Sunday, January 07, 2007

It became clear to me in 2005 that the governments of the world did not believe in the possibilities of the Simputer, and were not going to, and so I left off blogging here for a time. For some time now I have been involved with the MIT $100 Laptop on the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Wiki. Now I can see a way to contribute to its success, by creating a non-profit organization to take on parts of the program that OLPC doesn't want to do itself. This includes Internet connections for the schools, and following up on the education aspect of the program with direct initiatives in health, economic opportunity, and much more.

I will announce the new Non-Profit when I get the legalities dealt with. In the meantime, you can read about my ideas for helping the poor here, on the OLPC Wiki, at OLPC News and on the WIRE AFRICA Wiki.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Computers for Cuba?

A State Department Report to the President: Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba last year said:

A number of regulations govern the export from the United States of equipment, including computers, to Cuba, a state sponsor of terrorism. These export rules are intended to restrict the Cuban government's access to sensitive technology and to prevent the Cuban government from transferring this technology to other hostile states.

At the same time, it is essential that Cuban civil society gain greater access to computers and other basic modern equipment, such as faxes and copiers, in order to help expand distribution of information and facilitate pro-democracy activities. Greater access to these types of equipment will assist Cuba's civil society in its efforts to disseminate information to the Cuban people and counter regime efforts to harass, intimidate, and stifle opposition and dissent through exclusive control over all forms of communication.

I bring this up now because Condoleezza Rice has just appointed veteran Republican Party activist Caleb McCarry as Cuba Transition Coordinator, with the responsibility to oversee just this program. McCarry is also described as a "Republican congressional staffer with 20 years of involvement in hemispheric issues". "McCarry has served for eight years on the House International Relations Committee's Republican staff…In Miami, the Cuban American National Foundation, which speaks for many of the community's more fervent exiles, also lauded the appointment."

We need to get a political movement together to create computer and communication programs for Cuban civil society. I would of course recommend a village-based program in health, education, e-commerce and the rest of what I plug on this blog, along with the ability for Cubans to blog openly to the world and such.

It's going to be hard going to push against the resistance of both Cuba and the U.S. (in spite of this stated policy) but it's essential. It won't be the quick fix that the American Right is looking for. Internet access in China hasn't brought down the Communist regime there. But it will have its effect. Like the Hong Kong Web site on SARS a few years back, which broke through the wall of government obfuscation there. It unquestionably saved lives, and probably was a factor in the dismissal of the high-ranking Chinese health officials who orchestrated the coverup attempt.

Friday, June 17, 2005

> African countries need at least 30 years to bridge the gap in
> access to the Internet and other information communication
> technologies between their citizens and those of the advanced
> European and North American societies, an expert, Prof. Manny
> Anieb-onam
, has said.

This is true in one sense, that equal access will take 30 years. That means a comparable number of telephone lines per capita, and a comparable number of Internet connections at comparable speeds for comparable prices. However, that is more than bridging the gap. It is wiping out the gap.

Just bridging the gap requires much less, and can be done much sooner. The required bridge is at least one shared Internet connection and computer in every village and in every urban neighborhood, with complete wireless coverage of inhabited areas. Given the imminent appearance of WiMax, with a 30 mile service radius, this minimum infrastructure could be deployed in any country that is serious about having it in two to three years from the time that WiMax is established in the market.

We begin with any city or town that has landline telephone service, and set up WiMax there, along with neighborhood 802.11G hotspots. We then install further WiMax towers in a hexagonal grid to cover large metropolitan areas. For areas not reached by this deployment, put satellite Internet connections with WiMax distribution in the middle of towns, and build the grid out to villages outside the immediate WiMax footprint.

This can be done for a few hundred million dollars continentwide, including all of the communications equipment and one low-cost computer per village and neighborhood. We can then count on the appearance of home-grown talent for hardware installation and maintenance, system administration, and other necessary services. You won't be able to beat the children off with a stick.

Almost all of Latin America was connected by mobile phones in just a few years in the 1990s, when governments en masse deregulated and invited the operators in. The same thing would be happening in Africa but for overregulation, corruption, the occasional civil war, and a few other impediments. When African governments permit it, the Internet will spread faster than wildfire. And the faster it spreads, the more the people will be able to demand more.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

In Pakistan, women lead final push to eradicate polio

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Hard times come again no more

Renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs has a book called The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time currently at #69 on Amazon's top seller list. Finally! Somebody famous has come out and said it in public, and people are paying a little attention. Other lesser-known people such as this blogger have been saying so for years, with little obvious response.

If you care in the least about the welfare of other people, prospects for developing countries, global health (including its impact on your own health), global politics, the possibility of war or terrorist acts, or indeed much of anything outside your own pocketbook and your local entertainment media, you need to look into this book. If you have been following the discussion, you may not need to read it all the way through for your own edification, but you will need to know what arguments Sachs has made that are now part of the public discourse. You may also need to know what he has missed.

Sachs has defined the problem well, giving the reader a breathless world tour of poverty, misery, inequality and outright oppression, squalor, injustice, and so on, including the scourges of AIDS and other inexcusably global epidemics. He also lays out most of the goals, following the prescription of the UN's Millennium Development Goals. Where Sachs falls down is on methods. There is almost no mention of computers in the book, and the few mentions are not indexed. There is hardly any discussion of communications requirements, and none of the current technologies that are best suited for the villages. Microbanking is discussed, but not given the emphasis I would like to see. And there is no hint of a coordinated plan based on practice, experience, and evidence, for the appropriate ways to deliver health services, education, and economic opportunity. We are left with a "more of the same" sort of program, calling for greater funding of existing UN programs and international assistance, and more investment by the governments of developing countries. We can do better than this.

I don't know why Sachs doesn't mention ICT. He was certainly aware of the UN ICT Task Force and the World Summit on the Information Society even before UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave him responsibility for the Millennium Development Goals. He has friends in the business, being well-known to someone prominent who is well-known to me. Well, I am not going to pretend to figure out such a thing. Let's get down to cases.

The most important fact about global development is that a functioning economy depends on the flow of information, and a well-functioning free market depends on the freest possible flow of information. In academic economics, freedom of information is not a conclusion; not a theorem derived from more basic axioms; not a policy decision. It is the first fundamental axiom, without which nothing can be done. Without the presupposition of perfect information, economics fails to predict any of the benefits we associate with the theory of the free market. Indeed, in the absence of perfect information, it is clear that they will not happen. In general, the less information the public has, the less efficient the economy, the less effective that economy's employment of resources (especially people), and the more unequal and discriminatory the prices of goods and services. In economies that mandate a fair amount of disclosure, these ills are not as great as they are in highly secretive societies where the public cannot find out what their goverments or any of the local businesses are up to. The most secretive societies, notably North Korea and Burma, are also the worst off economically.

There are several kinds of information essential to a functioning economy. There must be information about the goods and services available, including such matters as price, availability, quality, warranty, and quality of service. More fundamentally, one must be able to tell who is supplying the goods and services, not just by name, but by past economic, political, and even criminal records, and conflicts of interest. There must also be the education that enables the effective use of products and services. In the field of health, there must be published, peer-reviewed, and verified research into the safety and efficacy of drugs, treatments, and surgical procedures, and reliable nutrition information. It should be possible for people to know what the law says, and what that means when you go into court, and it should be correctly known that what the law means will not change capriciously from one court to another ("the rule of law"). And so on.

In practical terms this means that the information and communications infrastructure of a country, including education and provision of health information, should be the prime focus of investment. Few governments and few aid agencies have drawn this conclusion, and fewer have acted on it. Sachs gets some of it, but doesn't seem to understand how much information can be made available to the poor at a cost that they can afford (given that they can make more money by using that information).

I have been laying out various components of such a plan on this blog, and I see that I need to draw them together and make their integration more explicit. Let me give you the short-short version again, and then I will think about how to elaborate on it so you can see the whole picture.

We need programs that integrate social development, health, education, economic opportunity, and so on. There are such programs in the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement and the Fantsuam Foundation, and a particularly good model for health care in Partners in Health. Then we need the hardware and software for village computing and communications, such as the Simputer and the wireless technology put in nationwide by the government of Bhutan. Tying this together should be microfinance to deliver the equipment and fund the programs in the villages. With these elements, we can provide ICT to villages at a profit, we can create the training programs needed, and we can offer the services needed so that villagers can grow their own local economy and tackle the problems of poverty themselves. In addition, they get the chance to talk to each other and find ways of cooperating, and they get to talk to the rest of us. Without the information from them, the global economy cannot be free and open. Not only their part of the economy but ours as well suffers from the resulting inefficiencies, misallocation of resources, and unequal prices.

The limiting factor here is that the microbank projects in village computing have not resulted in suitable products with suitable training. This is a mystery to me, since I know of several successful training projects resulting in economic benefits to the poor. Perhaps the microbanks are suffering from the Not Invented Here syndrome? But I don't want to waste effort on diagnosing them either. I would rather get on with the work. I and my friends are pursuing trade in African Art, with most of the money going to the artists; fair trade purchasing and marketing of coffee, tea, and other commodities; satellite communications; localizing of Free Software by neglected language communities into their own languages; and a number of other facets of the program.

