The ICT4All (Information and Communication Technologies) exhibition that accompanied the World Summit of Information Societies in Tunis, Tunisia was, in real terms, for all. From 15-19 November, 2005, exhibitors of all shades displaying a range of technologies and solutions that could be called ‘liberating’. Consider telemedicine, community radio, playground computers etc. And then there were the usual suspects like Microsoft, Intel, and CISCO occupying center-stage with space commensurate with their financial muscle. The visitors too displayed the spirit of ICT4All, ranging from ministers and heads of states, to opinion leaders and NGOs from across the world, all the way to pure brochure hunters. (I have always wondered what they do with all the brochures they collect. Though one mystery has been solved, they put the visiting cards to good use. Ever since I have returned from Tunisia I have started receiving endless email offers to work with some relative of a deposed dictator to collect untold millions. They believe we will still fall for it.)The ‘digital divide’ has not yet been bridged: ‘empowerment’, ‘liberation’, ‘education’, ‘health’ for all, and ‘gender equality’ are issues, to name just some, that still haunt civil society. But it appears that a concerted effort is being made. Being at the Summit and the exhibition, I was left with no doubt that this is so. This is perhaps the first time in the history of the world that the buzz words have a ring of equality, development and empowerment around them – from open source, to blogs, to the digital divide…

When it comes to using ICT to make ‘development’ difference, India holds a special place in people’s minds. While we may not have noticed, or may even be skeptical about the progress made, the world generally believes that we have made significant progress. Most people realize that we are far from conquering our problems, but we, more than any other country, have a size challenge. The problems, because of our billion-plus population, take on a different magnitude. So India, like many other developing countries has problems, just bigger. But India, unlike most other developing countries is perceived to be heads and shoulders above any other developing country, when it comes to developing ICTs. To many, this makes India a potential role-model. It appears that we can use the ICTs to leap-frog the development cycle. And that is a promise many want to believe in since it provides hope.

Perhaps this was one of the many reasons for the rush at the India Pavilion at the exhibition, despite it not being located in the main pavilion where the air-conditioners malfunctioned throughout the exhibition. With all the machinery and the people, it does get hot.
The exhibits themselves delivered on the promise of ICT4All. Midas displayed a functioning Telemedicine center over wireless broadband with stethoscope and sphygmomanometer; NIIT displayed its Hole-in-the-Wall Education initiative for the education of rural poor and urban slum children; C-DAC had its software solutions for remote health, e-governance, and multi-lingual software. And then, of course, there were India’s technology poster boys – Infosys and TCS – symbolizing the ‘emerging’ India.

The visitors ranged from individual ICT entrepreneurs trying to make a difference in places ranging from Sri Lanka to Mauritania, NGO’s from Massachusetts to Tanzania, and ministers from Brunei to Bangladesh.

For me, personally as an exhibitor, it was a useful week out. One day’s delay in returning because of an unconfirmed air ticket allowed us to see the place, but that is another story. The exhibition itself gave us an opportunity to meet and have meaningful conversations with many interesting people. Most people will have no qualms in acknowledging that perhaps there are over a billion children worldwide who have little or no access to formal education and that it is totally unacceptable. Or to acknowledge that the education goals set by the UN are unlikely to be met and there is a great urgency for mounting some unconventional initiatives. To hold out one such promise and share our experiences and research done over the last five years was a privilege.

– By Ajay Jaiman

First published on November 30, 2005