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Why TED said no to Bono

My friend Andrew Heavens – a photojournalist and blogger based in Addis Ababa – posted a useful and provocative question in reaction to a blog post I offered updating readers on Bono’s TED wishes and their success or failure. Awarded one of three 2005 TED prizes, Bono wished for two things that were relatively easy for the TED community to provide: massive online exposure for a campaign to end global poverty, and involvement of thousands of Americans and Europeans in a campaign to lobby the G-8 for debt forgiveness.

Bono’s third wish was a lot harder for the TED community to fulfill. The wish, as Andrew reported it at the time:

Bono was granted three wishes by the organisers of the TED conference. His third was “I wish for you to show the power of information – its power to rewrite the rules and to transform lives – by connecting every hospital, health clinic, and school in one African country, Ethiopia, to the Internet.” TED participants are now supposed to help him make the wish a reality.

As I reported from the 2006 TED conference, TED has conceded that this wish won’t be fulfilled. Andrew is understandably concerned that the wish, announced with great fanfare, has failed almost silently:

The announcement of the wish received blanket media coverage last year. But this year, there have been no details of its demise, as far as I can see, on TED’s website, which is still reporting that Bono’s wish #3 as open. Nothing on the website of chip-maker AMD which this time last year issued a press release boasting AMD To Help Make Bono’s Wish A Reality. Nothing on the website of Bono’s own DATA organisation. Nothing on the official U2 homepage.

(This is hardly a surprise. I remember searching Hewlett Packard’s website for information on the Joko Club, an ambitious and ultimately unsuccesful effort to provide connectivity and computer training in inner-city Dakar. While it was a centerpiece of HP’s “e-inclusion” efforts, it disappeared almost without a trace when the company concluded that the project was failing.)

Andrew wonders why the wish failed. Was it that “development is really, really hard”? Or that “the internet is not the answer to all of humanity’s ills”? While both assertions are undeniably true, I think the truth is yet more complicated, and somewhat specific both to the wish and to Ethiopia.

Chris Anderson of TED approached me for my thoughts on implementing Bono’s third wish several months ago – Chris sits on the board of Worldchanging, which I chair, and the TED-connected Sapling Foundation has been instrumental in turning Worldchanging from a volunteer-only project to one that can sustain a dedicated staff. My first reaction to Chris: “It’s an impossible wish, and it’s especially impossible in Ethiopia.”

While connectivity has spread across the African continent at an amazing pace, it has largely impacted urban areas where there are large numbers of potential users, and where there’s already telecom and electrical infrastructure to support computer-based projects. (For years, I’ve used the NASA-generated image of the earth at night as my background desktop image. It’s a great reminder of the challenges of the digital divide – dark spots on the map need electrification, either from generators or the expansion of the electrical grid, before they’re able to be on the Internet in a meaningful way. Most of Africa is very, very dark on this map.) Even in much smaller, wealthier African nations, providing connectivity to a substantial portion of the population has been a major challenge – my friends with Schoolnet Namibia, for instance, have done an extraordinary job, but have much further to go.

Not only is Ethiopia poor and largely off the electrical grid, it’s also very rural. Many African nations are urbanizing rapidly, and you can provide connectivity to a large percentage of the population by wiring key cities. But less than 20% of Ethiopia’s population lives in major cities, and population density is remarkably uniform throughout the country. in other words, wiring Ethiopia involves bringing power and bandwidth to tens of thousands of communities around the nation. This either involves buying thousands of VSAT (very small aperature) satellite dishes, which cost a few thousands dollars apiece in addition to the costs associated with providing power and housing for these installations, or laying thousands of kilometers of fiberoptic cable to connect Ethiopia’s schools and hospitals together. Both solutions are possible, but both require investments of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.

And then there’s the problem of Ethiopian telecommunications. Many African nations are finding it challenging to open their networks to competition from new technologies, like Voice over IP. Ethiopia has been remarkably reluctant to open its government-owned monopoly to competition. One of the truths of contemporary Internet access is that if you’ve got a connection, you’ve got a phone through computer to computer voice services like Skype. My experience working on telecoms in Africa suggested that it was unlikely that Ethiopia Telecom would permit hundreds of VOIP shops to open up around the country… which would mean a network built explicitly to prevent certain types of traffic, or carefully monitored to prohibit certain types of activitty.

There was an added factor to the cost and the technical challenges: Ethiopia’s rapidly degrading political environment. When Bono offered his wish, it was difficult to predict that upcoming parliamentary elections would lead to widespread protest and violence. Zenawi was enjoying a reputation as one of Africa’s most progressive and enlightened leaders – this reputation has decayed sharply over the past year as opposition leaders and journalists have been detained, as citizens have been shot in the streets and the country has moved towards a more authoritarian posture. Bono describes himself as “gutted” about Zenawi’s transformation. I think many of the people working on the wish – myself included – felt increasingly uncomfortable working on an initiative sure to be a feather in the cap of the Zenawi government as the nation’s political freedoms were taken away.

Does this demonstrate the impossibility of implementing large connectivity projects in Africa? I don’t think so – Sun Microsystems, which did a good deal of the work on the Ethiopia project is now investigating the potential to wire Rwanda, a much smaller, more densely populated country (with a marginally less authoritarian government.) What it does demonstrate, I think, is the difficulty of constructing a good wish. When wishes are fulfilled not by genies, but by people – even unusually smart, wealthy, well-connected people – it’s wise to construct wishes that you can imagine being fulfilled. As much as I believe in the power of information, I find it hard to imagine the transformative power of telemedicine in a country where, as Andrew points out, health centers “are calling out for staff and really basic supplies – things like oral rehydration salts to stop children dying from diarrhoea.”

I’d love to see Chris, Amy or other TED staffers write about the challenges of implementing TED wishes. And I’m excited to see whether I can lend a hand with this year’s wishes, especially Jehane Noujaim’s wish for a global cinema day where film sparks conversation between people in different countries and cultures. But it’s an important reminder from Andrew that not all wishes work, and that an organization like TED has a responsibility to document failure as well as success, even though both are the product of the best intentions.

20 thoughts on “Why TED said no to Bono”

  1. I think Rwanda may be further along. From an article I posted on my blog a few weeks ago:

    Terracom started laying fiber throughout Rwanda, bought RwandaTel for $20m and dropped the price for a combination high-speed internet connection and phone line down to $80 per month. Greg Wyler – the American entrepreneur cum do-gooder behind Terracom – sees affordable internet service as a key step to establishing Rwanda as an African IT hub. And that may well mark the first time Rwanda and IT hub have appeared in the same sentence.


  2. Interesting post Ethan. Broadband in Africa gets me excited (mostly because we have such horrible service here in Malawi).

    I think Rwanda may be further along than you mentioned though. From an article I posted on my blog a few weeks ago:

    Terracom started laying fiber throughout Rwanda, bought RwandaTel for $20m and dropped the price for a combination high-speed internet connection and phone line down to $80 per month. Greg Wyler – the American entrepreneur cum do-gooder behind Terracom – sees affordable internet service as a key step to establishing Rwanda as an African IT hub. And that may well mark the first time Rwanda and IT hub have appeared in the same sentence.


  3. i’d imagine that if all the hospitals and clinic were in the very least hooked together — allowing for internal wikis and shared databases of patient records — that’s be a huge first step. or am i off?

  4. how about a closed wi-max network? assuming wimax gets 50 miles i.e. 80 km squared of coverage per receiver, that means 14,020 meshing wimax receivers would be needed to cover the entirety of Ethoipia. Although the only system I can find on the market is the red max right now http://www.redlinecommunications.com/
    the wi-max stuff doesn’t even begin t hit market untill the end of 2006 hence by 2007 the cost of networking an entire nation or at least some hosptials etc will have fallen…

  5. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Kind words for Geekcorps (and a peril of serial entrepreneurship)

  6. Thanks for the comments, folks. Sean, exchanging records is certainly one of the things you’d want to do. Another is tele-diagnostics – if you’ve got good diagnosticians in your capital city and folks in a rural health clinic can upload basic info plus some digital photos, you can often diagnose serious conditions from miles away.

