How much do internet shutdowns cost Ethiopia?

(Solomon Tebeje)

The Ethiopian government has shutdown internet from May 30 to June 8, 2017. (Seyoum Teshome and Zelalem Kibret, on their latest discussion with VOA radio journalist Tsion Girma, claimed that the blackout has been for several months).

It has been a concern that internet blackouts have a tremendous socio-economic impact both in the developing and developed countries. In his study, Darrel West, the vice-president and director of Governance Studies and founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings, has found that between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016, internet shutdowns cost at least US$2.4 billion in GDP globally.

Clip art - social media tools
Clip art – social media tools

West concluded that “Shutting down access to popular services or to the whole internet – even for a short period of time – undermines economic growth, puts lives in jeopardy, separates people from friends and family, and erodes confidence in the governments that take such drastic and ill-advised steps.”

Since his study did not include estimates for lost tax revenues associated with blocked digital access, impact on worker productivity, barriers to business expansion connected with these shutdowns, or the loss of investor, consumer, and business confidence resulting from such disruptions, the $2.4 billion figure is a conservative estimate that likely understates the actual economic damage. (I leave it to you to take a good look at the paper how the study analyzed data in a comprehensive and scientific way.)

Considering the current internet shutdown in Ethiopia

Ethiopia, both as a developing country and new for e-commerce and small businesses (keep in mind Addis Delivery has just started their business using online tracking, internet cafes booming every corner of the country, several travel agents’ business rely on internet), online courses, medical appointments, flight booking, emergencies’ and natural disasters, let alone the inconvenience in higher education institutes, it is depressing to imagine how much we have lost on these days?!

Internet blackouts mean that the government is telling Ethiopians that it’s leadership failed to address important issues and, to rub salt into the wound, they showed their “power” by denying or blocking the basic rights to use social media, exploring up-to-date academic discoveries, health and business information, and most importantly, to initiate the people to “distract” themselves by speculating something strange was going on in the country.

Read me well: Had not we heard a breaking news about our country from foreign media while the news was almost killed by EBC that uses tax payers’ money? The Federal Government Communication Affairs minister and spokesperson said, “The measure is to prevent students from distraction.”

First, what kind of distraction? Exam that leaked last year? What caused that? Who did that? I don’t think ‘Minnesotawiyan’ have reached up to the mark of a technological capability to crack down the code to hack the MoE’s server. Was there an investigation? If so, what was the outcome and measure that has done? Hope the government did not forget that Ethiopians have a right to hear the outcome of any federal investigations that caused some mammoth impacts.

When we fail to find a solution for a minor issue, then we deliberately create an irredeemable damage to the nation. If the exam was postponed for a few weeks last year, it would have never cost us much when compared to the loss after the leak. It just needed a willingness! Period.

There was a chaos in Oromia that the students could not attend classes to finish courses to take an examination (I refrain from going into the details). As a result, students, teachers and activist “requested” the MoE to postpone the exam. The request was highly justified! But, that simple request was denied, which then caused a leaked exam and exacerbated situation that finally culminated into an unforgettable pain, the tragic “Irrecha” stampede.

We should establish a trustworthy political system that can purge with a sense of proud and belongingness, then put much efforts in developing a better technology to combat threats. We are constructing mega projects that will be equipped with the current state-of-the-art instruments for online monitoring.

These days, companies are not working onsite, rather do a troubleshooting at their headquarters for diagnosis somewhere at the corner of the world so that we need advanced technology to stay in biz with the world now. I strongly advise the Ethiopian government to think better. Create a medium for a constructive dialogue and trust to build our nation.

The action that has taken to shutdowns the internet for about 10 days is equivalent to closing the tap water—and make the people thirsty– rather to fix the leaks of the valves. Plus, how much really costs Ethiopia in the lexicon of business? Do Ethiopian journalists have a research team who can study the pros and cons of this matter?

In addition, I suggest to business majors in Ethiopia to study about it. It would be interesting. We are mostly criticized the government without a scientific justification for most of our claims, inter alia, Khat, alcohol, tobacco, and noise-pollution (the latter I am enthusiastic to work on it) are bad for health, social and economic wellbeing of Ethiopians, albeit the academia has fall behind providing a scientific evidence as well as on realistic alternatives.

Universities can research specifically about this topic. Of course, I can’t deny that this could be done if all the government offices, the people who will engage in the survey and private sectors are all keen to and open-mindedly provide their financial documents and genuine reflection without any political bias. On top of that, whatever the outcome, the government should be in position to respect, acknowledge, and take actions for the recommendations of the studies.

Living in the world with full of uncertainties, which seems to have become a new normal, I believe a “temporary” shutdowns of internet will not be a solution to myriad of demands, rather an inclusive, timely, and genuine political answers do! We can save the cost before it costs us. We can build our country in advancing technology, not blackouts.


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