19 June 2002
Concluding Two-Day Session on Information Technologies for Development, Assembly Hears Calls for Political Commitment by Developing Countries
India Stresses Education as Bridge Over Digital Divide; Cuba Says International Assistance Crucial to Countries Still Lacking Basic Needs
NEW YORK, 18 June (UN Headquarters) -- The only way for developing countries to close the digital divide was to enthusiastically embrace the current technological revolution, the General Assembly heard today. Instead of accepting marginalization, they must exercise the strong political commitment to invest in their own future, the representative of Costa Rica said.
As the Assembly concluded its two-day session devoted to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for Development, he said developing countries must apply relevant and coherent strategies to integrate every aspect of the digital revolution into their own societies. The leaders of the South must promote policies and programmes that would provide access to knowledge, as well as build the necessary infrastructure and formulate relevant regulatory legislation, he added.
India's representative underscored the need to develop human resources through education in order to allow developing countries to overcome technological disadvantages. It was time to re-examine education strategies to ensure that they would provide training in skills that could be essential in attracting private investment and contributing to economic growth and development. He stressed the "pro-people" and "pro-development" role of ICT, as distinctly different from its wealth-generating role.
Rodrigo Robles, Coordinator of International Affairs in Guatemala's Division of Tele-communications, said it was difficult to imagine a way to reduce the digital divide without thinking about developing the abilities of individuals. Although many governments had left the provision of telecommunications services to the private sector, governments themselves must take the lead in education, bringing their entire infrastructure into play to achieve the fullest possible advantage from the comprehensive use of ICT.
Australia's representative said his country and the World Bank had recently launched the Virtual Colombo Plan, through which the Australian Government was improving basic education in Fiji and Papua New Guinea. It had also helped to establish a Global Distance Learning Network centre in China, and had developed a project to improve the African Virtual University's capacity to deliver quality, relevant courses that addressed the continent's development needs. In addition, the Government was planning to deliver some 200 virtual scholarships to a range of countries in financial year 2002/2003.
Cuba's representative pointed out, however, that developing nations had limited financial resources which must be devoted to fighting poverty. They did not have the resources necessary to take advantage of the technological revolution. How could the international community ensure equitable access to ICTs if the developing world still needed to address burning needs like improving nutrition levels, eradicating illiteracy and gaining access to energy? The international community must provide assistance, he said.
Echoing that sentiment, the representative of Brazil said most developing countries still lacked the basic necessities to develop or even use new technologies. Investing in infrastructure, developing capabilities and generating adequate content was impossible without concrete national strategies supported by broad international cooperation.
Summarizing the discussions of an informal panel discussion held concurrently with the plenary meeting, the representative of France noted that all participants had agreed on the need for equitable rules governing access to ICT that did not penalize Africa and the developing countries. He said that speakers from the private sector did not see Africa and the least developed countries (LDCs) as welfare recipients, but rather as a particularly lucrative emerging marketplace. The best way to promote that idea was to create partnerships, he said.
Ethiopia's representative, summarizing the discussions in a second informal panel, said participants saw ICT as an arena where development concerns could be converted to legitimate business opportunities. Speakers felt it was imperative that businesses recognized the merits of overcoming the digital divide as it related to customers, investments, savings and earnings.
Assembly Vice-President Fawzi bin Abdul Majeed Shobokshi (Saudi Arabia), summarizing the two-day session on behalf of the President of the General Assembly, said a wide consensus had emerged on ICT's potential to promote sustainable growth, combat poverty, and strengthen democratic governance. It could also help empower women in reducing gender inequalities, promote the active participation of disabled and elderly persons in socio-economic development, bridge the rural-urban gap and significantly strengthen the global fight against diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria.
Other delegates speaking today were representatives of Croatia, Myanmar, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Nepal, Morocco, Bangladesh, Suriname, South Africa, Thailand, Slovenia, Burkina Faso, Israel, Belgium, Latvia, Italy, Zambia, Jordan, Indonesia, Mexico, Tunisia, Nigeria and Panama.
The Observers of the Holy See and Switzerland also made statements.
Also speaking today was the representative of the Inter-governmental Agency for Francophonie.
The General Assembly met this morning to continue its consideration of information and communication technologies (ICT) for development.
NENAD PRELOG (Croatia) said ICT was the most pervasive generic technology of the present time. It could be applied in all economic sectors and fields of science and education, and was a basis for successful entrepreneurship, as well as efficient government and social services. However, ICT also brought certain risks, such as the intrusion of privacy, computer crime and the spreading of illegal and offensive content. To minimize those potential problems, governments should take appropriate initiatives and corrective actions, focused on promoting best practices and creating equal opportunities for all.
Croatia had adopted an ICT strategy, he continued, which was fully compatible with the e-Europe Action Plan. The plan included the following goals: ICT should contribute to Croatia's economic growth, increase in employment and expansion to new markets; over the next five years, Croatia should join developed countries in the research and development of ICT, and learn how technology could be used to create new products and services; as electronic administration based on ICT was developed, the quality of services offered to citizens and companies should significantly improve, as well as the efficiency of State and local administration, and public services.
Croatia had certain advantages compared to other countries with economies in transition, he said. It had a well developed and technically advanced telecommunications network, and a high level of professional experience. Over the past two years, Croatia had sought to catch up with neighbouring countries and had now reached Central European averages of ICT development. In the future, it planned to make major breakthroughs in e-government, e-education and health, academic networking and liberalization of the telecommunications market.
BERND NIEHAUS (Costa Rica) said during the past decade the development of new ICT had provided a variety of opportunities for people the world over. And today, the wealth or poverty of peoples, communities and even nations was determined by their level of access to new technologies and relevant skills training. It had become clear that the benefits of ICT were not dispersed equally, and developing countries were particularly disadvantaged.
