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Dec 04 2013

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Is the Caribbean’s growing focus on ICT just rhetoric?

Over the past several weeks there have a number of statements from countries across the Caribbean saying that they are putting an emphasis on ICT. What does that mean? Is it just lip service, or speaks to a transformational agenda?

Megaphones Shows Announce Broadcast Announcing Or Loudspeakers by Stuart Miles (FreeDigitalPhotos.net)Making headlines in our latest news roundup was that Dominica was placing considerable “emphasis and importance on supporting the growth of the information communications technology (ICT) sector”. This view was expressed by Kelvar Darroux, Parliamentary Secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister, during the launch of Digital JAM 3.0 “Caribbean Edition” in Dominica, where he also noted

The increasing reliance on information communication technology, as a medium for promoting enhanced business and economic performance has increased significantly in the last few years…

(Source: Dominica Vibes)

The growing emphasis on ICT by Caribbean countries is not new. Prior to the report from Dominica, in last week’s news roundup, Saint Kitts and Nevis indicated that it was creating an Information Society, and the week before, the same country had entered into an agreement with Taiwan to facilitate ICT development. Suffice it to say, if we check the news headlines over the past year or two, we would notice regular entries on a Caribbean country’s growing focus on ICT. However, is that position just lip service on a very topical issue, or will it be translated into direct action?

Global trends

Worldwide, ICT has ben recognised as an important driver of economic and social development. Organisations such as McKinsey & Company, Booz & Company and the World Bank, have conducted studies that have found a relationship between broadband penetration and economic growths, specifically the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For example, the World Bank found that a 10% increase in broadband penetration results in a 1.38% increase in GDP, and this relationship was more pronounced in low- and middle-income countries (Source: World Bank).

Additionally, we cannot deny that increasingly we are living in a digital world. Organisations, and even countries, are trying to capitalise on the opportunities that the broad range of technologies and platforms afford to maximise profits, to become more efficient and increase productivity. Further, the value of information – for financial gain and to improve decision making – has become increasingly evident, which is causing intrinsic changes within organisations and across our societies.

On the other hand, we are also grappling with the consequences of living in an increasingly digital and information-driven world. Top of mind examples include, cybercrime and the changes that are occurring in individual attitudes and behaviour, and by extension the very fabric of our societies.

Caribbean practice to date

Currently, countries across the Caribbean are depending on improved telecoms to help them become information and technology-driven societies. Although citizens would benefit from improved services, in many instances governments appear to be focussed on having good telecoms infrastructure in order to secure more foreign direct investment.

However, as was evident from our Snapshot series, which highlights the Caribbean’s state of development across a broad range of indicators, penetration in fixed and mobile broadband is still very low. Key reasons for those results include the still limited network deployment in some countries, but more so the limited take up by consumers, which could be attributed to the still relatively high prices for the services.

It is important to highlight that telecoms infrastructure development across the region tends to be driven and financed primarily by the private sector, specifically the telecoms companies. Government offer little to no financial support to facilitate network expansion, but there are frequent calls by policy makers for lower prices and adoption of the latest technologies.

Further, following initial liberalisation initiatives to introduce competition in telecoms sectors, an increasingly arms-length approach to industry policy and regulation has generally been adopted. Hence the focus tends to be on matters such as dispute resolution and pricing regulation, but not necessarily on continually revising policies that foster enabling environments that are more aligned with changing paradigms and global developments.

Is it all just lip service?

Without a doubt, any intention by Caribbean countries to give more attention to developing their ICT sectors should be welcomed. However, it may not necessarily mean a wholesale or far-reaching transformation is imminent. Many of our countries are strapped financially, and would not be able to fund (directly or through donor agencies) projects critical to grow their ICT sectors. Further, and based on the information in the public domain, many countries do not appear to have specific goals, or a coherent plan through which to realise them.

In summary, we are likely to see a number of ad hoc ICT-related plans and projects being implemented across the Caribbean, which in and of themselves, will incrementally develop the ICT sector in their respective countries. It therefore means that for the most part, the Caribbean will continue inch along the ICT development path, but may not necessarily be in a position to truly harness all of the cross-cutting benefits that developing countries, in particular, can realise.

Image credit:  Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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About the author

Michele Marius

Michele Marius has a wealth of experience in the telecoms and ICT space, which has been gained in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, and in the public and private sectors. She is the Editor and Publisher of ICT Pulse.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.ict-pulse.com/2013/12/caribbeans-growing-focus-ict-rhetoric/

6 comments

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  1. Niel Harper

    I personally believe that it is part lip service, and part because government officials know that there is considerable funding to be obtained from the World Bank, ITU and other organizations to support ICT for development (ICT4D) projects. Not to mention that a number of trips to conferences and workshops are made available as well.

    Not meaning to come across like the harbinger of doom, but I have not seen any concrete public sector initiatives (market liberalization, regulatory reform, network build-out, spectrum auctions, e-government, etc.) across the region that would change my thinking.

