some closing reflections on the Rwanda youth gathering and the digital divide

April 7, 2008 at 1:43 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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I am back in the US and missing Africa, what an amazing experience. This was my trip across the digital divide, which really ended up reinforcing how strong it still is.

I came back with one less suitcase, leaving behind a used lap top, a flash drive, two Flip videos, two digital recorders and a printer/scanner/copier. I am convinced that technology is what we rich country folks should lug over in our suitcases. I would have brought a bluetooth headset for Pastor John if I had known how much work he does on the phone while driving around the country in his green truck. His office is in his cell phone.

I shared my hotel with a bunch of Americans from Rick Warren’s Saddle Back Church, an evangelical mega-church in Southern California. After training 300 pastors, they were in town to officially certify that Rwanda is a “Purpose-driven Country”. Warren’s best-seller, A Purpose Driven Life is translated into Kinyarwandan and a lot of Rwandans have read the book. Anyhow, all the gung-ho Saddlebackers had brought a ton of soccer balls and Christian books.

The conference youth media team was earnest, an but as genius as they were, they faced a lot of obstacles. They watched me take notes on my lap top with amazement as my fingers flew over the keys… most of them type one finger at a time. I watched two of them work for thirty minutes on a paragraph for their blog to see the internet connection reload and lose their content. But they have made a cool photo diary.

A journalist from New Times, the Rwandan English paper, came to see what we were up to. He did several interviews, then went on his way. I asked him if he had an email address so we could send him our press updates, and he said he didn’t have one.

Finally on my last day in Kenya, I showed George, our media team leader this blog, and it literally took his computer 10 minutes to load it! This makes me really sad, because George is so tech-savvy, and he is going to edit all our video, but how can he do this with such a slow internet speed? He says he has a faster connection at home, especially at night when people are not using it. I have not posted pictures yet because even though the internet seemed pretty quick, uploading photos in Africa overwhelmed the internet connection even at my muzungu guest house.

So, my conclusion about communication for development is that it still must happen face to face. The Rwandan youth conference was a success because when you bring young people together, they have a good time. And what better way to build bridges across ethnic, geographic, economic and other divisions, then by spending a few days together singing, praying, talking about your country and learning from each other?

After spending a few days in Kenya before flying back, I have become convinced the young people of Kenya need their own summit. Like the rest of Kenya, I am afraid the power share of President Kibaki and Odinga is just too fragile — and there is so much at stake for this nation of 40 million people. The post-election violence in Kenya after Christmas was done largely by young men and broke along tribal lines. Now when I talk to Kenyans they mention their tribes in a way like I never heard before. These divisions are dangerous if they are allowed to settle. If I can round up $25,000 USD I will be planning a Kenyan youth peace summit and we will invite youth from across the country from different tribes…


A lesson in infrastructure, high transportation costs in Rwanda

March 29, 2008 at 8:37 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I remember learning the word infrastructure in social studies class, the definition my teacher gave was that it meant transportation and communication. After some time here in Rwanda, I am realizing that the majority of the country’s spending money is going to pay for getting from place to place.

Providing money for transportation is a key principle for youth participation in any process, but in this case we would have no youth conference if we did not pay for peoples transport– and that includes the speakers. I reimbursed Pastor John for a tank of gas for his car today and it was $100 USD. We think the oil crisis is hurting people in the US– the price of gas here is incredible. I am paying some of the participants the equivalent of $10 a day to travel by bus to and from the site. Otherwise $10 can get you pretty far here– in rural areas it is the amount of a micro-finance loan. Our total transportation costs for this meeting, for both reimbursing participants and managing logistics are nearly going to equate our housing costs.

On the flip side, driving is in Rwanda is pleasant because there are few cars and the roads are well maintained. But this morning I woke in a panic because I was late and all the traffic was stopped from 8-12pm for the national monthly clean-up day. You are not allowed to drive because you are supposed to clean up your neighborhood. Rene told me one time his cousin was on a way to a wedding and the police stopped them. They had to get out of the car, take off their suit jackets and roll up their sleeves to start fixing the road.

Second to transport costs are cell phones. To use your cell phone you have to buy mobile credits, and depending on who you are calling they can run out pretty quick. Especially if you are coordinating a conference you are on the phone all day.

I really think that if you ran the numbers the majority of this country’s cash-in-hand is going to getting around and talking to people; something we in the West do without second thought. We live with the inherent assumption that we can go anywhere and say anything at anytime. We say time is money. Well, in Africa it seems all the time in the world is being spent just getting from place to place.

