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Digital inclusion for least developed countries
Innovation •Growth •Sustainability

Highlights from an ITU meeting held ahead of the fourth United Nations Conference on least developed countries (UNLDC-IV) that will take place in Istanbul, Turkey, from 9 to 13 May 2011.

Towards the Istanbul Programme of Action

Amid all the worthy goals and fine targets, what will really help the least developed countries to join the achievers? One effective way will be to boost progress towards the Millennium Development Goals through digital inclusion. These goals, which span all sectors, are to: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop a global partnership for development, involving the private sector and civil society, that includes the sharing of benefits of information and communication technologies (ICT) with countries worldwide.

In 2001, the Third United Nations Conference for Least Developed Countries (UNLDC-III), held in Brussels, Belgium, set specific targets for increasing access to ICT in these countries, in order to help meet development goals. These targets are contained in the Brussels Programme of Action and were to be implemented over a ten-year period.

At a meeting on “Digital Inclusion for Least Developed Countries: Innovation, Growth, and Sustainability”, held at ITU headquarters on 8–9 March, participants reviewed progress made towards implementing the Brussels Programme of Action and explored innovative ways of using ICT as a catalyst for alleviating poverty and stimulating growth in these countries under a new Programme of Action.

The event was organized by ITU to prepare for the Fourth United Nations Conference on Least Developed Countries (UNLDC-IV) to be held in Istanbul, Turkey, from 9 to 13 May 2011.

Opening the meeting, ITU Deputy Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao noted that the Brussels Programme of Action called for average telephone density in least developed countries to be increased to 5 main lines per 100 inhabitants, and for Internet connections to be increased to 10 users per 100 inhabitants. To put these targets into context, he commented that at the time of UNLDC-III, combined teledensity — fixed plus mobile — in least developed countries as a whole had reached 1.17 per cent. The picture was very similar concerning Internet user penetration, which in 2001 stood at 0.3 per cent in least developed countries.

So how have least developed countries fared? Brahima Sanou, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT), commented that “By 2009, the number of telephone lines per 100 inhabitants had risen to 27.2 per cent and Internet penetration had increased to 2.8 per cent. When the statistics for the end of 2010 are released, the results are going to be even more positive. The introduction of low-cost wireless technologies, broadband, regulatory reforms, demand for mobile services and political will, in part account for these positive developments.”

Mr Sanou described how ICT can reduce the vulnerabilities of countries to natural disasters through effective environmental monitoring, increase yields through weather monitoring, improve literacy through e-education, improve health care through e-health, and enhance the social inclusion of people in rural areas and special groups such as people with disabilities. He also underlined that the promotion of decent work, social protection and gender equality policies play an essential role in reducing poverty and enhancing social inclusion.

Explaining the ITU approach, Mr Sanou stressed that:

  • Least developed countries must be allowed to initiate and play an active role in whatever projects that we embark on so as to ensure that they own the process.

  • We must find innovative ways and financing mechanisms at the international and national levels to boost growth in the ICT sector, as it has been widely acknowledged that this sector has the potential to help other sectors meet their Millennium Development Goals.

  • Least developed countries must be assisted to put in place development-oriented policies that could fuel the building up of their own capacities in mobilizing their economic, natural and human resources in support of poverty-reduction strategies.

Petko Draganov, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), said “The policy challenge is to take full advantage of the significant improvements in connectivity in ways that bring benefits to the poor. This task is far from complete and will require effective collaboration among all relevant stakeholders. Policy here must always be gender sensitive.” He called on policy-makers to ensure that women are fully engaged in the design and delivery of ICT and enterprise initiatives, and that these aim to meet their needs as much as those of men.

Citing from The Information Economy Report 2010, published by UNCTAD, Mr Draganov noted how farmers, fishermen and micro-entrepreneurs in many least developed countries are quickly adopting mobile phones to access market price information and weather forecasts, as well as to stay in touch with their suppliers and customers. Rural folk are also discovering new livelihoods on the back of the mobile revolution by selling airtime or providing mobile money services. The possibility of transferring funds, paying bills and saving money via mobile networks opens up enormous opportunities. In Africa alone, some 40 mobile money services are already in operation.

But despite the current positive trends, “considerable barriers persist in many least developed countries, due to the cost of technology, lack of infrastructure, limited human capital, a weak private sector and a paucity of public sector resources,” observed Cheick Sidi Diarra, Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser on Africa and High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States.

Mr Diarra, who is also Secretary-General of the Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries, went on to illustrate the broadband divide commenting that “in Australia, a country with 21 million inhabitants, there are more broadband subscribers than the whole of Africa, where 33 of the 48 least developed countries are located”. He stressed that “achieving more widespread deployment of broadband backbones and access networks in remote and less densely populated areas is a particular challenge, which deserves our attention”.

Noting that “investment and funding for ICT infrastructure development is, and has always been, the challenge of least developed countries,” Mr Diarra underlined that “appropriate policy and regulation could be a magnet for financial flows into the sector”. For these countries to enjoy the benefits of IP convergence, he urged policy-makers and regulators to “forge a transition path away from the old regulations that may have served a useful purpose in the past, but are today barriers to progress”.

Ambassador Oğuz Demiralp, Turkey’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office in Geneva commented that next-generation networks and ITU flagship initiatives, such as “Build on Broadband”, will have groundbreaking implications in the years to come. He went on to underline that the task of bridging the digital divide is far from over. “When we talk about the Internet revolution, we tend to overlook the fact that only 1 out of 6 people in the developing world has access to the Internet. This digital gap has overarching ramifications. It amplifies existing social and economic disparities. Therefore, it is our fundamental duty to address this challenge,” Ambassador Demiralp stressed, adding that the contribution of developed countries is essential. “Technology transfer to the least developed countries, as well as investments in their communication infrastructure and services should be encouraged. Best practices should be identified and disseminated to all countries through pilot projects.”

