|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
DEVELOPING COUNTRIES MUST UPGRADE INFRASTRUCTURE, INVEST IN SKILLS TRAINING
TO BRIDGE RICH-POOR INFORMATION GAP, SAYS GHANAIAN MINISTER
Round Table on Harnessing Knowledge for Development
Considers Strategies for Using Communications Technology to Reduce Poverty
(Received from a UN Information Officer.)
ACCRA, GHANA, 24 April -- Bridging the widening gap between the “information-rich” North and “information-poor” South required developing countries to invest in skills training and upgrade information technology infrastructure, while exploring creative partnerships for research and development, Benjamin Aggrey Ntim, Ghana’s Communications Minister, said today.
He spoke as the Twelfth Ministerial Meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD XII), entering its penultimate day in Accra, Ghana, held a round table on “Harnessing knowledge and technology for development”, in which they weighed strategies to put the current information and communications technology boom at the service of poverty alleviation and sustainable development.
Hailing the Internet as “the great equalizer”, owing to its lightning-fast ability to bring people together and efficiently transfer information on a global scale, Mr. Ntim said Governments in the developing world had an obligation to inject the requisite capital to establish and/or upgrade their telecommunications networks and enhance the capacities of universities and training centres.
The aim was “to be a creator, not merely a passenger” on the information highway, the Minister said, calling for Government-private sector partnerships to help stimulate and support technological research and development. Ghana, which hosted some 29 Internet service providers with nearly 1.5 million subscribers, was building a fibre-optic network that would ensure nationwide access, thus boosting national development. The “e-Ghana project” placed special emphasis on helping local telecommunications businesses take advantage of the opportunities created by public-private partnerships.
He stressed that knowledge creation and the ability to translate telecommunication skills and knowledge into benefits for society were critical in enabling developing countries to take part in the information explosion, adding: “A country’s future is determined by the size and quality of its human capital.” In order to achieve a truly knowledge-based economy, developing countries must prioritize skills training as well as research and human capacity-building.
“Ultimately, the growth frontier is now defined by access to modern communications and information technologies,” said Supachai Panitchpakdi, Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in his opening remarks. Therefore, the developing world urgently needed access to knowledge and innovation, not only to improve livelihoods, but also to enhance capacity-building. Knowledge, technology and innovation now played a central role in the development process and were indeed critical to the achievement of internationally agreed development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals.
He stressed that, despite the existence of the new technologies required to address development challenges, poor countries lacked access to them. It was critical for developing countries to develop institutions, enhance education capacities and create supportive policy and regulatory frameworks at the national level, while making greater efforts to build capacities and create information and communications technology partnerships at the international level. Distance learning e-business and e-governance technologies were all being placed at the service of development with spectacular results. Wireless innovation, which was literally transforming societies around the world, was critical today.
“If all stakeholders join hands in partnership, we can achieve real results,” he said, calling on political leaders to live up to the commitments they had made at the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society. In line with that Summit’s outcome, it was estimated that, by the end of 2008, half the world’s population would have access to mobile phones if current trends held. However, much remained to be done, particularly sine the least developed countries had poor telecommunications infrastructures, lacked adequate resources and suffered from low literacy levels.
In a keynote address, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand said modern information and communications technology -- and the knowledge to put it to use -- was critical to achieving the goal of sustainable development for all. Access to technology enhanced people’s capabilities to learn, create and communicate, but the challenge was that, due to low education, poor literacy and antiquated, or even non-existent, infrastructure, information and communications technology was usually among the weak points in many national development strategies.
Highlighting her personal efforts to spreads modern communications technology throughout Thailand, she said the Government had targeted key sectors and communities for priority action, including rural schools, persons with disabilities, sick children and prison inmates. She had led a “SchoolNET programme” that had been helpful in bringing students across the country together in sharing lessons and innovative, creative ideas. Such projects had added value because they also required the scaling-up of information technology training for teachers and other instructors, often through e-learning or distance learning technologies. Such “borderless” learning techniques allowed teachers to reach farmers and other communities in even the most remote areas, providing them with information about modern agricultural equipment or changes to labour rules.
As for critical issues that could be addressed by UNCTAD and other global actors, she said that ensuring sustainable development and economic growth in that context required, among other things, efforts to expand broadband technologies as a means not only to increase the use of cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and computers, but also to boost the capabilities of such devices. It was also necessary to scale up funding for telecommunications education and training, especially since poor education and low levels of literacy and technical know-how hampered the use of information and communications technology in many countries and communities, even when it was available.
“While there is no single solution, we can all learn and adapt from the experiences of others,” she said, noting that UNCTAD could help in that regard by promoting research and development, and by holding relevant conferences and forums to bring all stakeholders together. It could also step up efforts to ensure that the modern “information society” was not just a city-based one, but was expanded to rural and remote areas.