Jean-Claude and the global research divide

March 21, 2008 at 10:31 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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RwandaI am writing from Rwanda so communication for development is taking on its true meaning.  The first thing I did after recovering from jetlag was trying to log on to the Internet. When I finally gave up on my laptop and asked for the public computer, Christopher asked me, (insert French accent) “but I am IT, why did you not ask us, we are here to help you?”  

Thank god for him— the horror of a week without Internet was too much to bear.  But it got me thinking about why someone with advanced IT skills is on the small staff of this guest house.  He is vital for business from all the muzungus who stay at the hotel.  Cost for wireless is about $8 a day.  

But I am not the only young person for whom online access is critical to where I stay.  I had a long talk with Jean-Claude today, a sixth-year medical student from Butare.   After he finishes his medical degree, he is required by the government to work in a rural hospital.  While this sounds good on paper, the young doctors are not compensated for the hardship they take on.  Beyond having to practice in a rudementary clinic, living in the rural area actually presents a is a higher cost of living.  

“There is no way I am going to live somewhere without access to the Internet,” says Jean-Claude, who thinks that sending doctors to rural areas is key, but that their must be an incentive so that they will want to go.   For instance, there is a hospital in the Eastern province funded by the Clinton Foundation.  Despite its remoteness, doctors are lining up to go because of top-notch facilities and a decent wage.

Jean-Claude is now doing his final research to complete his degree. He will focus on malnutrition of children of HIV+ mothers.  Even if a child does not have HIV, she or he still faces enormous risks because she will not be fed breast milk after the age of 6 months for fear of mother-to-child transmission.  And poor mothers cannot afford to feed thier infants formula or cow milk alternatives.  

His is important research, but like every other medical student at his university, he has only $200 for the year-long study.   In Rwanda, transportation is expensive, so this won’t buy him many trips to interview the people he needs to reach, let alone pay for any tests he needs to conduct.   As a result of, he says many medical students make up their final research data.

After he spends two years serving in a rural hospital, Jean-Claude wants to study medicine abroad; he is desperate to learn from specialized pracitioners and use high-tech medical equipment.  It got me wondering how medical research can be supported in developing world.  As just one student with one professor as an adviser, he has no capacity or even expertise to qualify for a grant from the Clintons or the Gates of the world.  At most Western universities money for research is just a few phone calls away.  As an energetic, compassionate and inquiring young man who speaks three languages, Jean-Claude is a huge asset to his country.  He should be invested in, but how?

This is the global research divide.       

Internet users vs. Earnings from royalties & license fees

March 17, 2008 at 8:53 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Internet users (2002)


I am borrowing this from the Freedom of Expression project in the UK. I think this is a good visual showing how much the internet is used in the US, and the graphic below shows how much the US is reaping the benefit of the internet financially. I can only ask how fast some of these other countries are catching up.

Earnings from royalties & license fees


And interview with David Sasaki of Rising Voices

March 10, 2008 at 12:56 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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David SasakiDavid Sasaki manages Rising Voices, a project of Global Voices, which starts community blogs with people around the world who are traditionally hard to reach because they live outside of capital cities and speak languages other than English. I caught up with him over breakfast this morning in New York before he heads off to South America to visit Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.

Everyday so many more blogs and websites are created, are we really reaching more people— especially people in the Global South?

Every month new people are being reached. But the language barrier is a huge issue, blogs are mainly being written in English. It also depends on a person’s social network, if their family or friends are going online. If you are not introduced to it this way you will never hear about it.

If you could give one technology tool to thousands of young people around the world, regardless of cost, what would it be?

I just saw the XO laptop [the $100 laptop], its really sturdy and easy to use. So I would give out something like the laptop but with a better user interface… or I would give out something like the I-phone.

What is a good website for someone who has just gotten online, who is not yet super web-literate?

It really depends on a regional basis. I work with a young woman from Bolivia who tells me she only goes to colorful websites, she hates the sleek modern ones with dark colors, which is something I would probably gravitate to. Clarity is really important. Information overload is bad.

Studies show that new users go online to use MSN chat, look at porn, dating sites, or play games. How do you make the web a tool for new users?

You can’t really see it is as competition. These things are important to people. It has to tie into the social media elements that make those activities attractive to people. You have to make it fun.

Do you ever run into situations where you worry that teaching about technology and blogging is western or colonialist?

