarily cheap, while minutes are purchased in increments. All of these factors combine to create a hugely wasteful tonnage of cellular tech. The immediate concern that comes to mind is the environmental consequences of both the production and the subsequent discarding of all of this mobile technology. Since most of this manufacturing is done in developing countries half a world away, we’re sheltered from the consequences of the pollutants and waste produced by manufacturing so many pieces of technology. To get into the sub-human working conditions at many of these factories is another issue entirely, but the mass suicides in Chinese factories leading up to the release of the iPhone 5 are only a recent example. Many of the minerals that go into producing cell phones, such as tin and tungsten, are mined in conflict areas with methods that are detrimental to both the local environment and the local population. Cloud servers and the recent phenomenon of “big data” require staggering amounts of electricity. Of course I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t have cell phones—I love mine—but a system in which each person needs many is neither sustainable nor efficient.
Seeing as our readings this week were fairly pessimistic regarding the role of ICTs in development, particularly on the consumption end, I felt the need to seek out some reassuringly positive literature. One of the better articles I found in the last few days covered some of the impressive (though oft-inflated) data regarding the spread of mobile phone technologies throughout Africa over the last few years. Two of the more staggering statistics include the fact that Africa is now home to 650,000 mobile phone subscribers (more than the European Union), as well as the World Bank’s recent report which attributed an estimated 5 million new jobs in Africa last year to the mobile phone industry alone. The article also highlights benefits stemming from the increasing prevalence of mobile banking technologies in Africa, which before the this class was the ICT development field I was most familiar with. The article goes on to quote Samia Melhem, the World Bank’s Coordinator for Information and Communications Technologies for Africa, as saying: “”More people have access to internet today in Africa than they do to clean water, or even sanitation . . . we can say this has been the most significant revolution in terms of changing the African landscape and how people live their daily life.” This quote is presented seemingly without a sense of irony, though it seems to point out a pretty obvious flaw in the current structure of foreign aid. On a basic human level, clean water and basic sanitation seem to be exponentially more pressing priorities than spreading cellular technology to rural areas. In Richard Heeks’ article “ICTs and MDGs: On the Wrong Track?”, he applauds Bill Gates for continuing to focus his investments in Africa on healthcare and sanitation issues, while in other large organizations we’ve begun to see a shift of focus to ICTs. Though he comes off cantankerous, perhaps Heeks has a point here.
On a final, less relevant note, it looks like the ever-more-rapid spread of ICTs in Africa has had a hugely negative impact on country-level postal services that only recently were booming. There’s always something.