High-level segment of the Economic and Social Council: Information technologies for development

Statement of the Executive Secretary of ECLAC, José Antonio Ocampo to the high-level segment of the Economic and Social Council

Like other regions of the developing world, Latin America and the Caribbean lag behind in the adoption of information technologies. Although the region accounts for 8% of the world's population, at the beginning of the current year, it accounted for only 3.5% of Internet navigators and less than 1% of electronic commerce. However, in recent years, expansion has been fast, as demonstrated by annual growth of 40% of Internet subscribers between 1996 and 1999. This suggests that, at least in a number of countries, the international digital divide may be starting to narrow. The rapid development of telecommunications experienced by the region in the 1990s, both in countries where the sector has been privatized and in those that have opted for public-sector or mixed firms, provides a favourable setting for this expansion.

The internal digital divide is just as or even more alarming. Indeed, as stated in the Florianópolis Declaration, adopted at the regional meeting preparatory to this annual session of the Economic and Social Council, "allowing the evolution of the information and knowledge-based society to be guided solely by market mechanisms entails the risk of an amplification of the social gaps existing within our societies [and] the creation of new modes of exclusion?"

The Declaration proposes a comprehensive public programme designed to ensure integration of the whole region and of all social groups within the region in the technological revolution currently underway, within the framework of processes that involve broad private participation and initiatives. The main pillar of this programme is the provision of training for all citizens in new technologies and in broader digital literacy through ambitious and innovative school education programmes, skills training and non-formal education. In order to promote access by all citizens, it recommends the development of local, national and regional contents in the native and official languages of the countries of the region.

It also proposes that the public sector promote directly the application of new technologies in social services, especially education and health, and that the new technology be used to develop more efficient, effective and transparent government administration by offering on-line information to citizens, management oversight mechanisms, services, administrative procedures and government procurement of goods and services via digital networks.

The Declaration also underscores the crucial role that new information technologies will play in the economic development of the region. It, therefore, encourages the development of technology-based firms by creating venture capital funds, technology incentive zones and business incubators with the participation of academic institutions. It highlights, in particular, the importance of designing mechanisms to ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises have access to new technologies. These processes should be directed towards fostering major scientific and technological efforts at the national and regional levels.

Such initiatives also call for actions designed to modernize and reorganize public- and private-sector communications infrastructure, to establish high-speed networks in the region and to reduce the cost of related services. Regulatory systems will also be required in order to promote competition and consumer protection, including confidentiality, as well as the protection of intellectual property rights and security safeguards to commercial transactions by electronic means.

Lastly, I should like to stress the importance attached in the Declaration to regional cooperation efforts in all the areas mentioned, through the promotion of joint technical and commercial ventures, cooperation in public policy, including concerted participation in relevant international forums and the establishment of a regional observatory to monitor the impact of new technologies. Furthermore, it emphasizes the need for technical and financial cooperation from the international community with active participation from relevant private enterprises. Such cooperation could include innovative swaps of debt for national funding for information technology.