One of the biggest sponsors of the World Economic Forum at Davos this year was Cisco. That’s entirely natural: Cisco is huge and global and powerful, which is all you need in Davos. And Cisco does its part to make the world a better place, too: more than 2 million students have passed through its Networking Academy Program, which has more than 11,000 academies in over 160 countries.
But when Marc Musgrove, Cisco’s PR chief, cornered me in Davos and started trying to sell me on all the wonderful things that Cisco was doing in sub-Saharan Africa, I was a bit dubious. Sub-Saharan Africa doesn’t need networking equipment, it needs clean water, and widespread efforts to eradicate malaria and Aids. This kind of thing generally strikes me as reminiscent of failed 1970s-era industrial policies:
Turning Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest nations, from an agriculture-based economy to one influenced heavily by information and knowledge is no small challenge. But it is one the Ethiopian government is intent on rising to – with help from Cisco Systems.
In fact, the government sees this transition as vital for the future of the country.
The man in charge of selling Cisco’s networking equipment to emerging-market goverments like Ethiopia’s is Scott Blacklin, and I spoke to him at some length today. Blacklin is unapologetically commercial: he says that Cisco asks him to be just as profitable in Africa as he is anywhere else in the world. Sure, he’ll pinch-hit for the philanthropic arm of the company when they ask him nicely, but his job is to make money by selling networking equipment to emerging-market countries, and in pursuit of that job he’ll happily look at the World Bank’s priorities and try to make sure that Cisco gets as many of the resulting contracts as it can. "It’s abundantly commercial, I’m not here to save the world," he says. But he also understands the importance of understanding the bigger picture: "We do ourselves no favor by thinking that the willy-nilly dissemination of networking gear is a good thing without the ability of the population to absorb and use it."
That said, however, Blacklin is optimistic about the ability of networking gear to change sub-Saharan Africa for the better. It does so in commercial projects, where the government or schools or hospitals are networked. Where there is electricity, says Blacklin, there can be networking, and "there is a role for arming people with information in categories that they can use".
And of course the non-profit arm of Cisco is interested in sub-Saharan Africa as well. Blacklin, wearing his corporate rather than his sales hat, got into an interesting discussion in Davos about malaria diagnostics. In many parts of the continent, if a child falls ill, he or she might have to walk for 24 or 36 hours just to find out whether it’s malaria or only a fever. (This is something which World Bank managing director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala knows at first hand.) Cisco, then, is interested in partnering with a pharmaceutical company which aims to eliminate malaria in Africa; Cisco’s role would be to use computer networking to get diagnosis immediately, rather than with a possibly fatal 24-hour delay.
Blacklin is humble about Cisco’s ability to make a big difference. Cisco’s a very small player in the development space, and a lot of what it’s trying to do isn’t going to work. What’s more, Cisco has definitely not signed on to Bill Gates’s idea that international companies should be operating on a breakeven basis rather than a for-profit basis when serving the bottom billion.
Cisco’s also well aware of some huge constraints on what it can do, starting with the supply of electricity – which is obviously necessary for any kind of communications equipment to work – and continuing on to questions of literacy. But Blacklin is of the opinion that Africans don’t actually need a lot of literacy in order to be able to use computers to learn about disease prevention or what to do in the event of a crop failure.
That might be true. And if I were Cisco, I’d be working in the same space: companies should help out where they can. If I were a government minister in a sub-Saharan country, however, trying to wrangle ownership of all the development programs going on, I’d still be very sceptical of just how much information and communications technology can really achieve. All too often, companies like Cisco will come along and offer to donate valuable resources and expertise, and governments don’t want to turn down the offer, even if it doesn’t easily fit in to a broader strategic vision. For long-term sustainable results, however, it’s often important to stick to the plan, and not get sidetracked by shiny new toys.