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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Tobago: life on a wall


Visiting Scarborough today – that’s Scarborough in Tobago, not Scarborough, Yorkshire – I came across this amazing mural painted on a wall just beneath the Botanical Garden.  It captures so much of the culture of the island, represented in dancing, colour and energy, that I could not but help take some photographs – and share them here in the hope that others will enjoy them as much as I did!

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On deciding to leave after only one term of office as Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation


The advertisement for my replacement as Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) has precipitated numerous questions as to why I am leaving.  So, I thought it might be helpful – not least to applicants – if I briefly tried to explain my decision here.  In so doing, I should stress right at the beginning that many members of the CTO’s Council and our Executive Committee were rather surprised by my decision, and did their best to try to persuade me to stay on.  I am immensely grateful to them for their support.  It is a huge privilege to be Secretary General of the CTO, and I have learnt a phenomenal amount doing the job.  I have also met some absolutely outstanding people – and to be sure, some less outstanding ones! The chance to lead an international organisation, committed to using ICTs to support people across the 53 countries of the Commonwealth is absolutely amazing, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the challenges that this has involved.

However, there are two fundamental reasons why I have decided  to serve only one four-year term. These are what I have shared with members of our Council:

  • First, it is very important for there to be clarity and certainty over any transition in leadership of an organisation.  Changes of Chief Executives – or Secretary Generals – must be handled with very great care so that there is a smooth hand-over, and that confidence and trust in the organisation remains high.  I am going to be 60 this year (the truth is now out!), and I would like to have the opportunity to be considered for other jobs before I retire!  Sadly, some international organisations still have relatively low upper-age limits, with the UN, for example, having a mandatory age limit of 62!  Hence, I took the view that I should not stand for a second term as Secretary General of the CTO.  I simply felt that it would have been destabilising and damaging to the CTO if I had indeed been appointed for a second term, and then people had heard that I might be applying for various other jobs a year later, whether or not I actually got them.
  • Second, I think that eight years is too long for a single person to head an international organisation such as the CTO.  With such a long term of office, there becomes a real danger that the incumbent can begin to treat the organisation as his or her personal fiefdom, and I do not think that this is a particularly healthy situation.  Having just completed a three-year plus three-year stint as Chair of the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission, I am all the more convinced that six years (in a three plus three format) should be the maximum term of office for heads of organisations.  Fresh ideas, and new ways of doing things are definitely needed after this length of time!  I also think that any organisation should be bigger than its leader.  After a long period at the helm, there is a very real tendency for a leader and ‘their’ organisation to be seen as being very closely associated if not one-and-the-same, and I simply do not think that this is particularly healthy for the organisation.

I know that not everyone agrees with these views, but two of the things that I have sought to bring to the CTO have been trust and transparency, and it seems to me that both of these are absolutely central to the decision I have made.

Of course there are other reasons as well.  The strategic plan that we created back in 2012 had at its heart an expansion in membership.  The aim was to bring back countries and organisations that had previously left the CTO, such as India, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.  Without them, the CTO is but a fraction of what it could be!  Not least, the additional membership fees would enable the CTO to expand its staffing and thereby deliver more and better services to all of its members.  Furthermore, since people can only be employed at the CTO if they are nationals of Full Member Countries, the absence of these countries means that the organisation is more restricted in its employment potential than need be the case – and membership is only £20,000 a year! Despite encouraging words, and indeed promises from some countries to rejoin, these have not yet materialised. Having banged my head against a brick wall on this, and one or two other matters, for nearly four years, I think it is time that I moved on and let someone else build on the foundations we have laid.

As I began, let me conclude by stressing once again that the post is an amazing one.  It provides an opportunity to work with some fantastic people, to deliver real on-the-ground solutions that can help poor and marginalised communities use ICTs effectively for their development aspirations.  When eventually I leave in September this year, I know that I will have many regrets.  I have done my best to lead the CTO forward, so that it will be in a better position than when I started.  It is now time for someone else to take the CTO forward so that it can indeed achieve its full potential.

Oh yes, and the deadline for applications is 26th January!

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