Thursday, September 23, 2010

TEDxAccra: A Day of African Luminaries

On Monday morning, many of the world's great thinkers and doers gathered in solidarity around the world to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the unveiling of the UN Millennium Development Goals. This worldwide event was termed TEDxChange, styled in the format of the TED conference, and convened by Bill and Melinda Gates on behalf of their foundation. In an open letter, Melinda declared the aim of the gathering to be "to reflect on the Millennium Development Goals ten years in, and to look forward to where we’ll be [by 2015, the MDG deadline]."

Very luckily for me, I got to be a part of this movement, this moment in time.

The organizers of the conference chose a few African cities to host, and very fittingly, one of them was Accra. What's more, the first speaker in the day's main session was none other than Google's very own Estelle Akofio-Sowah, the Google Ghana Country Lead and my stalwart companion in the office here. The other speakers included representatives from the African Progress Panel, a nonprofit development group chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and the Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT, among others. From the talks that were given throughout the day, two major themes emerged from the disparate topics

The Need for Accountability

The first thing that struck me was that every single speaker underscored the need for accountability within Africa, and not just the kind of accountability you might imagine. Peering at Africa through the lens of an American's eyes, it's easy to conceive the need for governmental accountability. People must hold their leaders accountable for their actions and for results, something that does not happen enough here. One participant made the astute observation that, in Ghana, the only times politicians visit their districts are when they're running for reelection, but because of the wide sense of apathy towards government, nothing changes and ineffective people are allowed to remain in power.

Estelle Akofio-Sowah, Google Ghana Country Lead
But accountability is also so much more than that here. We, Africans and us all alike, need to hold each other, and at the most profound level, ourselves accountable, for our actions, for the impact we have on others, and for our future. Reliance on the government and on NGOs is, simply put, not sustainable, and neither is the widespread sense of apathy towards tomorrow. African people and their leaders need to take ownership of their futures, or no matter how much anyone seeks to spur development, the efforts will not yield fruit. I want to end this passage with a story that was delivered by the fellow from the African Progress Panel from a meeting he had with Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela. Annan joked, "You know, for a man who's retired twice, you seem awfully busy," to which Mandela deftly replied, "How can I rest when there's so much work to be done?" It is my hope that the next generation of African leaders, hopefully aided by advances in technology, will carry on in Mandela's spirit long after he is gone.

Potential for Technology to Solve Real Problems

Another interesting theme that emerged was the role of technology in solving real, important problems on the ground. The host of the event, MariƩme Jamme, constantly urged the audience to blog and tweet about the conference and about our experiences in Africa at large. If we speak up, she posited, our leaders and our compatriots won't be able to ignore us. Governmental leaders, in any part of the world for that matter, are too easily caught up their political bubbles and lose their grasp of people's actual experiences and their plights. We as citizens, regardless of our location, need to make our voices heard, and technology gives us a megaphone that has never before existed.

On a very different tract, another of the speakers, Bright Simons, discussed a very concrete issue that he was using technology to attempt to solve. In essence, Africa struggles with a major problem of counterfeit prescription medications. Counterfeiters have gotten so good at creating medications and packaging that look so close to the original, that it is nearly impossible to differentiate. But what's almost identical in form is absolutely absent in substance. These counterfeit drugs have the potential to lead to countless deaths across Africa as they are unknowingly distributed to sick people for potentially fatal maladies like malaria. So to work around this problem, Bright borrowed a model from an existing system well known to Africans: pay-as-you-go cell phone vouchers. When Africans buy vouchers to top up their phones, they are given an unreproducible 10-digit number that is validated by entering it into the phone. Bright's idea was to use the same idea to validate pharmaceuticals. If each drug could come with such a number, the companies could leverage the huge, existing cell phone infrastructure to allow patients to simply validate their medications themselves. A perfect example of a culturally appropriate innovation, from Africa, for Africans.

In Conclusion

In closing, it was quite a day of learning for me, and of meeting quite a few interesting people too (purely by chance, I bumped into three Cornellians in a crowd of about 40). The irony was not lost on me that we were sitting in a 5-star hotel being overfed with delicious food, just miles for shanty towns, talking about the struggles to end poverty and hunger across the continent. But these are the juxtapositions that have come to define much of Africa, and certainly have had an influence on my time here. One can only hope that progress marches forward.

1 comment:

Marjorie said...

Wow! Your observations seem astute! I am amazed at how often your path crosses with other Cornellians. This is a valuable benefit of your education that will probably continue in all your adventures.