  2. Vidyaratha Kissoon

    I wonder if the problem is the absence of any coherent plan or strategy rather than the financing. So many countries have developed strategies, there is even a CARICOM one but they do not seem to be implemented or evaluated. I thought that the models we were following were the Republic of Ireland and Estonia.

  3. Aylair Livingstone

    Michele, very good article and insightful observations. As a Freedom of Information and Open Data practitioner, I am very much aware of the importance of strong ICT infrastructures to the sharing of information for the purposes of transparency/innovation/business development etc. Given our track record of much talk and little action here in the Caribbean, at least there is some incremental progress in ICT even if it is largely spearheaded by private telecom companies.

  4. Andrea Blake

    Interesting article. ICT4D requires the collaboration of pubic sector policy makers, private sector investors and academias. The examples of countries like Singapore, Ireland and Taiwan are documented as models of how smaller countries have applied ICT as an enabler of social and economic development for their economies. The Caribbean needs a cohesive strategic approach to the various elements of infrastructure which support ICT4D.

  5. Telojo Valerie Onu

    It is definitely part of lip service. In the case of Saint Kitts funding was there from the European Union to establish a PPP foundation to drive information society, but the will was not there.

    CARICOM developed a plan but where is the will or resources to implement. Perhaps we need another disaster like in Haiti to see how ICTs have been used.

    To be it will continue to be lip service until something drastic happens like the Clico fiasco but this time cyber crime. Truth be told, as a region we are not proactive but reactive.

    The reality is, unless spearheaded by the private sector, to put it colloquially, “we spinning top in mud”.

    Then there is the issue of Caribbean economies growing lack of competitiveness and its need to foster innovation for increased competitiveness, ICT’s play a critical role in facilitating innovation and the development of new business models, but when you look at surveys as to how SMEs use ICTs its very basic stuff. On the flip side you have a scattered applications development sector that is struggling for seed and start up finance, that is craving equity or royalty based funding but this is absent in the Caribbean environment.

    So it boils down to the WILL to change, this is fundamentally absent. Countries like Estonia and Rwanda had their Presidents or Prime Ministers championing the use of ICT’s for transformation. This will also embraced public private partnerships I must add.

  6. John Thompson

    This ICT development is a subset of the whole Caribbean development predicament facing post colonial governance systems within the Commonwealth, with the exception of maybe Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the former South Africa( new South Africa is a different, paradigm) and I dear say even the United Sates, colonial governance has left in its wake a caretaker mentality. Caribbean governments are by and large caretakers of the colonial system and content only to tweak it here and there mainly( when directed to do so for some financial benefit or to do the minimal modernisation required to sustain it in its least modified form (marginal fixing so to speak). Why is this the mentality? Could be the result of a host of reasons, for one, inertia brought on by the overwhelming nature of the governance? It requires politicians to work harder for an intangible benefit and to sometimes make thankless sacrifices. There is no massive individual material benefit accruing to those who daily struggle to turn the fortunes of an economic system, a legislative system and a social system through using the political system, as it is legally designed to function. Under the normal practices, politician don’t get rich. The other option proposes the accumulation of wealth and the abuse of privilege through accessing the public purse for personal gain. There are only so many hours in the day to address this other option, but the imperative of office requires at least, continuity of the system on an ongoing basic. So if you propose to serve the personal wealth accumulation option you have no time to serve the intangible benefits option unless you adopt a caretaker role as a means of providing continuity to the systems you are elected or charged govern. This approach frees your time to address your wealth agenda. Before you know it your term is over you have much personal wealth but could only spare the time to “care take” the system so, no radical change, no modernisation, no re-engineering, a few added assets to preoccupy the system users and the electorate, but by and large little development. That is only one reason. Briefly another is that change and social justice always carries the risk of altering the status quo, The power of the past colonial governance was that it could effect change without altering the status quo. Simply because those changes are always conducted in the interest of the status quo who hold the controlling power over the people. In a independent democratic country change is championed/legitimised only in the interest of the people, the people can bring down the status quo, big difference. So we post- colonial leaders with internal support resist the radical changes that threatens the status quo. We make tacit alignments to keep things as they are because it is the only way of guaranteeing the intransigence of the status quo. There are many other “and so on and so on” reinforcing the post colonial paradigm. Its all about power for its own sake and perpetuation of a dynasty approach where governance is for life. This is chosen over the new world concept of nation building open competition and creating an environment were prosperity is legitimately made accessible to all through hard work and fair dealing (” the American Dream” for want of an analogy). Until we begin to work for the good of the country as not an audacious challenge to our will to govern for the development of our people, we will continue to choose the next best thing. I haven’t even mentioned ICT to explain the problem but one can see that the attitude adopted for governance will also impact on the desirability for the radicalism that ICT proposes. Also, caretakers don’t usually assume such radical changes that will take so much effort and distract away from the other real agenda of personal gain and aggrandisement.

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