A student of the Faculty of Sciences at the Université Marien Ngouabi, Brazzaville, Marinette Moyo cannot imagine how she would be able to complete her studies without the internet. Like her classmates, whether she is in class or at home, she does not let go of her mobile phone or laptop. How could she do without online search engines to give a presentation or study for an exam?
It is the same for Gilles Massamba, a young, tech-savvy film promoter, and for numerous other Congolese nationals for whom the internet has become an indispensable social, administrative, and professional tool. The problem is that when the connection lags and is sporadic and expensive, you lose time, patience, and money. It is difficult to wait for 20 minutes to download a document or to be constantly disconnected during a Skype conversation with a relative living in the country’s interior.
High-speed internet through fiber optics
“For the majority of Congolese people, fiber optics remained an abstract notion,” Gilles says. “Until a ship sailing along the coast of Pointe-Noire accidentally severed the submarine fiber-optic cable. Then, everyone made the connection because no one had internet in Brazzaville anymore. It’s scary to think that it is all hanging by a thread, both literally and figuratively.”
In many ways, development of the digital economy and the achievement of regional integration in Central Africa are “hanging by a thread.” More specifically, they are hanging by the fiber optics that are in the process of being installed under the Central African Backbone (CAB) project, the first phase of which was completed on April 6, 2018 with the interconnection of the fiber-optic backbone between the Republic of Congo and the Republic of Gabon.
Becoming an interconnected region
Launched in April 2007 by the countries of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC), during the summit in Ndjamena, Chad, the Central African Backbone (CAB) project aims to promote subregional integration and reduce the digital divide through high-speed, fiber-optic terrestrial infrastructure. The aim is to boost the capacity of the digital link among the 11 CEMAC countries.
“It is the culmination of a decade of ongoing efforts and the fulfillment of the strong ambition expressed by the leaders of the subregion to anchor the countries in the digital economy and thus promote regional integration,” explains Yvon-Didier Miehakanda, coordinator of the CAB project in the Republic of Congo.
The first phase of this project was launched in the Republic of Congo in July 2011 with $30 million in joint financing from the Government and the World Bank. The goal? Build a 521-kilometer fiber-optic backbone (reduced later to 504 kilometers) between the Matombi landing station (from the ocean city of Pointe-Noire) and the border landing station in Mbinda. The work was completed by the Chinese company Huawei, a global telecommunications leader, in collaboration with the Congo–Ocean Railway (CFCO), which facilitated installation of the fiber-optic cable along the railway.
The Congolese backbone continues up to the border city of Lekoko where it connects to the 1,100 km of the Gabonese terrestrial network, which runs up to Libreville.
This new interconnection infrastructure with Gabon gives the Republic of Congo a second fiber-optic connection point that will allow the country to ensure a relay connection in the event of a new breakdown of its submarine cable, which was commissioned in 2012, or of the Matombi connection point in Kouilou.
The first phase of the recently completed CAB project gives way to the second phase, which involves the construction of two new fiber-optic networks in the north of the country in order to connect the Congolese network to the Cameroonian and Central African networks by 2020. Cofinanced by the African Development Bank and the Congolese Government to the tune of 66.56 million euros, this second phase includes, among other activities, the construction of a national “Datacenter” to host data and a technology hub to develop new technologies and the digital economy.
Finally, the third phase of the project, financed exclusively by the World Bank for $5 million, is expected to create a digital economy development fund aimed at financing the development of start-ups and job creation in this sector.
Faster, cheaper internet service
“If this new infrastructure effectively helps enhance internet service in the country, the logical consequence should be the lowering of connection costs for users,” states Aymar Kodia, a young, seasoned internet user. “And that is good news, because the current rates charged by both public and private operators are simply exorbitant (1 Mb costs CFAF 65,000 or $122!).”
