Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Planning infrastructure to meet specific goals and needs, and not in terms of specific technology solutions 8

Posted in UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on January 18, 2015

This is my eighth 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 United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID), postings 25 and following for Parts 1-7.)

I focused in Part 7 of this series on a specific real-world infrastructure development project that has come to hold a high priority for completion in the East African country of Tanzania: the development of widespread computer and internet access capabilities in their widely dispersed school system. (See my earlier series: Developing Critical Infrastructure from a Human and a Societal Perspective at the UN-GAID directory, postings 16 and following for its Parts 1-6, for more detailed background information on that project and its context.)

Then I stated at the end of Part 7 that I would follow it with a next series installment in which I would consider infrastructure development scenarios as they might unfold in less stable national contexts. Tanzania, with its stability and its sense of inclusive national unity, is easy in comparison to the challenges that should be expected for some countries that will need essentially the same types of infrastructure development initiatives that that country seeks to achieve, if they are to enter into the same 21st century global community that Tanzania seeks full entry into – and even if you only consider fellow African nations as a source of possible examples.

And I begin this discussion in European drawing rooms and in what were then still colonial government offices, even if ones that were soon to be closed down for that purpose. And I begin this with the national boundaries of still soon to be independent new nations, mapped out in some cases literally with pen and straight edge on a map, and regardless of geographic detail considerations, let alone the geographic distributions of tribal, cultural or linguistic groups that occupied those lands – or of the history that had unfolded between them and going back to well before the first histories of those regions were formally recorded.

I am not stating anything particularly novel when I note that a great deal of the twentieth century and subsequent conflict that has occurred in once-colonial, and now independent-nation Africa, stems from the way that the boundaries of these nations were established, and according to abstract outside considerations such as latitude and longitude lines, and not according to the needs of the peoples living there. And potential for conflict after independence and the end of colonial rule, was also created from how different indigenous peoples were afforded different rights and opportunities while still under colonial rule, as well as from local traditions and history.

And to take this out of the abstract through specific example, I cite the tragedies of the Hutu and Tutsi peoples and of the nations of Burundi and Rwanda. The territories occupied by these peoples have seen repeated warfare and even genocidal intertribal conflicts. That type of shared history does not make for easy or straightforward stability, or for trust and certainly when post-colonial national boundaries have pushed these peoples into the same countries. Rwanda in particular of this, has come to be seen as a site of recurring conflict and even outright genocidal attack, even if it has sought as a nation to move past that in more recent years.

I cite a perhaps extreme example there, for geopolitical contexts in which it would be difficult to develop and implement complex, long-term infrastructure change of any type, and even if all parties concerned saw real need for this for their own tribal and cultural groups and peoples. When I note the fundamental stability in a country like Tanzania, I write of historically validated and longstanding trust and cooperation.

• Consider the challenges of developing and implementing a long drawn out national infrastructure project when there is no such inter-tribal trust
• And certainly when smaller scale prototype and staged development efforts would be required, as discussed here in Part 6 and Part 7,
• With their potential for creating have and have-not conflicts between those who benefit early, and those who have to wait.

Ultimately, the most essential requirement for any large scale national infrastructure development project to be able to work, is trust. The people who would benefit from this effort, the people who would see themselves as making personal and community-wide sacrifices in making it possible, and the people who would manage and lead this effort have to be able to come together in dialog. And they have to be able to do so from a foundation of trust. That can be all but impossible, and certainly where conflict is actually openly breaking out, except perhaps in carefully selected and agreed to staged-developed regions and at least initially as demonstrations of what is possible. But even there, this can also create have and have-not conflicts. And I have only addressed infrastructure projects up to here where all involved parties would see gain from them. This just gets more complicated when feelings and opinions are more complex and concern over possible loss from a project has to be added into this too. For a simpler example of that, consider how the project discussed in Part 7 faces both support and resistance, and even in a stable success story country such as Tanzania. Now consider how that might play out in a context of intertribal and inter-ethnicity distrust and animosity.

What do you do when a large scale national infrastructure project is fundamentally necessary – unavoidable if larger problems are to be limited or avoided, and there is no basis of trust to start and to build from in carrying through on it? Then you have to think and plan in terms of building trust and a shared sense of confidence in being able to fruitfully work together, and this can mean carrying out smaller projects first as trust building exercises. They have to be significant, but they also need to be easier and faster to develop and implement, and with smaller risk to any constituent that would be involved or affected. And all constituent groups that would be affected have to be brought into these exercises as having real voices and ones that are palpably, demonstrably listened to. None of this is easy, and particularly where this would be most needed.

I add that this is also a situation where a more widely trusted third party such as the United Nations can offer help through mediation and by serving as a buffer to limit direct conflict. But recent history, and certainly when considering UN Peacekeepers and the challenges that they have faced in recent years, show that this carries risk too. There are no easy answers here.

I am going to continue this narrative with a discussion of visions and voices, and of making inclusion work without bogging everything down in endless discussion. And I will discuss at least some of the issues of conflict resolution here too, where that means ongoing effort and certainly for any endeavor with as long a timeframe as a national infrastructure development project would require, and where there are so many opportunities for setbacks and project complications and even when everyone seeks to act cooperatively on this. And after that I will expand the scale of this series’ discussion to consider multi-national infrastructure development projects, noting that I have already at least briefly discussed one real world example of that in this series’ Part 2 case study. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at the UN-GAID directory.

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