    Mike, I’m not actually that surprised by progress in Rwanda. When I was in Kigali a few years back, a creative entrepreneur showed me a warehouse filled with VSAT dishes – he was talking about installing hundreds of dishes in small villages. Since then, the national telecoms provider was taken over by a very creative dude. And Rwanda has been in an excellent situation to raise international investment post-genocide.

    Andrew, until I see meshing WiMax working well in a large installation in the US or Europe, I feel like I can’t recommend it for Africa yet. I simply don’t know how much about the 80km stuff will be hype. I will tell you that meshing once you’re using distances that large has a whole new set of challenges – most meshes work with quite short hops between nodes and little latency. It’s a very different equation to build meshes over hundreds of kilometers. But I agree that a solution for Ethiopia will likely involve a hybrid of fiber, VSAT, WiMax and Wifi…

  7. I think the answer, Amanda, is that Bono won the TED prize, not the Ethiopian people. Whether or not that’s a good thing is something to take up with the prize organizers. As for whether TED should continue trying to implement the wish – I suspect you’re going to get some widely differing opinions depending on which Ethiopian people you ask – whether they’re pro or anti-Zenawi, whether they’re big believers in the importance of technology above and beyond other priorities, etc… Any suggestions on how you’d like to see Ethiopia, as a whole, asked for their input on the TED wish?

  8. Ethan, many thanks for this post I’ll write to you with some more background on this… One key point to note. The wish, as originally specified, may not have been granted, but it triggered a chain of events that will (we believe) have an even bigger impact. Watch this space.

  9. Even though I truly detest what Meles Zenawi is doing in Ethiopia. As an Ethiopian I would like to thank you(Ethan), Bono and all the TED society for your unreserved support for the poor and dispossessed Ethiopia people. Following the Meles’s regime tyrannical theatre in the May Elections, Meles has plunged Ethiopia into a country of death and massacre. The current crisis is characterised by the barbaric killings or wounding of hundreds, incarceration of thousands of innocent civilians without due process of law, the incarceration of the leading figures in the opposition without any respect for the law or the constitution, imposition of insurmountable destruction and, above of all, the induction of a dangerous scenario of ethnic polarisation and supremacy of the few ruling elites.

    These are facts which are well verified and documented, but I really don’t think the people of Ethiopian have to suffer doubly hard because of there leaders predicaments. Therefore, I truly hope the third wish of Bono, namely the connection of all Ethiopia’s hospitals to the Internet will come to fruition and the people will benefit from it. I say this because, the tyrannical government in power and the people of Ethiopia are mutually exclusive. As long as the government is not directly benefiting in this schemes, I also think this position is morally right and defensible.

  10. Ethan,

    Your heart is in the right place, but I wonder if you or anyone involved consulted with Ethiopian Telecom officials on the infrastructure challenges before rescinding on Bono’s request (wish?).

    Could you not have advised them to at least start with 2 or 3 or 4 hospitals… Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime? Or even look for indigenous efforts that would welcome technical or financial help?

    Apologies for the rhetorical questions, but I am curious to know why this “wish” was deemed un-grantable. Shouldn’t TED be held accountable for putting up a big show, give awards and claim it’s able to grant wishes, only to turn around and try to slip this fiasco under the rug.

  11. Its pretty sad to see the difference between peoples’ plans (revolutionizing the continent through IT) and the reality. I think there are a couple of problems in Ethiopia that will slow down the development of Bono’s network. One reason is (I think) a backlog in education. For every switch and computer there needs to be someone to manage it effectively and the base of skilled people isn’t there. Its not to say there arn’t skilled people – there are – but not in quantity. Another reason is the beaurocracy associated with technology. I think this is in part because technology is darn expensive there (it has to be imported to a landlocked country over a slow transportation network, and Ethiopian currency is not strong). Any deployment is encumbered by the need to release the technical resources (expensive computers and whatnot) from the beaurocrats. Thats a coarse approximation but there it is.