Reversing that trend would be no easy task, but developing countries must firmly and resolutely grasp the challenge, he said. Those countries must develop and apply relevant and coherent strategies to integrate every aspect of the digital revolution into their own societies. The leaders of the South must promote the development of policies and programmes that would provide access to knowledge. Developing countries must also build the necessary infrastructure to use new technologies, as well as formulate relevant regulatory legislation.
He went on to stress the importance of serious investment in human resources, particularly through the enhancement of education programmes. Costa Rica was committed to the goal of providing ICT access for all the country's people. Indeed, the ultimate objective was to become South America's first "totally wired" country. He added that the Government was connecting the country and rehabilitating its telecommunications infrastructure -- through fiberoptic and DSL technologies -- while extending the capability for future expansion.
Costa Rica's technological advancement strategies also included education programmes, particularly by upgrading graduate schools and promoting research programmes in the field of telecommunications. The Government also welcomed and encouraged investment -- a strategy that was already yielding positive results. In the area of health, the country was now studying remote diagnosis programmes, distance training and access to remote libraries. The only way of closing the digital divide was to enthusiastically embrace the current technological revolution. The developing countries must not marginalize themselves; they must invest in their own future, which required a strong political commitment.
AUNG HTOO (Myanmar) said with new communication technologies advancing at a pace closely linked to the globalization process, world leaders were faced with the possibility of addressing the needs of nearly 4 billion people -- particularly those living in remote regions or rural communities -- relegated to the margins of the information society. The major challenge was to identify ways to make ICT available to those underprivileged communities.
He said that national initiatives were needed to supplement regional and international efforts in that regard. In Myanmar, the development and use of ICT was still in the nascent stages. Still, the Government realized that new technologies could "leapfrog" the country past traditional development hurdles, and was providing guidance, encouragement and necessary support for ICT development. Myanmar also actively participated in the e-ASEAN Framework adopted two years ago.
The Ministry of Education in Myanmar had also encouraged schools to install multimedia classrooms as effective learning and teaching tools, he continued. Now, nearly 500 schools throughout the country had such classrooms, which included computer labs. Distance education for university students had also been reinforced and other e-learning opportunities were under way using data broadcasting systems and satellite communications. More than 300,000 students were now enrolled in courses offered by the University of Distance Education, which provided the opportunity for interaction with professors and scholars at nationwide distance learning centres.
RODRIGO ROBLES, Coordinator of International Affairs, Division of Telecommunications of Guatemala, associating himself with the "Group of 77" developing countries and China, said aggressive reforms in his country had already produced tangible results. They included an explosive growth in the area of cellular phones, an exponential expansion in the number of Internet users and a constantly growing use of informatics.
One side of the ICT coin was the potential of those technologies to accelerate development, he said. The other side was that insufficient development made it impossible to exploit ICT. For example, high illiteracy persisted in Guatemala, with most young people failing to complete their basic education. On the other hand, there were students who were more conversant with ICT than their teachers. Thus, the problem was not confined to learning the skills required to use the Internet, for instance, but extended also to knowing what to do with that source of information.
While education had always been important for achieving development, it was now a fundamental factor in bridging the digital divide and using information technologies, he emphasized. It was difficult to imagine a way to reduce the digital divide without thinking about developing the abilities of individuals. Although many governments had left the provision of telecommunications services to the private sector, governments themselves must take the lead in education, bringing their entire infrastructure into play to achieve the fullest possible advantage from the comprehensive use of ICT.
DAVID STUART (Australia) said his country and the World Bank had recently launched the Virtual Colombo Plan, an ambitious new international programme that would have a major focus on providing basic education and access to knowledge in developing countries through distance education and support for policy development using ICT. It also provided a new platform for Australia's education providers, research institutions and technology companies to share their knowledge and skills with their developing country partners.
He said that in developing countries, even where children were in school, the quality of education was often poor, teachers were underqualified, resources were too few, and teaching materials were inappropriate. There was also a great demand for access to many kinds of post-secondary international training, which could be significantly facilitated, at markedly lower costs, through the use of ICT. Support for improving tertiary education and access to all kinds of knowledge was also greatly needed. In addition, there was a notable demand for specialized custom-designed short courses in many fields.
Following the announcement of the Virtual Colombo Plan, the Australian Government was improving basic education in Fiji and Papua New Guinea and had helped establish a Global Distance Learning Network centre in China, he said. It was planning to deliver some 200 virtual scholarships to a range of countries in financial year 2002/2003, and had already developed and tendered a project to improve the African Virtual University's capacity to deliver quality, relevant courses that addressed the continent's development needs.
He noted that the growth of the Internet raised questions about the balance between a completely unregulated flow of information and restrictions in the interests of societal objectives. The new information society bore new risks, including from attacks on information infrastructures and the exposure of harmful content to children. It was necessary to consider carefully how to maximize the information society's benefits -- including through the removal of impediments to trade and encouraging balanced copyright regimes that encouraged creativity -- while mitigating its downsides.
KIM CHANG GUK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) said the ICT revolution should not become another phenomenon through which developing countries and their people were marginalized. Rather, technological advancement should be oriented to the benefit of all, and should substantially contribute to achieving the international development goals and targets set out in the Millennium Declaration.
In order for ICT to be genuinely conducive to development, it was necessary to raise awareness of the benefits of an information society and to ensure a favourable environment, which enabled full application of ICT, based on sound infrastructures. With the recognized challenges facing developing countries, particularly in the areas of resource allocation, training and infrastructure rehabilitation, it was particularly necessary for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other relevant United Nations agencies and funds to assist smaller countries as they struggled to overcome the digital divide.
To that end, United Nations institutions would have to continuously promote, coordinate and improve upon international ICT cooperative structures, he said. Financial resources, like the UNDP Trust Fund, should be further strengthened, with priority allocation given to developing countries towards the dissemination of new technologies and equipment. He added that the rapid pace of technological development required the relevant United Nations agencies to adapt to a world that was becoming more and more information-based.
