|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
PANEL IN GENEVA CALLS FOR MASSIVE INVESTMENTS IN information
and communications technology FOR DEVELOPMENT
(Received from a UN Information Officer.)
GENEVA, 22 May 2007 -- Information and communications technology has a vital role in development, but massive investments and the involvement of the private sector are needed, experts said at a panel discussion held at the United Nations in Geneva.
The panel on “ICT for Development -- A follow-up to the World Summit on the Information Society” was organized by the Global Alliance for ICT and Development and the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development, in the framework of the Commission’s tenth session.
Several speakers pointed out that mobile communications introduced radical improvements in poor people's lives, and promoted economic growth and prosperity simply by connecting people and providing access to information. Fishermen were using mobile phones to organize fishing trips and sell their produce, and farmers were using them to check weather conditions and commodity prices. Without better technology, the end result would be stagnant economies and rising unemployment and poverty.
However, other speakers maintained that information and communications technology was insufficient to promote development. Improving access to information alone could help reduce precariousness for some, but would not make a significantly dent poverty.
Professor C. K.Prahalad of the University of Michigan favoured providing basic information and communications technology services before moving on to more advanced ones. If access to different high-quality information and communications technology services could not be provided simultaneously, efforts should be made to provide some level of service at each step of the “ICT ladder”. A bottom-up approach was desirable, allowing people some choice on what types of service were most useful and desirable.
Erkki Ormala, Vice-President of Technology and Policy at Nokia, said future Internet access would mainly be via mobile phone, improving the lives of huge numbers of people. Today there were about 3 billion mobile phone subscribers, he said, and their number could rise to 4 billion by 2010 and to 5 billion by 2015. In Indian schools that had recently been connected, Internet access had rejuvenated the enthusiasm of teachers and the interest of students. But pitting computer-based versus mobile-based information and communications technology is a false alternative, one speaker said.
Mobile telephony could produce "value at the bottom of the pyramid", said Sanjiv Ahuja, Chairman of the Board of Orange. Mobile phones were helping to reduce transaction costs, broaden trade networks, improve the provision of market information and rationalize the supply chain through better logistics management. To achieve open access to information for all, Governments and firms needed to develop a “symbiotic relationship”. In view of their poverty reduction effects and positive impacts on income and gross domestic product, it was “misguided policy” to consider telecoms as cash-cows, and to tax telecoms equipment and usage as luxury goods.
Further benefits of mobile telephony for development depended on the deployment of wireless broadband, speakers said, as it enabled the transfer and sharing of more complex information on health and education. Mobile broadband would benefit from freeing up wireless spectrum, from using the spectrum more efficiently and from deploying network management technology. Regulation of wireless spectrum should be liberalized, several speakers said. The International Telecommunication Union had developed a spectrum management software that eliminated the risk of spectrum clashes and blocking, and, thus, the breakdown of military communications systems.
But one speaker stressed the need to further reduce the power requirements of mobile telephony to make information and communications technology access possible in countries and areas within countries where the basic power infrastructure needed for most information and communications technology was unavailable.
Some speakers called on Governments to facilitate information and communications technology innovation by careful deregulation and by removing barriers to private-sector participation. But one speaker said that simply deregulating the telecoms industry might promote telephony, but would not improve key connectivity and access, and regulatory systems should instead be designed with this goal in mind. Another speaker felt that Governments, especially in developing countries, were increasingly falling behind in their ability to effectively regulate information and communications technology.
One speaker suggested that, if countries attracted information and communications technology firms inside their borders, including by encouraging research, innovation would result. But one issue was how to establish the supporting infrastructure needed to get the research going in the first place.
Access to information and communications technology was still insufficient in rural areas, participants said, and fixed-line telephony and Internet access were still unsatisfactory in Africa, where in spite of much progress and the world’s fastest-growing mobile phone markets, 23 countries still had less than 10 per cent penetration of mobile services among their population.
While many countries had incorporated information and communications technology into their development strategies, most poverty reduction plans did not consider it an integral tool, speakers said, and policies using information and communications technology for poverty reduction had not yet been implemented. Lack of access penalized poor people in terms of economic opportunity, health and education, and their general ability to make their voices heard.
Much of the financing to improve access was being done on a project basis with donor funding, participants said, but many of these projects never achieved financial sustainability and were terminated once funding ran out. The solution was to persuade Governments and firms that commercial success and the delivery of social value did not have to be in opposition, but could be mutually reinforcing. For instance, using mobile phones in tracking the development of an epidemic could lessen its negative economic impact.
The essence of e-Government was to allow dissent and opposition, several speakers said, and to unleash local capacities by localizing and decentralizing public institutions and administrations. The main reason why a Government ministry or a public entity adopted information and communications technology was the need to improve its interface with the public -- the best solution, participants said, as it was demand-driven. In this context, Government libraries were becoming providers of information in electronic format and the first access point for companies and individuals seeking information on e-Government processes and documentation -- such as administrative documents, forms, tax information, business regulations and voting procedures.
However, many e-Government Internet portals were still not well connected to back office operations and needed improvements in the quality of service, speakers said. One technical problem was to achieve interoperability.
In response to a query from delegates, speakers said information and communications technology could help reduce corruption, for instance by randomly assigning cases to judges through information and communications technology and by posting verdicts online. To increase transparency and improve accountability, national and local public institutions should retain information under public ownership and refrain from privatizing data or using proprietary data formats. Free and open source technologies and open data formats would help to ensure open access to public data.
For further information, please contact Enrica Mumura at the Global Alliance Secretariat, tel.: +1 212 963 5913, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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