Ethiopia 2000 (PART II): Role of Emerging and High-Technology in Supporting Social and Economic Development

Samuel K. Kassegne

San Diego, California

1. Introduction:

Ethiopia's backwardness becomes more evident while investigating the extent of its exposure, or lack of it, to emerging and high-technologies. As the integration of a given country's economy to the high-tech based global economy of the 21st Century demands a good infrastructure of such technology, the discussion on this topic is relevant. In this second paper, the potential emerging and high-technologies carry to advance social, economic and political issues in Ethiopia will be discussed. The prospects of the country in getting access to such technology will also be discussed. The main thrust of the paper is to argue that it is not always necessary to have an extensive infrastructure of basic technology to have access to emerging technologies. Advances in telecommunications and information technology provide what could be termed as short-cuts to integrating with some sectors of the global economy.

2. High-Technology and Related Issues

One of the distinct features of the economies of rapidly-developing countries, particularly, those of the South East Asian countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and to a good extent India is the very significant part high-tech plays in their economies. Apart from providing employment to a growing domestic skilled labor and generating foreign currency, high-tech ventures provide goods and services that improve the quality of life in these developing countries. Hi-tech is no more a domain of the very developed countries only. The availability of a growing skilled labor, declining restrictions in overseas markets, and the quality and affordability of the products have contributed to the success of high-tech industries in developing countries.

However, economic liberalization and a stable political atmosphere are a pre-requisite for the proliferation of high-tech industries and it is imperative that any form of administration in Ethiopia pursue genuinely business-friendly economic policies if the country is to enjoy any kind of gain from such industries.

Examples of such high-tech industries are satellite and wireless communication, pharmaceutical industry, computer software and hardware, bio-technology, and manufacturing.

While the discussion of the positive impact the different forms of high-tech industries could impart on the economy of an underdeveloped country such as Ethiopia is too broad for such a basic and short presentation, an attempt will be made here to address only the most promising ones.

In the following sections, the contribution of emerging and high technology, particularly, information technology, computing and communications to social, economic and technological advancement will be discussed.

2.0.a. Communications

The importance of communications for a social, economic and political growth of a country can not be overemphasized. By most developing countries standard, Ethiopia's achievement in this area was, to some extent, quite significant up until the early 80's. Most major provincial cities and towns were connected by telephone through micro-wave links even though the dependence on physical wire links (which are hampered by the difficult terrain) had put a constraint to the extent of expansion. Satellite communication that was introduced in the late 70's much ahead of some other developing countries was a modest achievement. However, the 80's and the 90's have witnessed a largely counter-progress in telecommunications. The Ethiopian Telephone Authority (ETA) was largely involved repairing the micro-wave stations and telephone lines that were constant victims to the civil war. The current status of telecommunications in the country is, at any rate, very dismal.

With regard to the future, however, a recent paper by the staff of the ETA gives an indication of what direction the country's agency for this industry is heading in preparation to the years ahead [Asfaw Hailemariam et al, 1995]. There are indications that the country's telecommunications policy makers have recognized that emerging technologies like electronic networking and fax have resulted in a modestly growing demand for more band-width and affordable rates. The ETA is also reportedly working on establishing a Packet Switched Public Data Network (PSPDN) which will give it more capacity for the immediate future. However, there is no indication if there is a plan and immediate intention to introduce the much faster and larger communication protocols and physical lay-outs.

In the mean time, however, emerging technologies in wireless communication hold a promising future for expanding telecommunication in backward countries like Ethiopia. The so-called Low Earth-Orbit (LEO) satellites provide one of the potential areas. The old "geo-stationary" satellites that orbit the earth at 22,300 miles up in space had facilitated global communications since the early 60's. However, they tend to be expensive to users because of the relatively big receiver satellite dishes. The low earth-orbit satellites, on the other hand, incorporate modern micro-electronics that drastically reduce the cost of the total system. In one such system, the palm-size receivers will cost as low as $100.00 while the whole system will cost an average of $5000.00 [VITA, 1992]. Some of the promising LEO projects with some potential for application in developing countries like Ethiopia are:

* The Iridium project of the wireless and portable phone giant-Motorola. This system that is projected to cost Motorola around $3.4 Billion will consist of a fleet of 66 LEOs that will be used over a large band of radio frequency enabling the transmission of hundreds of voice conversations to and from wireless telephones [E.L. Andrews, 1993]. The main advantage of this system is its faster and clearer reception at any spot on the globe. It also needs no ground stations. However, the down-side is its unit price of $3000.00 for the hand-set and a charge of $3.00/minute which will make its wide use in developing countries a very difficult task, if at all possible.

