This Saturday, Colombia will start a new chapter in their history as they peacefully transition from the outgoing Uribe Administration to the new Santos Administration. With a new president they will be addressing new issues. For the first time in decades, the country's leaders will have the opportunity to focus on issues other than just safety and security. Santos will face questions about how his team will build a lasting economy and a stable workforce.
I recently visited Colombia with a technology delegation assembled by Alec Ross of the State Department. Ross' team's mission is simple: Use new technologies to come up with effective and efficient ways to assist with our diplomacy efforts. His thought process follows the lines of, "America is loved for our entrepreneurial spirit and we should engage these tools as a new form of digital diplomacy."
Nonetheless, when I was first invited, I was skeptical. Our government has wasted lots of resources in failed drug wars and military engagement in the past. But this effort seemed very different. The Obama administration recognizes that a nation's security isn't possible without the support of its citizens and a decent economy.
Helicopters and missiles won't solve Colombia's problems now. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), once controlled the entire countryside but is now reduced to only a few thousand troops in the jungle. Military force will not take out all of Colombia's enemies. But education, technology and infrastructure may.
Our tech delegation was designed to build a network between the U.S. and Colombia to spur discussion and thought on ways technology could be implemented to assist local needs. The trip was not a bunch of diplomats -- but technology advocates and entrepreneurs that are constantly thinking about using tech to save time, money and accomplish a goal. We talked about entrepreneurship development, incentive programs and even challenge grants. We brainstormed innovative ways technology could assist in the rebuilding of Colombia's economy from the ground up.
We learned that the country is ready to connect! There are more than 42 million mobile phones for 45 million Colombians. That's nearly 1 cell phone per person! Not to mention the amount of people that are within reach of a cell-phone enabled makeshift phone booth. The possibilities are easy to imagine. Just think about how cell phones and the 3G network changed America in the last two years. People in at every income-level use text messaging and the mobile web in both rural and urban parts of our country. Applications on phones are getting easier to produce and distribute nationally.
Frontline SMS Medic (an amazing non-profit) was on the trip. Their organization shows people how to use text messaging through local SIM cards to save lives. This can be done by sharing medical information, sending doctor reminder alerts, or texting epidemic warnings through a mobile platform. Their technology is quickly enabling rural villages to send text messages out when hard to keep vaccines are available in the area. Alerting people in rural areas through text messages is just the tip of the iceberg.
The possibilities of bringing new technology to Colombia through U.S.-based public-private partnerships is also a piece of the development puzzle. While the One Laptop per Child has given students in rural areas an opportunity to connect with the world and share much-needed information to communities, there are limitations. The XO laptops are sturdy and inexpensive, but students like the ones we met in Macarena, often lack ways to connect to the internet because the local cell tower was down.
Nonetheless, as 4G wireless Internet become more available in the months ahead (growing rapidly in the US and will be in Colombia next year), some of these problems will disappear and more students will be able to use WiMAX (technology that enables "last mile" wireless broadband access as an alternative to cable and DSL ). The Santos Administration will have to work to ensure this technology is used to connect remote areas that don't have reliable access to the internet.
Our tech delegation was challenged to think about ways technology could help their growing civil society better assist citizens in a more orderly fashion. Colombia has 160,000 law enforcement officers, but they have only 60,000 radios. Low cost cell phones, secure text messaging program and even simple mobile applications could provide the officers more efficient forms of communications.
The Santos Administration is also faced with public safety problems like the prevalence of landmines left over from the FARC, drug cartels, etc. How will they combat these issues? What if there were an app for that? Imagine a basic application that uses GIS and GPS technology to help people navigate deadly landmines. We have a ton of apps in the US cautioning citizens on where electrical lines are before you dig, to basic mapping apps of where hospitals, police stations, etc. are located.
The good news for Colombia (and the U.S. State Dept.) is that these ideas don't require expensive hardware. What it requires is a commitment and will to move forward. There are many people, organizations and companies moving this ball up the field in Colombia too.
Social networks like Twitter & Facebook have created a space for Colombians to amplify their collective voice against the FARC through online groups like "One Million Voices Against FARC." But these tools need tangible resources to create better jobs for hard-working Colombians.
Santos is faced with entering into the global economy while putting jobless Colombians back to work. Unemployment has hit a staggering 17 percent.
Colombia can't get there from here without spurring entrepreneurial growth and bolstering democratic power. Failing to build the country's economic base and creating decent paying jobs has dire consequences - if nothing is done, people struggling to get by will turn to desperate means to survive, illegal means. On the other hand, public investments could open new doors. Imagine how basic information could help a farmer with stagnant wages sell more goods around the world.
This bold mission needs computers, teachers and leaders. Our Peace Corps volunteers have aided countries like Colombia for years, but the information age demands a new style "Tech Corps" that modernizes communications and data systems and helps create good jobs in technology, communications and bio-tech.
This is not just a State Dept. mission -- it will take all of us to help develop public-private partnerships and mentoring programs. While we were in Medellin, we learned of Hewlett-Packard announcement to build facilities in Colombia -- This U.S. Company has a huge opportunity to set new standards by training local businesses, provide mentorship and invest in infrastructure to develop a stronger workforce.
Connecting people through the internet and mobile technology is only part of equation. I grew up in Cleveland -- a city that has seen well-paying, manufacturing jobs disappear -- jobs that once sustained thousands of local families. Just like in America, the internet means nothing for most Colombians without a livable wage.
While our government and the Santos Administration call on thousands of farmers to turn their backs on the drug trade, we can't ignore the hard truth. Over 45 percent of Colombians live below the poverty line, including many farmers. Legitimate agriculture must pay better than narcotics.
This requires looking at ourselves in the mirror and admitting our country's role in this problem. Illicit drug supplies will shift to Mexico or other Latin American countries if American demand for them stays constant.
In Cleveland, when I thought about companies building facilities in Colombia, my impulse was to mourn the loss of jobs that could've stayed in Ohio or Michigan. But having met hard working people in Colombia, sharing ideas and notes, I realized we're all in the same boat now. We're all trying to earn an honest living and support our families. Our success directly depends on how we work together to empower the change we all need. I hope that more folks take action and think about how we are all mixed into this world wide web together. I look forward to seeing how the Santos Administration uses technology in the days ahead to better connect our countries.