Category Archives: Global Issues

Knowledge Politics Quarterly journal launched

Here come the big, bad ICT4D guys...

With the launch of the first issue of its quarterly journal, Knowledge Politics – the think-tank dedicated to exploring the implications and possibilities of the development of an ‘information society’ – has entered the arena of online academic journals, offering an innovative and open space for reflection and dialogue on how technology (and in particular Information Communication Technologies – ICTs) is affecting the social, political and economic universes. In addition to the journal, KP’s site also offers a number of thematic portals, ranging from Internet Governance and Information Society Theory, to Knowledge Economy and Digital Rights.

Apart from the fact that the journal and the other publications by KP are exploring some truly interesting issues, this post is actually about shameless self-promotion, since one of the published papers (PDF) was written by me. It’s about Web 2.0 and international NGOs, and the political implications of the changes in online knowledge management practices for the operational and advocacy activities of non-governmental agencies. The vignette above neatly summarises the prevailing attitude of NGOs towards Web 2.0 (and ICTs more generally) and their role in development. My position is, of course, rather different…

In true Web 2.0 spirit, comments and feedback – especially from NGO staff – are most welcome!

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Blog Action Day

Like almost 10,000 other bloggers, I am taking part in Blog Action Day on 15 October. For once, the blogosphere will resonate with one, common topic: the environment.

It’ll be interesting to see if and how this will work, and whether it will have a lasting impact. Personally, I have always been fascinated by how the blogosphere can become a social mobilisation tool, so I’ll be posting and checking the results closely.

A new Euro-star is born

Europe at night - Copyright: Planetary Visions Ltd.; Courtesy: Kevin M. Tildsley

No, I am not talking about a new train (although the London-Paris Eurostar is about to be moved from Waterloo to King’s Cross, which is very exciting for me, since I live within walking distance of the station), but about a new pan-European initiative, headed by Mark Leonard, and staffed with lots of young bright things: the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

Its purpose? Amongst others, to develop a more coherent and vigorous European foreign policy, in order to tackle an increasing number of global challenges, including climate change, world poverty, nuclear proliferation and the surge of violent extremism.

There haven’t been many interesting reactions to the birth of the ECFR within the blogosphere so far. Mark Leonard set the tone a few days ago as a guest-blogger on the Economist, while others – including the Dubliner Magazine, the Cult of the Dead Fish and Infowars – simply followed his lead, reproducing the press-release from the launch. Personally, I think the blogosphere should be more about opinion-making than info-replication, so here is my personal take on the new initiative.

Three things excite me about the ECFR. First: its young leadership and unreserved Europhilia, which brings a breath of fresh ideas and enthusiasm to a political debate about the future of Europe that has recently been – to say the least – soporific. Second: its decision to base its headquarters at the heart of the eurosceptic London and its satellite offices in Berlin, Madrid, Paris, Rome, Warsaw and Sofia. This will bring a truly pan-European perspective to the debates, allowing in particular the voices of the South and East to be heard, as opposed to the claustrophobic and incestuous rants of most Brussels-based think-tanks. Third, its very interactive website, blog-inspired, simple to access and to navigate, a sign that the ECFR is serious about taking to people, and is generally a modern, forward-looking organisation.

But while there are many reasons to celebrate, two aspects at least concerns me. The ECFR is heavily-backed by Soros, and while I personally like the man and his ideas, he has certainly made quite a few enemies across the European Neighbourhood. His involvement in the initiative is welcome, for it gives it financial viability, but the ECFR should also ensure it maintains a degree of separation between the issues it’s trying to tackle and the political interests of those who are backing it, lest it be quickly dismissed as Soros’ Council on Foreign Relations.

In addition, it is supported by a string of European politicians and analysts who are all-too-keen to see a stronger Europe in the world. While a more vigorous foreign policy might be the right answer to many of today’s global challenges, it should never come at the expense of Europe’s aimed neutrality, and of the recognition of its responsibilities towards the developing world, which call for caution every time we are tempted to undermine their sovereignty. Preventing genocide is of course admirable, but the last thing we need is another baton-wielding US, bullying nations into doing what we think is right (more often for us than for them). A respect for diversity should, above all, remain at the core of Europe’s foreign policy.

Having said that, I very much look forward to seeing the new star rise high above the other European constellations and I wish good luck to Mark and to all this team!

Global Icon

Planete, courtesy of benjamin.becue.free.fr

Via maestroalberto, an image by someone who clearly doesn’t see the world in very positive terms.

I suppose I am still an optimist. Maybe I spend too much time reading amazing stories about people trying to make the world a better place, and not enough about those who are trying to destroy it…

N2Y2: Web 2.0 projects for social change

Net2 logos

Last post of the day and of the month, since I am going back home tomorrow and won’t have Internet access (gasp! horror!) from our Tuscan retreat

In May 2007, over 300 participants gathered to discuss the 21 Projects that had been selected by the NetSquared community as having the greatest potential to leverage the social web to create social change.

This was a real talent contest between several innovative ideas, from Kabissa‘s proposal to strengthen Web 2.0 applications across the African continent through their network of over 950 local organisations, to Yankana‘s idea to help non profits located in developing countries adopt and benefit from social web tools, without advanced technical skills, financial resources for infrastructure or english language knowledge.

Only 3 made it to the final stage:

  • MAPLight.org, a project aiming to illuminate the connection between money and politics, connecting campaign contributions and votes for U.S. Congress, while providing groundbreaking transparency so that bloggers, journalists, and citizens can hold legislators accountable.
  • Miro, an open source, open standards video. Their pitch: “We are to Google, AOL and YouTube what public television is to the big networks. We are a nonprofit, fully open source and open standards, dedicated to creating the next Firefox of web video.”
  • Freecycle.org, an initiative that has empowered globally local social networking, with the purpose of creating a gift economy/community: “The magic: it’s easier to give something away than throw it away & keeps it out of landfills; a cyber-curbside; a digital segue from commodity to community“.