Photo credit: © Olivier Asselin/Alamy

Transmitting the views of the ITU meeting to the Istanbul Conference

The ITU pre-conference event was attended by senior government officials, ambassadors, heads of United Nations organizations, and civil society. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) was represented by Kiflé Shenkoru, Director of the Division for Least Developed Countries, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was represented by Najat Rochdi, Deputy Director of the Geneva Office.

A high-level debate on “Making the Millennium Development Goals come true for least developed countries,” was chaired by Khadija R. Masri, Permanent Representative of the African Union. Three specialized sessions focused on:

  • “Technologies in least developed countries”, chaired by Mr Sanou.

  • “Creating an information society for all: attaining the World Summit on the Information Society goals”, chaired by Matthias Kern, Basel Convention Secretariat / UNEP;

  • “Priorities for least developed countries under UNLDC-IV with respect to making ICT more accessible and the driving engine to growth, sustainability through innovation”, chaired by Cosmas Zavazava, acting Chief of Projects and Initiatives Department, BDT.

The views expressed at the ITU meeting represent important input to the work of the Fourth United Nations Conference for the Least Developed Countries in Istanbul in May. They are summarized below.

Towards digital inclusion

Capacity building in the ICT sector is needed at national and regional level. International organizations and other development partners are expected to provide assistance in building this capacity.

Mobile technologies have gone a long way towards bridging the digital divide between least developed countries and the rest of the world. But there remains a gap in access to ICT between rural and urban areas, and something needs to be done about it.

New technologies such as broadband have great potential for accelerating the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals by the internationally agreed deadline of 2015. The broadband divide that currently exists between least developed countries and the rest of the world has to be addressed.

The Broadband Commission for Digital Development in its report, issued in September 2010, stressed the need to expand broadband. It underlined that “developing isolated projects or piecemeal, duplicated networks, is not only inefficient; it also delays provision of infrastructure that is becoming as crucial in the modern world as roads or electricity supplies.”

Monitoring climate change and the environment

Global climate patterns are changing and will continue to change at rates unprecedented in recent human history. The impacts and risks associated with these changes are real and are already being felt in many countries and communities, particularly in least developed countries. Climate change threatens global efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and sustainable development. ICT are crucial in monitoring the environment and climate change, and in disseminating data, especially to give early warning of impending disasters.

Of course, information and communication technologies themselves can contribute to pollution and climate change. The emphasis must therefore be on their sustainable use, so that these technologies do not pose threats to health and the environment, in particular when equipment reaches the end of its useful life. Appropriate e-waste management measures such as recycling, re-use and proper disposal mechanisms are needed, and these should be developed in partnership with the international community.

Legal and regulatory frameworks

Government-wide leadership and commitment are needed to establish appropriate legal and regulatory frameworks. These efforts should include putting in place pro-ICT tax regimes, and ensuring that ICT are at the top of the agenda in national economic planning.

Development of national e-strategies — as an integral part of national development plans and poverty reduction strategies — plays an important role in turning the outcomes of UNLDC and the targets of the World Summit on the Information Society into action. Development partners thus have an important role to play in bridging the digital divide in least developed countries.

Investment and financing

A multi-stakeholder approach is needed to develop the ICT sector, and private sector participation is critical. Policy-makers need to engage with industry and investors to promote policy objectives more broadly, and to attract domestic and foreign investment into the ICT sector.

Global solidarity and commitment will be necessary to achieve the goals of the future Istanbul Programme of Action for least developed countries. Multi-stakeholder initiatives, such as Connect the World, may help to mobilize the financial, human and technical resources needed for addressing development challenges in the use of ICT.

Financing models to implement ICT projects are still urgently needed to ensure sustainability in the medium and long term.

In addition to public-sector investment, financing of ICT infrastructure by the private sector plays an important role in many countries. Such domestic financing is being augmented by North-South flows and South- South cooperation.

Intellectual property

Intellectual property, and patents in particular, should contribute to least developed countries’ overall access to technology. Measures should be taken to ensure that preferential treatment is given to these countries.

Photo credit: © AFP

The “power to unlock”

In the context of the new digital realities and opportunities of the networked society and economy, the international community recognizes the “power-to-unlock” that comes with ICT and innovation. This should be highlighted in the Istanbul Programme of Action for least developed countries.

The inclusive and multi-stakeholder implementation and follow-up process of the World Summit on the Information Society is making positive contributions to the creation of an information society in least developed countries, with the potential to contribute to jobcreation, growth, productivity and long-term economic competitiveness. Also, particularly in the past decade, progress has been made under the aegis of the Brussels Programme of Action. This is especially evident in the domain of ICT. Where governments have put in place an enabling environment for ICT investment, there has been growth in mobile networks and services.

The importance of ICT data collection

ICT data collection, dissemination and analysis are essential for benchmarking and monitoring the digital divide and the information society. Measurement of the impact of ICT on socio-economic development in least developed countries has an important role in national strategic planning.

In this regard, the work of the Partnership on Measuring ICT for Development, in which ITU participates, should be used as a basis to ensure international comparability of ICT data and statistics. Assistance in the area of ICT data collection and processing should be provided to least developed countries through support to national central statistical offices that are already involved in statistical data management.


The full report of the meeting is available at:


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