Friday, December 08, 2006

Ukraine - sleeping giant of the east

Ukraine is the country where my Polish ancestors are rumored to be from. I find my time spent here to be some of the most meaningful on a personal level. The hosptiality of the rural people and their quiet, patient ways are truly a joy. I helped to estabish business oriented telecenters in nearly every region of the country. Like most former Soviet countries, Ukraine is undergoing a painful process of de-centralization. Most municipalities were tightly controlled by the central government, which led to decison making ownership by a select few.

De-centralization has created confusion in Ukraine's villages. No one is quite certain how to develop their economy or which decision is right for the future. A minority of entrepreneurs are stepping up to remake the rural economy. I work closely with rural entrepreneurs to help them set up internet centers with a business and training focus.

The results of this work are ongoing. Literally thousands of rural people have received basic computer training and are increasing their ability to create sustainable communities. Where there was confusion and relative despair - there is now hope in the promise of being connected to global opportunities.

I am now working with UPS and USAID on a very cool project linking Poland with a village chool in Nizankowice, Ukraine. Check out the website

Afghanistan - rising once again

Afghanistan offers the international development professional a real opportunity to make a difference. Almost 30 years of war have left this country shattered. Yet again, the people in rural communities share their homes and hospitality without reservation. The stark beauty of the landscape and the visual history dating back beyond Alexander the Great is remarkable.

I work with USAID in bringing rural universities online and in crafting web-learning applications to help faculty improve their computer research and materials development skills. The work is rewarding and demanding. Security is a major concern and there is a feeling of 'impending doom' much of the time I am in-country, this can be thrilling though.

We now have the top universities in Kabul, Mazar and Herat connected to high-speed wireless and are targeting 4 more in 2007.

On the frontline of digital development

Over the past three years I've been working with rural communities in bringing innovative technology solutions to those who need them most. Rural communities are often neglected even in developed countries like the United States. Similar communities located in developing and transition economies are extremely isolated and do not generally have access to the outside world. This lack of access subjects residents to a life of relative ignorance and poverty. I strongly believe the internet and computer training are essential tools in improving the lives of people most often ignored and out of the technology loop.

Thanks to assistance from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and other donors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, rural communities are gaining access to the internet, training and new technologies to bring them closer to the global village. This blog shares some of my experiences working in Ukraine, Romania, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Afghanistan. The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect official foreign policy of the US government or any other organization.

Kyrgyzstan - the new silk road

So many people are unaware of this beautiful, mountainous country locked between China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. The Kyrgyz are an ancient Turkic people recorded by the Chinese over 5,000 years ago. There are real similarities between the Kyrgyz and their distant Mongolian cousins. The country is also emerging from the Soviet model and is struggling to define an economic niche. Many of its neighbors have 'unfair advantages' such as a booming manufacturing base in China and the large deposits of oil and gas in Uzbek and Kazakh. The one promising resource that our project taps into is Kyrgyzstan's rural human resource potential.

Rural education is terrific. Over 99% literacy with an emphasis on match and science. This foundation is necessary in rapidly training rural residents on how to use computers and digital media. Our project set up eCenters in nearly every region of the country. Similar to Ukraine, we worked closely with rural entrepreneurs, mostly internet cafe owners, to establish e-learning programs to transform the rural economy. We are now looking to expand this project using a franchise model.

Mongolia - truly the last mile

Mongolia is one of east Asia's final frontiers. The population is roughly 2 million and half live in the capital Ulanbator. My project works with villages with populations of roughly 2,000 people wo live on less than a dollar a day. The Mongols have a long, proud history yet are pretty humble, generous and optimistic. Our initial pilot project was situated near Siberia in the rumored birthplace of Ghenghis Khan in a very remore village called Dadal. The only way to reach this village (or Soum in Mongolian) is to drive in a 4-wheel for 15 hours each way.

Reaching Dadal requires serious thought. You need to being a satellite phone, a GPS tracker (I used Garmin) and supplies to keep you alive if your vehicle breaks down. Temperatures in early winter can drop to -50. You need the phone and GPS tracker to let people know where to find you - even if you turn into a popsicle.

I helped bring an innovative VoIP wireless phone solution to the village. We set up a rural VSAT station (I-Direct) and succesfully made international, national and local calls using VoIP cell phones. Now, you haven't seen these phones in commercial release in the United States but here we are testing, for possibly the first time ever, a commercial application for rural telephony using VoIP wireless. Truly groundbreaking and exciting work.

We are now in the process of rolling out four more villages and will try to bring communities like Dadal into the 21st century. It's worth noting that most villages have relatives living and working abroad or in Ulanbator. Our project is able to create linkages and offer a way to improve livlihoods where it was considered impossible.