Although these are all really good projects, it’s a shame that none seems to address directly the needs of communities in developing countries, which some of the other proposed projects did.

Store Wars

Store Wars 

In a pause in the endless series of exams I seem to be enduring these days, here’s an excellent use of the Internet and creative imagination to promote organic products: the Store Wars animation.

A similar – and equally funny – idea to that of the Meatrix, which also takes inspiration from a movie to promote messages about farming and organic production methods!

So when is organic food going to cost less, so we can all afford it?

Sachs on China’s lessons for the World Bank

Posters decorating Beijing during the China-Africa summit 2007

Jeffrey Sachs depicts a clear and concise picture of why the World Bank has got it all wrong and why China is getting it all right in Africa on the Guardian’s Comment is Free. He is mostly right – structural adjustment programmes have devastated African economies and if anything caused a surge in that very corruption that the World Bank blames as the cause of its failures.

Yet, one thing Jeffrey doesn’t quite explain is why China is acting like a Samaritan in Africa, dispensing sound advice alongside investment in infrastructures. Still, an excellent read, which I am reproducing below.

China’s lessons for the World Bank
As the World Bank clings to its free-market ideology, China is providing more practical help for developing countries.

The China Daily recently ran a front-page story recounting how Paul Wolfowitz used threats and vulgarities to pressure senior World Bank staff. The newspaper noted that Wolfowitz sounded like a character out of the mafia television show The Sopranos. At the same time, while the Wolfowitz scandal unfolded, China was playing host to the Africa Development Bank (ADB), which held its board meeting in Shanghai. This is a vivid metaphor for today’s world: while the World Bank is caught up in corruption and controversy, China skilfully raises its geopolitical profile in the developing world.China’s rising power is, of course, based heavily on its remarkable economic success. The ADB meeting took place in the Pudong district, Shanghai’s most remarkable development site. From largely unused land a generation ago, Pudong has become a booming centre of skyscrapers, luxury hotels, parks, industry, and vast stretches of apartment buildings. Shanghai’s overall economy is currently growing at around 13% per year, thus doubling in size every five or six years. Everywhere there are startups, innovations, and young entrepreneurs hungry for profits.I had the chance to participate in high-level meetings between Chinese and African officials at the ADB meetings. The advice that the African leaders received from their Chinese counterparts was sound, and much more practical than what they typically get from the World Bank.

Chinese officials stressed the crucial role of public investments, especially in agriculture and infrastructure, to lay the basis for private-sector-led growth. In a hungry and poor rural economy, as China was in the 1970s and as most of Africa is today, a key starting point is to raise farm productivity. Peasant farmers need the benefits of fertiliser, irrigation, and high-yield seeds, all of which were a core part of China’s economic takeoff.

Two other critical investments are also needed: roads and electricity, without which there cannot be a modern economy. Farmers might be able to increase their output, but it won’t be able to reach the cities, and the cities won’t be able to provide the countryside with inputs. The officials stressed how the government has taken pains to ensure that the power grid and transportation network reaches every village in China.

Of course, the African leaders were most appreciative of the next message: China is prepared to help Africa in substantial ways in agriculture, roads, power, health, and education. And the African leaders already know that this is not an empty boast. All over Africa, China is financing and constructing basic infrastructure. During the meeting, the Chinese leaders emphasised their readiness to support agricultural research as well. They described new high-yield rice varieties, which they are prepared to share with their African counterparts.

All of this illustrates what is wrong with the World Bank, even aside from Wolfowitz’s failed leadership. Unlike the Chinese, the bank has too often forgotten the most basic lessons of development, preferring to lecture the poor and force them to privatise basic infrastructure, rather than to help the poor to invest in infrastructure and other crucial sectors.

The bank’s failures began in the early 1980s, when, under the ideological sway of President Ronald Reagan and prime minister Margaret Thatcher, it tried to get Africa and other poor regions to cut back or close down government investments and services. For 25 years, the bank tried to get governments out of agriculture, leaving impoverished peasants to fend for themselves. The result has been a disaster in Africa, with farm productivity stagnant for decades. The bank also pushed for privatisation of national health systems, water utilities, and road and power networks, and grossly underfinanced these critical sectors.

This extreme free-market ideology, also called “structural adjustment”, went against the practical lessons of development successes in China and the rest of Asia. Practical development strategy recognises that public investments – in agriculture, health, education, and infrastructure – are necessary complements to private investments. The World Bank has instead wrongly seen such vital public investments as an enemy of private-sector development.

Whenever the bank’s extreme free-market ideology failed, it has blamed the poor for corruption, mismanagement, or lack of initiative. This was Wolfowitz’s approach, too. Instead of focusing the bank’s attention on helping the poorest countries to improve their infrastructure, he launched a crusade against corruption. Ironically, of course, his stance became untenable when his own misdeeds came to light. The bank can regain its relevance only if it becomes practical once again, by returning its focus to financing public investments in priority sectors, just as the Chinese leadership is prepared to do.

The good news is that African governments are getting the message on how to spur economic growth, and are also getting crucial help from China and other partners that are less wedded to extreme free-market ideology than the World Bank. Many African governments at the Shanghai meeting declared their intention to act boldly, by investing in infrastructure, agricultural modernisation, public health, and education.

The Wolfowitz debacle should be a wake-up call to the World Bank: it must no longer be controlled by ideology. If that happens, the bank can still do justice to the bold vision of a world of shared prosperity that prompted its creation after the second world war.