Distributed Essential Services Can Introduce Stability in Uncertain Lands

Tuesday, February 02, 2010
By Linton Wells II

Taking a micro approach can produce macro benefits.

The U.S. government is systematically missing opportunities to contribute to stability, reconstruction and development around the world. These goals are achievable by leveraging reliable communications, enabled by stable power, to provide capabilities and services that local populations value and can sustain with their own resources.

This approach is called Distributed Essential Services, or DES. The first projects focus on Afghanistan, and the concepts can be applied globally. Successful implementation would allow people to use reliable information and stable power in many beneficial ways.

Farmers might seek information about market conditions, micro-loans and advice on how to fix farm equipment over cell phones. With stable power they could pump irrigation water, provide cold storage for agricultural products, process food locally and purify water. In many locations, integrating solar and combustion cooking, plus retained heat baskets, could dramatically reduce fuel use compared to open pit fires.

Mothers and public health officials could draw on cell-phone-based prenatal and maternal care in remote areas, satellite-based telemedicine services to clinics and expanded Internet access to hospitals.

Women and children could find life-changing opportunities through “a light bulb in every kitchen.” Power also could enable basic lighting for streets and stores, reducing crime and enhancing business.

Students at all levels could benefit from effective communications. These benefits could range from extended learning opportunities in remote areas to expanded Internet access at universities. Cell phones open terrific opportunities for learning where there are not enough teachers for traditional educational approaches.

Businesses could learn about market opportunities, leverage micro-credit, coordinate buyer/seller relationships and encourage entrepreneurs. Hands-on, project-based vocational training could support this by building local business capacity, mindful of the market’s ability to absorb the skills being taught.

These kinds of activities can promote stability, security and governance through citizen satisfaction, more transparent decision making and more secure fund transfers. Rule of law could benefit from innovative justice and dispute resolution, including the exceptional “alternative dispute resolution” initiative via Internet and cell phone being encouraged by the Internet Bar Association and the U.S. Institute for Peace. Imagine a “conference call” of mullahs to address a dispute quickly instead of submitting the case to a judicial system that is perceived as corrupt and slow.

DES will need effective metrics to monitor its progress and contributions. Both success stories and lessons learned should be shared widely.

DES focuses on bottom-up projects that can be executed quickly at local levels. Community buy-in is essential. These efforts also must be consistent with “top-down” national strategies—for example, local power systems should be designed to plug into a national power grid someday. Whenever possible, the power sources should be distributed and renewable—microhydro, solar and wind—to speed services in remote areas, support sustainability through local resources and reduce vulnerability to insurgent disruptions of power lines and fuel deliveries.

Reliable communications across multiple media such as radio, television, cell phone and Internet connectivity generally will be built out commercially; but policy goals can be reinforced by better dialogue between the private and public sectors. Since 2002, cell phone coverage has been extended to about 85 percent of Afghanistan’s population.

To support this, information-sharing mechanisms must be developed and trust built with responsible participants. Content must be understood and sometimes shaped. Subject matter experts can provide technical reach-back support from outside the country along with in-country modular training.

And, through it all, active private sector engagement is essential. Though it often is undervalued in stabilization and reconstruction situations, indigenous private enterprise is the key both to capacity development and long-term sustainability. A thriving society cannot stay dependent on aid or government handouts, however well-intentioned.

DES can be implemented quickly in many areas. In Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province, for example, economic and security conditions are favorable and many preparations have been made: 37 villages in 10 districts have microhydro power and communications in place and could serve as pilots. Planning information is being accumulated via wikis such as afghantides.pbworks.com. Bottom-up negotiations with villagers could begin immediately. Senior officials have expressed support, but people in the field have little time for execution. Even understanding the reasons, it is frustrating to see opportunities for quick wins being missed.

If judged successful, this approach could be extended rapidly to other Afghan provinces, combining national and international efforts and adapted to local conditions. It also could work in Pakistan, Africa, Latin America and many other regions.

DES plays to AFCEA’s strengths—experience in communications, information technology and information sharing; multidisciplinary skills; a public service ethic; and international reach. The construct supports the U.S. National Security Strategy, NATO’s Comprehensive Approach and the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals. AFCEA and its members can help achieve its goals—and quickly.

Linton Wells II is the transformation chair and a distinguished research professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are his own and not those of the Defense Department or of SIGNAL Magazine.


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