Although it is true that I went to Addis Ababa to attend the World Information Technology Forum 2007 as a speaker, it is a hollow claim to say that I visited Ethiopia, or even Addis Ababa. I did land at the Bole International Airport early morning on 21st Aug and departed late night on 24th, but for all practical purposes, I might as well have been elsewhere. The airport terminal was the generic glass and steel tubing terminals you see around the world. The Addis Hilton was just another Hilton. And the UN Conference Center where the conference was held was, well, just a UN conference center which could just as well have been in NYC. The only thing that I was surprised by was the weather. I had expected Addis to be hot; it wasn’t. Temperatures were around 20 degrees Celsius and even though it rained frequently, it was not humid.
I have mixed feelings about conferences. They are great for meeting people and networking. But it is a terrible waste of time to sit through endless boring sessions where the same old story gets told repeatedly by people who have little to add and take a very long time letting you know that. And the worst of the lot are government officials — protocol often demands that they speak at these but all they achieve is confirm my suspicions that bureaucrats all over the world are basically useless and that governments are responsible for the dismal state of most economies.
The first plenary session opened with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Mr Meles Zenawi’s address. He was articulate and reasonable but nothing he said was the least surprising. This may be a good place to sum up what a large number of speakers have to offer in conferences that have IT in their title. Summary: “IT is great and the benefits that it offers must reach everyone. We must make policies that promote IT.”
You cannot have a high-profile IT event without Prof Nicholas Negroponte being there. He was a keynote speaker at the second plenary session and spoke about the One Laptop Per Child project. I took the opportunity to say hello to him. I told him that I was a big fan of the green machine and that I thought that it was an awesome technological achievement. I did not tell him that I thought the OLPC project does not make sense. It would have taken me too long to explain my point of view. But I did push my own agenda: I handed him a copy of the Newsweek of a few months ago which had as its cover story about “The $100 PC” that Novatium — co-founded by our very own Rajesh Jain — was making.
The conference was organized as seven plenary sessions and four parallel sessions each for each of the eight “Commissions”. The commissions were on Agriculture; Building the Infrastructure; Economic Opportunities; Education; Empowerment and Participation; Environment; Health; Social, Ethical, and Legal aspects.
The plenary sessions were held in the main auditorium. It is a very impressive hall with seating for 500 (my estimate), with huge screens, microphones and electronic voting buttons at every seat, headsets for listening to simultaneous interpretations, etc. Just being there makes you feel that something important is going on. It is best not to listen too carefully to what is being said if you wish to preserve that feeling.
I had been invited to speak at the “Commission on IT and Economic Opportunities” by Satish Jha who chaired that commission. I was one of the 15 or so speakers in that commission; and one of the 100-odd speakers in the commissions. That should give you an idea of how many of the 400-odd people at the conference actually heard my talk.
I spoke about how IT can help increase incomes of rural small producers of specialized goods by increasing their market access. Some years ago I had outlined a simple model called “ABC” — Artisan, Business, Consumer. The model depends on mediation which allows the producer (who may indeed be totally unfamiliar with anything to do with IT) to sell his goods world wide. Details of that model are here: ABC Summary.
Overall, I think the conference was useful and I am glad that I attended. But I am coming around to the realization that I should just attend a day or two of these sort of conferences — just enough time to meet the interesting people, speak your piece, and get out without attending the whole conference. I think this will be one of the last IT related conferences I ever attend. Enough is enough.