He said training and strengthening human resource capabilities and knowledge transfer schemes were also critical to spreading the benefits of ICT. Expert training was particularly crucial in developing countries. He said his own country was approaching the new century as the "era of information industry", and strenuous efforts were being made to integrate ICT at all levels. The Government had put an ICT Development Plan in place to increase investment in the field and to integrate new technology into the country's economy. His country was also set to host an International Forum and Exhibition on Contemporary ICT, in Pyongyang, from 28 to 29 June.
DURGA PRASAD BHATTARAI (Nepal) said, with ICT as its engine, the wave of globalization had touched every aspect of modern life. New telecommunications devices, computers and networking capabilities were the most powerful tools for overcoming socio-economic underdevelopment. Yet millions of people in the world today had never heard a dial tone or seen a keyboard. So the challenge now was to direct the unprecedented power of the ICT revolution to fuel the creation of wealth and job opportunities, promote standard health care and access to fundamental education, and, ultimately, the eradication of poverty, for all the world's peoples.
He stressed that the benefits of ICT were contingent on accessibility, which currently put poor countries at a distinct disadvantage. Indeed, even when some developing countries had tried to introduce ICT into their societies, the inability to update equipment and training skills to match rapid technological advancements had quickly rendered their efforts obsolete. That situation made it clear that developing just and equitable international ICT structures was the only way to ensure the digital revolution served all humankind.
He went on to say that equitable ICT structures would be conducive to increasing investment in the economic and social infrastructures of developing countries. That would require global actors and business leaders to make a radical departure from the way ICT assets were managed and distributed today. The international community must find a way to address the concerns of poor countries and help them join the global information mainstream.
He said that Nepal had formulated its information technology policy two years ago, thus opening up the benefits of such technological advances as e-commerce, e-governance and e-education for its citizens. There were now more than 5,000 registered e-mail accounts and 10,000 Internet accounts in Nepal. The Government had also created a National IT Development Council and IT Development Committee. He added that the Government also planned to crate a readily accessible information superhighway so various ministries and agencies could keep abreast of rapid changes in the information technology sector.
MOHAMED BENNOUNA (Morocco) said that in order to encourage the growing awareness of ICT in his country, the Moroccan Government had opened a technological theme park in Casablanca to provide outreach to new start-up companies in the country and to help them play their part in development. The theme park was becoming one of the most effective in Africa.
He said that, while digital technologies were not a cure-all, they could make it possible to create jobs and provide important prospects for growth and exports. Information and communication technologies could also improve literacy and help to make knowledge accessible to all. They could improve government by making it easier for citizens to participate in public life and to keep tabs on elected leaders, as well as making it possible to bring local structures closer to central authorities.
Unfortunately, most developing countries had no access to ICT and found it difficult to gain access, he said. Unless solutions were provided, the growing digital divide could prove to be irreversible. The penetration of ICT in Africa was particularly low. The entire continent had only 1,300,000 direct subscribers to the Internet, according to the UNDP. Likewise, Africa had a total of only 4 million Internet users, a figure that fell to 1.5 million if South Africa was excluded. In 1999, the continent had only 18 million telephone lines and only 17 countries had Internet access in urban centres other than the capital. The United Nations must do everything possible to help developing countries establish their own strategies, drawing upon those that had proved successful elsewhere.
IFTEKHAR AHMED CHOWDHURY (Bangladesh) said that, at the Millennium Summit, leaders had pledged to free the world from poverty and underdevelopment and committed themselves to ensuring that the benefits of information and communication technologies were available to all. Yet, a vast majority of humanity remained untouched by the miracle of the digital revolution. Unless immediate steps were taken to bridge the digital divide, developing countries would be further marginalized in the global society.
He said revolutionary advances in information technology were transforming the economic and social matrix of the world, to the extent that it was changing the way people worked and lived. Technological advancement was a critical determinant of economic growth and was an essential component of sustainable development in today's knowledge-based global economy. Unfortunately, such know-how was still concentrated in a few countries and confined to a few firms. That monopoly over technology acquisition also led to control over the pricing of products and services, further disadvantaging the developing countries.
He said that the objective was to establish a democratic and inclusive "information society". His country aimed at promoting digital opportunity in the developing world and applying it in areas like e-government, e-commerce, health services, distance education and human resource development. But, bridging the digital divide would require concerted measures from a broad range of actors. Consensus on strategic priorities and commitment by the various stakeholders was essential in facing that challenge.
The forthcoming World Summit on the Information Society must address the issue of digital divide in the context of globalization and development, and deliberate on the broadest range of questions concerning information, he said. A common vision and understanding to ensure an effective and equitable global information society must be found.
IRMA LOEMBAN TOBING-KLEIN (Suriname) said the time had come to create a worldwide system, which gave every human being access and knowledge to ICT. Information and communication technology must be considered as essential to the sustainable development of peoples and societies as was adequate food, housing and education. A rights-based approach to development, which was universally accepted, should also include the right to information and communication technology. She commended the Secretary-General for creating the United Nations Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Task Force, which played a vital role in the preparatory process for the upcoming World Summit on the Information Society. She also thanked the UNDP for helping to create e-mail addresses, homepages and training facilitates for all Member States since 1995.
As only some 10 per cent of Internet users lived in the developing countries, there was an urgent need to bridge the digital divide with ICT projects in those countries, she said. UNDP's Digital Opportunity Initiative, a public-private partnership, and the G-8 Digital Opportunity Task Force were very promising. In October 1995, Suriname entered the global information highway. Various civil society organizations were developing programmes, which focused on creating the necessary ICT infrastructure and networks. One of the successful projects was the computer-training centre for older persons. Suriname needed the tools and support to develop projects for the entire country, such as distance learning.
PAKAMILE PONGWANE (South Africa) said ICT was a priority of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). In his country, the President had given strong support for strategies enabling communities to "leapfrog" into the information society. A global partnership project begun in 1998 had launched a SAFE/WASC/SAT3 Cable around Africa's west coast. It had facilitated inter-Africa communications, but the infrastructure required for a connection needed to be established on the east coast, where the continent's least developed countries were situated.
