Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Planning infrastructure to meet specific goals and needs, and not in terms of specific technology solutions 2

Posted in UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on June 26, 2014

This is my second installment to a series on infrastructure development in an international context, and on building the right infrastructure systems for the contexts they would be developed for (see Part 1.)

I began this series with a cautionary note: a brief discussion of an infrastructure development program that was developed and built with the best and even the noblest of intentions – to make the Sahel, the southern border region of North Africa’s great Sahara Desert bloom. And I wrote of how this effort was overwhelmed by unplanned for longer term consequences.

As a second cautionary example of how even the seemingly best of infrastructure development programs can carry unexpected negative long term consequences, I cite how and why the Kinshasa Highway that crosses the Democratic Republic of the Congo and beyond, came to be known as the AIDS highway.

When it was built, this highway opened up wide swaths of the previously largely inaccessible African interior to development and to new opportunity for this entire region. It created very real opportunity for economic development and on multiple levels. And that of necessity included development of long haul trucking as a means for shipping out lumber and other raw materials, and shipping in finished products: one of the basic steps that with time brings in wealth and creates opportunity for development of new local industry that would ship out finished products too.

There is still, and certainly as of this writing, uncertainty as to precisely what species of host animal the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) first came from but it is believed likely that it was first transmitted to human hosts through the practice of butchering and eating “bush meat” – wild animals of any of a wide range of species and in fact including pretty much any types of animal that can be caught in the wild. People who handle bush meat handle sharp and jagged bone edges and it is not at all unknown for them to become exposed to and infected by microbial organisms that reside in these animals, and certainly when they are being handled when still freshly killed and still raw. That type of pathway could account for initial entry into human populations. And the long distance truck drivers who traveled the newly opened Kinshasa Highway found themselves away from home and family for days on end and repeatedly and as a group they began to develop a reputation for turning to prostitutes and for drinking. The former is important here, and a prostitute who became infected with a to-human novel virus through exposure from a source such as bush meat, would be in a position to transmit it sexually to her clients – long distance truck drivers included. And they would bring it to their urban transport hubs and into larger cities where it could continue spreading. This is one of the models that has been proposed as to how AIDS first entered the human population, and how it first spread there, and in Africa and certainly in the initial years of the AIDS epidemic as an all but exclusively sexually transmitted new (to humans) disease. And if this is in fact an unexpected deleterious side effect of building the Kinshasa Highway, it is also one that could not possibly have been predicted in advance, and regardless of how thoroughly development impact studies might be conducted as part of preliminary planning.

I raise this example because at least in retrospect, the water challenge that I cited in Part 1 might have been largely predictable, and certainly if any real effort was made to determine whether or not the deep water tapped into was being replenished, and if cultural anthropologists and others familiar with the nomadic cultures of the peoples of the Sahel had been consulted. The case study example that I present here and its consequences from building this highway, essentially certainly could not have been predicted.

And up to here I have just discussed deleterious unexpected consequences, whether predictable or not. Development projects also carry opportunity for unexpected positive side effects, and the emergence of serendipitously positive outcomes too. I will consider that side to this at times seemingly “flip of a coin” phenomenon in my next series installment. And after that I will begin looking more fully into planning and planned effects and outcomes, and into preliminary due diligence processes that would at least ideally reduce the uncertainties and improve overall end results and processes for reaching them. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID).

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