Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A fallacy: Power and the virtue of selflessness

I define power to be the possession of controlling influence. This generally is achieved through politics, technology and knowledge and/or economic/military superiority. I always wonder about the men/women who possess this kind of power and how difficulty it is for them to be selfless in the display or use of that power. Here is a case on African democracy that will illustrate the problem.
I come from a community that has to choose a parliamentary representative every five years. In our last election, we noted with pleasure a "new" parliament comprising of a new breed of legislative representatives. We gladly thought that the "old is gone and the new is here". Two and a half years down the road, we find ourselves in the same circle of disgraceful events characterised by corruption and greed to amass personal wealth. I then realised that it is more than just a change of personalities. This has to do with an intrinsic problem deep within our democratic process. I presume that this happens in majority of other African countries.
Think about this. The electrorate expect the representative to mobilise and carry out an exciting campaign that involves the dishing out of favours and money during the election process. I know from some members of parliament,who are my friends, that they had to undertake a considerable "investment" in becoming parliamentary representatives. Where a lucky incubent becomes successful he/she becomes overwhelmed with joy as this is a sure path to "wealth". Those who fail, and especially those who have used their personal wealth in the process, tend to fade away into a life of regret constanly announcing to whoever will care to listen that "politics is bad". Few live to try it again.
Others and especially those in the presidential campaigns spend huge amounts of money in their campaign trails. Some may be lucky as some powerful business people may choose to quietly support their endevours in exchange for a five/four year committment to offer lucrative contracts in a particular field/sector. Support used in this manner can only lead to a situation where "favours are for sale", "scratch-my-back-as-I-scratch-yours" mentality where representation is portrayed as all encompassing but only applies to a select case of interests that must be met inorder to maintain reasonable chances of continued stay in power.The defining strategy is to work with the few who have the will to "put their money where their mouth is" and play games with the rest of the electrorate to portray a persona of genuine concern to address their problems. Many a times the unfortunate electorate falls into this trap. Election period is a time of equivocal allegiance and loyalty, "eating" on the prospectives candidate as we wait to be "eaten" by the successful representative.
Thinking about this situation, I find it naive for the electrorate to demand unselfish leadership from representation elected in this manner. I see Civil Society Organisations putting in a lot of work in demanding positive change. I wonder whether there will be any fruits to bear. The harsh reality is that there is individual/collective "investment" before acquisition of power. This investment has to somehow be paid. The lucky leader who manages to acquire the seat of power will then have to pay his/her dues before anybody else. Religious convictions have not been known to help.
This has been a problem where very few people have been brave enough to try and face this problem. Representation that require "investment" will not suffice. An alternative form of representation or a beat-up of the existing one may address this challenge. The biggest challenge is WHICH ONE?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A cartel of ignorance - ICT Investments in African Universities

This has been a very heavy topic in my heart of late, I better get it off my chest. I have had various discussions with senior University admnistrators in Africa on the potential that outsourced ICT services can have on their institutions, both as a means of cutting costs and a way of guaranteeing reliability and availability of ICT services. This I can attest has mostly fallen on deaf ears.

The core business of a University is not ICT. A University or any other Educational Institution for that matter, should only use ICT as a tool to drive its outreach, increase efficiency and productivity, improve its learners learning experience and support its research and dissemination of its research findings. This is clearly realised. The problem has been the unwarranted investment in the establishment of internal ICT environments that are marred with constant availability problems because of lack of redundancy, inability to guarantee security, integrity and confidentiality of data plus appropriately trained ICT personnel to man the technological platforms hosted within the Universities.

To give an example, many African Universities are struggling to offer reliable email and group collaboration services to their students and researchers yet these are available as a free alternative through Google mail and groupware solutions. Why would a University invest in establishing an expensive server farm yet this services can be obtained at a very low cost from service providers who offer this as their core business. Why establish a very expensive video conferencing solution when there are scalable alternatives at very low costs?

I fail to understand this unwarranted expenditure in times like this of global economic recession. In today's web/internet based age, it does not matter where your services are physically/geographically located as one can be able to access services hosted anywhere in the world. The fact that an institution has its computing environment located internally under "lock and key" does not necessarily guarantee the security of its data. It is logical and not physical security.

What would happen if Universities are able to share resources? Economies of scale will be a sure advantage. Risks will be minimised and scarce resources will be utilised more effectively. It is more important that more resources go to guaranteeing end user computing needs e.g students acquiring computing resources, establishing more powerful local area networks etc. These are services that can be offered by a stripped down ICT support service located within the University. By interconnecting University networks, one can be able to guarantee the sharing of resources by both lecturers and students from one institution with the others. Educational and Research networks will have to work extra hard to achieve this as there a very strong inherent competition between educational institutions themselves.

The Politics of Software Development

I happen to be in Ghana now, and I have been having some discussions with a fellow ICT consultant from Nigeria. We have discussed a number of issues regarding Kenyan and Nigerian ICT environments. What is coming out is how difficulty it is for an SME in Software Development to succeed in an environment of pathogenic software pirates, corrupt and short sighted Governments, disfunctional historical and cultural alignments and very aggressive but skewed business environments.

It pains to look at the potential that the local software development industry can offer to young enterpreneurs with the appropriate knowledge and skills. The software industry in many African countries has been left unregulated. This could be because of the inability of many Government officials to understand its growth dynamics. Many of the software development companies are just channel distributors selling solutions that they can do very little or no customisations on their own. Local talent goes untapped as many of these channel distributors relies on expertise from foreign countries. African has continued to be a continent of users with very little contribution to the global software development market.

The question is whether this environment is likely to change? Is there a real possibility that a vibrant software development market can be developed and sustained in Africa? I think this is very possible. The internet and especially Web 2.0 tools, peer to peer networks and other net based resources have contributed greatly in the transfer of knowledge. Though small in number, Africa is generating high quality developers participating in various global software development initiatives especially in the field of Free and Open Source Software.

As our Governments continue to sleep, this opportunity is slowly slipping away as other developing economies embrace and run with it. The world is now a knowledge economy. This realisation has enabled countries with minimal natural resources to evolve into global economies. Do I need to mention names? The countries that saw this opportunity early enough have significantly benefited.

There is a need to regulate the software industry. It is an industry just like any other that should be protected and nursed from adverse and unfair competition as it grows to be a national oppotunity. Entry barriers especially in tendering should be lowered. I do not understand how a Government can expect to find a local software development company that has a turn over of over USD 10M per annum. This is ridiculous and many Governments fail to realise that by doing so they automatically snuff the life out of any would be successful local software development company. The Government is the biggest spender in many of the African countries contributing to over 66% of all expenditure in the economy. If you are not doing business with the Governments then you may as well say you are not in business.