Interview with Hamadoun I. Touré
Director, ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau
The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) has put ITU in the
spotlight of the world community. For the first time, ITU’s leading role in
information and communication technologies (ICT) was recognized at the political
and grassroots levels; it is now generally seen as much more than a purely
technical organization. This recognition has not only created enormous potential
for ITU, but also great expectations of what it can and should do to connect the world by 2015 as prescribed in the WSIS Plan of Action.
Given that most of the activities to bridge the digital divide fall within
the mandate of the ITU Telecommunication Development Sector, how would you
reconcile the world’s expectations and the current role of Secretary-General,
which is constrained by the Constitution and the Convention to general
management with no specific authority over Sector policies or programmes?
What would you do in the first 100 days of your mandate to leverage the
visibility and leadership gained by ITU through the WSIS process? And how would
you maintain the momentum? Please provide specific examples.
The organization of WSIS is a result of a landmark decision of the ITU
Plenipotentiary Conference that was held in Minneapolis in 1998. A call was made
to all stakeholders to get together with ITU and address the challenges of the
digital divide. All the stakeholders positively responded, leading to the
success of the summit that was characterized by:
- The synergy resulting from the combined effort and shared vision by the
- The unprecedented participation by the leadership of
developing countries in WSIS agenda setting, debates and negotiations.
recognition given to civil society and their invaluable contribution from within
rather than from the streets, as is often the case in many of UN’s conferences.
- The constructive contribution made by developed countries and their readiness
to bridge the digital divide.
- The recognition of the increased role of the
It is true that the summit increased ITU’s visibility. We, however, should do
more to blow the myth that only those who are experts in technical matters can
participate or contribute to the work of the Union. ITU is home to all
stakeholders because information and communication technologies permeate all the
facets of human life and impact everybody, regardless of their status, gender,
specialty, or geographical location. The potential is there and we must build on
the agenda set by the summit and ensure that ITU’s actions act as building
blocks towards the attainment of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals
set by world leaders in 2000.
The role of the Secretary-General is well defined in the Constitution. The
Constitution does not constrain the Secretary-General in any way. Frankly, I
believe that the Constitution currently gives the Secretary-General enough power
to fulfil his mandate and to deliver digital dividends to the membership. What
is required is good, forward looking and visionary leadership that is built on a
strong foundation of a participatory leadership style that recognizes that the
Directors of the Sectors are part of a team entrusted with the Union’s
resources. The Secretary-General is not responsible for the General Secretariat
alone. He/she is the chief executive officer (CEO) of the Union and must have
confidence in his/her colleagues leading the Sectors, without him having to
interfere with the day-to-day operations of the Sectors. This is not sui
generis to ITU, it also exists in the corporate world as well as the
The first 100 days are often described as “strategic thinking — no action
days” as a new CEO gets to understand his new environment. I have
participated in the work of the Union for many years, both as a delegate and as
Director of the Development Sector. I know the house and actively participated
in the discussions that led to the holding of the summit, in summit proceedings
and in post-summit implementation and follow-up discussions. The work on the
summit does not stop because there is a new Secretary-General. Stakeholders
already know their role in the implementation of the various “Action Lines”. ITU
has a well-defined role, and that role must continue. That is why as
Secretary-General I will address, from day one, three priorities that will, of
course, impact positively on ITU’s credibility:
- I will ensure that the morale
and motivation of the ITU staff are restored, resulting in more efficiency and
- I will change the perception that people have of ITU,
through transparency and accountability.
- I will build bridges to a digital
future through the active and meaningful participation of all stakeholders in
line with the decisions of WSIS, and my personal belief that teamwork is the key
The nominal role of the Secretary-General is to manage the Union and
act as its legal representative, with most of the substantive work carried out
in the Sectors. This creates a situation whereby the Secretary-General is
accountable to the membership without having the required authority to decide or
to implement members’ decisions across the Union. At the same time, Directors of
the Union’s three Bureaux are vested with de facto authority which they
derive from their responsibilities, but for which they are not answerable. This
puts the Secretary-General in a position where he or she can exercise his or her
authority only through a veto of the proposals that he or she receives.
As Secretary-General, how would you lead the organization on behalf of the
members without the required authority over what the Sectors do, taking into
account the fact that irrespective of personalities, this divorced principle of
accountability and responsibility has led to difficult working conditions with
other elected officials and ultimately their staff?