* The LEO system of VITA, an Arlington, VA based private volunteer organization. This relatively less costly system was started by VITA with a launch of LEO satellite in early 1990. The system has a 5000 square kilometer foot-print thus passing every spot on earth two times a day giving users two 12-minute windows each day to download or upload up to 250 pages of information per pass [R. Barrett, 1992]. Each station in the VITA system network consists of a computer or a terminal, a two-way radio, a modem like device called TNC, a printer and an antenna. The whole unit for a station that could serve a typical small Ethiopian town costs a bargain price of $4000 - $10,000. The VITA system could be used for the following [VITA, 1993]:

* Disaster mitigation, prevention and response as in the recent famine in Somalia where all other communication means were unavailable. VITA also maintains a network in Ethiopia for use by the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) to coordinate relief operations and food distribution.

* Health education and information through international curriculum development, distance learning and disease tracking as in the Philippines islands.

* Scientific information gathering and dissemination, i.e., rapid exchange of information on soil depletion, water erosion, seismic activity or weather patterns. The Intergovernmental Agency for Drought and Development (IADD), a Djibouti-based agency was initially established to track drought conditions in the Horn of Africa and uses the satellites of the VITA-net to collect and share data.

* Administrative and logistic support through timely transfer of files and messages. Examples of such applications could be found in Sierra Leone, Senegal, Pakistan etc. This feature is particularly appealing for such countries as Ethiopia where other forms of conventional communications are unavailable or inadequate, at best.

Low-earth-orbit satellites have also been used in Ethiopia by a not-for-profit organization called SatelLife which has installed ground stations in over twelve countries in Africa including Ethiopia [Lishan Adam, 1994]. The ground station at the grounds of the Black Lion Hospital of the Medical School of the Addis Ababa University started operations in April of 1994. SatelLife provides technical and financial assistance to the ground station. In order to improve use of the ground station, a terrestrial network linking medical professionals in the hospitals, medical schools in Gonder, Jimma and other field works is under consideration. The SatelLife net is used to share data in the medical fields.

2.0.b. Computing

The advent of computers in the latter part of the 20th century has span-off a whole new global industry worth billions of dollars of revenues. However, most developing countries like Ethiopia are yet to derive any economic returns from this industry. On the other hand, some other developing countries have been a significant beneficiaries of the computing industry. For example, India is expected to make $350 million from software exports alone in 1995 [Jenny Mill, 1995].

Major global microprocessor and hardware manufacturing giants derive an economic advantage in either setting up their own plants in developing countries that provide cheap skilled labor or by buying these components directly from small manufacturers at a very low rate.

Due to the availability and affordability of emerging-technology such as the global computer network, the Internet, parts or whole of major commercial software in the market have been written in developing countries. For example, the city of Bangalore in Southern India which hosts a number of software and hardware global giants like Apple, Texas Instrument, Motorola and IBM has been the site of developments of major portions of today's best-selling database and spreadsheet programs. Apart from generating high-paying jobs, these global computing ventures bring numerous additional benefits to the host countries such as reversing the process of "brain- drain", improving the telecommunication infrastructure and so on.

Similar ventures are possible in Ethiopia provided that the economic and political conditions guarantee less interference to business and stability in the country in addition to providing a modest skilled work-force. Currently, in Ethiopia, there are merely one or two ventures and proposals to manufacture computer hardware components. Their profitability and survivability is yet to be seen. With regard to the software industry, at present, the potentials for offering competitive skilled programmers for global companies looks almost negligible. However, it could change soon if such measures as introducing a degree or a diploma level computer science program at the country's premier higher education centers are taken. Since foreign educated Ethiopian professionals in the computing industry tend to stay abroad for various reasons, the availability of locally trained programmers is the only way to guarantee a fair chance to enter this global market.

The example of Nepal, another developing country with a strikingly similar fundamental problems as Ethiopia, is very relevant that could be used as a possible model. A group of Nepalese computer companies and computing enthusiasts have set up a professional association called CAN (Computer Association of Nepal) which is hoping to establish an "information technology park" where software will be written by Nepalese programmers for export [Jenny Mill, 1995]. The center will bring together computer specialists and provide them with vital resources such as satellite communications link for telephone, fax and the Internet. The association, CAN, estimates that the labor costs in Nepal are only a mere 5-10% to that of the US and almost half of that of, its neighbor, India. An early indication of the success of the software industry in Nepal is best illustrated by the success of a database software package written by three Nepalese programmers in their spare time which managed to attract 200 customers mostly from outside Nepal. When this software, called Nepal-DB, was introduced on the US-based commercial network, CompuServe, almost 800 users bought it.

The association has also already made remarkable progress with the installation of a full Internet connection to Nepal in March 1995 using a dedicated-line through a satellite to a node in Australia. The cost will be covered by the local companies who will pay for connection time. However, it needs to be mentioned that the major obstacle for these Nepalese enthusiasts was not the lack of source of fund or the technology but restrictive government policies. Interestingly, Nepal is currently ruled by a political party called the United Marxist-Leninist party with little or no record of interest in promoting citizen entrepreneurial initiatives.

2.0.c. Information Technology (IT)

Some researchers and even policy-makers have zealously advocated that information technology can help developing countries to "leap-frog" development and hence narrow the gap between them and developed industrialized countries and as having the potential to help tackle many social and economic problems. While these kind of sentiments are rather unrealistic, information technology has a significant potential to help developing countries in a number of ways [M. Odera et al, 1992]. In this paper, the discussion of "information technology" will focus on such industries like the computing industry and telecommunications as they relate to the processing and dissemination of information and knowledge.

For instance, IT can be of great value in various economic sectors if used for decision-making. Information plays a major role in economic and social development. Computer-aided decision- making involves a computer-supported collection and use of relevant data for the sector of economy of interest. For example, the provision of vitally needed information such as market news in a timely fashion helps vital decision-making processes. IT has been used in a number of African countries to, for example, automate telecommunications system and road safety and planning system [M. Odera et al, 1992].

The Internet which is basically a huge global network of computers is an important part of the decade's information technology revolution. It has a tremendous amount of potential to bring the fruits of the "information revolution" to the developing countries largely because of its very attractive investment to return ratio and technical and economic feasibility to install in such countries with little financial resources. It is this important component of today's information technology that the rest of this paper will address. In the recent telematics conference for Africa held in Ethiopia, the cost of installing Internet for the whole of Africa has been compared to that of one single fighter jet aircraft.

With regard to the prospects of installing an Internet connection to Ethiopia, there have been some important developments like the recent telematics conference hosted in Addis Ababa which brought policy makers and technical experts face to face. The increasing e-mail user community in Addis Ababa and other parts of the country is already demanding a full Internet connection with such features as the World-wide web and telneting. All indications are that at some point in the very near future, there will be an Internet connection available to Ethiopia. Hence the discussion of the role this connection could play in stimulating significant social, economic and political issues is relevant.

Here, we shall limit the discussion to what immediate impact the Internet will have, with particular reference to Ethiopia. The work of Djamen et al on the potential application of the Internet in Africa provides a very detailed reference on the subject and the following discussions rely heavily on their paper [J.Y. DJAMEN et al, 1993].

Possible application of the Internet:

(1) Fast, interactive communication between researchers, educators, policy-makers and citizens. The Internet reduces distances and helps deliver messages and files almost instantly. It enhances the conception of research and development through the sharing of resources such as information and computer hardware. Such use of the Internet is applicable to various fields, including health, education, fundamental and applied research, data collection, agriculture and management of natural resources, international relations, etc. In the case of Ethiopia, already one component of the Internet, namely e-mail, has brought a very significant transformation in the features of conducting research and teaching at the nation's premier centers of higher education, particularly the Addis Ababa University [Ermias Dagne, 1994].