    Ethiopia is a place where even computer science students often do not have computers. There is not a large computer culture. People do not own wifi routers. There little infrastructure even for telephones. People believe in ‘IT’ but I’m not sure anyone knows what it will do. (Including me.)

    Its a truism that in the ‘developed world’ we take for granted the availability and the utility of computing technology. Since I am not Ethiopian, I wonder whether having internet is really a priority for Ethiopians when there is little in the way of decent roads, hospitals and other things we have had in the ‘west’ for decades. On the other hand there are some ingenious entrepreneurs who are builiding the technology in places like Ethiopia, and development in all areas – construction of new roads and fibre lines – seems to be pretty fast.

  12. I don’t know if you (Ethan) were part of the team who did the feasibilty studies for Bono’s wish. From what I was told, Chris Anderson, Amy Novogratz and Woldeloul Kassa were the ones who traveled to Ethiopia to do the study.

    Indeed, as you mentioned, I was told that the wish may not been granted due to infrastructure issues, which is true for most African countries. But I think it was possible to wire even 10 schools (colleges) and 10 clinics (hospitals) in various regional urban areas, and we would all have called Bono’s wish a partial success.

    I am not sure your politics and your dislike to Zenawi has anything to do with the failure of the wish. But I am sure Zenawi will not be removed even an inch away from his palace because of a failed wish or your politics.

    If western democracy was the yardstick for thousands of NGO projects through out Africa (almost all are ruled by dictators), there would be thousands of white NGO experts unemployed.

    I bet you westerners need poor Africans and their wretched existence to give meaning and fake redemption to your alienated lives (even from your parents and kids), your failed marriages and your overindulgence.

    It is a pity that we Africans are at the whim and wish of obscenely rich westerners on one hand and our own ruthless leaders on the other.

  13. I’m ashamed to say that I wasn’t aware of all that (the discussions around the feasibility of Bono’s wishes).
    Thank you for sharing.

  14. It’s hard for me to resolve this last comment, Danny. It’s clear you don’t have much regard for Westerners who’ve tried to work on projects in Africa – that’s certainly a defensible stance. But at the same time, you seem dissapointed that the team of wealthy westerners associated with TED didn’t complete the project in at least a small number of schools.

    I did not participate in the visit to Ethiopia. I ended up providing some advice to the team on telecoms regulation and structure, a subject that I’ve done some work on in Africa in the past. (Yes, as I’m sure you’ve concluded, I used to be one of those damnable “white NGO experts”.) I ended up suggesting that Ethiopia’s telecom regulations and history made it one of the least likely countries on the continent to have a project like the TED wish succeed. I also suggested that there was a degree of political risk associated with increasing tensions in the country. I agree with you – my advice on the wish and my writing about the Zenawi government are very unlikely to have any effect with ending his rule. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking, writing and discussing these topics.

  15. Abebe – the question of a partial grant of the TED wish is a good one. I don’t have an answer to it, and I’ll ask Chris if he wants to comment further on it – I know he’s been reading this thread and mentioned an interest in writing a fuller explanation of what happened in deciding how to address this wish. I’m in a bit of an awkward situation, as I know a little bit, but not a ton, about what happened with the wish. When you know a little and write, but it’s the only document on record, you become a logicial person to question. Unfortunately, I only have a few of the answers.

  16. Ethan,
    I am not against white NGO experts. I am against the AID industry which perpetuates institutional beggary. Oh yes, while I am at it, we Africans will take what ever you give us, but we hate it when you degrade our dignity. Beggars can be chooser too, you know. Now back to TED….

