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This interview with Dr. Alex R. Tindimubona of Uganda took place during the Development Workshop organised in the framework of INET'97, the annual Internet Society conference which was held this year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Dr. Tindimubona is chairman of ASTEX, the African Science and Technology Exchange.

Nation building in the age of the Internet

Critical mass

I have got a PhD in Quantum Chemistry, which is a branch of computational chemistry in which we try to model structures of molecules using computers. In doing this work in the 70s, it was always a challenge to the size of the computers available, so we have always been tracking the evolution of computers trying to see where the technology was going. I have also worked in the promotion of science and technology for development, in which we try to understand globally the trends in the development of science and technology and figure out how Africa could benefit from those advances in the same way or in different ways from other societies. What kind of institutions Africa could put in place? What kind of strategies, policies and capacities it should have? What is the minimum it takes to take advantage of an advance in science or technology? This is where the concept of critical mass comes in. Critical mass is a nuclear term, in which an arrangement of atoms is such that it produces a chain reaction, i.e. a self-replicating and therefore self-sustaining process. We believe that such a chain reaction has to be started. You have to build certain configurations of resources, of capacities, of policies, of vision in order to set off a chain reaction for example in information technology. We have to ask what it would take to set such a process in motion.

Critical mass evokes an idea of quantity. Is it not also a question of quality?

It is a question of quantity. It is a question of quality. It is also a question of configuration. Will it work, for example if you have two engineers but no technician? Do you also need an accountant? Or a secretary? What kind of teams do you need?

What are the specific problems you have in reaching your critical mass?

In the case of the Internet, back in 1989 when I was working for the African Academy of Sciences, there were no people who could conceptualise what the Internet might do for Africa. Is this just one of those things people do when they get developed? Such as drive a car. Or is it something that even an African could benefit from? Is there an identifiable group of potential users? So we began to think how the Internet could be planted in Africa and grow. We decided there was a possibility for an advanced technology like the Internet but the debate at that time was centred on feeding people and improving the life of peasants. But in science and technology promotions, we know there are always surprises. A technology comes along that does unexpected things. It acts where you didn't think it would act. It creates its own agenda and people have to follow suit.

Nation Nets

Are there specific uses of this technology in Africa?

I have discovered a hitherto little recognised activity that I have called "nation building" in the age of the Internet. That is to say, engaging in the whole open discourse about nations, their identity, their culture, their systems of government, their future, their consensus building, their shared vision of where they want to go. And the Internet is doing this very, very well through the phenomenon of what I call "nation nets": Uganda net, Kenya net, ... There are over fifteen such nets, bringing together communities, in fact creating communities, in our case of Ugandans, from all over the world. They were all scattered in exile. They all feel distressed that they cannot contribute ideas to where the country could go. And the nation net has enabled this.

Are "nation nets" bringing people back?

Yes and no. These nation nets are usually run for debate on national issues and these debates are usually fed by news from home. Someone volunteers to feed the net with information from the key newspapers. The discussion becomes very passionate and heated, but is ultimately very, very useful for nation building. In some cases it can exacerbate differences but the Internet has an in-built conflict resolution mechanism because you are not in physical contact and the battle of ideas can be more pure.

In this way, the brain drain is somehow lessened because the person feels he can contribute. They feel attached to the home reality and so they get a chance to look at the opportunities. Some may then come back and, of course, others may be strengthened to stay away because they can still contribute when they stay away. The person doesn't have to physically move to Africa, they can still contribute to the development of the country and the Internet clearly is a great instrument for this.

What is it that creates the lack of specialised people?

There has to be a vision. Someone or a group of people must decide that this area is worth going into. Then they must put the resources together to make it happen. You can't win a war if you don't have an army. Someone must put an army together. In this case, the Internet is recognised by some people, but in Africa it is not yet recognised by enough top-level people who can champion it. If they could do that they would mobilise the resources. There is a need for a lot more awareness. We need to do more work at creating champions and most of them are high level people in government, in universities and academies who have influence over the direction in which things go.

Interview by Alan McCluskey, Kuala Lumpur,.

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Created: June 21st, 1997 - Last up-dated: June 21st, 1997