Tag Archives: Caribbean

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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Antigua out of season…


The opportunity to spend a few days of holiday in Antigua was not one to be missed – even if it was in the middle of the ‘so-called’ Hurricane Season! Never having been to the island before, the first challenge was to find a hotel. This was by no means easy, since most were shut for September, and those that were open were mainly offering all-inclusive deals. Can you imagine having to eat in the same hotel restaurant every night, and being stuck on a beach miles from anywhere? Well, if you do, read no further!

Catermaran Hotel 1Restless as we are, and eager to explore as much of where we are staying as possible, we searched long and hard to find a small, relatively hidden away, privately owned hotel. The result was the Catamaran Hotel in Falmouth Harbour – not far from Nelson’s Dockyard – and in the much-to-be-preferred south of the island (although only 30 minutes from the airport). The hotel advertises itself as “a peaceful getaway in an idyllic location” – and that it really was! From the first moment we arrived, the receptionist Annique made us feel incredibly welcome – and even offered us a room upgrade. The small hotel is right on the beach, with large self catering rooms. Although I don’t usually like using air conditioning, it was definitely necessary at this time of year, when the weather was regularly over 30 degrees C in the daytime, with high humidity as well. For most of the week we were here, we were the only guests, and had the swimming pool, a sailing dingy (thanks Robert for the great training), and the small beach all to ourselves. Just nearby is the excellent Bailey’s supermarket which provides most of the daily necessities (including excellent cherry coconut ice cream, plenty of Carib beer, and well-priced Cavalier rum), and a little further afield is the bit smarter Crab Hole Liquors at Cob Cross (where there is also a pharmacy).

Out of season, Antigua is incredibly quiet, with many of the restaurants and facilities shut. The two restaurants just by the Catamaran (the Captain’s Quarters and Cambusa) were both closed, as were most other restaurants on the island! Hence, a car was absolutely essential for getting around! We did our best to travel almost every road, and visit most of the island’s historical sites and beaches! Whilst the north-west of the island is where most of the light industry is located, with houses scattered almost everywhere across the countryside, the south is largely unspoilt with beautiful steep sloping wooded hillsides, and magnificent beaches. Sadly, many of the beaches have large modern hotels on them, largely preventing access to the beaches, and in some instances, as at Half Moon Bay, these hotels have simply been left to decay following storm damage.

Amongst our favourite beaches were:

  • Rendezvous Bay PanoramaRendezvous Bay (near to Falmouth in the south of the island) – needs quite a steep 30 minute walk (each way) to get to unless you have a 4 wheel drive vehicle, but definitely well worth the effort. Sadly, rumour has it that it is subject to development – which would be a huge pity. We had the bay almost to ourselves, and there were lots of fish to be seen snorkeling
  • Windward BayWindward Bay (near Nelson’s Dockyard in the south of the island) – again, needs a short walk, but definitely worth it.
  • Pigeon Beach – a public beach popular with local people, and very near Nelson’s Dockyard. It is a short sail from the Catamaran – but do watch out for the poisonous Manchineel Tree!
  • Long Bay (in the north-east) – despite there being a hotel there, and even at this time of the year with lots of people, there were lots of fish to be seen snorkeling, especially at the eastern end.
  • Half Moon Bay (south-east of the island) is beautiful, despite the decaying hotel!
  • Morris Bay on the south-west coast is also the nicest beach on that part of the island.

Looking at some of the luxury hotels on the island – way beyond our price range – the nicest seemed to be:

  • the Carlisle Bay hotel – for those who can afford at least US$ 674 a night! Perhaps one day!

We took the time to visit many interesting parts of the island – and for those wanting to explore, rather than just getting sunburnt on a beach, the following were definitely worth visiting:

  • Betty's Hope sugar millBetty’s Hope – an old ruined sugar plantation – with a small museum – in the central east of the island
  • Fig Tree Drive – from the centre to the south-west of the island – through lush wooded hillsides, with an opportunity to buy the delicious Antiguan black pineapples from roadside stalls
  • Wallings reservoir – a Victorian reservoir just off Fig Tree Drive, with walking trails up into the hillsides
  • Christian Valley – an agricultural station with trails (hard to find!) from which a rich variety of Nelson's Harbour 3birdlife is visible (sadly now named Obama Mountain National Park – formerly Boggy Peak – seems after all quite appropriate!)
  • Nelson’s Dockyard – definitely worth visiting – the reconstructed 18th century dockyard where Nelson was based between 1784 and 1787 – a haven for English ships during their battles in the region, offering good protection against storms.

TrappasAs for restaurants, most were closed! We were very pleased, though, that Trappas was open (in English Harbour on the road to Nelson’s Dockyard) most of the days we were here, offering largely European style food, but with a touch of Caribbean flavour. The food was well-cooked, reasonably priced (ECD 25 for a starter, and ECD 50 for a main course), and there was a good atmosphere with locals and tourists alike. Nearby, the Mad Mongoose opened while we were here, and offered a livelier atmosphere (must definitely be very lively in season), with slightly cheaper, but still tasty, food.

The only bad eating experience we had was when we were tired and needed a quick drink and lunch in St John’s – and very unfortunately chose to sit down in Cheers. We thought the menu was in ECD (in line with most other restaurants) and only when the bill came, given to us by the unpleasant and supercilious front of house ‘waiter’, did we discover that a simple prawn salad cost US$ 27! Please avoid this horrid place at all costs! Much better would be to go to the nearby Quay Bar and Grill, which seemed much more atmospheric and well-priced – although sadly we did not eat at it!

