Guardian Unlimited -- Ethiopian government offices are austere affairs. They even lack the typical African decoration of the president's portrait on the wall. None of the furniture would fetch 10p in a British junk shop.
One detail disturbs this pattern - a large flat-screen plasma monitor, plugged into a rack of digital routers, appears to have been teleported from another universe.
The kit is here to support the world's most unexpected e-government programme: Ethiopia, one of Africa's poorest countries, is spending one tenth of its GDP every year on IT. Over the next five years, the government plans to invest more than $100m (£56m) in public sector computers. It aims to equip hundreds of government offices and schools with broadband internet connections. And by 2007, according to the plan, none of Ethiopia's 74 million people will live more than a few kilometres from a broadband access point. The nucleus of this network, 4,000km of optical fibre, has already been laid and will be fully commissioned later this year.
Ethiopia's IT programme is an extreme example of the aspiration of several African countries to leap out of their quagmire of decaying public services with the help of IT. The dream is to skip an entire generation of infrastructure by going directly to internet technology.
Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, talks of IT providing a short cut to development. "I want to see ICT pervade all our activities as a government, not just in the urban areas. We want to connect all our villages in two to three years. All education services, likewise. We would also like to provide a bit of telemedicine."
Telecommunication of any kind is a novelty in Ethiopia. In the 1980s, when I first visited the country to report the famine, making a phone call outside the capital meant picking up the receiver and waiting for an operator to set up a crackly radio link. Two decades on, only 1.2% of the population have a telephone. Internet usage is low even by African standards.
Meles deals briskly with talk that a country where female life expectancy is 50 and famine still threatens millions should have different priorities. IT is no luxury, he says, but rather a "crucial weapon to fight poverty".
He says the national digital network underpins two specific "pro-poor" projects, to connect schools and local government offices.
Schoolnet is an attempt to overcome Ethiopia's desperate shortage of teachers, especially in remote areas. Schools already receive video lessons broadcast for eight hours a day by satellite TV. The syllabus, based on South African material, is being digitised for transmission over the internet so that teachers at the receiving end can prepare beforehand and control the pace of lessons (so long as their electricity supply is working). Demissew Bekele, head of the government's educational media agency, says this control is essential for children moving from primary to secondary school, where the medium of instruction is English.
The education minister, Genet Zewdie, says there is no alternative to e-learning. "IT is expensive, but ignorance is more expensive."
Woredanet is the country's first step in e-government. For the first time the network connects all 600 of Ethiopia's local councils (woredas) to 11 regional capitals through internet telephone and video-conferencing. Half the links are by cable, and half by satellite. The broadband infrastructure also offers the chance for small towns to install their first payphone.
Previously, official reports would take months to reach the capital. Often early warning signs of famine, such as falling livestock prices, would not get through until a crisis had developed. Woredanet has not yet been tested in such circumstances, however it was mobilised in earnest earlier this year to train officials running the May general election - by far the most open in Ethiopia's long history.
Efficient communications between tiers of government are part of a programme of administrative reform that speaks a language strikingly similar to Tony Blair's vision of citizen-centric e-government.
"The whole purpose is to change the mindset of the civil service," says the man in charge, Tefera Waluwa, minister for capacity building. He talks of "transparency and accountability, fairness, efficiency and effectiveness" enabled by the technology.
Tefera says his reforms have already reduced the time taken to issue a foreign investment licence from 225 days to two hours. His target is one hour. It was done by looking at all the procedures and asking why they were necessary. Unlike his British counterparts, however, Tefera is not seeking to re-engineer public employees out of their jobs. "The government has a shortage of educated people. When someone is redundant in one office, they will be required in another place."
Another innovation in the programme is an information desk in every government agency. Tefera shows off an official name badge on his lapel, which he says is compulsory issue to all his civil servants.
Ministers say that, eventually, the government's networks will become community internet facilities. Today, widespread internet use is a distant dream. Even by the standards of the world's least wired continent, Ethiopian internet usage is low: less than 0.1% of the population goes online. According to Internet World Stats, this places it in the same league as Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo and way behind Kenya (1.2%), let alone South Africa (7.3%). Britain's score is 59%.
Ethiopia's digital infrastructure is being built by the national telecom operator, the publicly-owned Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation. Its main contractors are Cisco Systems (whose guest I was) and Business Connexion, a South African-based IT services firm. The government subsidises the project with a tax break and by underwriting bonds. "We do not spend a cent of the budget per se," says Meles.
In fact, Meles says that money is by no means his main problem. "There are two things we need. One is training and manpower. So whatever technical assistance the west can give with high quality internet technology is the most important thing."
The second is hardware. "I know that people throw away computers that are two or three years old," says Meles. "We could do with five, six, seven-year-old computers that work."
Ethiopia is already receiving used hardware from a Brussels-based organisation Close the Gap. It supplies renovated corporate PCs, sorted in standard packages and with new Windows licences for between €45 and €90 per machine.
One consequence of Ethiopia's knowledge gap is reliance on Windows and other proprietary software. Meles, a former guerilla leader who overthrew the dictator Mengistu in 1991, is at ease discussing the question of open source software.
"Our position is determined by the fact that proprietary suppliers have the money to provide initial support," he says. "To implement open source needs a minimum of training and at the moment we don't have that. In five or 10 years time, we will be in a position to choose."
Whether the dream of IT helping African countries fast-track to development will become reality is impossible to predict. The worry must be that national broadband infrastructures will repeat the story of the 1960s and 1970s, in which ambitious industrial and agricultural projects proved unsustainable after lining the pockets of the African elite.
There are some signs that the new wave will be different. One is the existence of grass-roots demand for IT throughout Africa. In many big cities, cellphone networks and cybercafes have bypassed incompetent and corrupt official analogue channels of communication. In Ethiopia, mobile phones outnumber fixed lines. The phenomenon turns on its head the whole concept of "appropriate technology".
African leaders enjoy demonstrating that the latest digital router can be as appropriate to a developing country as a bullock cart or an efficient wood-burning stove. Ethiopians in particular detest the West's automatic association of their ancient country with famine and charity.
"We're not waiting for handouts," assures Genet, "but we do need partnerships."
In Ethiopia's case, it is especially hard to be objective. The country's distinctive culture and the scale of its problems make any visit an intense experience, especially for anyone who saw something of the bad years. Merely sitting in a government office brings back vivid memories of hearing officials reciting district-by-district statistics of families "affected" and "seriously affected" by famine.
The capital, Addis Ababa, looks so changed that it is easy to fall into the trap of over-optimism about an IT-enabled future. But Ethiopia is not Addis Ababa. So long as the vast majority of its people are subsistence farmers scraping a living from a hostile environment, IT can only be part of a bigger package of slow and painful reform.
That doesn't mean it is not a good investment. In any case, Ethiopians don't regard themselves as second-class human beings: no outsider is going to persuade them to have second-class ambitions.
Close the Gap
Ethiopian news agency
Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation