"From South Central to South Africa," is how Quincy Jones describes the recent doings of a Habitat for Humanity project, in which five Los Angeles youths with gang ties traveled to South Africa to build homes. "That's one of the biggest challenges we have, is how to get that incredible energy going the right way. 'Cause I was there, man. I was out there doing the same thing until I found the piano one night." For Jones the Habitat project is merely one fragment of a plan with a far greater scope, as well as a concrete example of the international interaction necessary to aid the ailing continent.
Following a year in which the cancellation of international debt became a hot topic, at the World Economic Forum Conference in Davos, Switzerland on January 26th, Jones called on individuals, groups leaders and followers to help not only build homes, schools and other physical structures in Africa, but also to begin building a digital infrastructure to assist the continent educationally and economically in a time of dire need. And the plans go beyond the establishment of computer centers in Africa, to include extensive training programs to help the continent's people bridge a technological divide.
"Africa is in a crisis situation," Jones says. "It's really scary. After doing twenty-seven years in prison, and then liberation, [Nelson] Mandela finds himself in a situation where he has a country where there's 38 million people with AIDS. It's just ridiculous. One out of every five five-year-olds has a chance of living. We were down there last August, and it would tear your heart out. There's 800 kids from eleven to seventeen; all of their parents were dead and half of them were infected with HIV. They were having their own parliamentary debate about what to do about their future. There's eleven- and seventeen-year-olds talking about whether it's going to be condoms or abstinence or whatever."
Thus, Jones and a number of other political, commercial and entertainment industry movers and shakers including South African President Thabo Mbeki, Richard Parsons of AOL/Time Warner, John Chambers of Cisco Systems (who have already established an academy with 1,000 students in Africa), Oprah Winfrey, World Economic Forum President Klaus Schwab and lecturer Attallah Shabazz and numerous others have established the groundwork for the creation of a technological infrascructure, as well as the training that goes with it. As of today, the continent has a ratio of fewer than one personal computer per 100 persons; by comparison there are forty-five computers per 100 persons in the U.S. While Jones was in South Africa for the Habitat project, Microsoft volunteered 100 computers for a building project. "They had a bigger idea to try and just go for the whole hog. To try to start out with a high-tech training center in South Africa," Jones says. "And hopefully it will like a disease to help this country get economic viability, because after the AIDS crisis, parallel to that is what do they do to survive? You need the economic side, you need the technology side, the educational side, government."
Jones dismisses detractors of the project, who suggest that the ailing country has needs greater than computers, and that the aid is financially motivated. "People have a feeling that it's a lot of rich people getting together to figure out how to make more money. These people already know how to make money. [Laughs] To see [Bill] Gates and these people trying working on the digital divide, that's the kind of people you need to have; people that'll make it happen tomorrow."
The end result is a two-pronged attack on two of Africa's primary battles: poverty and disease. "Everybody who might feel that it's not an altruistic need, that's fine with me. I was told there were a billion people who had to get up in the morning and decide with a dollar and a half whether they eat, take care of their health or an education. That's an outrageous decision for a human being to have to make. So it's technology, it's economy, it's education all rolled together and I don't care what all it is, whatever it takes just to get it done. And the people aren't saying, 'Hey we're victims help us.' They're not begging. They're just saying, 'Hey let us be a part of the world.'"
In addition to combating Africa's pressing woes, Jones also believes that an enhanced system for communication would reap cultural benefits as well. "I'd love see more communication across the borders. You've got Europe and North America and Asia moving forward, and everybody else is on their ass. I don't care what kind of political ideology you have it goes to the heart of the aesthetic."
Jones doesn't anticipate a return to an event like USA for Africa ("I hate to do the same thing twice"), but says he felt inspired at hearing a rendition of "The World Shines Bright Through People's Eyes," a song penned by Nelson Mandela's daughter, Zindzi, during the conference in Sweden as performed by Youssou N'Dour and vocal ensemble the African Singers. "Everybody likes it, but maybe there's another way to do it," he says. "It was just so beautiful and real and organic, the communication between the countries.
"I just pray for Mandela's spirit that it will prevail. People ask why don't you [turn your attention to] the States. I say, 'We are doing it in the States, but this one can't wait 'til next week.' At this stage of life, I'm just trying to figure out the best route I can to just get it done and not to fuck around and wait a long time. 'Cause it can't wait."