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 Bonoâ€™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.