He said his country had established two vehicles for formulating action plans and strategies to overcome the digital divide. One was a National Commission and the other was an International Advisory Council. Both were concerned with the link between the information society and development, since ICT was recognized as an important tool for socio-economic development in Africa. Information and communication technologies cut across all areas of development, including e-agriculture, e-health and e-commerce.
Dramatic successes had been achieved through the projects already instituted, he said. In one, phone shops had increased dramatically in disadvantaged communities. That came about because the Government instituted policies to ensure that small business licensees provided telecommunications services in areas where tele-density was less than 5 per cent. Another project had used ICT to integrate remote communities into a central network. That had enabled the distribution of information to remote rural communities. The country was planning to establish an ICT University to benefit the entire continent. The key was to create the infrastructure, serving as a backbone for ICT development.
CHUCHAI KASEMSARN (Thailand) said his country believed that ICT was an essential tool for poverty eradication and for achieving sustainable development. Indeed, ICT initiatives played a major role in Thailand's 20-year socio-economic and development policy, which focused on the eradication of poverty and enhancement of the quality of life for its citizens. The programmes and policies elaborated to achieve those ends focused on several key areas aimed at promoting information technology development alongside human and economic development.
Those measures, he continued, included ensuring the availability of low-cost personal computers; enhancing the use of telephone services, particularly in rural areas; increasing the number of tele-centres nationwide; and enhancing transcription and translation services. He believed that the digital divide in Thailand would be reduced and the people of the country would ultimately be provided digital opportunities.
He also stressed that international cooperation was critical to ensuring that all people received the benefits of the technological revolution. It was also important to bring together all relevant stakeholders, particularly private sector partners. In that, he continued, the United Nations could play a unique role. He highlighted the work of the United Nations ICT Task Force and DOT Force, and urged the Secretariat to ensure those two important mechanisms cooperated more closely.
JOZSEF GYÖRKÖS (Slovenia) said his country was experiencing the effects of an intensive ICT deployment at a time it faced the challenges of economic transition and European integration. The experience gained during adoption of the so-called "Information Society Culture" in countries that were candidates for European Union membership was worth sharing with other parts of the developing world. An exchange of policy issues, best practices and of benchmarking results could all contribute to the global knowledge based on ICT as a development driving force. The first progress report had been published this month at the European Ministerial Conference on "Information Society Connection Europe" held in Ljubljana. It had shown significant differences between candidate countries. It had also indicated the opportunities available for sharing experiences, cooperating and taking complementary actions.
He said two contrasting phenomena were emerging with ICT deployment. One was the stimulation of national economies, and the other was a growing digital divide, both within countries and globally. Social differences were intensified when only one part of the population could use digital technologies. Affordable infrastructure and education alone could not lessen the gap. User-centred e-services were also needed. Governments, multilateral development institutions and donors should all contribute to achieving a development strategy that was inclusive and participatory. Development of a broad-scale set of measures, policies and actions should recognize the digital divide that existed in each and every country.
MICHEL KAFANDO (Burkina Faso) said that while history had shown technology to be a powerful tool in human development and in the struggle against poverty, the recent unprecedented advances in information and communication technologies stood in stark contrast to the growing gap in wealth between the developed and developing countries.
Today in the developing countries, particularly in Africa, data processing remained a luxury, he pointed out. The continent's poorest countries lacked suitable technology to meet the challenge of development. While such countries had to develop suitable skills and capacities to gain access to ICT, that alone could not contribute to bridging the gap. New rules were needed in international trade, including copyright regimes.
He said Burkina Faso had integrated new ICT into its development strategy, setting up an asymmetric Internet connection among all its ministries and establishing several public and private Web sites, including for the media. All those efforts deserved support, particularly in the poorest countries, through the mobilization of funding. Hopefully, the World Summit would create greater awareness among all stakeholders of the importance of enabling the poorest countries to reap the benefits of ICT.
RON ADAM (Israel) said that the challenge today was to harness the incredible new power of information and communications technology and channel its energy into productive endeavours to the benefit of the whole of humanity, particularly in the areas of medicine and public health, knowledge and education, capacity-building and the public good. And yet, in debating the issues of high technology, it was important not to lose sight of the fact that for most of the world's population, the mere presence of a telephone line was a major technological phenomenon. In a world where 2 billion people lived on less than $1 a day, only about 10 per cent of the world's population was connected to a telephone. In the sub-Saharan Africa, that figure dropped to 0.5 per cent. In terms of access to personal computers, the numbers were even more dismal. While the high-income countries boasted nearly 350 computers per 1,000 people, the rest of the world could not even muster 40 per 1,000. That was the core of the matter.
Those numbers painted a stark picture, he continued. While some nations had seen their prosperity soar during the technological revolution, most countries still lacked the tools to even get airborne. The objective was to rectify the problem, narrowing the so-called "digital divide", which in the modern world was a prerequisite for narrowing economic and social inequities.
Being one of the most technologically advanced countries, Israel was not immune to the wide disparities between the rich and the poor, he said. Since 1997, the country had been acting to narrow those differences, however. That year it had instituted a "computer for every child" programme, through which over 32,000 students in 73 low-income communities had received computers. Another major initiative was a project bringing the Internet to low-income groups in developing neighbourhoods. Thousands of students were being exposed to information and communication technologies through a programme that established community centres in low-income neighbourhoods, equipped with computer terminals and high-speed access to the Internet. Many technology development projects had also been conceived as bridges between Israel and its neighbours, with the non-profit Peres Center for Peace being at the forefront of those efforts.
In conclusion, he added that promoting technology education and high-tech industry was, indeed, the challenge of the modern age and an imperative for those working for the economic and social development of the poorest corners of the world. To meet the development goals of the Millennium Summit, it was necessary to address the scarcity of technological equipment and knowledge in the developing world.
