The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Malloch Brown in 2000

Mark Malloch Brown, the man who might save Kofi Annan, has to date been most influential as head of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). In 2000, at the height of the Internet bubble, he spoke in Tokyo on UNDP's efforts to wire the developing world.

And let me lay my cards on the table right at the start by saying that in my mind there really is no more critical question facing the developing world today than how to face up to the new challenges and opportunities offered by the Information Revolution, and particularly the phenomenon of the Internet. It is now the two edged sword that is leading the process of globalization: wounding those who don't quickly enough grasp how to use it by leaving them ever further behind, but providing unprecedented benefits for those with the courage and willingness to grasp its potential to drive change.

Now I know that is still a controversial point of view in some quarters. How in a world where this city for example, - Tokyo -- still has more telephones than all of Africa, where the primary needs of the poor are still the bare essentials of food, shelter and basic healthcare, how in such a situation can the head of a global development agency legitimately stand here and say: the answer lies in information and communication technology?

In my view, such questions completely miss the fundamental point that we are talking about a revolution in the true sense of that word. ICT is transforming everything it touches, from politics, to business, to culture, to education and to health.

The examples he gives -- small farmers obtaining access to weather forecasts, small businesses reducing transaction costs -- seem valid, if less than revolutionary. In the weakest part of his speech, Mr. Malloch Brown then talks about "Connectivity and Competition":

Basic connectivity is a critical precursor to the Internet revolution. It is next to impossible to envision a broad ICT market with less than 5% current voice penetration. Yet that is currently the case in much of sub-Saharan Africa. We have to overcome this to leapfrog into the Information Age.

At the same time, experience shows time and again that competition leads to greater investment, decreased prices, user growth and new technology development. And not just for multinationals. Removing regulatory bottlenecks and encouraging new public-private partnerships leads to the quick growth of a domestic sector providing portals, content, local cellular service and other new services. But effective competition also requires political will, credible and autonomous regulatory bodies, effective interconnection policies and controls against anti-competitive behavior.

Yes, once sub-Saharan Africa has autonomous regulators and honest antitrust controls, internet connectivity will be easier to obtain. In other news, I have heard that most wild birds will let themselves be caught if you first place a little salt upon their tails. [Mr. Malloch Brown also displays a weird lack of technical expertise:
Countries now have a wide array of options from which to seek out least cost technology ranging from IP, fiber optic, ADSL and fixed wireless to third generation cellular and satellite telephony.
I cannot think whom this was intended to impress.]
Later on, though, Mr. Malloch Brown hits his stride. He seems to have recognized this problem, and wants aid to be made more useful:

Second, and potentially even more important, is the still untapped potential for using ICT as a tool for disintermediating Development Assistance.

It will transform how individuals and governments donate and the level of accountability they expect; for instance the Netaid website we have set up in cooperation with CISCO systems. It allows the individual who goes online to select the project they want to support; and we are now innovating feedback loops, not just to track the financial and implementation progress of the project, but also, for example, to see stream video interviews with project personnel who respond to e-mail queries about the project. This may radically flatten the traditional aid agency, creating a much more direct link between donor and project.

More radical still, the Internet allows the possibility of offering an array of financial services to the poor that can change the basic power equation in development : where government or an aid agency at present decides what is "good" for the poor, we may be on the verge of being able to transfer the power of "choice" to the poor themselves.

And he is not blind to the effect on domestic politics:
But it is not just development co-operation that will be transformed. So will government itself : its role as service provider will be revolutionised if it can transfer much of its service delivery system from a poorly functioning group of local officials to e-governance. People will also be better informed of their service rights and therefore will be able to hold officials accountable and demand more efficient services.
Mr. Malloch Brown may be a man of the bureaucracy; he does note that
The specifics of these and other targets obviously need to be discussed and debated more fully in the appropriate forums.
And it is possible that he is a Trojan Horse, or will act as one within the U.N. -- bold speech with no implementation will siphon money and effort away from other useful projects. But he certainly talks a good game.