I 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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!
Raspberry Pi is transforming the ways in which young (and old!) people learn about computing, and provides a powerful, value for money means through which students across the world can gain skills relevant to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) curricula. It is not only relevant to secondary education, but is also being used by undergraduates to develop their programming skills. As yet, Raspberry Pis are not widely used in many of the poorer countries of the Commonwealth, but given their power and value for money they offer real potential for STEM education. I had a great discussion earlier this week with Lance Howarth (CEO Raspberry Pi Foundation) during which I shared some of my ideas about how a multi-stakeholder partnership could be developed to help organisations in Commonwealth countries access and use Raspberry Pis effectively within their education systems. Much would need to be done to implement such an initiative, but if enough interested parties could be brought together, we could make a real difference in helping to build relevant skills among young people across the Commonwealth. Key things that would need to be put in place would include:
- National champions willing to help take forward the initiative in initial countries;
- Careful integration with relevant curricula at school and university level;
- Establishing whether current distribution channels enable easy access to hardware;
- Appropriate support for teachers/lecturers (see details of the Picademy);
- Funding support for enabling purchase of hardware
At this stage, it is important to gauge the level of interest that there might be in taking these ideas forward. If anyone is interested in helping to craft such an initiative, do please get in touch with me, and we can begin to build a coalition of the willing! I think this is potentially very exciting, and it would be great to work with like-minded people to make it happen! Do please respond in the comments below or on the ICT4D Facebook Group page. Let’s make this happen!
An invitation to speak on the theme of “How will we communicate in 2113?” at the third annual Commonwealth Residential School meeting at Cumberland Lodge provided an interesting opportunity (at least for me!) to explore some fascinating interests “at the edges” of communication and technology.
The outline of what I intended to say focused around the following themes:
- Grounding prediction
- Are there any certainties?
- How do we communicate today, and why?
- Trends in communication and technology
- Extending into the foreseeable future
In particular, I explored the implications of seven trends:
- The observation that technology can be used for “good” or for “evil” – challenging the many instrumental views of technology in development that so often dominate thinking today
- Making the case that technology is increasing inequality rather than reducing it – too few people really understand this, but to me it is critically important, and has very significant implications for the future
- Those in power use technology to remain in power: both states and global corporations. This is one of the key drivers for how ICTs will be designed and used in the future
- The ways in which our understandings of privacy have been changed as a result of recent developments in ICTs, and the implications for the relationships between citizens, states, and global corporations
- The ICT sustainability crisis – not only in terms of the energy demands of ICTs, but much more importantly the ways through which corporations generate much of their profit through making users buy new hardware and software on a regular basis
- The implications for learning and literacy of next generation ICTs – we will no longer need to learn to read and write, we will be able to understand people speaking any language, and the changes to the brain caused by no longer needing to remember things.
- The blurring of the human and the machine – and whether or not we want to become cyborgs (encouraging participants to see one of my favourite films – Blade Runner – and also to see the recently released Cloud Atlas!).
One of the fun things about the session was that for the first time I used Promethean’s ActivInspire to gauge participants’ thoughts on a range of issues around their current usage of ICTs. This did not throw up any particularly novel views from the participants – although 25% felt that Edward Snowden was wrong in exposing the NSA’s mass surveillance programme, with 56% agreeing that he was right to do so.
Ultimately, I found myself arguing that we have some very important ethical decisions that need to be made here and now with respect to our relationships with ICTs, because there are many forces at play that are seeking to make us increasingly intertwined, and unless we act very soon we may already be far too far down the path to turn back.
I am fortunate – well, I think that’s the right word – to serve in two Commonwealth roles:
- since 2004, I have served as a Commonwealth Scholarship Commissioner, and since 2009 have had the privilege of being Chair of the Commission; and
- in 2011 I was appointed as Chief Executive Officer, and since 2012 have been Secretary General, of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation.
At times, this gives rise to interesting comparisons – being Chair of one Commonwealth organisation, whilst Chief Executive of another!
Rarely, though, do I write specifically about the Commonwealth. There is so much that could be written! One day, I must definitely write something substantial on the subject. However, an invitation to give a lecture on cultural diplomacy in the Commonwealth for the Academy for Cultural Diplomacy at the Romanian Cultural Centre in London on 10th July provided an opportunity to present some of my thoughts on the subject.
