Technology for diplomacy: A chat with State's Alec Ross
In Congo, e-mails and text messages are being used to warn women and children of attacking rebels nearby. In sub-Saharan Africa, text messages are instructing people how to take HIV medications. In Iran, an online video from President Obama to Iranians on their new year went viral.
These are among the many projects conceived by the State Department, where the use of technology has become a diplomatic tool.
Alec Ross, senior adviser for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, is working on such projects, charged to figure out how some of the most cutting-edge technologies out of Silicon Valley and from telecommunications service providers around the globe can be used for development, to end conflict, and to foster diplomatic ties.
During a coffee yesterday morning, off recent trips to Africa and Mexico, we caught up and talked about how some of the simplest technologies, however, can make the greatest difference.
“It’s about the ability to connect, which is possible because of the proliferation of our global networks,” Ross said. “It’s about using the tools of the 21st century to innovate in our diplomacy.”
In Congo the per capita GDP is $184 and despite a peace treaty in 2003, war rages in the east with an overall death toll of 5.4 million. It is has the worst record of rape and violence against women and children.
Despite the vast poverty, radios and cellphones are prevalent. Ross has put into place a program where former soldiers in refugee camps are communicating through radio programs to those still engaged in warfare in the bush and encouraging them to leave the fighting. He’s putting together a program for mobile banking – which he expects to be the single most effective application to world development -- for soldiers who haven’t been paid in years. The ability to securely transfer money and save through accounts over cellphones is empowering for these soldiers who are frustrated and can’t be guaranteed their earnings will be delivered safely to them or to family.
It’s an idea he’s borrowing from Kenya, where he saw advanced uses of cellphone applications – ahead of much of the U.S. and other nations. People pay for cab fare through their cellphones. Seven million Kenyans have mobile phone banking accounts, giving them the ability to save, exchange funds, and borrow – essential financial elements of development.
And he’s tapping into the social networking tools he helped use during the election campaign. He worked with a technology advisory group to Obama, using social networking platforms to gather support and fundraising. Earlier this week, Clinton announced Civil Society 2.0, a program to educate and train grass-roots organizations around the world to create Web sites, blog, launch text messaging campaigns and build online communities.
The spread of cellphones and access to the Internet around the globe has changed the landscape of diplomacy, he said.
Like the printing press changed the geopolitical landscape during the Roman Catholic Empire, high-tech gadgets and the Web allow people to gather information easily and spread information quickly. It’s an opportunity, Ross said, that needs to be approached strategically by the U.S. and drives what he calls “21st-century statecraft.”
He notes the example of a boy in Togo who makes toys out of tin on a street corner. An American woman visits his city every so often and stops by his corner to buy a toy. On one visit, the boy asked her to send him an e-mail with what she'd like so she could make it to her specification.
“What does that mean? It means that that boy can be connected to a global marketplace,” Ross said. “And it means the U.S. can connect and engage with him differently.”
November 6, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
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