The e-mail conferences that have been held on the Ethiopian E-mail Distribution Network (EEDN) also provide a relevant example where the Internet has helped to bring about fast and interactive communication between Ethiopian professionals and scholars working in different parts of the world.

(2) Promotion of new ideas and novel activities. The Internet facilitates access to the public. Its impact ranges from mass education to specialized training with applications such as using the network for education and training, tele-consultation, tele-conferencing, tele-browsing, and information retrieval. The Internet could help for establishment of new industries and provides access to new markets.

(3) Lifting of trans-national borders and breaking man-made barriers within a country. The Internet enhances the disappearance of national frontiers by integrating the back and forth flow of information between countries. In cyberspace, the concept of man-made national boundaries have less relevance as information located at any point on the globe can be accessed by users at any other point in the globe in a matter of seconds.

Along similar lines, Internet could serve as a medium that speeds up social, economic and political integration of various ethnic and social groups within a given country.

(4) Increasing citizen participation in governance. The Internet provides a convenient and irresistible medium where citizens can express their opinions, argue social and political issues and bring to the attention of a wider audience their concerns of local or national governance.

However, it needs to be mentioned that there are fundamental issues that needs to be addressed when one advocates the wisdom in providing all these tools of IT. One of these issues is the need to provide a universal or at least equitable access to the Internet for citizens of a given community. Information is an important tool in today's economy and those that have a ready access to this tool are in a better position to occupy a significant place in the socio-economic strata. Whereas, on the other hand, citizens with no access to these tools will be left out. This results in widening of the already existing gaps between the "haves" and "have-nots".

3. Conclusion

In the presence of conducive economic and political atmosphere, emerging and high- technology have an immense potential to support social, economic and political advances in developing countries. While such technology will not help these developing countries "leap-frog" development, it will however, help them in such areas as exporting software, creating jobs and increasing citizen participation in day to day affairs of the country. The down-sides of such emerging technology is that it has the potential to give rise to new economic and political classes between those that possess the new technology and those who don't. Government policies and strategy should come to play to lessen the gap by providing such services to the majority that can not afford it.

4. References

1. Asfaw Hailemariam & Zerfu Dimd (ETA), "How Can Telematics for Development be Realized in Ethiopia", African Regional Symposium on Telematics for Development, 3-7 April 1995, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

2. Lishan Adam, "Regional Network Initiatives that Target Ethiopia", The First EthCITA E-Mail Conference on Community-Wide Networking Strategy, Ethiopic Software, and Role of Information Technology, On-board EEDN, October 1994.

3. Ermias Dagne, "Role of E-Mail in Supporting Research at Addis Ababa University", The First EthCITA E-Mail Conference on Community-Wide Networking Strategy, Ethiopic Software, and Role of Information Technology, On-board EEDN, October 1994.

4. M. Odedra, M. Lawrie, M. Bennett, S. Goodman, "Information Technology in Sub-Saharan Africa"

5. M. Odedra, "Information technology transfer to developing countries: Cases from Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe", PhD thesis, London School of Economics, September 1990.

6. Jean-Yves DJAMEN, Dunia RAMAZANI, Stephane SOTEG SOME "Networking in Africa; An unavoidable evolution towards the Internet", Universite de Montreal, Departement d'Informatique et de Recherche Operationnelle, C.P. 6128 Succursale CENTRE-VILLE Montreal, Quebec, H3C 3J8.

7. Jenny Mill, "Online to Kathmandu", New Scientist, February 4, 1995.

8. VITA, "Capability Statement", March 1993, Arlington, VA.

9. Edmund L. Andrews, "FCC Acts on a New pager, Stretching Reach of Phone", The New York Times, January 15, 1993, NY, NY.

10. Randy Barrett, "Selling for the Future", Washington Technology, September 24, 1992, Washington, DC.