The conference opened with presentations by three hard hitting visionaries -- Counsellor Lisa Chiles, the senior most career officer at USAID; Michael Rawding from Microsoft's Unlimited Potential, and Ambassador David Gross, the U.S. Coordinator for information technology and foreign policy. Chiles provided an overview of the promises of technology, focusing on finding low-hanging fruits in education where a modest, well-directed investment can dramatically help an underfunded education system. Rawding spoke on the Microsoft roadmap for developing countries; a mix of market expansion and market creation (I mean, philanthropic work). Gross reminded us that the world is changing in unpredictable ways due to technology, and creating a global, mobile workforce where people are no longer (I'd argue, slightly less) bound to grow up to do the same work their parents do.
The rest of the day was largely panels - on ICT for disaster preparedness and relief, mobile banking, PPPs (Public-Private Partnerships) eHealth.
ICT and disaster response was mainly a show-and-tell of various tools and websites (all leveraging Microsoft technology). Absent was any discussion or mention of Sahana (an open source, quick-deployment disaster information management system) or the amazing work done using ning.com (Web 2.0 and quasi-open-source) to provide coordinated responses and information about the hurricanes this season.
Mobile banking has amazing potential, but throughout the panel the constant conjunction with microfinance - another fantastic concept that's working - in specific models - in the field. I felt a push towards credit/debt throughout the panel, with mobile phones as the way to create a vast new credit market among the next billion. That seems disingenuous and risky, especially coming off of our current credit and banking crisis in the US; we clearly are under-regulating the stability of the credit market, and not only opening up the poorest people in the world to that risk, but encouraging them to accumulate debt, is asking for a disaster.
The lunch plenary was by the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which I continue to have mixed feelings about. I see the value in stricter ties of funding to success, especially for nations which are doing well but still developing. I support their lip-service to require countries to own their development work and to support that through grants instead of loans. I think that the MCC is more politically motivated and even more the carrot at the end of the stick of US foreign policy than AID is. Their criteria with which they judge countries is clearly in line with the State Department - which makes sense prima facie, but undermines their "ownership" clause - you can own your development process, as long as you follow our instructions and adopt our goals. Also a general note to MCC - when you cherry pick the countries you work with on their existing successes, you don't get to compare their continued success in your programs to other countries. It's like picking A students to make them A+ students and bragging that after your program, all your students are A and A+ students, while all the other students are mostly C and B students.
The evening sessions on PPP (Public-Private Partnerships) and eHealth were good but hardly new information - sharing health records and the importance of making partnerships - yes, technology is improving and easing these transitions and connections.
My notes through the day are interspersed with a slowly growing number of meta-comments along the lines of "STOP WITH THE MICROSOFT ADS" -- the conference was put on and paid for by Microsoft, so I was expecting some amount of MS placement and such, but as the day wore on, and every speaker was a Microsoft partner extolling the wonders of Microsoft, it wore thin and had the lasting impact of reducing Microsoft's credibility - are they so scared of alternate viewpoints and technologies that they don't show up on the agenda at their conference?