JEAN DE RUYT (Belgium) said it would be wrong to see only the dangers of the new ICT revolution for developing countries. While the development of new information technologies involved the risk of increasing differences, the post-industrial revolution also offered new ways and means to accelerate development. The challenge was to make information and communication technologies supportive of sustainable development. Their potential as a tool for transforming societies and economic growth should be harnessed. The Internet fostered economic freedom, brought about change and created new professions. It favoured healthy competition and allowed for an unprecedented spread of economic, commercial and technological information.
In terms of development, he said, information technologies should be harnessed as instruments of social cohesion. Distance learning allowed access to audiences that were previously out of reach. By multiplying community access centres to the Internet -- "telecentres" -- it was now possible to build "information feeder roads" to marginalized communities. Tele-medicine would allow for major progress across borders. Belgium welcomed the initiative of creating an "E-Africa Commission" as part of NEPAD. New technologies should first be a tool for good governance. By definition, the Internet implied transparency.
E-government could transform the "Kafka's Castle" into a "glass house" by bringing citizens closer to government, thereby fostering more active citizenship and the dynamics of participatory democracy.
New technologies could also protect the environment, he said. They played a crucial role in transforming consumption and production patterns. New work practices, such as "teleworking", were harbingers of a much more rational use of time and resources. Today's debate was the first step in what should lead to ambitious political conclusions. To turn information technologies into a unifying tool, governments could create an environment of freedom and political, economic and legal stability. Basic education was a fundamental prerequisite. Governments should also liberalize telecommunications markets so as to lower the cost of access to the Internet. At the multilateral level, there should be greater cooperation on issues such as copyright, computer security and electronic trading standards.
GINTS JEGERMANIS (Latvia) said that the development of ICT in his country had contributed to sustained economic growth in recent years, which, in turn, fostered rising funds for such projects as e-education and e-government. Partnerships with the private sector in those areas had been and would continue to be crucial. An equally important step towards an environment conducive to ICT was Latvia's adoption of legislation concerning electronic signature and e-commerce.
Noting that a significant part of humanity had been unable to reap the benefits of ICT, he stressed the need for the United Nations to address that issue seriously. While ICT initiatives were the primary responsibilities of developing countries themselves, individual countries could not achieve comprehensive results in certain areas, such as security and privacy issues, as well as regulation of e-commerce.
He emphasized the importance of the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva and Tunis as venues for turning the digital divide into digital opportunity. With the formal preparatory process due to start shortly, it was imperative to use the potential of the World Summit fully from the beginning. Private sector and non-governmental participation would be of great value to the outcome of the Summit.
PIER FRANCESE (Italy) said ICT affected the way people lived, learned and worked. They also played a vital role in how modern governments operated. It was imperative, therefore, that new technologies served the mutually supportive goals of sustainable social growth, enhanced democracy and social cohesion and, ultimately, the maintenance of international peace and security. The Italian Government was deeply committed to all international efforts to bridge the digital divide.
He said that ICT provided an opportunity for developing countries. One of the most important ways to spread the benefits of the digital revolution was to support the implementation of effective e-government strategies. Such strategies were particularly important for developing countries, in order to provide their leaders with enhanced means to provide and disseminate development opportunities, as well as to promote trade between citizens. E-government strategies could also enhance communications among government, citizens and the private sector.
He went on to highlight the recent e-government for development initiative Italy had launched. That strategy, created in partnership with several developed countries, focused on the design and implementation of innovative projects and partnerships that would yield concrete results. Special emphasis had been placed on the management of public accounts, which was crucial for smaller countries wishing to attract foreign investment. The project also included an action plan on how e-governance efforts could enhance democracy and the rule of law. The response to the pilot project had been very positive, he added.
Finally, he urged the international community not to underestimate the challenge of bridging the digital divide. Gaps -- particularly in education, training, infrastructure and equipment -- still existed between the industrialized and developing worlds. Still, global actors could not allow the difficulties of ensuring equitable access to the benefits of the information revolution be an alibi for inaction. The Assembly must spare no effort in ensuring ICT for the development of all.
MWELWA MUSAMBACHIME (Zambia) called for setting bold targets and specific time frames for the ICT Task Force. He called for stakeholder campaigns to mobilize governments, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, academic and local communities to bring about the goals. The best talent should be mobilized for the efforts, and tangible results achieved quickly. Information and communication technologies was a key development challenge for Africa. Strong partnerships, knowledge and information-sharing mechanisms were called for to secure the political will at the highest levels for optimizing opportunities for political, social, financial and cultural development in an information age.
Despite limitations, many African countries had embraced ICT, he said. Electronic mail had been adopted by agencies. The Internet was cheap enough in some countries to allow for exchange of market information, for distance education, agricultural assistance and health care. Coastal countries were increasingly using ICT for surveillance, control and protection of fisheries. The ICT was providing radical approaches and was changing attitudes. Its implementation was also making a wide variety of areas more effective, among them, banking, weather forecasting, crime detection and commerce. However, some countries lacked the enabling economic environment to encourage innovation. In others, the skills and institutions for adapting the new technology to local needs were lacking. In such situations, governments must come up with sound policies based on a broad technological strategy.
Cellular telephones were no longer a status symbol, he concluded. Zambia was a member of INTELSAT. An earth station in Lusaka provided direct telephone, telefax, e-mail and television links with the rest of the world. On 10 June, an international roaming network for mobile communication had been launched in the country. That meant that people travelling through Zambia could remain connected with their home countries through their cell phones.
V.K. NAMBIAR (India) said that in many societies the ICT revolution, along with its attendant opportunities for growth and development, was giving new meaning to the term "empowerment". It was now possible for some countries to harness the immense potential of ICT to "leapfrog" traditional development obstacles. It was unfortunate, then, that the international community had not been able to reach a consensus on harnessing that potential to assist developing countries in their efforts to secure a better standard of living for their people.
