Flora and fauna of Antigua


The opportunity to go for a long walk exploring the western coast of Antigua provided a chance to capture the magic of some of the flowers and birds of the island.  Many of the former are tiny, little more than a fingernail in size, but I do hope that the images below capture the magic of the island appropriately.

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Reflections on government-led infrastucture development in the ICT sector in the Caribbean


CTUI had the privilege of being invited to moderate the session on government-led infrastucture development at the Caribbean Telecommunications Union‘s 25th anniversary event held in Port of Spain, Trinidad, this week.  It provided an excellent opportunity to discuss in quite some detail the balance between private sector and state investment in the ICT sector, and ways through which infrastructure could be made available to some of the poorest and most marginal communities.  As a moderator, I always see my role primarily as being to facilitate some lively, and hopefully provocative, discussion, and so I tried to say very little myself during the session. Reflecting afterwards, though, particularly in the wider context of the Commonwealth as a whole, the following broad observations seem appropriate:

  1. There is very great diversity within the Caribbean, but nevertheless I did sense that there was much greater appetite here for the state to play a significant role in infrastructure development than is encountered in many other parts of the world.  It was very refreshing, for example, to hear the term “public utilities” spoken about almost with reverence.  The all-too-often accepted “development mantra” that privatisation of public utilities will ensure that they are much more efficient and thus deliver on the needs of poor people and communities, was not one that seemed to be widely accepted.  The belief that states have a clear duty to serve the interests of all of their people, and that this cannot be achieved through privatisation, was healthy and very different from the views that I all too often encounter.
  2. It was, though, clear that old business models are already failing to deliver sufficient profits for many of those involved in the sector, and that new models are required.  I find this particularly exciting, because I firmly believe that there are many exciting ways through which both public services and private benefit can be achieved, through a closer working relationship between companies and governments.
  3. The role of regulators is particularly important at this interface.  In particular, and recalling a session at the ITU’s Telecom World in Doha that I chaired last December, there is a need for regulators to think of themselves much more as “facilitators” than as “controllers”.  This applies not only in terms of providing the context through which the private sector can generate profits across all sectors of the economy, and thus enable governments to generate greater taxation revenues, but also through facilitating public awareness and understanding.  I was thus impressed by the way in which TATT (the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago) provides a considerable amount of information directly to consumers on such matters as “Cyberspace Dangers”, level of services expectations, and complaints procedures.
  4. Nevertheless, throughout the conference, I gained the impression that all too often conversations across the Caribbean have tended to happen in silos, and this was certainly the case  in the session on government-led infrastructure!  I was impressed that most panel sessions had speakers drawn from government, the private sector and civil society, but I got the feeling that the positions of each “sector” were often rather far apart.  There needs to be much more effective dialogue between the different sectors across the region (and indeed elsewhere in the world as well) if innovative solutions are to be developed to enable everyone to benefit from Internet connectivity.  To do this, there needs to be a cadre of well qualified and effective brokers who can facilitate such discussions.  This is one of the key roles that I believe the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation can play.
  5. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) face very problematic challenges, not least because of their small market size.  This reinforces the impression that I have previously gained from discussions at the UN’s SIDS conference in Samoa last year as well as work that I have done in the Pacific islands and elsewhere in the Caribbean.  In particular, I am convinced that traditional arguments about competition bringing the price of delivery down for consumers simply don’t apply in many such circumstances.   It really does not make sense to expect two or three operators to compete to deliver services in tiny islands.  Again, the precise business models need to be thought through very carefully, but where there is a social and political appetite for public utilities still to be delivered by governments, I see no logical reason why state-owned entities cannot provide value for money efficient ICT services in small island states.
  6. One of the most interesting discussions during the session was the ways through which existing government infrastructure can be used to reduce costs of rolling out ICT infrastructure, notably fibre.  In particular, the Puerta Rican El Zum initiative sounds especially interesting, in that it intends to deliver fibre connectivity through the sewers that link to most houses in the country.  Whilst this is not a solution that would suit every country, the idea of using the vast network of existing public infrastructure as a means through which to bring connectivity to the home is indeed appealing.  Likewise, I am more than ever convinced about the value of shared infrastructure solutions, and I see this as being one of the most significant things that governments can insist on in trying to reduce costs, especially in rural low-density contexts.
  7. This still, though, leaves the challenge of reaching the most remote, sparsely settled areas of any country, and few clear solutions or recommendations were received on how this could best be done. The debate over whether or not Universal Service/Access funds are effective continues apace, and I think that this increasingly reflects political dogma rather than actual practical reality! The reality is indeed often that money in such funds is either not used effectively, or sometimes not used at all, but the notion that taxation of some kind should be used to benefit the poor and marginalised is still a powerful one (the GSMA reports on such funds provide much helpful evidence).  The size of many Caribbean, and indeed Pacific, islands is nevertheless also one advantage for them, in that being small means that the distances required for roll out of fibre, or in provision of mobile broadband services, are not particularly large, and are thus relatively cheaper than those of large land-locked states.
  8. Finally, we had an interesting debate on the potential of mobile app development in the Caribbean and small island states more generally.  On balance, there seemed to be some agreement that the potential for app development to bring large numbers of people into the productive economy is very much less than some might advocate; thus 1.6% of app developers make more money than the remaining 98.4% combined (Financial Times).  (Incidentally, Mobile Vision has some useful statistics and data on the app sector).  There were, though, suggestions that there could be some potential in the Caribbean for local app developers to work on locally relevant e-government applications.