We are creating a new kind of organization, a hybrid of profit and non-profit, commercial and charitable. Our analysis says that we can end poverty at a profit, and our business plan says that we can raise the money to do it without waiting for anybody else to get the message. If we have to, we will start our own microbanks.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Are Cheap Computers the Answer?

Steve Cisler asks this quesion and gives his own answer. Steve's observations make it clear that if so, you asked the wrong question. Here is my take.

Computers can be part of a solution to poverty, but only if they are designed to meet the specific, stringent requirements of the poor, and only if they are combined with the other elements of a solution.

The defining characteristic of poverty is lack of disposable income. Further constraints that the poor in many areas operate under include

Lack of knowledge is what the computer is supposed to cure, but first you have to know how to use one. Second, you have to know English, or you have to have a lot of friends translating software and creating content for the Web in your local language.

Any proposal to help the poor without specific measures for circumventing these constraints is a fantasy. In principle it can be done using solar power to recharge batteries, using wireless to connect to the Internet, and using microcredit to finance placement of the equipment plus the training to use the computer to make the money to pay back the loan.

The microbanks have not yet put such a training program together. The Grameen Foundation USA and Grameen Communications both have village computing projects, but I haven't heard of results from either. For now, that means that none of this is happening.

It is not that Simputers, for example, are too expensive. They cost more than the the cell phones that Grameen and other microbanks place successfully in villages all over the world, but not vastly more. (And they use rechargeable batteries and wireless, and support some of the target languages.)

It is not that there is a fundamental difficulty in training people to use computers to make money. The ITC e-choupal program is lifting millions of farmers in India out of extreme poverty by giving them free access to computers and offering to buy their crops at world prices. But you see that it is not enough just to provide the computers.

In fact, it will be necessary to train villagers to service computers, to create local content, and to program computers. Meaning that we have to make the computers operate in their languages.

Given computers in villages, and the initial methods of making money using them, we could obviously design programs in health, education, appropriate technology, sustainable agriculture, and so on and on. But we would still have the obstacle of language. We need to provide software and content in as many languages as possible. This can only be done by speakers of the languages. The rest of us can provide financial, technical, and moral support, and license our content to them at a price they can afford--free.

There are a number of distributions of Linux in languages of Africa and Asia not supported by commercial software, and more being created. The Free Software in use in developing countries is the functional equivalent of billions of dollars of commercial software, although the Free Software movement doesn't get to claim that we have donated billions of dollars worth of software.

What we need to do together (the techies, the NGOs, and the poor, among others) is to create a program that integrates these elements and more, and to test it and make it work for the poor. Then we can begin to talk about taking it around the world and answering some questions in the way that counts, by making it happen. Many of my friends are working on various components and on the way to bring them together. Some have successful development projects in quite poor countries that are ripe for the addition of computers. They could do much of the R&&D for the rest of what we need. You are all welcome to join in.

My own efforts right now, apart from working on the overall vision and plan, are going into e-commerce with Africa and Asia and promoting Linux development in more languages. I have some other ideas, for example telemedicine in the villages once they have computers of some sort. But that is for another time.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Translations of Federalist Papers headed to Iraqi law students

Students at Sulaymaniyah University, in Kurdish Northern Iraq, have completed the first half of a course in the American legal system, taught by Captain Kevin Curseaden, a lawyer and Army Reservist from Milford, Connecticut and member of Lawyers Without Borders. On active duty in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division, he was welcomed by the Dean of the Law School, but needed to find a textbook on American law, in Arabic. Within days, he got what he needed by contacting Lawyers Without Borders (LWOB), the international nonprofit organization based in Hartford.

Captain Cursedean had learned about LWOB three years ago and first made contact with Christina Storm, the founder and Director of Lawyers Without Borders, after his return to Connecticut from Kosovo. From Iraq, Capt. Curseaden emailed her for help. She immediately put LWOB's network into action.

LWOB, with the generous help of Lexisnexis had 25 copies of the English version of Professor Fine's book delivered to Iraq. LWOB also arranged for Arabic translations of the same book to be delivered along with various supplies for the students, provided by LWOB.

The Winter semester of that course is scheduled to begin in January 2004 and a request has been received at LWOB for Arabic translations of the Federalist Papers and US Constitution. Thanks to several NYC based volunteers, area libraries and Attorney Joel Feffer, at Wechsler Harwood, LLP multiple copies of the translations of those documents should arrive in Iraq just in time for the start of the new semester.

Did I mention that Free textbooks in local languages is one of the basic requirements for global development? Now can we get those Federalist Papers and US Constitution out on the net to the whole Arab world? You don't suppose any governments would block them as subversive literature, do you?

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?