Setting the stage for the panel discussion, Moderator Art Reilly, Senior Director at Cisco Systems, said modern advances in medicine, agriculture, transportation and environmental protection all had the common thread of empowering people by releasing creativity and ingenuity -- taking ideas and creating even newer technologies –- and using innovative ideas to improve their own lives and those of others.
Other members of the panel were Frank Heemskerk, Minister for Foreign Trade of the Netherlands; Fadillah Yusof, Deputy Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation of Malaysia; Gordon Graylish, Vice-President of Intel Europe, the Middle East and Africa; and Michael Rawding, Vice-President of the Microsoft Corporation’s Unlimited Potential Group.
The invited discussants were: George S. Dragnich, Director of the Office of Economic and Development Affairs in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs at the United States Department of State; Ricardo Meléndez-Ortiz, Chief Executive of the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development; Tytti Nyahi of the Service Centre for Development Cooperation (KEPA) in Finland; and Margaret Blamberg, Chair of the New York Non-Governmental Organization Committee on Financing for Development.
Mr. Yusof said information and communications technology was crucial for growth, competitiveness, employment and well-being in Malaysia, where it was a central part of the national development plan, Malaysia 2020, which aimed to benefit from knowledge-based sectors, particularly in biotechnology. The goal of that plan was to create a knowledge society with opportunities for all people, many of whom were now on the other side of the digital divide. One major effort to bridge that divide involved the multimedia super-corridor, which would provide a viable information and communications technology base nationwide.
Biotechnology efforts spanned agricultural, health and other sectors, and included capacity-building, training, job creation and research and development, he said. Targeted research and development in biotechnology and other specific areas would help Malaysia stay competitive in those areas. Technological cooperation with other developing countries was a priority.
Mr. Dragnich said connectivity was necessary but not sufficient to make information and communications technology work for development. As a coastal country, Ghana had an advantage over landlocked countries, having been more easily able to get broadband access. Malaysia’s experience, however, showed that original research was also important. Valuable research was being done all over the globe, but the problem was linking up all the world-class scientists. Deregulation was also a problem in many developing countries and large providers often worked against their interests to maintain monopolies.
When asked by Mr. Reilly how information and communications technology could help with the current food crisis, Mr. Ntim said cell phones were already being used to communicate scarcities from urban areas to farmers in rural areas, in order to bring in more produce. Meteorological information had also been disseminated throughout Ghana through telecommunications networks, in a way that would help cope with climate change. Call centres could bring quick responses to farmers’ needs and digital technologies might also be made to serve in that way.
China’s representative remarked that developing countries had taken different routes to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, but knowledge and technology were necessary tools. Low-cost labour was not enough. Hopefully, UNCTAD’s work in that area would be strengthened in the future.
Princess Maha recalled that, during her youth, all farmers had grown just enough for themselves and a bit extra to sell. Today, many of them grew rice of a kind not consumed locally, exclusively for sale by gross distributors and exporters. They had to buy rice for their own consumption. It would be better if they went back to growing some rice for their own consumption. Better communications could allow such flexible systems, and UNCTAD could help in that area, as well.
Agreeing that knowledge and innovation could help reinforce the benefits of globalization, Mr. Heemskerk said it was not only a matter of digitalization. The Dutch tomato, for example, was the result of knowledge, technology and innovation. Only with the help of the private sector could the transfer of such knowledge take place and, for that reason, the Netherlands offered incentives for its companies to invest in developing countries.
Mr. Rawding said Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential initiative recognized that not enough progress was being made to serve communities in developing countries, where the emerging middle class was struggling to escape poverty. Unlimited Potential was collaborating in Latin America with local research organizations to create access solutions. It was compiling and disseminating best practices in community-access centres, among other projects.
“This is all about capacity,” said Mr. Graylish, adding that technology was changing fast and the knowledge base must keep up with it. For that to happen, teacher training was of primary importance, as was the need to adapt technology to local conditions. For that purpose, the many aspects of connectivity and usability must be considered. A Government framework, in concert with the private sector, could make that happen.
Ms. Blamberg said that not enough attention was being paid to the most marginalized communities, noting that information and communications technology could help integrate and build human dignity.
Ms. Nyahi agreed that innovation had wider connotations than digital technology, and civil society organizations emphasized the importance of policy space for local governments in that regard.
Mr. Meléndez-Ortiz said information and communications technology and other advanced technologies should be at the centre of international cooperation for development, partly because it was an area in which it was so difficult for developing countries to catch up to countries that had the resources to conduct research and development. The transfer of technology had not been adequate in that area, and for that reason it should be a primary kind of investment in the developing world.
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