On the heels of installing the fiber-optic network, the CAB project also equipped the public university with software tools and interconnected the 11 higher education establishments in Brazzaville. The students are now waiting for the national telecommunications operator, Congo-Telecom, to activate high-speed internet so as to fully benefit from the new technological environment available to them. “I can already see myself having access to unlimited documentary resources, downloading huge files freely, doing research or taking online courses like students in developed countries. That would be really great!” says Marinette.
“Studies conducted in Africa, particularly by the World Bank in 2010, prove that a 10% increase in the number of high-speed internet connections leads, among other things, to an increase in economic growth of 1.3%,” explains Jérôme Bezzina, World Bank task team leader and telecommunications specialist. “In the Republic of Congo, it is estimated that the ICT sector represents 4% of GDP. With better infrastructure, its contribution is expected to be even greater, especially in the services sector where it already figures prominently.”
Huawei case: The HiFi Geostrategic Gambit
In a general, comprehensive, strategic outline of the global scenario we can see that China is being harassed on several fronts by the US: commercial pressures, diplomatic maneuvers to block the progress of infrastructure projects (OBOR/New Silk Road), at technological level, the boycott/ restrictions against Huawei. These are some of the current modalities of strategic competition between great powers, without involving the direct use of hard / military power, which we could well consider a Cold War 2.0.
Analyzing the factors and interests at stake, the events in full development during the last months are not surprising, as the advances of the US government against the Chinese technological giant Huawei. Since the arrest of its CFO, Meng Wanzhou, daughter of the founder of the company, to accusations of espionage, boycotts and diplomatic pressure to annul Huawei’s advances in several countries.
Huawei is the flagship, the spearhead of the Chinese technological advance. This onslaught is not a coincidence. While formally not having direct links with the Chinese government, Huawei has a prominent role in the Chinese strategic technological plan “Made in China 2025”, because of its development and implementation of 5G networks, key part of the plan, which are estimated to be available around soon.
The strategic approach is to change the Chinese productive matrix towards a “High Tech” economy, of design and innovation, to position China in the forefront in the technological advanced sectors of the modern economy (artificial intelligence, biotechnology, robotics, automation, the internet of things, telecommunications, software, renewable energies, and the element that is in the most interest for us to analyze, the 5G). In Washington, they do not feel comfortable with Chinese advances.
The Eurasia Group consulting firm argues that the installation of 5G networks will involve one of the biggest changes in our time, comparing its appearance with major breaks in the technological history such as electricity. Some specialists, websites and the press have coined the term “Sputnik” moment, by comparing the potential impact of competition for the development of 5G technologies with the space race in the Cold War at the time.
The 5G will allow the use of faster network data, as well as the widespread and coordinated use of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, the internet of things, smart cities, automation, improvements in health, and in the military field.
The US has put pressure on several of its allies (Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Great Britain, and Canada to name some) to block Huawei’s advances in services and investments in their countries, while restricting the purchase of Huawei’s products and services on North American soil.
While it is true that several countries could give in from the pressure from Washington to “encircle” Huawei and restrict its services and products, so is the fact that many other countries, especially the many that have China as their main trading partner, in addition to all the pleiad of emerging and developing countries that are being seduced by the economic possibilities, and in this specific case, technology offered by China and its companies. What it would imply, a worldwide competition between American diplomatic muscle and Chinese sweet money.
And also in commercial terms, the progress of Huawei into the top of the tech companies is remarkable, due to its production methods and its business model, having surpassed, for example, APPLE among the largest companies that sells mobile phones being only second to Samsung.
Does anyone remember free trade? Competition? What’s up with that? Or was it just a trick? It seems that in the global economic game, the US throws the chessboard away when it loses, and uses the geopolitical muscle, without any problem, following the Groucho’s Marx doctrine: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”
The fears about Huawei’s technology are hiding a power struggle, a hegemonic dispute over technology. So far the accusations of espionage against this corporation perhaps are valid in theoretical sense, but unprovable in facts, what left them as mere speculations. The accusations by the US against Huawei, through the speech of “the threat of espionage” are unbelievable, and hypocritical in some sense, and the speech is marked by a double standard… Who represents the threat?
is the same US that nowadays “advises” its allies and other countries to “protect” themselves against the “threat” of Huawei’s espionage in favor of its government, the same country that spied on its own allies in a wicked way, if we remember the cases that Assange and Snowden brought to light.
