Where Was Technology in President Sirleaf’s Final Annual Message?

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It is the constitutional mandate of the President of Liberia to address the National Legislators at the beginning of every year but this year seems to be very different and momentous. It is the last time she would make such an address to the nation as President of the Republic of Liberia. I have always been an admirer of the President as it relates to the way she speaks and her addresses to the nation. I often tell others that she is a very good sales professional.

In the President’s final annual message, she spoke on different issues, ranging from national security to elections, from education to health, from job creation to “papa na come” but she failed to address technology as I would have expected. While it is clear that the President’s objectives have not focused on technology over the years, I was baffled that technology was not exclusively discussed in her message. Her message as like always was about the big (5) five sectors: economy, health, education, security and agriculture; notwithstanding, the President’s failure to recognize that the technology is an enabler for the speedy growth and support for her “big 5 sectors” is dispiriting.

Technologists like myself could argue that it is because of the lack of inclusion of technology in her policy, the efforts or gains made by those other sectors are not tangible. The President continues to make the same mistake that was made 12 years ago. We are in the 21st century and countries are now adopting ICT as a major tool for development and sustainability as we can see with Rwanda, Ghana, Kenya and the list goes on. I am fully aware that the time is short for the President to implement any major or substantial technology initiative but I least expected that the pace would be set for the next regime.

The pace that we can use technology to support the security sector – we should now be talking about national ID, citizens biometric, and security registry, to name a few. While this Government has not successfully managed to get the National ID initiative going, it is a needed enabler to national security.

Shouldn’t we be talking about using technology in the health sector? How many people die daily because they were administered the wrong drugs or due to the poor record keeping or inter-hospital patient information sharing? Medical practitioners are not making informed decisions, thereby resulting in intolerable deaths all over the country. Underdeveloped countries are highly relying on technology to catch up with the rest of the world. Now we hear telemedicine, remote specimen analysis, eDoctor. These are basic achievable ways technology can be an enabler within Government.

Even though we were promised “from mess to best”, to achieve best we must pass good and better before we can reach best. Can we reach best in the absence of technology? I do not think so. I measure best as the quality of education provided at all levels, from primary education to tertiary education, from curriculum development to school administration. The President has set the pace to have all the County Community Colleges under the University of Liberia. This vision is welcome and commendable but, without the introduction of technology, her vision is cryptic.

An American politician name Sam Farr once said, “To make agriculture sustainable, the grower has got to be able to make a profit.” We cannot expect to grow the agriculture sector if the farmers are not making profit because they do not have the proper tools. Technology has evolved to the extent that agriculturists can freely produce without worrying about their produces being purchased. The introduction of a platform where producer and purchaser can operate virtually can ease such problem. These are things that other underdeveloped countries are taking advantage of while we are still crawling and waiting on the international community. The government should have been able to forecast by now — for example, how many chicken eggs will be produced in the next three months. If they had the proper platform in place to capture these data, this wouldn’t be an issue for discussion. We must remember that policy makers cannot make informed decision in the absence of tenable information.

We can swank of the Government’s one-financial network being managed by the Ministry of Finance but can we do the same for electronic trade? It has been 12 years and we still cannot pay our school fees with visa card, we still do not have an integrated financial platform. Financial institutions have to heavily invest in infrastructure; therefore, making trade a serious challenge for those outside of Monrovia. Can we not rely on technology to move our economy forward? Why are we still focusing on those extractive industries when the rest of the world are using technology to grow their economy? Our peers in the region are using technology to grow their economy; they are promoting social and technological entrepreneurship. Young people are driving their economy with the fastest growing tool called “technology”.

It is noticeable that the word “technology” was only mentioned three times in the entire speech and those areas it was mentioned did not highlight anything about the technology sector. The word telecommunication was never mentioned, neither was communication. Information was mentioned only when she was referring to the dead from Information Ministry. I think this was a major devaluation for technology under President Sirleaf.

Nevertheless, the President did mention something about technology in her message when she spoke about the “Google-Link” project. She said and I quote “In April, Liberia will join the Google Link network, a project that will maximize the potential of the ACE cable and provide our Internet service providers with unlimited bandwidth via fiber optics. This will ultimately deliver much higher reliability, placing Liberia high on the list of African countries with the fastest Internet speeds.”

Is the President saying that we cannot maximize the potential of the ACE cable? The Liberia Government has invested in high speed internet and it is the responsible for Cable Consortium of Liberia (CCL), LIBTELCO, Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA) and the Ministry of Posts & Telecommunications to work on a framework to maximize the potential of the ACE cable. Is the plan to outsource the entire operations of LIBTELCO to Google? The fact that the President specifically mentioned this project in her speech speaks volumes. Is LIBTELCO is going to be around? Is Google going to take over and manage LIBTELCO? Is Google going to focus on the “Last Mile” while LIBTELCO continues doing whatever it is they are doing? Can the Government no longer subsidize LIBTELCO? These are the questions I cannot answer for myself, let alone explain to someone else.

In as much as I agree that the Central Bank of Liberia should be managed by the Government, I strongly agree that our internet should be managed by the Government. Technology is a major enabler and the infrastructure and internet play a major role in ensuring that other sectors benefit from the enabler at the same time maintaining national security and sustaining growth.

About the Author Karl R. Smith:

Karl is a seasoned IT expert who has spent the last 10 years building systems in Liberia for the Government, Private and NGO sectors. Karl is passionate about technology in Liberia and his vision is to use technology to transform and contribute to other lives in a meaningful way. Karl holds a Master’s Degree in Computer Science from the University of Leicester and he is also one of the founding members of the Information Communication Technology Association of Liberia.

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