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Belgian Official and Former Obama Adviser Discuss Digital Revolution

By Nicole Schaller,

Guests were welcomed into the Rococo-style residence of Belgian Ambassador Dirk Wouters on April 20 to honor a top Belgian official and talk about the digital revolution, its future and its role in the public sector.

Wouters partnered with the International Student House of Washington, D.C. (ISH-DC) for the event to honor a former ISH-DC resident, the current Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium Alexander De Croo, who also serves as Belgium’s minister of development cooperation, digital agenda, telecom and postal services.


Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium Alexander De Croo, ISH-DC resident scholar Ali Can Uzun and National Network Director for Code for America Erie Meyer discuss the digital revolution during an event at the Belgian Residence hosted by the International Student House of Washington, D.C., to honor De Croo, an ISH-DC alumnus. (Photo: ISH-DC)

“In both [De Croo’s] personal and in his professional life, he has demonstrated that he embraces and embodies the ambitions and values of the International Student House, fostering international cooperation and promoting global citizenship,” said Vice President of the ISH-DC Board of Directors Sherry Mueller, a professor at American University’s School of International Service.

ISH-DC is a nonprofit that houses 300 international graduate students, scholars, researchers and interns from 70 countries each year. Since its founding 81 years ago, over 15,000 young scholars from roughly 140 countries have lived in the residential complex in the heart of the nation’s capital. ISH-DC works to create a place for its residents to experience and network with a diverse international community. Notable alumni include a former Norwegian finance minister, a member of Indonesia’s parliament and Geir Haarde, Iceland’s former prime minister who now serves as ambassador in Washington.


Former U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Tom Korologos, Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium Alexander De Croo, Ambassador of Belgium Dirk Wouters of Belgium and Sherry Mueller of American University attend an ISH-DC reception to honor De Croo. (Photo: ISH-DC)

In 1997, De Croo lived in ISH-DC for a year while working and doing market research for a Belgium textile corporation.

De Croo sat with Erie Meyer, senior director of Code for America, to discuss the digital age and its role globally. Prior to her current position, Meyer was a senior advisor to the U.S. chief technology officer in the Obama administration and worked on his Open Data Initiatives. Ali Can Uzun, a current resident of ISH-DC from Turkey, moderated the discussion.

“I think in general digital has already proven to be one of the most promising trends in the world, especially in Africa,” said De Croo regarding the impact that technology, and digital services in particular, have had on developing economies. “What we see today in Africa is more people have a mobile phone than people have access to drinking water. Some people may see that as an issue — and it is an issue — but I rather see it as an opportunity.”


Roemer McPhee; President Rockcreek Corp. Elias Aburdene; Frank Islam, entrepreneur and head of FI Investment Group; and Debbie Driesman, vice president of the Frank Islam and Debbie Driesman Foundation, attend an ISH-DC reception at the Belgian Residence. (Photo: ISH-DC)

De Croo explained that cellphones give people access to information, provide a platform where people can voice their opinions and communicate to get problems solved at a grassroots level. De Croo also emphasized that cellphone distribution has boosted the private sector, noting that, “the only way people are lifted out of poverty is economic growth and there is no substitute for that.”

Meyer agreed, pointing out that her organization works to utilize technology like teaching digital skills to advance local governments’ priorities for creating better communities.

“When you’re thinking about digital development in Africa, find the community organizers who are leading efforts like Code for Africa or Code for South Africa,” said Meyer. “[Organizers] invite their neighbors not only to work on projects around better information, like where clean water is accessible, but also inviting curious people who didn’t know they could work to make their government better. They are our source of hope when we talk about regions that are struggling. There’s no one I believe more than the people who are personally affected by the failure of a system.”


Coach Kathy Kemper, founder and CEO of the Institute for Education, Ambassador of Belgium Dirk Wouters and Katrin Wouters attend an ISH-DC reception at the Belgian Residence. (Photo: ISH-DC)

De Croo cited the increasing accessibility of telecommunications, which has furthered globalization. This shift toward globalization, free trade, innovation and democracy, he said, is what lifted 850 million people out of extreme poverty over the last 10 years.

“Up to a few years ago, globalization was really a one-way street,” said De Croo. “This was Western Europe and the United States developing solutions and just expecting the rest of the world to consume, based on the ideas that we have made and our values and so on. Today, innovation is taking place around the world by local people with local solutions…. Instead of being a one-way street, today it has become a two-way street and this for me is the most promising thing I see throughout the world.” 


Nicole Schaller is an editorial intern at The Washington Diplomat.

 
 

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