Sunday, July 7, 2013

Internet Access Is Important for Development

AU 50 Year Development Construction
I've come here and secured this internship to learn a few things about sustainable development. Sustainable development roughly translates to "how to make the lives of people in poor countries significantly better today without making them worse later on." I'm a booster of the internet and its ability to accomplish these goals.

People can be skeptical about this for two reasons: one, many people mostly associate the internet with World of Warcraft and funny videos about cats, and don't see how either are likely to help poor people. Which would be entirely fair, if that were all the internet contained. We'll get to that later. What I want to talk about is the second, more salient reason: for most people, the internet isn't always all that reliable.

It's true. But the thing is, in a place like Ethiopia, almost no infrastructure is any more reliable than the internet back home. Roads flood, electricity cuts out, running water loses pressure or vanishes entirely. In some ways, the average Ethiopian is better mentally prepared for the instability of technology than the average American iPhone user whining about how his device takes longer than 15 seconds to load Facebook. Sometimes things work, and sometimes they don't.

Take this current weekend for example. Yesterday, Saturday, we we explored a museum and monument to those who had lost their lives under the oppressive Derg regime, kinda sorta crashed a wedding at the orphanage where Dawit grew up and now teaches, bowled, played pool, saw a movie, and went out to bar with a couple graduation parties. Big day, lots of fun, lots done.

Today on the other hand, was entirely different. After dealing with one morning power outage and almost no water pressure (toilets couldn't flush for example) we set out for a more modest goal: make copies of three documents in time for class tomorrow. After more than five hours trying all over town, we gave up and came home to cook some dinner. As soon as we started chopping the carrots and eggplant, the power went out again (and with it, the use of the electric stove). Unreliability is not new and had quite an effect on our days.

Another example: Jeff's vacation. Just as I arrived in town, Jeff's 14 day vacation period ended. In the beginning, he had planned on renting a car with a couple friends, and traveling. Even with the local, Amharic-speaking friends helping out, it took them ten of the fourteen days to find and rent a car.

The critical piece missing here that causes a ton of these issues and delays is information. We don't know who has a car available, what price they want, and what minimum time they expect. We don't know what copy shops are open where, where, and whether their machines happen to be working today. Come to that we don't know the hours any business keeps, when someone will be out of town, what transit routes are where, and what roads are jammed, under construction, or clear.

All of these problems of information can be solved by widespread internet access, especially at home and on mobile devices. The internet is the place where anyone can put all of this information from anywhere, and where anyone who needs the information can access it from anywhere. Maybe it won't be reliable at first, but having it work even sometimes will save time, money, and stress.

But more than that, it can be a way for individuals to get access to some kinds of support they might have a hard time finding elsewhere. I saw one particularly important example today at an internet cafe we tried in a last-ditch effort for a working copy machine. This is not a gay friendly society, so I was somewhat intrigued when I saw a young man watching a video of what looked like a white, gay couple, talking to the camera. It was a video from the It Gets Better project. I can't obviously draw any conclusions from this. But at the very least, it's touching to theorize that someone can create a video in New York and make someone on the other side of the world feel better about who they are.

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