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TED Africa - Introducing Africa 2.0
Ethan Zuckerman, 5 Jun 07

I’ve only been to TED - the Monterey, CA-based “Technology, Entertainment and Design” conference twice - but I’ve worked out a basic survival strategy for those events. Because I spend the conference blogging in real time - a practice that requires roughly 120% of my brain capacity - I do my best to hide in a hotel room during off hours, sleep as much as possible and generally turn one of the world’s great networking opportunities into a near-solitary practice. My perpetual worry at TED is that I’m going to get distracted and say something short-tempered and piss off a billionaire who might otherwise have been inclined to support my work. So I lurk in corners, blog and generally try to be as unobstrusive as possible.

That’s not going to work at TED Global, and that would miss the point of this whole event. Chris Anderson and the TED crowd have decided to do something very different with this conference, holding it on the outskirts of Arusha at a beautiful hotel and lodge, inviting an amazing set of people, including a hundred fellows - mostly young African bloggers and entrepreneurs - to spend four days listening, learning and chatting with one another. There’s a healthy dose of the usual TEDfolk here as well - the good and great of the US and European tech and business community - but it’s a very different mix of people than I’m used to seeing at this conference. The bus from Arusha to the conference this morning gave me a chance to catch up with Jen Brea, Rafiq Philips from Your Group of Web AddICT(s), Derek Ashong from the Sweet Mother Tour - having wonderful folks like this at TED is clearly going to change the dynamic of this sort of conference and, I hope, broaden the worldview of both the usual TEDsters as well as my friends who are hear as fellows. (I got to meet Harinjaka on the plane ride over, as well as seeing old friends Jim Forster and Tami Hultman…)

I’m fascinated to see how the crowd - both regular attendees of the conference and first-timers - react to the program that Emeka Okafor has put together. This is a conference with a very strong agenda - Emeka wants to convince you that, as John Perry Barlow once wrote, everything you know about Africa is wrong. You’ll be hard pressed to find voices here mourning the “failure” of Africa - you’ll find many more talking about potential, both tapped and untapped. Leaning on his work on Timbuktu Chronicles, Emeka has found a set of business innovators who will represent the core of the speakers list, complemented by scientists, politicians and musicians, the vast majority of whom live and work on the continent. I suspect that the overall message of the event will challenge the preconceptions of all participants, African and non-African.

Preparing for this perspective, I re-read Charles Kenny’s excellent essay “Is Africa a Failure?” on the plane ride from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro. Like Hans Rosling’s most recent TED talk, he makes the argument that we’re using the wrong metrics when we dismiss African progress - specifically, African progress in public health and literacy shouldn’t be ignored, and is more impressive than we generally give credit for.

While murderous dictators are part of the Africa we hear too much about, bringing these leaders to justice in a transparent fashion is definitely part of Africa 2.0. My friends at Open Society Institute are sponsoring a site to cover the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor. The site doesn’t appear to be accessible yet, but will be online later today - please check it out and keep an eye on it for news coming from The Hague.

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