He stressed that the growing digital divide threatened to further marginalize the economies and peoples of the developing world. The United Nations had a crucial role to play in making ICT work for sustainable development. The Organization could also use its relevant agencies and funds to build universal consensus and secure political commitments for the benefit of all humankind.
India believed that it was necessary to develop human resources through education -- including secondary and tertiary education -- in order to allow developing countries to overcome technological disadvantages. It was time to take another look at education strategies, particularly the role of vocational training centres or information technology centres. Support strategies would provide skills training to address specific demands of the modern information society. The development of such skills within developing countries could be an essential way to attract private investment and contribute to economic growth and development.
He went on to stress the "pro-people" and "pro-development" role of ICT as distinctly different from its wealth-generating role. India had embarked on a mammoth project to provide "IT for All" by 2008, so that the benefits of new technologies reached the common man even in the most remote parts of the country. Specific elements of the initiative included mass media campaigns for information technology awareness, establishment of information technology kiosks to provide widespread Internet access, and the promotion of information technology education in all schools and libraries. He added that India was also committed to a programme of e-governance which would bring the people closer to their representatives.
RAMEZ Z. GOUSSOUS (Jordan) stressed the need to remove obstacles blocking access by the developing countries to the benefits of information and communication technologies, which included the lack of infrastructure and human resources, as well as insufficient investment. Those obstacles were at the root of the digital gap between the developed and developing countries.
Jordan had undertaken programmes to incorporate computers and computer science in school curricula, he said. In addition, the Government had also granted exemptions from the payment of customs duty for computer equipment and was encouraging use of the Internet throughout the Kingdom.
He said a recent information technology initiative by the Government would allow technology to make positive changes in various areas and strengthen cooperation among countries in the region. Jordan had been chosen as the regional headquarters for the ICT Task Force, charged with drawing up proposals aimed at bridging the digital gap.
MOCHAMAD SLAMET HIDAYAT (Indonesia), associating himself with the Group of 77 and China, said that although the private sector was fundamentally important in making the benefits of ICT available to all, market forces alone could not bridge the digital divide and promote digital opportunities.
Financial resources for promoting ICT in the service of development had remained insignificant in comparison to the size of the task, he said. That trend had been significantly aggravated by the impact of rapid globalization and liberalization. Developing countries must be better equipped to make the most of ICT for development, and should seek to ensure that ICT applications would penetrate all sectors of society.
He said Indonesia had instituted ICT policy initiatives involving the adoption of e-government legislation that would help align the country with its neighbours in the near future. The Government had created a road map of activities for the implementation of e-government. It provided an evolutionary framework incorporating current Government activities, and charted the path for achieving Indonesia's e-government vision and sustaining the full benefit of a mature e-government environment. Such steps included bridging the digital gap within the country and improving Indonesia's competitiveness in the global economy by using e-government to remove non-tariff barriers to trade.
LUIS ALFONSO DE ALBA (Mexico) said that today ICT was not an option, but a prerequisite for participating in modern society and the current globalized economy. In that context, there should be a global consensus on the tools needed to eliminate the digital divide that hindered the technological advancement of developing countries. It was imperative to ensure equitable access to and distribution of new information technologies.
For its part, Mexico had embarked upon a project called "E-Mexico", which aimed to provide the full benefits of the digital revolution. That initiative focused on such factors as education, health, economics and specific digital community services. Through the programme, Mexico was seeking to provide access to technology as an opportunity to modernize society. Efforts were being made to promote connectivity at an affordable cost in both urban and rural communities. That effort had been complemented by the creation of a Telecommunications Social Coverage Fund aimed at enhancing relevant technological services.
Mexico was closely monitoring the preparatory process for the upcoming World Summit on the Information Society. Mexico believed that its experiences could enhance the international knowledge base in order to help channel efforts to increase access to ICT for the benefit of its own citizens and the citizens of the world. The upcoming Summit would provide the best opportunity for the world community to rally together, in the interest of identifying shared objectives towards the development of a new and equitable information society.
HATEM BEN SALEM (Tunisia) said the involvement of the developing countries in economies grounded in technological advancement would provide untold benefits for the people of the developing world, particularly by increasing their participation in global markets. Tunisia had identified areas requiring specific attention for the information technology development of smaller countries, including the modernization of existing infrastructure, developing and regulating new technologies and developing human resources.
To help achieve those goals, Tunisia had embarked on a plan to set up information technology parks and service centres. For example, he said that one of those parks specialized in the development of software and employed some 300 engineers. Tunisia had also developed a series of strategies to address the demands of the modern information society, namely, through e-payment schemes like the "e-Dinar" project. He believed that Tunisia's modest experience could serve as an example for other developing countries. Tunisia was prepared to share its experience, and in that spirit had agreed to host the second stage of the upcoming World Summit on the Information Society in 2005.
The thrust of Tunisian policy was to make every effort to develop a knowledge-based society for all, he said. Reporting on progress under way towards the 2005 segment of the World Summit, he said the preparatory process had just begun in Geneva. A bureau had been created for the first stage of the Summit, scheduled for 2003, and the rules of procedure had been established.
TURNER T. ISOUN, Minister of Science and Technology of Nigeria, said the African continent, marginalized in the last millennium, remained unable to benefit meaningfully from the third great human revolution. The digital divide manifested itself in many ways in Africa. There was the paucity of fixed telephone lines, mobile lines, Internet services, terrestrial television, radio and other communication services. The cost of telephone services from Europe or North America to Africa was simply unaffordable to the most vulnerable sector of Africans. Emerging technologies, such as broadband wireless, satellite communication and mobile telephone systems, offered hope that Africa could leapfrog into the global information society.
