[I knew Shahid Akthar and many of those mentioned below in
their work situations, and am really grateful for his prompt
initiatives in promoting Free/Libre and Open Source Software
in the Asia-Pacific through his many initiatives, and extreme
openness to learn from the FLOSS campaign and its ideas here.
An unusual official from the UN network, for sure. --FN]
Shahid Akthar ... and his emails
A farewell note by Chanuka Wattegama
Shahid Akthar ended his long and illustrious career in the
field of development when he left his office in UNDP on June
30, 2007. In his 37 years of development work, he has become
perhaps the leading regional specialist about the ICT for
development (ICT4D) initiatives in Asia Pacific.
No matter whether it was e-Government, telecentres, Free and
Open Source Software (FOSS) or telemedicine, from Iran to
Cook Islands and from Mongolia to Timor Leste, none could
tell what exactly was going on in some obscure corner in
nearly 40 countries, better than him. That was his job and
what he was good at. He was the walking version of the
Digital Review of Asia Pacific, the two yearly publication
that records the ICT trends in every Asia Pacific economy,
which Shahid himself was instrumental in publishing.
Sometimes he was far more updated than the print version and
certainly had more links to information sources.
Until his retirement, he was my boss, although I hate to use
that word. Shahid was more a guide and a friend, with the
type of characteristics we South Asians fondly coalesce to a
single word -- a Guru.
Initially, when I went for international workshops, I
introduced myself by saying I work for UNDP-APDIP. Later, I
learnt to say, "I work for Shahid Akthar." I realised that
the latter was a quicker way to make others treat me as a
friend. Such was the respect Shahid had. His network of ICT
practitioners in the region was amazing. It was only rarely
that he did not get an invitation for any regional or most of
the national ICT events. People ran after him for keynotes.
Everybody and his uncle in ICT4D knew what he did from the
small UNDP-APDIP office in Bangkok.
A writer can pay tribute in only one way -- that is what I am
trying to do now, although I have to admit, it is no easy
task. Shahid had been a phenomenon. One can write a book
about him, said my friend and ex-colleague, Gopi Pradhan.
Gopi should know.
All of us who work in ICTs are weird. Shahid was even a bit
more exceptional. Shahid has his own ways of doing things.
According to my colleague Sunil Abraham, Shahid assigned him
the first job without even having talked with Sunil. "He was
just there at the workshop I did some presentations and in
the break he came to me and gave me his card without uttering
a word. Later he e-mailed me saying if I like to take there
is a six month?s assignment on FOSS."
So Sunil joined to APDIP team to build the largest FOSS
network in Asia Pacific, ISON and stayed for several years.
Shahid did not use a mobile. The story goes that during the
incident leading to the change of government in Thailand, the
UN security people were perplexed on why there was no mobile
number available in front of the name of the person who was
in charge of ICTs. They thought it was a mistake. James, a
colleague of mine had the difficult task of explaining just
because one is ICT savvy one does not necessarily have to be
an ICT consumer.
Shahid was a pioneer who promoted use of mobile phones, in
all sort of remote places, Bangladesh, Fiji and Laos, but he
never saw the need for one in Bangkok.
The security guys were not happy. "Yes, but how can one
contact him in an emergency?" Those who know Shahid, knows
the answer. By e-mail. You can send an email on 7 pm on a
Saturday and can expect the reply in 15 minutes. That was
Prior to joining Shahid?s team, my friend Joy Daniel, then
ICT specialist at Sri Lanka UNDP Country Office told me two
things about Shahid -- one good, the other one a bit scary.
"As far as giving due credit, none can be a better boss than
Shahid. You do a good policy paper, and Shahid will take it
everywhere and let everybody knows you did it. But the
negative side is if he sends an e-mail on a Sunday morning,
he expects action before the first thing in the morning next
My flirting with Internet started long before meeting Shahid,
so checking email on a Sunday morning was no issue to me. So
I joined UNDP-APDIP. Joy could not be more correct. Shahid
not only became one of the best bosses I ever had in my
career, but also convinced me what a strong communication
medium e-mail is, specially when they are written in all
Why Shahid wrote his e-mails completely in lower case is a
mystery. My colleagues have different theories on this. One
said that without having mastered the touch system (like many
in his generation) it was difficult for Shahid to use the
Shift keys, simultaneously. Another said he did not want to
look as if he is giving an order, even when it was what he
exactly did! I do not know the answer. May be both.
According to James, Shahid himself when confronted on this
issue has slyly avoided the topic by saying
that credible research has indicated that in the long run,
you actually save a substantial amount of time if
you type completely in lower case and refer to everyone by
initials and signoff with an initial too.
Shahid's use of e-mails was legendary. For two years, I
reported to Shahid (in Bangkok) from the UNDP Regional Centre
in Colombo. I initially thought I would be going to get a
phone call from him every hour. For those two years, he
contacted me by phone only once, that too for something
unavoidable. Instead I was bombarded with a load of e-mails,
staring from a minimum of 20-25 everyday. (I should say he
was considerate because he reduced that a bit on weekends.)
This practice never changed. Once both of us were at adjacent
seats in a cyber café in New Delhi and Shahid thought the
best way to instruct me do some minor task is by email, as if
he were writing from some other planet.
These were all official mails. As a true professional, Shahid
was not somebody who outwardly or openly discussed about
personal matters during office hours (or out of office hours
for that matter!). The only occasion I remember him getting
personal was to instruct me and my colleague James to take
care when there was a bomb blast at the Colombo Airport. It
is not that he was not concerned about us. The well being of
each and everyone who worked for him was always on the top of
his priorities list but he saw no reason to be outwardly
pretentious in demonstrating it.
I know of many occasions where he has stood up in defence of
his staff when the need arose without being asked. One more
reason why I am so glad to have worked with a boss like him.
Shahid was a workaholic. He often made me remind the motto of
my Alma Mater -- Kam mere Pooja (Work is worship). Call it
old fashioned, but he was a part of a generation that worked
not for rewards, but for the sheer pleasure of doing it. Joy
put it nicely, "Shahid is the type of person who knowing that
you worked till 12 midnight yesterday in organising a
workshop, but still expects you to arrive at work 8.00 am
today. Slightly exaggerated perhaps, but not too far from
The good news was Shahid did it in such a great manner, that
one never realised one works that much. It was all fun and
Shahid?s five years of work in UNDP alone speaks volumes
about him. Over 50 ICT4D knowledge products (both in print
and electronic format) makes UNDP-APDIP the lead agency that
has potentially contributed most in the area of cutting-edge
ICT4D research and literature in the region. As for capacity
building, perhaps its not too bold to state that no other
agency has trained so many individuals in the region in such
diversified topics from FOSS to e-Government.
The small grant scheme that Shahid pioneered alongside a few
development partners, has funded 56 innovative and
sustainable pilot projects. I am particularly happy to note
that one such project -- the e-village based on the Mesh
Networking concept -- is being selected to be replicated at
so many other locations, by the government of Sri Lanka.
I have often been asked whether Shahid would enjoy his
retirement, after leading such a hectic working life. Knowing
him, I find it difficult to answer this question. Frankly I
am not sure.
Shahid was a person who loved his work and I cannot imagine
him being happy without checking his e-mail at 7 pm on
Saturdays. In one of the Sherlock Holmes' adventures,
(another character - though fictitious - who immensely
enjoyed his work), Holmes tells Watson that the best thing
for rest is changing the line of work. I hope Shahid will
take a hint from that. I join the rest of my colleagues to
wish him a happy retirement and happy and productive long
Frederick Noronha Journalist http://fn.goa-india.org
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