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Haiti’s Future — Digitally

After several adult beverages and a Farscape marathon, I finally got the cognitive functions of my brain from cowering in the corner, overwhelmed by the images from Haiti. As a journalist, I’ve seen my share of disasters but I’m really glad I didn’t have to cover this one. I haven’t even been able to call or write a friend who lost family in the tragedy. “Sorry for your loss,” seems inadequate. But I can’t come up with anything else that might offer some comfort to him or me. So I’ve gone to the place where I’ve always felt safe. Looking down the road and getting the first glimpse of what’s around the technological bend.The Future Was Yesterday

Technology can’t solve the problems of governance, politics and providing for the immediate needs of Haiti’s people. What it can do is short-circuit some of the thinking about what it takes of build an infrastructure from scratch. About 15 years ago, I was invited to participate in a UN sponsored working group on technology in developing nations. I was in a room with the heads of IT from several Fortune 500 countries, a couple of ministers of information and several IT consultants. The topic was how to speed up implementation of telecommunications in Africa. After about an hour of listening to people wrangling over the difficulty of laying copper wire in some very dangerous places, I finally piped up and asked, “Why are we talking about laying cable? Why don’t we just leapfrog it and use satellites.”

After an uncomfortably long silence, a fog of excuses filled the room. It boiled down to “we’re not sure those people are ready to handle that level of technological sophistication.”  My anger management training kicked in and I was able to get through the rest of the day without resorting to violence.

This is what I’m afraid is going to happen to the digital future of Haiti. Who’s going to make the decisions about rebuilding? Some of the people in that room had never been to Arica. This was pre Sarah Palin but I think some of those people thought Africa was a country. My late friend and mentor Roy Allen and I once worked as consultants to the 40 televisions stations of the Nigerian Television Authority. We were having after dinner drinks on the balcony of our building in Lagos’ Victoria Island. “You know,” he said, “there are people back home who think we’re fighting off lions.”

I’ve never been to Haiti but I’ve spent enough time in places like Haiti where outsiders make decisions without any regard or knowledge of the people or the culture. I don’t exempt myself. I’ve seen myself react too  often as a know-it-all American.

I believe that I’ve learned my lessons, but have others? Are the redevelopment funds going to be used to just put things back together though a little stronger to withstand the seasonal hurricanes and expected earthquakes? Or will someone look down the road and plan for an infrastructure that will create a sustainable environment while building an economy that supports it?

Will the promise of “green jobs” be fulfilled in Haiti and used as a model for other countries trying to move past fossil fuels and the old way of doing business? I’ll be writing more on this topic. It’s part of the mission of this blog to constantly look at the technology through Global Colored Glasses.

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