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Jason Pontin

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TED Day 3: Candor and Inspiration

The penultimate day of Chris Anderson’s African conference is pleasing.

  • June 14, 2007

Editor’s note: Our editor in chief was without any connection to the Internet on the last days of TED Global 2007. This blog describes Wednesday, June 6.

Today’s presentations and speeches at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Global 2007 conference were much more satisfying and intellectually coherent than the others. I came away better satisfied with the entire notion of a TED conference dedicated to Africa.

Chris Anderson, the owner and organizer of TED, always says that one must wait until the different themes and ideas he throws into his rich stew of programming begin to meld–and so it has proven here in Tanzania.

The morning’s sessions began with one called “Tales of Invention,” where innovators, who were not so much inventors working on African problems as inventors who happened to be African, described their work. One, in particular, stood out: Seyi Oyesola, a physician who invented something he called a “hospital in a box.” It was a simple, portable (well, 150-pound), resilient set of medical devices that makes surgery possible even in the worst parts of the world. The hospital in a box has anesthetic equipment, a defibrillator, a burn unit, plaster-making tools, surgical tools, and an operating table.

The next session, titled “Health and Heroes,” was notable because it allowed Anderson to directly address the darker realities of Africa that TED Global 2007 had until then seemed to be ignoring.

In retrospect, I am sympathetic with how Anderson chose to present Africa’s troubles. Nearly every African who spoke at TED Global 2007 talked with great bitterness about Western journalists’ representations of Africa as a slide show composed entirely of starving babies, child soldiers, and sprawling shantytowns. They found such images and stories insufferably degrading. Anderson was clearly advised by his African speakers to distance TED from such reporting. Then, too, his own tastes run to the breezily optimistic. Finally, a technology show that emphasized Africa’s problems would be difficult to market: such a downer! Anderson’s solution was to limit discussion of Africa’s problems to a single session and issue (Africa’s ill health)–and to explore those problems in the context of heroic figures who were offering real solutions to intractable difficulties. Dr. Leon Kintaudi, for instance, talked about the collapse of health care in the Congo and how he hoped to rebuild his country’s rural health infrastructure.

To my mind, the problem with Anderson’s solution is that it glossed over unwelcome and unflattering facts. More, even if one accepted (as I do) TED Global’s thesis that technology, commercial investment, and trade might find in Africa’s shortages economic opportunities that would create wealth, one left the conference without a very clear idea of how desperately hard it is to do business here.

I found the last session I saw the most thrilling. Called “Connecting the Continent,” it drew together a series of very canny African chief executives, most of whom had worked in the West, to discuss one of the continent’s most obvious needs: a modern communications and computer infrastructure. Each of the speakers impressed me with his or her passion, intelligence, and reasonableness. Not one underestimated the difficulties they faced, but each had conjured up African solutions to African problems.

One executive in particular, Herman Chinery-Hesse, the founder of SOFTTribe, moved me. He said, “I could of course work in the West. But I think it is undignified for an African to spend his entire career outside Africa.” He was a patriot as well as an entrepreneur.

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