Lessons from Antigua and Barbuda
By Bevil Wooding
The tiny eastern Caribbean country of Antigua and Barbuda is taking a new, bold gamble on information and communications technology. Dr Edmond Mansoor, the energetic government minister with responsibility telecommunications, science and technology, wants to build Antigua and Barbuda into technology hub of the Caribbean and a global player in digital content creation. If has his way, his vision may just come to pass.
Initial Online Gamble
In the 1990s, with a population of just about 80,000, Antigua and Barbuda was a major player in the multi-billion dollar world of online gambling. The 1994 introduction of the Free Trade & Processing act catapulted Antigua into global prominence as a base for numerous online gaming companies. By 2001 Antigua attracted more than $2.3 billion in revenue and 59% of global online gambling, while employing over 1,000 people. In the process it became a software development hub, attracting skilled and un-skilled workers from around the region and across the world. A spat with the United States saw a swift unravelling of the sector. But by then, the seeds of Antigua’s technology-based development ambitions were already firmly planted.
New Digital Agenda
In 2006, the twin-island state announced an ambitious Digital Agenda. The stated objective was “to ensure that the Government and people of Antigua and Barbuda swiftly master and fully exploit the exciting potential of Information and Communications Technology”
The plan called for the creation of a stable and regulatory framework; the introduction of additional fibre optic capacity; the removal of taxes on computers, peripherals and computer supplies; the removal of taxes on internet access; and incentives for investment in information technology and related training.
The country’s focus and its success in achieving these objectives has been quite impressive. Antigua and Barbuda now has the highest rate of penetration for access to information and communication technology (ICT) in Commonwealth small states, according to a Commonwealth Secretariat report on electronic governance in small states.
Building the Digital Economy
“When our government established its technology blueprint, the goal was a computer and broadband internet in every permanent home and permanent business by 2012,” Mansoor said.
“Now, having completed most of the targets, the Government of Antigua and Barbuda is now setting its sights higher.”
Mansoor is putting things in place for the country to become the centre of digital media training, producing people capable of creating the graphics, animation, video, music, and mobile app content demanded by the digital economy.
Mansoor’s plan are being executed in the midst of fiscally challenging time for Antigua and Barbuda. The global economic crisis has significantly affected the country’s largely tourism based economy. Unemployment figures are estimated to be eleven percent. The country’s debt-to-GDP ratio stood at 89 per cent at the end of 2012.
Still, the investment in technology infrastructure, access and education is bearing fruit. Through a number of innovative ICT projects, many done in partnership with the private sector and civil society, the country is making tangible progress.
In 2004, internet penetration was at 12 per cent and computers in every permanent home stood at just 6 percent. By 2012 Internet penetration was successfully increased to 76 per cent and 70 per cent computers in homes.
Mobile cellular subscriptions (MCS) per one hundred now stands at 182 and the number of internet users (IU) per one hundred is 82. By comparison, Trinidad and Tobago has 136 (MCS) and 55 (IU) per hundred; Jamaica has 108 (MCS) and 32 (IU) while Barbados has 127 (MCS) per one hundred and 72 (IU) per hundred.
Since the country launched its Connect Antigua and Barbuda Initiative in December 2006, it has implemented over 20 computer access centers in primary and secondary schools, seven centers in empowerment areas, and mobile IT classrooms that serve hundreds of students weekly.
Gate to the Future
The newly launched Government-Assisted Technology Endeavour, GATE, focuses on improving internet connectivity and spurring growth in tech-related fields. The programme is already making an impact. Hundreds of secondary school students are being allocated computer tablets and 4G LTE technology for use in their education.
Last June, the government also inaugurated a new ICT Cadet Training facility and with it signaled his intentions of creating a human resource factor to produce the digital media workers. The facility, which is the product of a partnership between the government and regional telecommunications firm Digicel, aims to teach Antiguans, particularly youth, new technology and digital content creation skills.
A recruitment initiative, dubbed the ICT Cadet Program, targets individuals who have completed secondary school. In the first phase of the program, two hundred seventy-five (275) persons will acquire technical skills as well as gain valuable work place experience. The initiative directly address the high unemployment rate among the country’s youth – Antigua & Barbuda is ranked 59th of 129 countries for highest youth unemployment rate.
Critics and Challenges
The government’s programs are not without critics, however. Questions remain over the true impact of its technology investments and the extent to which technology has been impacting ordinary citizens. While several government agencies now have websites, transacting with government is still largely an offline affair. Tax payments, license renewals, ticket payments and customs processing, for example, still involve real queues in the real world.
The country is also still without an Internet exchange point, and other domestic-based critical Internet infrastructure components to safeguard its technology investments and more efficiently route the growing levels of local Internet traffic.
More recently, critics have questioned the deployment of tablets instead of laptops in schools and the apparent preferential treatment being given by the government to Digicel, a private company, over the government’s own telecommunications company, APUA.
Mansoor is unfazed by the criticisms. He has publicly citied his preference for working with organizations that can keep pace with the momentum of his technology agenda. He also openly stated that real-world constraints necessitate that infrastructure projects be coordinated within Government’s larger economic and social development strategy.
Support from the Top
It also helps that the Minister has good support for his technology development agenda. Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister, Baldwin Spencer, is perhaps Mansoor’s greatest advocates. The Prime Minister has consistently endorsed his technology Minister’s initiatives, clearing the way within government and at the national level for the sometimes disruptive changes to take place.
Spencer also seems to understand what is at stake, and more importantly, what the consequence of inaction is.
“With the advance of technology and our thrust in education, we are preparing our nation and our people for the future, and for us not to be left behind as a nation,” Spencer said.
Antigua and Barbuda will certainly do well if it continues along its current trajectory. And, if its investment in technology continues to be matched by its focus on human resource development, the country can hold up to the region and the world, a real, working model for creating a true information society.
This article originally appeared on September 12 in the Trinidad and Tobago Business Guardian, as a Technology Matters column. Bevil Wooding is the Chief Knowledge Office of Congress WBN (www.congresswbn.org), a values-based international non-profit. He is also Executive Director of BrightPath Foundation, an education-technology non-profit (www.brightpathfoundation.org). Reach him on Twitter @bevilwooding or on facebook.com/bevilwooding or contact via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.