Below are just a few photos that try to capture just what the beautiful island of Antigua is like out of season. When all of the yacht crews are here it must be very different, and much, much more lively, but taking a risk of the odd storm or even hurricane, and putting up with the higher temperatures and humidity, Antigua is definitely worth getting to know out of season!

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Reflections on Montserrat – crafting a viable economy for 5000 people


The chance to work with the Ministry of Communication and Works on the tiny island of Monserrat in the Caribbean last week gave me a rare opportunity to reflect not only on the economic viability of many of the UK’s Overseas Territories, but also on the ways that people living in small island states cope in the aftermath of physical disasters.  Montserrat was devastated by Hurricane Hugo in September 1989, leaving some 11,000 of the island’s population of 12,000 without homes.  Ten people were killed, 89 were injured, and the cost of the damage was reported to be at least $260 million.  In the years afterwards, substantial reconstruction took place, but then in 1995 the island’s Soufrière Hills volcano became active again.  The island’s capital, Plymouth, was soon buried by more than 12 metres of ash and mud, which also destroyed the airport and harbour.  The southern part of the island became uninhabitable, and a strict exclusion zone was introduced to limit future loss of life.  Then, in 1997 a pyroclastic flow passed down Mosquito Ghaut, overflowing the valley sides and killing 19 people who were in the exclusion zone.  Subsequently, there has been ongoing volcanic activity, mostly consisting of ash falls in the south of the island, but in 2009-10 further pyroclastic flows also occurred.  This double disaster had immense impact on the island’s population, with some 8,000 people choosing to leave, primarily for the UK which had granted the islanders full residency rights in 1999, and British citizenship in 2002.

Although I broadly knew about the island’s history, it is impossible to appreciate both the impact of these physical disasters, and the resilience of the people without actually visiting the island, and standing on the hillside overlooking the devastated city of Plymouth.  Having spent a couple of days with Montserratians before visiting Plymouth, and appreciating something of their warmth and generous hospitality, I was left with an overwhelming sense of sadness just standing on the edge of an ash filled swimming pool overlooking the devastated landscape of the island’s former capital.

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Monserratians are determined people, and those who I met were adamant about not only their British citizenship, but also their love for the island and their wish to ensure that it has a viable economy for the future.  The cost of the necessary reconstruction and development is nevertheless very, very substantial.  Much is already being done: there are plans for a new harbour; geothermal drilling is underway to see whether it could provide a source of energy for the future; and a submarine cable is to be laid to support their international digital connectivity.  However, much still needs to be done to ensure that the island can once again be self-sufficient as it was before the volcanic eruptions.  The challenge is that it is extremely difficult to identify how best this can be achieved, especially with such a small population.

From my very short visit, it is not easy to see the niche areas that the Monsterratians can build upon to regain their economic vitality.  Thinking back to the late 1970s when the Beatle’s producer George Martin created the AIR studios, Montserrat was able to attract some of the world’s most famous musicians to its green and peaceful environment.  There are still beautiful landscapes on the island, but the nature of the recording industry has changed so much that it would be difficult to imagine such an ‘adventure’ working again.  Perhaps, though, George Martin’s house (Olveston House – on Penny Lane), which now serves as a most welcoming guest house for visitors, does indicate one way forward, in that the island could carve itself out as a niche for high quality, environmentally sensitive tourism.  It is certainly beautiful, and the people most friendly.  However, its airport is tiny, with the runway only able to take very small planes, and it requires a new, much larger harbour to attract cruise ships and yachts to the island. There remains, though, the inevitable “chicken and egg” problem: visitors will not come unless there are high quality facilities on the island, and few people are willing to invest without there being strong prospects for sufficient visitor numbers to enable them to recoup their investments.

On the more quirky side, any country has to turn to its strengths and opportunities.  The volcano itself is a source of interest to visitors on the neighbouring islands, with air tours regularly bringing people from Antigua to visit.  It seems a shame that Montserrat itself currently benefits relatively little from such initiatives, and it must be possible for innovative initiatives to be developed that could enable Montserratians to reap dividends from such opportunities.  For film makers wishing to produce films in apocalyptic settings, the old capital of Plymouth on Montserrat would make an ideal – albeit highly risky – setting!  The island is also known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, not only because of its lush vegetation, but also because it was settled by Irish immigrants from St. Kitts.  The potential for its Irish heritage to be marketed much more strongly, could also foster enhanced tourism from Éire.  Some of the bays in the north of the island would also make ideal facilities for luxury yacht marinas, and their development could offer a very different kind of destination for those sailing the Caribbean.  Finally, the ultimate strength of any country is its people, and there is no doubt that better connectivity to the Internet will enable those who wish to stay on the island and build economic activity around the provision of digital services will  be able to do so much more effectively once the new cable is completed.  Already, one software company (Lavabits) is developing its business there, and with an educated population, well-connected to the diaspora living in the UK, there has to be further potential for the islanders to use the Internet, not only to attract tourism, but also to build a new digitally-based economy in Monsterrat.

It was a real privilege to spend time on the island.  I admire the resilience, fortitude and determination of those whom I met, and I greatly appreciated their warmth and generosity.

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