UNITED NATIONS. LOOKING FOR DR. FEELGOOD. FROM THE $100 COMPUTER TO THE $50 CHIP.

 

1 FEBRUARY 2013

LOOKING FOR DR. FEELGOOD. FROM THE $100 COMPUTER TO THE $50 CHIP.

Remember the $100 computer? All those Davos Churchgoers were thrilled for it six years ago, despite obvious warnings by Microsoft's Bill Gates that it won't work. Professor Negroponte of Boston made the pitch, a right one by the way, and all those looking for Dr. Feelgood celebrated it, proposing various ways to collate, collect, and circulate. As a regular "habitue" of Davos, then Secretary General Annan was too cautious to propose, while -- as a close associate of the Gates Foundation -- was too careful to oppose.

Recently, however, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was placed in a delicate situation. A Dr. Feelgood operator was in town pushing a $50 micro-chip, which would spread education worldwide, starting with the dealer's home country, India.

As is universally recognized, India is not just any U.N. country. It has a central place as a Founding Member, a source of outstanding civil servants (with an obvious exception or two), a central member of key groupings from the Non-Aligned to the Group of 77 (now over 110), and more recently, BRICS. It is also a superpower in computer technology, both through its expatriates and at home. More close to home at U.N. Headquarters, it is an effective member of the Security Council, represented by a most capable Permanent Representative, Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri.

What's a devoted Secretary General to do when told by a credible influential envoy, followed by an Indian Chef de Cabinet at the time, that simple chips made in India could help overcome illiteracy? Doors were opened for DataWind, headed by Suneet Singh, to internationally launch Aakash-2 chips. Ban Ki-moon obligingly received the initiator of the enterprise who promised Aakash (which in Indian means "the Sky") as the limit. Teaching will not be the same. Poor children in classrooms will not be the same. Start with India and then spread the word to the world, was at least the promise by the Indian Canadian expatriate, who managed to corner his own country's distinguished U.N. Representative and a deeply committed U.N. Secretary General into an awkward position. He could neither produce as promised and most chips were reportedly produced in China, not India. The New York Times, for example, had a field day with the story in its issue of 30 December.

One wonders where were the advisors to the Secretary General (let alone Ambassador Singh), who should have looked closer at the whole venture. Come to think of it, we were told that there is a special Advisor or Envoy or whatever the designation, to deal with Information Technology matters, attends high-level meetings, and communicates with the Secretary General in his home language. Did anyone pass it by him?

There were several Internet-related gatherings, one in Dubai, the other in Azerbaijan, where varied U.N. agencies were involved and severely criticized -- either for seeming to appear on the ride of autocrats attempting to curtail press freedom, or for not seeking creative proposals for a positive consensus. The Internet is a new area for the U.N., but with better efforts and more attention, the U.N. could avert an awkward position and, indeed, rely on the new e-technology to strengthen its role and enhance its image, including the role of the Secretary General.

That could come more with a clear understanding of the new area and building the right efficiencies, rather than being drawn into the wrong gimmicks.