Only Americans ask me that… I never tell people what they should write about. Rising Voices is enabling someone to communicate with a lot of people. It’s hard for me to see this through a colonial lens. What is colonialist about new media is language. If you are going online, after about three years you are going to want to learn English. Putting web content in local languages revolutionizes it for people. It’s also really important to translate local languages into English.

Have their been any unexpected outcomes in communities where you started blogs?

In Colombia I worked with 20 young people ages 14-25 to start a blog, and they were mostly writing about music and their personal interests. But one day the librarian asked them to interview this homeless guy, and when they did they found out that his parents had given all their land away to the town. After this the young people became very motivated around his life so they made a documentary movie about him. They got involved in the mesa de trabajadores, the community leaders committee, and had a dance to raise money to help fix up his shack and turn it into a house with plumbing.

So this is one story about young people helping this one 78-year-old guy. But as a result of the blog, the leaders of the community are taking the youth more seriously because they are representing their community online and internationally. In two months I saw the self-confidence of these young people go up. They became comfortable talking to the leaders in their community about their concerns.

Empowering women with technology, not UN negotiations

March 4, 2008 at 1:49 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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This week 3,000 women are in town in New York for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.   They come from all ends of the earth, Liberia, Mauritius, India, Poland.  They cram into conference rooms and scramble to lobby their government representatives about negotiated documents about gender equality.  It is one of the few times every year that the world shows up on the UN doorstep to remind it what it is here for.  It is a beautiful, if not frustrating, chaos.  

This year I find myself wanting to pull these women out into a quiet office and show them just what the internet has to offer.  Instead of hosting a workshop on preparing for the Doha development round I feel like hosting a meeting on how to use WordPress.   I could call it “how to build a free website in thirty minutes.”  I think it would be a huge hit.  You can check out a professional looking website I did using a wordpress template for the Ecumenical Women coalition.  

 As a recent student of digital communications, I am discovering an entirely new internet.   You can learn anything on free webinars and blogs, you just know how to look.   At Eslgold you can take free web tutorials to learn english,  at Shuffweb you can teach yourself photoshop and simple design.   Need to get some people power?  How about having an international meeting over MSN chat, or learn how to organize people with SMS text messages using MobileActiv.   A woman’s peace group could watch the Security Council debate Sudan on a UN webcast, or I could listen to an entire plenary of conferences I could not attend, such as AWID’s conference on money and movements last year in Mexico.   Through the Global Youth Coalition on AIDS, I could take an online course on fundraising for youth projects.  

When I realize how much self-teaching is possible on the internet, I feel even more urgently concerned that only 20% of the world has access.   It makes me want to design a sort of development toolbox browser.   Many websites might think they are doing that, but I argue they are bogged down with information, and that the people who need them the most don’t know they exist.    

 Half the battle is changing attitudes and promoting web literacy.  Many people use the web in the same way every day; they are not going to pick up their free Skype phone until they see someone else doing it.  But even if my dream toolbox existed, it would still be a struggle to get the word out.  When analysts track reasons people in Global South use the web, they find that they go to websites to read about celebrities, send messages to their friends, or play games.   

But the UN CSW would be a good place to start.  We have to take the webtools to where the women are.  They are not going to come to a technology conference.  But they will come to a women’s rights conference, and we should meet them there.  

in search of a slogan

February 25, 2008 at 12:05 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Believe me, I know that “Communication for Development” is a boring title for a blog. These words don’t have much energy behind them, they do not capture the human spirit. Perhaps that is why I wrote the blog in the first place: to discover how to talk about international development in ways that reach people. So, I have my eye out to appreciate good slogans that capture the essence of connecting and empowering people to bridge the digital divide.

My favorites so far:

-Digital inclusion with a deadline.  AMD (the $100 laptop project)
-Helping the global population join the conversation  Rising Voices Online

These are OK too:

-Today’s art for tomorrow’s world ArtAsiaPacific
-Social change starts here Echoing Green
-Innovators for the public Ashoka
-Where communication and media are central to economic and social development. The Communication Initiative

These slogans are the positioning statements of organizations. I like them because I think they embody open-mindedness, depth, hope, and they are not colonialist or arrogant. After spending five years working with the United Nations, I have returned to school to study communications because I am hungry to be able to deliver a message about international development that people could understand and relate to. I’ll have to post another blog of slogans that I don’t think are effective, though that might not please people. Let me know if there are other ones out there you like in the comments section.

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