3 June 2017

Ethiopia: Can We Afford the Internet Shutdown in Ethiopia?

Photo: Joseph Kiggundu/Daily Monitor
(File photo).
editorial

I was just here for a working visit in Ethiopia when I heard that the government has shutdown the Internet. Whooooaaah!!! Can they do that? I asked my friends who are hosting me. Their answer was clear and simple. The government can do anything and does not even have to explain why it is doing that!!!

As Ethiopia strives towards middle-income status, advanced by foreign direct investment as well as increasing trade and business opportunities, the shutting down of Internet access when worldwide business transactions are conducted online will have greater consequences for the country's status.

Ethiopian financial institutions conduct their business online and ATM machines operate through the support of the Internet service. But the most important issue is the cost of the shutdown on Ethiopia's investment opportunities, worldwide commercial activities that could not be possible without the Internet. Hence, the government must reconsider its compulsion to shut down the country's telecommunication connections without notification in advance and before trying other alternatives, and for relatively insignificant reasons.

For the second year in a row, Internet service was cut off without warning across the country to avoid the disturbance of high school exams due to possible leaks for secondary and university candidature students. Although no information has been provided to the country's constituents, the purported justification is for the conduct of the exams to be held in a quiet and serene environment. But some are even arguing to make the matter a "national security" concern. And yet it is difficult to understand how such a leak constitutes a national security issue - although certainly previous leaks and the furore in the social media have caused the current administration a certain amount of embarrassment.

In fact, students cheat in every country in the world. But one would be hard-pressed to find another government that would consider treating this phenomenon as a national security issue, let alone shut down Internet access and other benefits of telecommunications nationwide in an attempt to deal with the problem. First and foremost, it is an indication of a serious weakness within the civil service that should have controlled the possibility of any leaks.

But administratively speaking, the problem could have been addressed in a variety of ways and dealt with accordingly. Leaving aside the "national security" interpretation for the moment, two alternative options could be considered. First, one might characterise the exam leak as a technology problem. Mobile phones and data connections within schools and universities are making it all too easy for students to access the information that they are supposed to be learning, or to solve the problems that they are meant to be working out unaided.

Today's students cannot remember the pre-Google days. But such technical problems have technical solutions. What is the examiner's job? Apart from this, students may be required to leave their cell phones and other devices outside the classroom, for instance. And Wifi or cell phone data access in particular locations - within certain buildings or across an entire campus - may be blocked. Educational institutions in many other countries employ these technical solutions year-round, to eliminate distractions and help maximise students' opportunity to focus on learning, not only to prevent cheating.

A second formulation of the problem would identify the issue as a problem of character and psychological development and seek to address it as such. The problem itself arises in schools, where helping kids to grow up is the primary goal beyond simply educating them. Thus, widespread dishonesty in the form of cheating on exams is a strong indication that the school system needs an overhaul and reform.

The Ministry of Education may need to acknowledge this and to do its own internal assessment and some soul-searching, in order to determine how best to support teachers and the children they are charged with in developing into honest, conscientious, industrious adults - rather than lazy ones we cannot trust. After all, we will all have to live with the results.

But none of this suggests that the appropriate solution is to shut down the Internet. In fact, one is tempted to ask: Do the adults not have larger concerns? To drive the point home, it is worth doing a rudimentary cost-benefit analysis, to assess the impact that these days without Internet may have had on the economy and society at large. This year the Internet connection was shut down on May 30 G.C., just before the end of the month.

This means that the banking system was brought to a halt. Salaries could not be received, bills could not be paid, and all transactions simply stopped. Business could not proceed as usual. I am not sure of the implication for some of Ethiopia's landmark projects and the running of those infrastructures. This is the internal Ethiopian aspect of the shutdown.

And in a country that seeks to grow businesses, commerce and investment, this should be considered a disaster. Indeed, anywhere else it would be! A country that is striving to bring economic transformation cannot afford costs associated with Internet shutdown.

Shutting down Internet access for any reason should not be accepted as a norm. This would be something unthinkable elsewhere. The lack of emergency, under the circumstances, is a testament to Ethiopia's disconnection from the international economic system - and this is nothing to be proud of. While there are benefits to disengagement, this is part and parcel of what is holding Ethiopia back and keeping the overwhelming majority of its people poor.

Beyond finance, but related to it, the shutdown of the Internet prevents communication - beyond copies of exams. Communication blackouts alarm tourists, as well as anyone else who may be trying to make contact from outside of the country. This kind of stress has a ripple effect, with unknown repercussions far and wide.

So what are the benefits? Of course, students are less likely to get their hands on a copy of exams, if there are any before they are tested. Moreover, they will not be "Googling" answers to their questions.

But that does not seem to be the main point. The significance of taking such measures - particularly in the context of the continuing state of emergency - is that the Ethiopian people know and feel that their government can and will do such a thing, and more with impunity, without warning, explanation or official apologies. The purpose is control as well as creating fear. Students may feel it first, and they may be the target, as so often in the past. But the rest of us are forced to feel it too - and to live with the results. Unfortunately, I could not send this for a publication online and hence I have to force Fortune to collect it from elsewhere. Sad!

Ethiopia

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