There are moments at the World Economic Forum that everyone would like to go a bit faster. These usually involve a Very Important Person saying things that are semantically meaningless in a very serious voice. (“We must redouble our commitment to the transformation of the continent.”) Andrew Heavens of Meskel Square attends more of these than I do, poor man, and notes that they’re generally the feeding ground of the figures George Ayittey terms “hippos”, in contrast to the “cheetahs” he celebrates, who we all saw on display at TED. By contrast, WEF is HippoCon.
But there are also moments at WEF that I’d like to unpack and savor at length, or at least untangle so I could be in two places at once. At two this afternoon, a distinguished panel sat down to ask whether a “Marshall Plan” was neccesary to provide Internet connectivity to the entire world. Represented on stage were senior figures in the International Telecommunications Union, the CEO of one of Africa’s government monopoly telecoms, and a minister with oversight over Telkom, South Africa’s legendarily extortionate telecoms parastatal. There weren’t exactly a whole lot of open spectrum or access to fiber activists in the room…
The panel opened with a question to the audience, asking if it should be a priority to provide connectivity to the world. An audience member – tightly connected to the ITU – jumped to his feed and declared, “Without connectivity, there is no solidarity, there is no progress.” (Actually, my research suggests that even with connectivity, there’s often no solidarity…) ITU, which has been searching for meaning in a world where negotiating international direct dialing rates seems increasingly quaint, clearly would love a Marshall plan under their direction. Pushback from the private sector was surprisingly weak on this front, since there’s a good chance that the materiel deployed in this Marshall Plan might come from manufacturers in the room. When a private sector supporter dared to point to Rwanda as evidence for commercial investment in infrastructure, Mr. ITU interupted to claim credit for building Rwanda’s basic telecoms infrastructure.
It was great fun to hear the CEO of a former monopoly telecom warn other countries about the dangers of “over-competition” in the phone market. (The danger is that competing companies will pay too much to the government for spectrum licenses. Funny, hasn’t been too much of a problem in Ghana or Nigeria, which have opened their mobile spaces and seen usage explode.) And I had many questions for the gentleman who oversees Telkom, especially about his announcement that the company would be building a new West Africa cable to replace SAT-3 – no word (and no questions) on whether access to that cable would be open.
As much fun as it was watching hippos romp, I ducked out to attend the BBC Debate about Zimbabwe. Monitored by Nik Gowing, it was a bit one-sided, as the Zimbabwean government wasn’t able to attend, the ZANU-PF refused to participate, and South Africa declined to send a government official. The participants were Zimbabwean opposition figures, Zimbabwean businessmen and international economists. Gowing set a very stark stage, listing facts and figures about the country:
– 3700% inflation officially, with estimates of much higher rates. Gowing tells us that central bank governor Gideon Gono has said, “Our job is to print money. It’s unorthodox, but it’s our way to survive.”
– 80% unemployment, 78% of people living below the poverty line, 56% of people living on less than $1 a day
– Enormous outward migration and reliance on remittance from expatriates for the survival of people still in the country
– 44% drop in agricultural productivity since land redistribution began, and the likelihood of a major shortfall in maize production this year.
Given the scene that was set, I’d expected doom and gloom. But there was a surprising degree of optimism in the panel, not about the end of Mugabe’s regime, but about the prospects for Zimbabwe after a change of government. The global economists argue that Zimbabwe’s highly educated population and remaining infrastructure will make it reasonably easy for Zimbabwe to turn around, “not overnight, but in three to five years.” The businessmen announced that they were staying out of politics, simply trying to keep their businesses afloat so that could rise again when the economy recovered. And Arthur Mutumbara, leader of one of the factions of the MDC (and a fellow Young Global Leader), was the most optimistic of the lot: “There’s a danger of understating our ambitions. We don’t just want recovery. We want to be better than South Africa and Botswana. We want to be the Singapore or Malaysia of Africa.”
The economists had reminders that there’s really no way out of four-digit inflation without causing great harm to the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Pegging the Zim dollar to the rand – or, more likely, simply adopting rand as currency – would halt inflation, but would also force massive cuts in government spending, as Gono could no longer print money. Aid packages to the poor would likely need to be cut, or would need to come from outside the government. More than one speaker wondered whether the current government had enough political popularity to put their populus through tough structural changes like this – this might be the job for the successor to Mugabe.
Where some disagreement emerged was on the wisdom of Thabo Mbeki’s strategy of “quiet diplomacy.” One speaker pointed out that loud diplomacy and public condemnation certainly didn’t seem to be working. Another suggested that Mugabe would need an “exit package”, including financial and diplomatic guarantees for his family before he would step down. Several speakers urged patience and caution. The major dissenter to these views was Collen Gwayo, a leader in the Zimbabwe Council of Trade Unions (another fellow YGL), who argued that Mbeki had been quiet for far too long: “You don’t negotiate to stop one man from beating the other – there’s no need to be quiet about that.” Given Gwayo’s first-hand experience of the climate of violence in Zimbabwe, he deserved and got a round of applause for his point.
Ironically, I had to leave the session early… so I could fly to Jo’burg and attend some meetings focused on Zimbabwe. I’ve got high hopes the debate will make it from the BBC to the web – it was one of the better and more informative exchanges in my time at WEF, and did a good job of challenging my views on Zimbabwe and its future.