Every elected official is accountable to the membership. Even if the
Secretary-General is ultimately responsible for the entire organization, he/she
is not expected to do everything. The staff of the Union are experts in the
various areas that affect the Union, including legal issues. Whether the staff
are in the General Secretariat or in the Sectors, they are expected to advise
those they report to, and colleagues, on the dos and don’ts, according to their
areas of expertise. Imagine the size of the United Nations and the UN
Secretary-General trying to run each of the agencies of the UN because when
things go wrong, the ultimate responsibility lies in his hands. Coming back to
this issue, let me say that this brings us back to the fundamental question of
the federal structure. Yes, this structure has its weaknesses, but it also has
strengths. Show me which structure is totally devoid of weakness. What is
required is appropriate strategy to make structures work. The current federal
structure is attractive to our members, as it provides checks and balances.
Again, as I have stated before, there is need for more team spirit. For that
reason, as Secretary-General, I will focus on building esprit de corps,
confidence and trust with my colleagues. The Secretary-General should ensure
that the interests of the Union are protected at all times and this role is in
no way contradictory to the interests of the three Sectors.
Since its creation, ITU has encountered different kinds of challenges. In the
present situation, we must carry out thorough analysis in order to clearly
identify the sources of the problems and tackle them in a collaborative manner.
The structure of the organization is often the simplest target when things go
wrong. With or without the federal structure, challenges will always be there,
as one could find in a host of other organizations. I believe that there is
already enough authority bestowed upon the Secretary-General that empowers
him/her to carry out duties as provided for in the Constitution. The
interdependency and complementarities between the Sectors and the General
Secretariat are the cornerstones to the success of ITU. I believe that the
Directors of the three Sectors will work closely with the Secretary-General as a
team, while still recognizing his leadership.
Since 1999, cost efficiencies of the order of 25 per cent have been
achieved against a background of requests for increased output and cost
increases. At the same time, members are not willing to increase resources to
meet the spiralling demands placed on the Union for new activities, more
deliverables and faster turnover.
With little room for any further cost efficiencies, how do you plan to
deal with the problem of shortage of resources?
In concrete terms, how would you
tackle the CHF 50 million shortfall in the next financial plan for 2008–2011?
Resources are finite. Sound management is the key to survival in this
Improvement, creativity and innovation are the essential tools in these
dynamics. The membership has proposed a number of improvements in managing the
resources of the Union. We must not only work hard, but work smart. We must
focus on our core business and, for instance, outsource those areas that do not
fall in this definition. We cannot ask for more resources from the Member States
without demonstrating our willingness to reinvent ourselves, or our commitment
Take for instance the current shortfall of CHF 50 million in the next
financial plan for 2008–2011. This is a “call for action” situation. From
day one, efforts will be directed at restoring a sound financial state of the
Union. Effective coordination will lead to efficiencies and elimination of
duplications that will cut costs. As Secretary-General, I will provide the
leadership required to balance the books, but this will not be my show alone.
The trust that I will build at every level in the house, the sense of belonging
that will emerge within the staff and a participatory leadership will do away
with inefficiencies, low staff morale, and the general malaise within ITU. I
have always been a proponent for co-financing arrangements with ITU’s
development partners. This is another source of financing for ICT projects. Both
Member States and private-sector members are facing these challenges on a daily
The ITU staff have been measured as having above-average productivity
levels. However, several years of financial constraints, which resulted in
higher demands placed on them together with a deep reduction in career
opportunities for professional development, has led to low staff morale with
an unwillingness to shoulder more work without any hope of improvements.
What immediate measures would you take in order to improve the situation?
What steps do you plan to take in the next four years to reverse this
trend of having to do more with less?
ITU has a qualified staff that has a lot of potential. This staff must be
trusted, and it must also trust its management. More transparency in staff
management is a prerequisite for building trust. This calls for equal treatment,
zero tolerance for abuses, and fair rules for employment and promotion. In
periods of financial difficulties, staff can be reasonable in their demands only
if they are treated in a responsible manner.
The next four years will witness a turn-around of ITU characterized by new
ways of doing things, vigorous partnership building, leading to co-financing of
large projects by ITU and its constellation of development partners, increased
accountability, and high staff morale. ITU will certainly restore its
pre-eminent role of providing information and communication technology
solutions, an efficient use of the spectrum and leadership in setting standards.
The trend of doing more with less is a reality in human life. Every household
has to live with the stark reality that the scarce resources flowing in have to
be well managed to meet many demands. Likewise, if ITU is not to be wasteful, it
will always have to do more with fewer resources than needed. What is required
is to embrace a smart-solution strategy that is well thought out and not
wasteful, but must be effective.
We must take the lead in many areas, such as security in cyberspace,
efficient use of resources, appropriate strategies and policies, and financing
infrastructure development to bridge the digital divide.
For ITU, I am confident that better days are yet to come.