Internet facilities in developing countries often leave much to be desired. That is a major handicap for higher education and is one of the reasons why Dr Robert Janz, of the Center for Information Technology of the University of Groningen, is working to improve IT facilities in developing countries. Dr R.F. Janz was recently made a Knight in the Order of Orange-Nassau in recognition of this work. According to him, the democratic level of developing countries can be improved by stimulating internet use. ‘Take a look at Iran. The perfect illustration of the power of the internet.’
Janz is closely involved in IT projects in both Africa and Central Asia, both in his work for the university and otherwise. He concentrates in particular on higher education. ‘If you want to lift higher education there to a higher level, IT facilities are essential.’ Communication is one of the most important factors in scientific advancement. ‘The old academies and universities acted as magnets for scientists. This is still the case today. The main difference is that you used to go there on foot and now it’s by internet.’
Janz found the SILK project the most inspirational – a project financed by NATO that provided access to the internet to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. ‘That was a real challenge for us, particularly because it was such a large-scale project. There’s incredible academic potential there, but they often don’t have access to good IT facilities. Sometimes a whole country has to make do with a single internet connection.’ In the meantime, thanks to the efforts of Janz and his colleagues, there’s now a network linking over 250 institutions with each other. ‘Hundreds of thousands of students and researchers are now using it.’ Installing the network was not always without danger. ‘In Turkmenistan, for example, we were being bugged. If you used the wrong words you could be arrested. We were walking on eggshells in a snakepit.’
Janz has seen the level of democracy increasing in developing countries as the result of stimulating internet use. ‘Take a look at Iran. The perfect illustration of the power of the internet. It’s not for nothing that the internet is often in the hands of the state in totalitarian regimes. That’s how they try to keep the power and control over a country. Keep the populace uneducated and censor information that you don’t approve of.’ That’s why Janz and his colleagues have only cooperated in projects to set up information networks if the government was not involved. ‘Our networks have always been set up at universities, so that the government did not have the power to intervene.’ That was not always easy. ‘Sometimes those in power attempted to hijack the network, or they organized raids.’
Janz emphasizes the importance of good higher education in developing countries. ‘I recently heard from Afghan students that there is no tribal enmity within the universities. The country is at war, but everything at the universities is peaceful. Although there are naturally differences of opinion, it remains a single community.’ But a university is more than just a haven in turbulent times. ‘People with a higher level of education are more likely to dare to raise their voices. History shows that revolutions often begin in the academic world.’
Nevertheless, Janz does not think that development work should be a primary goal of the University of Groningen. ‘The core tasks of a university are teaching and research. I think that projects in developing countries should dovetail with that. There’s nothing against the money for projects like this coming from a source for development cooperation. So if we as a university have a project in Zambia or Mozambique, we must always have an eye to what we can get out of it. Can we send out students there? Can we attract foreign students here? Can we strengthen the research links?’ Janz also prefers not to refer to development cooperation. ‘I prefer to call it cooperation. The best of all is when there’s a win-win situation. That’s when you achieve your goals and the countries you cooperate with also benefit.’
Robert F. Janz (Jakarta, 1953) not only places his considerable expertise in the field of IT at the disposal of the university, but far beyond. He was one of the founders of Draadloos Groningen (wireless Groningen), a joint initiative of the University of Groningen, Hanze University Groningen and the municipality of Groningen to provide the city with a city-wide wireless computer network. In cooperation with the NUFFIC, he has very successfully conducted IT projects in African countries such as Burkino Faso, Eritrea, Uganda, Zambia and Mozambique. He worked in Central Asia with the NATO Science for Peace Panel. Janz was particularly involved in the SILK project (a virtual silk road), providing Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan with internet access. When the internet connection to Kyrgyzstan was opened in 2003, the Kyrgystan Academy of Sciences thanked him for his efforts by awarding him an honorary doctorate. In 2004, the SILK Virtual Highway project, headed by Janz, was expanded to the University of Kabul (Afghanistan). This contributed significantly to the successful implementation of the NATO Science & Peace programme to improve the security and economic development of Afghanistan – after years of conflict, destruction and poverty.
Dr Robert Janz, tel.: 050-363 9200
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