Mark Beckford

Do Public/Private Global Initiatives Make a Difference?

Over the last five years, the public and private sectors have introduced a number of initiatives aimed at bridging the digital divide and bringing computers to under-served markets.

Intel launched the World Ahead program in 2006, a broad sweeping initiative to encompass all activities Intel was driving to bridge the digital divide. Microsoft launched Unlimited Potential in 2007. AMD was ahead of the curve introducing 50×15 in 2005.

International and regional development agencies have also gotten into the game. The United Nation introduced the UN Global Alliance for ICT Development (UN GAID) in 2006. Africa had the New Partnership for Africa Development (NEPAD), which included bring ICT to schools throughout Africa.

There are many more public and private initiatives, but I will use these few to answer the question: have these initiatives, having been in place for five years or more, made an impact accelerating ICT for Development?

My view? Mixed.

Private sector: Great PR, limited results.

When I was first asked to create an initiative at Intel that would put Intel “back” in the thought leader position in emerging markets, I balked. Our emerging market products, such as the Classmate PC, were a year off from being ready. I didn’t like being reactive to the competition — Negroponte’s One Laptop per Child and AMD’s 50×15 initiative were getting headlines and irritating the Intel brass, to such a point that Craig Barrett, then Intel’s Chairman, was goaded into calling it a “gadget” in the press. And without a product to launch, it seemed like it would just be “PR vaporware.”

But you can disagree with your boss for only so long (at Intel, we called it “disagree and commit”). To make a long story short, we created and launched World Ahead (for more detail, see the two part series on thought leadership).

The results? Great PR, a new emerging market sales force, and the emergence of a new category of computers (netbooks). But actual sales haven fallen significantly short of the original goals. Keep in mind that for-profit companies have two major measures of success: sales growth and profits. As a result, AMD, World Ahead, and Ultimate Potential are shells of the programs they used to be, due mostly to disappointing results.

But there was a positive impact, mainly in the influence to governmental and non-governmental organizations. The role of computers as a key enabler to economic development is now recognized by institutions around the world.

Public Sector: Focused efforts hampered by public sector bureaucracy

UN GAID was announced in 2006 with great fanfare. It arose from the US Millenium Goals and the UN World Summit for an Information Society (UN WSIS) in October 2005. UN GAID’s mission is:

Respond to the need and demand for an inclusive global forum and platform for cross-sectoral policy dialogue on the use of ICT for enhancing the achievement of internationally agreed development goals, notably reduction of poverty.

It is comprised of a Steering Committee, a Strategy Council, and a Champions Network. My current employer is an active member of the Strategy Council and had a significant role in this year’s Global Forum on ICT for education in Monterey, Mexico.

NEPAD was started in 2001, and in 2003 launched an e-schools initiative to bring computers to schools in Africa. Major tech companies such as Microsoft, Cisco and others invested $1M each in 6 “demos.” I met with the head of this project in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2006 in my role in World Ahead. NEPAD’s plans were grand … deploy thousands of computers to schools throughout Africa. A progress report in 2008 stated:

Eighty (80) schools in fifteen countries have had computers and printers, local networks, audio/visual equipment, and internet connectivity installed. Teachers and learners have been trained and acquired ICT skills. Mauritius and Kenya have adopted the NEPAD e-Schools Model and have already started rolling out ICT to 100 schools using resources mobilized internally and from partners.

The results of UN GAID and NEPAD? Increased coordination and focus on ICT for development, but poor results in both execution and implementation which has limited the scale of the deployment of computers. Per the progress report above, 80 schools out of the 1000’s that exist in Africa is not a dramatic impact.

When I attended UN WSIS in 2005, I was struck by the sheer number of for-profit, nonprofit and governmental agencies in attendance, and the diversity and innovation of the various ICT products and initiatives. But all of these efforts were fragmented and lacked a mechanism to bring focus and a cohesive mission. UN GAID has successfully served that purpose. It plays a key role bringing private and public sector to share and coordinate best practices and ideas.

NEPAD serves a similar role for Africa. It is a forum for coordination and facilitation of projects towards common goals.

But the real problem is in poor execution and lack of real results. My experiences working with the public sector, whether it be government, academia, NGO’s or non-profits, is that things move sllooowwww. As such, if you are expecting to get anything done through organizations such as these, make sure you have the patience of Job.

Results count

In the end, results matter. My brain has been wired to see success through dramatic impact on a large scale. That means tens of millions more students have access to ICT. Computer skills and the quality of education quality are significantly improved. Both private and public sector initiatives have fallen short if measured by these goals. That being said, they have created a centralized forum to focus the dialogue on ICT for development. Plus, these initiatives have significant value to their participants, including:

  • Increased access to a broad network of public and private individuals and organizations that have similar goals and objectives,
  • Increased opportunities to influence these organizations in a way that helps the participant achieve its own objectives.
  • Increased credibility of the participating organization by being involved with the initiative.

These initiatives have laudable goals and have improved the “facilitation” of ICT for development. The next step is to move beyond facilitation to execution and impact.