We can also highlight recently the Cambridge Analytica scandal – much of which has been well predicted by prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic in his influential manifesto about the McFB world of tomorrow. The Cambridge Analytica fiasco plainly showed the unholy relations between the big technological “independent” corporations like Facebook and Google with the political power in the West.
Technological competition is another chessboard of this new multilevel and multidimensional XXI Century Great Game, where the great actors move their pieces.
5G is the focal point for a global rush to dominate the next wave of technological development – a race many policymakers worry the U.S. is already losing, and that’s why they act in this aggressive way. The strategic competition for advanced, high technologies such as 5G, and innovations in the fourth industrial revolution, will mark the “podium” of the great powers of the 21st century.
The technological new cold war between the two largest economies and powers in the world shows no signs of diminishing, either the strategic competition.
Who will win this Great Game on the chessboards? The patience / precaution and forecast of the game of Go, or the strong bets and bluffs of poker.
The geostrategic chessboard is already deployed. Players already have their cards in hand, and have moved their tokens. Prestige is to come.
Youth in the Global South Must Join Forces for Their Future of Work
I believe that the developing world is full of opportunities for young people because many of us have the energy and eagerness to make a difference in the world. In many cases the solutions to problems in communities are simpler than they appear. It just needs someone to push. I know from first-hand experience that there is nothing more rewarding than creating a venture or project that has an impact.
In 2001 I witnessed a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak among cattle that severely damaged the economy of Uruguay, as well as other countries’ in the region. Many years later, in 2012, after graduating as an electrical engineer and working with small satellites, I heard about a competition for young innovators organized by the International Telecommunication Union. They were looking for technological inventions that could solve a problem in a particular region. I immediately thought about the foot and mouth disease outbreak and used my knowledge of space technology to create a system that could monitor anomalies in cattle remotely. I submitted the idea and some months later found out I had won the competition! With the cash prize I founded Chipsafer, a monitoring platform that analyses cattle behaviour using data transmitted from trackers installed in their collars. Besides detecting anomalies in cattle behaviour and combating cattle theft, Chipsafer can also help improve the decisions farmers make relating to the production process.
Countries from the Global South should join forces to surf on the wave of technological revolution and benefit from innovative solutions like these to overcome challenges and to achieve a better and more sustainable future. That’s what we mean by South-South cooperation.
Young people – students, entrepreneurs, professionals, activists – need to play a part in this too because they are drivers of change. Yet, with 65 million young people unemployed globally, they still face many challenges.
In a few weeks I will be part of a panel at an ILO event in Argentina on the future of work for youth, with a focus on developing countries. It will take place on the sidelines of the Second High-level United Nations Conference on South-South cooperation (BAPA+40).
My fellow panellists will include Rebeca Grynspan, who was a member of the ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work, as well as workers’ and employers’ representatives. We’ll look at the issue from three angles; policies for skills development, green jobs, and social dialogue. The aim of the session is to provide recommendations for BAPA+40 participants on the effective integration of youth employment policies into South-South and triangular cooperation (where developed countries or multilateral organizations support South-South cooperation).
I plan to talk about the challenges for youth in the context of the future world of work and discuss the impact of South-South cooperation in promoting decent jobs for youth.
Technology is revolutionising the world, and the world of work is no exception. I believe all stakeholders, whether they are international institutions, governments, employers’ or workers’ organizations, must accept responsibility and take collective action to build the future of work that we want. South-South and triangular cooperation must be part of the answer.
