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Moving presentations: Clare Lockhart / Gerry Jackson at Activate09

The broader social and political scope of Activate09 was evident in Clare Lockhart’s presentation, one of two particularly moving (and inspiring) presentations from the summit. Lockhart is co-founder and CEO of Institute for State Effectiveness and co-author of ‘Fixing Failed States’ (with Ashraf Ghani). I’ve just ordered it from Amazon. At Activate09, she particularly focussed on Afghanistan, as one of 40–100 ‘fragile states’ globally. The UN and World Bank have no “manuals” for rebuilding the institutions of a state, yet the consequences of failure of government are severe. Lockhart offered a number of example situations to illustrate alternatives to the orthodoxies of rebuilding states.

For instance, in Afghanistan, there were three separate currencies, each relating to a different warlord’s regional power. The IMF said it would take two years to conert to the US dollar. The UN said it would need 15,000 bureaucrats to manage the currency transition. However, the Afghani moneychangers had a network throughout every village and were negotiated down (by the Afghan Minister of Finance, I think) to a 1% fee to do the transition. The implication I got from this was that it also took much less time than the IMF said too.

The UN solution for fixing the Afghan phone network was to pay Ericcson lots of money, but the Ofcom team (I’m assuming, from what she said) that designed the UK’s 3G mobile licence auction worked out a a licensing system and there are now 6 million phones and there’s been $1bn in inward investment.

One theme that was explored was the failure of the governance and aid system and the consequences of this, particularly the replacement of the state by a criminal economy. The state did not fund education beyond primary nor the transport infrastructure. What had been successful, however, was self-management by villages, cutting out the NGOs (who often didn’t recognise the humiliation that aid implied for a ‘proud people’). Ghani and Lockhart’s book, she said, suggests finding a balance between networks and heirarchies in determining the role of the 21st century state.

In terms of the role of technology in enabling such rebuilding, Lockhart focussed on the ideas of user-centred design and of innovation happening at the ‘edge’ (cf Umair Haque – present at Activate09, though unfortunately I didn’t attend the morning session he presented at – and John Hagel – referenced by several speakers directly or indirectly eg Werner Vogels). She made the point that these countries have no legacy issues in terms of technology, but have enormous scope to improve citizens’ lives through suitable application. One example is dissemination of price information for farmers: given the relative distance and poor transport infrastructure, farmers are at a negotiating disadvantage once they arrive at a market – they can’t decide to go and sell elsewhere as the produce wouldn’t survive the trip. Being able to access market price information before they venture to market gives them some negotiating power. Another example she mentioned was telemedicine.

The final area Clare Lockhart addressed was accountability and particpation – how can technology enable discussion to determine the functions of the state and to hold states accountable. Citizens can do this if they are given access to budget information (online). This requirement for the openness of data was another theme that appeared repeatedly in other speakers’ presentations.

Gerry Jackson was the other speaker that gave a particularly moving presentation, again relating to failed states. Unfortunately I did not manage to take very  many notes (in part due to the rather depressing context – one of my friends just married a guy from Zim and the state of the country is disasterous). Jackson is director of SWRadio Africa which is an independent short wave news broadcaster for Zimbabwe. She noted that Zimbabwe is more dependent on NGO food aid than any other country. Given the level of media control and oppression under Mugabe (that has persisted depite the unity government – the BBC is still banned, I believe) – SWRAdio Africa provides a useful antidote to state media.The SW broadcasts were being jammed so the station has resorted to SMS messaging (sent to 30,000 subscribers three times a week) and podcasting (60-70,000 downloads per month).

There were quite few tweets about supporting SWRadio Africa with technical support and fundraising after her presentation. You can donate here.

Posted in economics, macroeconomics, technology.

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