Overall, it was a fascinating discussion that raised many interesting ideas.

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Scarlet Ibis in the Caroni marshes, Trinidad


Participating in the Caribbean Telecommunications Union‘s 25th anniversary celebrations has provided an opportunity to explore parts of Trinidad (Panorama, Asa Wright Centre) and Tobago that I have not previously visited.  Many people had suggested that I should go to visit the Caroni marshes to see the Scarlet Ibis (the national bird of Trindidad), and so I took time out to see them return to their roosting sites just before sunset yesterday.  Although born dark in colour, the ibis’s diet of crustaceans turns them vivid scarlet as they grow older.  The flocks of egrets and ibis coming in to roost is truly memorable, and I hope that the pictures below give some sense of the birds and the marshes (as well as the snakes).  The boat had to moor a long way from the actual roosting sites, and its movement as well as the low light conditions made photography quite a challenge!

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Beyond the Digital Divide: Developing Local Capacity to Deliver Local Content


Below is a slightly revised text of the interview that the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU) did with me on the occasion of the CTU’s 25th Anniversary (photo with SG Bernadette Lewis of the CTU when signing a mutual co-operation agreement with the CTO a while back) 

CTO CTUBy 2016, one per cent of the world’s population will own more than half of its wealth. The staggering projection, from a recent study by anti-poverty group Oxfam, made headlines just as the World Economic Forum was getting started in Davos last month.

One concern for Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) Professor Tim Unwin, who was at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, is that the rapid spread of information and communications technologies is not helping to reduce that growing gap between poor and rich.

“The difference between the least developed and the most developed is getting greater. In that way, you can say that ICTs are actually increasing inequality,” he said, in a telephone interview from the annual gathering of top political and business leaders in Switzerland.

As head of a body bringing together perspectives of telecoms stakeholders from across the 53 countries of the Commonwealth—about one-third of the world’s population—Unwin is deeply concerned about that growing digital divide, and the dual impact of technology development on the world’s poorest.

Developing Caribbean capacity

“One of the things that always strikes me when I visit the Caribbean is how much more advanced and successful and connected it is than many other parts of the Commonwealth,” he said.

While the islands’ size is a source of some economic challenges, it also provides some advantages.

“The islands are relatively small, so it is not so problematic to get universal connectivity, as compared with, say, Nigeria or Pakistan,” Unwin said.

But Internet access and connectivity alone won’t reduce the gap between poor and rich. For Unwin, the real priority is not simply to increase the quantity of Internet users but to improve the overall quality of Internet usage. Two major issues affecting quality, he said, are bandwidth and cost, which is where Internet service providers and industry regulators play such a critical role in the region’s Internet system.

“What you can do with large bandwidth compared with low bandwidth is incredibly different, particulary with the rapid increase in applications that use video and large amounts of data. And the second variable is cost. That’s where regulators play a crucial role in helping to ensure that markets operate as effectively as possible.”

Delivering Caribbean content

The point of developing local capacity, Unwin was quick to point out, is to deliver local content. The potential of the underlying technology is only realised if it is used to facilitate the delivery of other services, such as digital banking, online education, mobile health or e-government. But that is easier said than done.

“Content development is quite expensive and resources aren’t always put into that. It’s much easier to lay a bit of fibre than it is to develop the content that is going to go over it,” said Unwin, who also sits on the advisory board of the m-Powering Development Initiative of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

One obstacle to developing local content, he said, is the lack of functional relationships between government ministries or even ministerial departments, which would need to harmonise their operations in order to produce high-quality local content.

So significant is the difficulty involved in developing relevant local content that there is a great temptation to simply import content from abroad, and sidestep the growing pains of building local capacity. But shortcuts are dangerous, Unwin said, citing the example of MOOCs, or massive open online courses, which are web-based courses aimed at unlimited participation through open access.

“I’d like to challenge some of those who think that things like MOOCs are the solution for the education of small-island states. I completely disagree because MOOCs can be a form of cultural or intellectual imperialism. The fact that people can get access to courses from richer countries is problematic, to me. What we want to have is locally developed, locally produced content, that is indigenous to users in Caribbean countries.”

The challenge for Caribbean societies, therefore, is to define and produce content that is appropriate and relevant, to enable solutions that align with development priorities.

“You have to make sure you have the right content in the right formats for the right people. If you’re just importing content from outside, you’re not building the knowledge-base of your own countries.”

Beyond the Divide

One of the CTO’s key partners in helping the region to face up to this challenge is the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU). The two work together on policy development, and have collaborated closely at significant international gatherings, including meetings held by the International Telecommunication Union.

“We believe, as does the CTU, in the real importance of avoiding duplication and overlap. One of the things we respect about the CTU is their openness to working collaboratively,” Unwin said.