Artificial Intelligence in Knowledge Societies: A ROAM Approach – Open Data and AI
The session “Open Data and AI” organized within the framework of “Principles for AI: Towards a Humanistic Approach?” on 5 March 2019 requested UNESCO to continue leveraging its convening power to increase awareness around artificial intelligence and big data, support development of inclusive policy on Open Data and support upstream and downstream capacity enhancement.
The workshop noted Data as an essential element for the development of artificial intelligence. The availability of large amounts of user data through services on mobile phones and internet of things among other sources, has led to a variety of AI applications and services. However, there remain many challenges. These challenges encompass issues of access, privacy, discrimination and openness. Several of these challenges are within UNESCO’s mandate of building inclusive knowledge societies for peace and sustainable development.
Ms Dorothy Gordon, Chair of the Information for All Programme at UNESCO pointed out that “despite the fact that we have a huge interest from many donors, we do not seem to have done very much systematically to prepare African countries to have useful data … [and] in a searchable format that can be combined with other sources to … yield something [beneficial]”. She stressed the need to bridge gaps in terms of the availability of legacy data, setting policy standards, and enhancing capabilities of people to work with local data sets.
Ms Constance Bommelaer, Senior Director of Global Internet Policy and International Organizations at The Internet Society underlined ‘data commons’ as an interesting solution to explore but one that needs a nuanced discussion around ownership and privacy. She highlighted the need to challenge existing notion of competition and a need for “reconsideration of market values and monopolies”. Stressing the importance of access, she shared the findings of a joint study carried out by ISOC and UNESCO that showed how a combination of local language content and better access policies results in immediate economic benefits at the local level.
As a government representative, Ms Veronika Bošković Pohar, Deputy Permanent Delegate of the Republic of Slovenia to UNESCO discussed ‘regulatory sandboxes’ as a means to provide controlled environment for AI. She hoped that Slovenia’s proposed Category 2 Centre on Artificial Intelligence would be able to make several informed decisions, provide insights into technology and societal interface and create mechanisms for continuous monitoring and reporting to reduce risks posed by AI to vulnerable groups.
Speaking as a panelist representing a knowledge organization, Prof. Maria Fasli, UNESCO Chair in Analytics and Big Data at University of Essex noted the lack of understanding on AI and Big Data and expressed concerns for the difficulty faced by the academic community in accessing data collected by large technology firms for research purpose. She further highlighted the need for high quality representative data to ensure that algorithms are not biased.
Given their experience in tracking innovation trends across the world. Mr Marcus Goddard, Vice President of Intelligence at Netexplo Observatory underlined that “access to data is a necessary but not sufficient condition for innovation. Pointing out the general trends in openness, he mentioned that openness is not Silicon Valley’s top priority and convenience seems to be the norm when it comes to launch of new products and services. He highlighted that even as data is being used in smart cities to improve access and sustainability, it is also increasing the threat of surveillance.
Mr Philippe Petitpont, Co-founder of Newsbridge, a Paris based AI and Media startup, presented the scale of the data problem that the media faces today. He remarked that media companies are gathering 30 million hours of video content every year, a number that does not include social media videos. In this situation, extracting useful insights from these videos is a cumbersome task albeit one that can be performed by AI. They try to leverage AI to help journalists process large amounts of data at lower costs.
The session brought the viewpoints of multiple stakeholders to the discussion table and some of the key concerns included were:
- Urgent need to increase awareness around artificial intelligence and big data;
- Developing strategies to strengthen access to data for training machine learning algorithms;
- Supporting both upstream and downstream capacity enhancement to leverage data for benefit;
- Involving private sector actors in the discussion around access to data and data monopolies; and
- Creating systems for addressing discrimination and biases originating through data and algorithms.
The panel members congratulated UNESCO for facilitating important discussions around issues of rights, openness, access and multistakeholder participation in the governance of data and hoped to engage with the organization for further development of issues around Open Data and AI.
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