Letter: Trinidad and Tobago and Estonia, similar but remarkably different

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Dear Sir:

It appears that the regional governments, including that of Trinidad and Tobago, have asked the government of Estonia for help in implementing the digital technologies in e-government. We have been talking about doing this for a long time now and have even an agency of government, i Gov-TT, charged with doing just that. It is worth recalling that we employed a consultant from Singapore to help us implement the Single Electronic Window.

These cases seem to suggest that we are incapable of applying our own resources, the digital technologies and ICT to the management of the affairs of government. But what attributes does Estonia possess that qualify them to so help us?

Estonia is a country of 1.3 million people and when they finally broke from Russia on September 06, 1991 found themselves without even a telephone system. The people were offered an old analogue system by a neighbouring country, which was refused. The intent was to build a state of the art digital telephone system. This is the small nation that gave the world Skype, a voice over Internet Protocol system that allows people anywhere in the world to communicate with each other using the Internet; bypassing the traditional telephone systems. This communication scheme has also been emulated by WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and other similar platforms.

Today the gross domestic product per capita of Estonia is some $22,000USD, in a country that has used its natural resource, the brains of its people, to generate wealth, so much so that Estonia is now inviting others from abroad to come to that country, software engineers, computer scientists etc., to build new and innovative information and communications technology systems. Some say Estonia was able to accomplish this remarkable feat because its leaders on independence were young people who appreciated the potential of the emerging digital technologies and by the use of its only natural resource, brains, could build a wealthy nation.

To date Estonia has built and implemented governance systems that include e-governance, access to government services at anytime from anywhere; e-tax, enables setting up and running businesses with easy tax filing electronically; X-road, an open resource data backbone network to support e-Estonia; Digital ID, digital identification cards for the population; i-voting, voting via the Internet; public safety, use of information technology tools in security as e-police; e-health, digitisation of health data allowing efficient preventative measures; and e-residency, a gift to the world, anyone, anywhere in the world can become an e-citizen, receive a digital ID, establish an European Union company and conduct business on-line from anywhere in the world. Estonia is now engaged in applying these technologies in cyber security, intelligent transportations, education and more.

In response to one of my articles, a colleague commented that it is not what a country did right in developing but what it did wrong. In the case of Estonia, it clearly had very clever leadership that recognised its starting point, its resources, acknowledged the emerging and enabling technologies. In its foresighting – deciding on where it wanted to be in the future – chose the use of its natural human resource to build applications that enabled good governance and facilitated e-businesses for all who were interested, from anywhere in the world. Estonia with intelligent planning and foresight does not appear to have put a foot wrong.

Today Estonia is working with Kenya, Rwanda and even Japan in the implementation of these digital systems. Also, Estonia was lauded as European champion for on-line provision of public services in the Digital Economy and Society Index and was also the leading European nation in the Global Cyber-Society-Security- Index by the International Telecommunication Union.

Both Estonia and Trinidad and Tobago are of the same population size and have capable human resources. However, Estonia puts this resource to work at home while Trinidad and Tobago exports its most talented, its software engineers, its computer scientists and business graduates. Why? Some refer to this phenomenon as the curse of the black gold, wherein the rents derived from the exploitation of the natural resource are used to provide the needs of the country. Even today when our petroleum resource is depleting the major concern of our government is where do we get more natural gas to continue the plantation and how do we entice foreign investors to come and manufacture things in Trinidad and Tobago?

Though Estonia is encouraging businesses from anywhere in the world to become e-citizens, what it is offering are state of the art digital on-line systems that drastically reduce the costs of doing business on-line. It is not what Estonia did wrong that is of interest to us but what it has done right and moreso what are the processes used to choose its presumed furfure?

The literature tells us that economic development is about what the endogenous population can do for itself, particularly in innovation, and having the Triple Helix in place to get this done. Estonia’s record follows this blue print to the letter. What appears to be missing locally by our leaders is the understanding of how to build a sustainable economy, to walk the walk as Estonia did. Maybe the fault is our history that has indelibly branded us as workers in the plantation.

Mary K. King
St Augustine
Trinidad

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