The CTU was established in 1989 by the heads of Caricom governments, to support its members in leveraging telecommunications for social and economic development. Unwin explained the importance of the CTO in helping the CTU pursue that mission in a globalised environment.

“Across the world, there are different regional telecommunications unions, sometimes working in isolation and therefore unable to learn from each other. So, what’s happening in Africa may not be known in Asia. Or what’s happening in the Caribbean may not be as well known to people in the Pacific. One of the things that the CTO can do is bring together perspectives from people from many different parts of the Commonwealth, so that together we can do far more than any one of us could do by ourselves.”

Several Caribbean ministers were among 30 official delegates from across the Commonwealth who signed an agreement outlining shared principles for the development of broadband, at the CTO’s first-ever Commonwealth ICT Ministers in London in March of last year. The CTO is working with the Organisation of American States and the CTU to help Caribbean states seeking to take that commitment forward, Unwin said.

At one upcoming workshop, organised in partnership with the Antigua and Barbuda government, Unwin will focus on how technology can help improve quality of life for people with disabilities.

“Last time I was in Port of Spain,” he said, “we ran a workshop for young people on how they can use technology to build their entrepreneurial skills and contribute to the economy.”

Partnering with Success

Unwin returned to Trinidad and Tobago this month to speak in the CTU’s 25th Anniversary ICT Week, from February 2nd to 6th, at the Hyatt Regency.

The high-level event is a forum for government ministers, regional policy makers and other stakeholders to share perspectives on the importance of ICTs to Caribbean development. Prime Ministers of Trinidad and Tobago and Grenada will attend. Mr Irwin LaRocque, Secretary General of Caricom Secretariat, and Mr Brahima Sanou, Director of the ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, are also expected to speak.

The event will celebrate the achievements of CTU members and the contribution of strategic partnerships, like the one with the CTO, drawn from within and beyond the region. The last two days will feature workshops organised in partnership with the Internet Society, the Latin American and Caribbean Internet Addresses Registry, the International Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers, the Organisation of American States, the University of the West Indies, The American Registry of Internet Numbers, the Caricom Implementation Agency for Crime and Security, and Arkitechs.

Among the highlights of the five-day event will be the signing of new agreements between the CTU and the International Telecommunications Satellite Organisation and the ITU.

Inter-organisational relationships clearly account for a big part of the past achievements of organisations like the CTO and the CTU, and form the fabric of their future success. If the partnership between the CTO and the CTU is a pattern for success, then strengthening those relationships may well be the key to the future of all regional development.

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Trinidad Panorama 2015


I was very fortunate to be invited to attend the 2015 Panorama in Port of Spain this afternoon, as a guest of iGovTT – and part of the iPOSSE.  Despite the mud, it was an amazingly vibrant and energetic event – that made me feel both very old and very white!  Panorama is the annual steelpan competition in Trinidad and Tobago, and for the semi-finals held in Queen’s Park Savannah in the centre of Port of Spain, there are many side events in a separate location just to the west of the main stands.  Companies and organisations pitch their ‘tents’, and each have their own posses, many replete with T-shirts personalised by people cutting them into all sorts of patterns. The DJs compete with the steelpan bands, booming out the loudest possible music, and as the alcohol levels rise the dancing becomes much more explicit!  I hope that the images below do justice to some of the vibrancy of the event!

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Trinidad’s bird life


I had been to the Asa Wright Centre, high in the Arima valley in Trinidad’s Northern Range, briefly once before in 2011.  It was therefore great to be able to spend some time there yesterday once again, absorbing the atmosphere, and seeing some of the richness of the island’s bird life.  I hope that the pictures below capture some of their beauty, although the tiny humming birds, flitting from one flower to another, are so difficult to capture with a hand-held camera!  If ever you are in Trinidad, this is definitely a place to visit!

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Liming in Tobago…


I guess a short visit to Tobago did not give enough time to enjoy the full sense of liming – that very special occupation of working hard at doing nothing while sharing food, drink and laughter with friends – but it did provide an insight into just what a pleasurable activity that can be!  The island is actually much bigger than it might appear on a map (300 sq kms) , and it was crazy to try to circumnavigate it by car in just one day!  Definitely not liming – although evenings spent with Carib beer and local rum to wash down the fresh fish went some way to make up for the energy spent swimming and walking during the day!

For those who like hidden away, almost empty beaches, the east of Tobago is far preferable to the larger beach resorts on the flat western tip of the island, and the forested slopes of Main Ridge, which was designated as a protected Crown reserve in 1776, provide a rich habitat for the diversity of colourful birds.  Argyle waterfall is also definitely worth a visit – but the unofficial guides at the entrance by the main road are to be avoided.  Visitors should make sure that they go to the main car park and official pathway!  A bit of effort also takes one to some of the beautifully maintained historical sites such as Fort King George and Fort James, and it is definitely worth wandering around the capital Scarborough, with its colourful buildings and murals.

Thanks to all of my friends who persuaded me to visit – at last!  I hope that the following pictures do some justice to the island and its people.

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