This identified six main challenges facing cultural diplomacy in the Commonwealth:
- A failure to understand each other – emphasising the immense cultural diversity that exists in the Commonwealth, as well as the remaining arrogance of so many of the privileged across the Commonwealth
- The dominance of an economic mentality – highlighting a world driven by simplistic economic imperatives, and the need to recalibrate our values to focus more on social and cultural agendas
- A damaging emphasis on the individual rather than the community – to be balanced by the need to reassert our responsibilities to each other rather than simply human rights
- The need for wise leadership – and the reticence of the metropolitan power.
- Failures of the international aid system – that have left many Commonwealth countries both poor and also focusing on economic growth rather than how to address inequality
- A lack of understanding of the huge potential of the Commonwealth – including its many shared values, its basis on Common Law, and the fact that its members are drawn from every continent.
In overcoming these challenges I suggested six practical ways forward:
- The need to focus more on ways of developing shared understandings – focusing especially on shared cultural values and the critical importance of agendas for peace
- A recognition of mutuality of interests and benefits – focusing on common interests and mutual benefits rather than competitive advantage
- It does not just happen – it is essential to spend considerable effort in fostering a coherent diplomatic strategic vision
- Recognition of the costs of cultural diplomacy – and therefore the need to quantify the very considerable long term mutual benefits of such diplomacy
- The potential for digital technologies to support new social networks and relationships between citizens and states.
- Balancing diversity with uniformity – and the need for clarity of cultural rather than simply economic agendas.
In conclusion, I emphasised that:
- we must reassert the value of cultural diplomacy
- we need to explain more clearly why the Commonwealth really matters
- the common-weal is ultimately more important than individual success
- we must invest more in the youth of the Commonwealth
- we need to explore innovative ways through which ICTs can help foster shared values within the Commonwealth
I was privileged to be able to attend the CHOGM Opening Ceremony this morning – and privileged is indeed the right word. It was amazing, and the team that put it together on behalf of the Australian government should be congratulated. It was an incredibly moving experience, bringing together many of the traditions that make up contemporary Australia. What made it work so well was not only the fantastic modern graphics and the use of technology, but also the very human scale of the ceremony. I know I was not the only one moved to tears when an elder spoke on behalf of the land that we were all sharing; the special space and time that made that moment in the Commonwealth’s history. The quality of the dancing was superb – I need to take some breakdancing lessons from the true masters who were performing today; the ballet was breathtaking. My pictures below do not do full justice to the spectacle and the emotion, but I do hope that they give a flavour of what was a memorable experience. Thank you Australia – and Perth!
An invitation to give the opening keynote address (video) at the “Commonwealth, Human Rights and Development” conference held at Cumberland Lodge from 11th-13th March 2011, gave me the opportunity to pull together some of my thoughts over the last couple of years concerning democracy and human rights. In particular, I sought to address:
- the diversity of meanings attributed to democracy;
- the coalescence of interest between the rhetorics of democracy and the free market following the collapse of the Soviet Union;
- the importance of the notion of democracy in the Commonwealth
- the character of democratic institutions; and
- the need to challenge widely taken for granted assumptions about the benefits of democracy and human rights.
In so doing, I drew six main conclusions:
- Notions of democracy and universal human rights should be contested and not accepted automatically as something ‘good’.
- We need to contest many of the claims to legitimacy of democratic states and rulers. In particular, attempts by powerful states to impose democracy on other states, seem to me to be highly hypocritical.
- Instead of seeking to impose democracy on others, those who believe in democratic values would be better advised to help support the development of democratic institutions, especially elected parliaments, the judiciary and political parties
- Discourses on rights should be balanced by ones on responsibilities; a shift of attention to responsibility might well be able to deliver more for the poor and the marginalised
- The communal traditions of Africa may offer interesting insights to counter the negative aspects of the individualism associated with human rights, democracy and capitalism.
- Finally, it seems to me that a practical focus on how we treat others, especially the poor and the marginalised, is of much more importance than claiming that they have universal human rights.
I remain to be convinced that humans do indeed have universal rights.