The Government of Nigeria had declared ICT a national priority for development, he said. With a population of 120 million, the country offered a huge market and investment opportunity. To achieve its ICT objectives, the Federal Government had liberalized and deregulated the communications sector, licensed three GSM (Global Satellite Mobile Communications) operators, and issued fixed wireless access to 34 operators to stimulate universal access and bridge the rural-urban divide. The Government had also embarked on such projects as information technology parks, distance learning, virtual libraries, rural community centres, and mobile rural community centres.
The ICT had immense potential for poverty eradication, job creation, provision of health services, natural disaster mitigation, human resource development, good governance, commerce and finance, he said. A homegrown e-Africa Commission was a major component of the bold NEPAD initiative. What was left was to secure the requisite global support for NEPAD. For that to happen, there was an urgent need for regulatory and legal frameworks, transparency, accountability, rule of law, security of investments, respect for human rights, gender equality and public-private partnerships. He hoped that new and additional resources would be provided. Debt relief to specifically fund development projects such as ICT was not too much to ask for developing countries, he said.
AZAEL BARRERA, Director-General of Information Systems of Panama, said his country was looking forward to bringing the application of information and communication technologies to all sectors of the country, especially the socially and economically challenged classes. Panama aimed to have 100 centres operating by next year, when the country would celebrate its first centennial as an independent republic.
Five years ago, the Government of Panama had created the first neutral interconnecting point in Latin America so that Internet service providers could keep the local data traffic local, he said. However, some of those providers were strangling Internet access community centres with increasing connecting fees, which should have been reduced after privatization.
The Government was making the final effort to connect schools to the Internet and to national and international digital libraries, he said. New alliances with information technology giants had made possible the establishment of academies and training centres for the digital literacy programmes of Panama's youth and professionals, who otherwise would not be able to improve their knowledge.
He said Panama's reputation as a maritime crossroads would allow the country to transform itself into the new digital crossroads of the Americas. The growing presence of fibre-optic cables across the Isthmus would transport in a few seconds all the information generated in Latin America in one day.
LUIZ TUPY CALDAS DE MOURA (Brazil) said although the focus was usually on the economic impact of the IT revolution, new technologies touched many areas of daily life, including education, governance and culture. It was therefore unfortunate that such technologies were so unevenly distributed. Most developing countries still lacked the basic elements necessary to develop or even use new technologies. Investment in infrastructure, development of capabilities and generation of adequate content could not be achieved without providing coordinated and concrete national strategies along with broad international cooperation.
He said some essential actions must also be carried out by the public and private sectors as well. Those included design and implementation of public programmes to ensure access to IT-related products and services, adoption of measures aimed at reducing the cost of communications services, and encouragement of the development of technology-based firms and business centres. He added that investing in human resources remained critical to ensure access to information and knowledge, as well as to turn knowledge into new capacities. In addition, the importance of developing local content could not be overstated, since such development was not only vital to ensuring broader access but also ensured the preservation of diverse cultural, ethnic and linguistic identities.
Highlighting the efforts undertaken by the Brazilian Government, he said initiatives had been under way to expand Internet use since 1995. The country's Internet could now boast some 7 million users; almost 1,200 new domain names were registered every day. Almost all universities and research institutions were interconnected. Efforts were under way to enhance the country's telecommunications infrastructure, and various e-commerce initiatives had been set up. Current plans also included the interconnection of all public libraries and the creation of community IT access centres throughout the country.
ORLANDO REQUEIJO GUAL (Cuba) said the current technological revolution had been accompanied by a process of neo-liberal globalization, which had exacerbated poverty, ill health and illiteracy in the developing world. The digital divide was widening by the day. Indeed, according to alarming figures reported by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 91 per cent of fax machines and 97 per cent of the world Internet technology was located in only 23 developed countries.
Nations of the developing world had limited financial resources which must be devoted to fighting poverty. They did not have the resources they needed -- human or otherwise -- to take advantage of the technological revolution. How could the international community ensure equitable access to ICT if the developing world still needed to address certain other burning needs, such as improving nutrition levels, eradication of illiteracy and gaining access to energy? It was obvious that radical ideological change was needed in order to allow the developing world to participate in the modern information society.
It was essential for the international community to provide assistance, he continued. There was also a need for effective cooperation among all international players in order to ensure that developing countries had access to technology and information transfers.
For the last 40 years, he said, Cuba had been the victim of an ironclad economic blockade imposed by the Government of the United States. Despite that, Cuba was struggling to introduce new technologies at all levels of society. The first prong of the Government's initiative was to provide access to such technologies to the youth of the country, as well as to teachers. Technological and computer schools had been created throughout the country to teach younger generations computer science and other skills that would better prepare them to participate in the modern information society.
Archbishop JOHN P. FOLEY (Holy See), said that the Holy See was most interested in the human and moral implications of information and communication technologies for development. Pope John Paul II had noted that the "most essential" question raised by technological progress was whether, as a result of such technology, each person could become "truly better, that is to say more mature spiritually, more aware of the dignity of his/her humanity, more responsible, more open to others, especially the neediest and the weakest, and more ready to give and to aid all."
Monsignor Foley said that the Holy See and the Vatican were privileged to take part in the World Telecommunications Development Conference in Istanbul in March and to make a number of observations, among them that bridging the digital divide required that measures be taken to end the unjust discrimination dividing the rich from the poor, both within and among nations.
Also, the extension of basic telecommunication services to the entire population of developing countries was a matter of justice. While some countries, as well as some corporations and individuals, had greatly increased their wealth, others had been unable to keep up or had even become poorer. Worse, there was a perception in some countries that globalization had been imposed upon them and that it was a process in which they were unable to participate in an effective way.
While globalization had both positive and negative effects, he could only agree with those critics who had pointed out that, as regards the new ICTs, the result has been a widening of the digital divide between developing and developed countries. It followed that "individuals, groups and nations must have access to ICT in order to share the promised benefits of globalizations and development and not fall further behind."