    I went through the TED website and here is what I gathered. The conference seems to be a psycho therapy for the white, the rich and the nerd, a guilt trip that they are so wealthy while the third world rotting in hell.

    No one was present from the poorest countries of the world to speak about their pain and suffering other than rich TEDsters who were lamenting on their behalf. Oh! There was probably a dance show by the “Children of Uganda” for amusement.

    Here is my suggestion for future TED conferences. Ethan and TEDsters have the heart and the money. Africans have thousands of experts who understand Africa’s problems intimately and who can find appropriate solutions (So you know, there are educated Africans doctors, scientists, bloggers, lawyers and yes telecom experts too…)

    With TEDsters money and African human resources something good may be done. Otherwise, I have a bad wish for TED. I wish TEDGlobal does not happen in Tanzania next year, for the sheer interest of exotic trips to Africa for the rich and the obnoxious. Let them lament about Africa in their own Monterey California eating caviar and drinking champagne.

  17. Ethan: Let’s do the math. Bono’s wish: “I wish for you to show the power of information – its power to rewrite the rules and to transform lives – by connecting every hospital, health clinic, and school in one African country, Ethiopia, to the Internet.”

    You’re as much a technologist as a social researcher, there are 119 hospitals and 412 health centres in Ethiopia, and surely they each have at least 1 telephone line. How much would it cost to put 2 PCs in each centre, hire 5 sysadmin/programmers (or geekcorps!) to localize OpenEMR or Care2x or OpenVista on Linux into the local languages, train the locals, and fidonet connect the PCs? Is the problem technology here? Or the challenge too great?

    Wouldn’t local NGOs and even the gov. step up to help, at least in facilitating access and coordinating with local officials?

    I’m just baffled at how the organizers and those listed as sponsors for the prize can even suggest this is impossible. If Negroponte can pull off a 100$ laptop, don’t tell me Coca Cola, GE, HP and Sun can’t network 119 hospitals.

    Needless to say, I can’t wait for Chris’ response.

  18. I am writing this from Kigali, Rwanda, where I just finished participating in a workshop and launch for the Rwandan ICT Association (RICTA). Let me assure you that ‘Rwanda’ and ‘I[C]T’ have appeared in the same sentence before. Indeed, there is a small but energetic and growing ICT community in Rwanda, and the situation is aided by a president who is fully committed to making Rwanda a knowledge-based economy and regional IT hub. One silver lining of the ‘tribal’ (it was actually the Belgians who determined who was Hutu and who was Tutsi based on, among other things, the number of cows a person had) tension that culminated in the horrible genocide that occured 12 years ago this month is that there was a large Rwandan diaspora, not only in neighboring countries but also in Europe and North America. With the amazing reconciliation that has occured in the past 12 years, this diaspora has returnd to Rwanda in large numbers, bringing with them their knowledge of the rule of law and information technology. There are linux users here localizing OS’s and apps into kinyarwanda. Yes, the future bodes quite well for Rwanda with respect to ICT.

    I should add that the $100 computer (available in ten payments of $10 each) already exists here in Rwanda, and by this I don’t mean some bare-bones machine conceived by western wonks or geeks, but rather P4 desktops with hard drives, Win XP, and MS Office. (I’ll refrain from offering my personal opinion of the appropriateness of MS products; by and large, this is what the market wants here, and I bring them up merely to point out that this software is included in the $100 price–with the full knowledge and support of that “Evil Giant.”)

    As far as connecting Ethiopia is concerned, the company I work for recently passed on the opportunity to bid on a connectivity project there at my urging, for precisely the reasons cited in this thread: opportunity cost, and the lack of political and economic freedom for individuals there. As Ethan pointed out, the Ethiopian government holds a monopoly on telecoms; VoIP and VSATs are illegal in the private sector.

    No amount of “appropriate technology,” Geekcorps-created or not, (I am also a former Geekcorps-Mali volunteer) will overcome corruption, lack of transparency, political disenfranchisement, and inadequate or non-existent property rights.

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