The Holy See believed that development must be understood not solely in economic terms, but in a way that was fully human, concretely enhancing every person's dignity and creativity. Education for development should not merely fill heads with information, but ought to release the creativity of the human person.
ROGER DEHAYBE, Administrator-General of the Intergovernmental Agency for Francophonie, noting that advances in ICTs had revealed a trend towards exclusion, said his organization wished to change the contours of the information society by promoting cultural and linguistic diversity.
He said it was clear that those who became part of the information society had a greater opportunity to mould its specific features. The participation of civil society in the World Summit for Information Society process indicated new forms of partnership based on complementarity.
The digital divide was less a technological factor than a sociological one, he said. Inadequate access by the poorest countries might further worsen their marginalization, penalized as they were by insufficient infrastructure and training. They might be unable to use the technologies to create data suited to their own needs.
He said Francophonie aimed to use cooperative actions to backstop national strategies, develop software for French speakers and emphasize individuality. He noted that education and training looked increasingly like becoming a world market that must be conquered. Alliances now being formed threatened educational centres. It was necessary to ensure that education did not become just another commodity on the market, he stressed.
MARC FURRER, observer for Switzerland, said technological progress had given divisions between rich and poor, young and old, educated and uneducated, and North and South a new dimension -- the digital divide. Rather than making connections, ICT was creating new divisions. The cost of a computer in Bangladesh, for example, was eight times the average annual income, while in New York it was less than the average monthly wage. Only 17 per cent of the world's population lived in industrialized countries, yet 88 per cent of Internet users lived there.
The World Summit on the Information Society, to take place in Switzerland in December 2003, must show how those divides could be bridged, he continued. It was the first conference on the information society with universal participation, and its success would depend on a coordinated effort by all actors. It offered a unique opportunity to develop and implement a policy declaration and action plan to promote the information society from a coordinated perspective. International cooperation must be intensified at all levels -- between Member States and the United Nations, with the ICT Task Force at its centre, along with international financial institutions, the World Bank and regional development banks, as well as the World Trade Organization (WTO).
However, governments and international organizations would not be able to achieve any tangible results without the active participation of the private sector and civil society, he said. In the final analysis, it was civil society -- citizens, industry, consumers and academics -- who applied ICT as users, consumers or producers. The private sector could contribute to building up an ICT infrastructure in developing countries, and would also gain by setting up that universal service.
Summary of Informal Panel Discussions
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE (France), Chairman of the second informal panel on the United Nations role in supporting efforts to promote digital opportunities, in particular in Africa and the LDCs, told the Assembly that the discussions had been considerably enhanced by participants from the "real world" -- the business community and private investors. He added that it was important to note that three of the panellists had been women.
The general feeling among all the participants was that information technologies must be placed at the service of Africa and other developing regions, he said. They considered the only real question to be how the United Nations system could help achieve that goal. While they said the mobilization of the Organization appeared real -- at least here in New York -- speakers emphasized that the spirit of commitment to ICT for development should resonate throughout the entire United Nations system, particularly its relevant agencies and funds.
He said all participants had agreed that first and foremost, equitable rules should be established. Indeed, the rules of the game should not penalize Africa and the developing countries. Here he stressed that speakers from the private sector did not see Africa and the LDCs as recipients of welfare. Indeed, what private investors saw in the developing world was a particularly lucrative emerging marketplace. The best way to promote that idea was to create partnerships, particularly between and among United Nations agencies, the Bretton Woods institutions and even universities and research centres. Speakers had identified some key words that should govern the creation and viability of partnerships, including "diversity", "flexibility", "pragmatism" and "imagination".
ABDUL MEJID HUSSEIN (Ethiopia), Chairman of the first informal panel on how ICTs leverage development to meet the Millennium Development Goals, said participants had recognized that the key issues were not simply technological, but addressed other concerns such as purpose, mindset, governance, leadership and vision. ICT was recognized as a great tool, but one that the required the proper environment to ensure its effectiveness.
Participants, he said, had noted that ICT could have considerable leverage to promote development and reduce poverty, but there were many complications to overcome. Most immediately, countries with the lowest levels of telephone and Internet usage had the highest phone, connectivity and band-with costs. A related concern was how the goals of business and development could be merged. Participants also examined the ways improved communications technology, especially the Internet, could facilitate the work of governments.
He said a government representative had emphasized that ICT must be recognized as a necessity, not a luxury in government budgets. ICT was not an alternative to other expenditures but a requisite tool for development. On the business side, ICT was seen as an arena where development concerns could be converted to legitimate business opportunities. Speakers felt it imperative that businesses recognized the merits of overcoming the digital divide as it related to customers, investments, savings and earnings. The government's role in shaping and encouraging business interests was also highlighted in the discussions, as was the important role played by the private sector and civil society.
Summary by Assembly President
Assembly Vice-President FAWZI BIN ABDUL MAJEED SHOBOKSHI (Saudi Arabia) read a summary on behalf of the General Assembly President. He said the meeting, which aimed at fostering digital opportunities for all in the emerging information society, had been recognized as an important and timely initiative, especially in light of a persistent digital divide between developed and developing countries, as well as within countries.
He said the ICT revolution was opening new opportunities for economic growth and social development. A wide consensus had emerged on ICT's potential to promote sustainable growth, combat poverty, and strengthen democratic governance. It could also help empower women in reducing gender inequalities, promote the active participation of disabled and elderly persons in socio-economic development, bridge the rural-urban gap and significantly strengthen the global fight against diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria.
While ICT was a strategic instrument for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, it was still under-used in many parts of the world, he said. The digital divide threatened to further marginalize the economies and peoples of many developing countries, as well as countries with economies in transition. The challenge of transforming that divide into digital opportunities required international commitment and cooperation, he added.
The meeting had recognized the significance of multi-stakeholder partnerships for leveraging development with the use of ICT, he said, adding that civil society could bring a broader, more participatory and inclusive approach to ICT development. At the same time, regional collaborative efforts should be recognized and promoted.
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