|Photo credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider
|Opening ceremony of the Fourth United Nations Conference on
the Least Developed Countries, Istanbul, Turkey
ITU contributed two major reports* to the Fourth United Nations
Conference on the Least Developed Countries (UNLDC-IV), held in
Istanbul, Turkey, on 9–13 May 2011. One of these reports, “ICT
and Telecommunications in Least Developed Countries: Review
of progress made during the decade 2000–2010”, presents projects
and actions that ITU has undertaken to help least developed
countries (LDCs) join the knowledge economy through the deployment
and use of information and communication technologies
The other report, “The Role of ICT in Advancing Growth in Least
Developed Countries: Trends, Challenges and Opportunities”, on
which this article is largely based, examines some of the emerging
trends and current challenges faced by LDCs on their road to
poverty alleviation. It considers changes in the political, economic
and social environment of LDCs, their concerns regarding access
to financial resources, the infrastructural obstacles they face
— in particular those in the telecommunication sector — and
the additional risks that arise as a result of climate change and
natural disasters. Climate change is a critical factor, given that
eleven of the LDCs are also small island developing States. These
islands are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, and have
a limited capacity to respond and recover.
UNLDC-IV coincided with a critical point in the achievement
of the Millennium Development Goals, with only five more years
to meet the targets set for 2015. The ITU reports highlight the
important catalytic role that ITU plays in increasing connectivity
in LDCs, and provide case study evidence showing how some of
these countries have indeed managed to use connectivity successfully
to enhance socio-economic development.
|Photo credit: ITU/V. Martin
||Photo credit: ITU/V. Martin
|Zacarias Albano Da Costa, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Timor-Leste with Houlin
Zhao, ITU Deputy Secretary-General during a High-Level Meeting on Investment
and Partnership at the Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed
Countries, Istanbul, Turkey
||Suvi Lindén, Finland’s Minister of Communications with Brahima Sanou, Director of the
ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau during an ITU Special event “Exploring
Business models and public-private partnerships”, following the Fourth United Nations
Conference on the Least Developed Countries, Istanbul, Turkey
Special support for vulnerable countries
As a way of providing special support to its most vulnerable
members, the United Nations General Assembly in 1971 created
the category of “Least Developed Country” to cover low-income
economies that face severe structural impediments to growth.
Since then, 50 countries have been categorized as LDCs, but
only three have ever graduated to developing country status:
Botswana in 1994, Cape Verde in 2007 and Maldives in 2011
(see article on Maldives). As part of socio-economic
progress, joining the knowledge economy is a key factor in
moving up the development ladder.
To foster growth and sustainable development, LDCs get
special support in the areas of trade and official development
assistance — including development financing and technical
cooperation. But the process of graduation from LDC status has
Of the 48 LDCs today (see map), 33 are in Africa, 13 in Asia
and the Pacific, one in the Americas (Haiti) and one in the Arab
States region (Yemen). About 12 per cent of the world’s population
(855 million people) live in LDCs.
ITU’s passionate commitment to the world’s least developed
countries dates back to 1971 when this category was established.
And since the Third United Nations Conference on the Least
Developed Countries in 2001, ITU World Telecommunication
Development Conferences and ITU Plenipotentiary Conferences
have adopted specific resolutions in favour of LDCs, landlocked
developing countries and small island developing States.
Through its Special Programme for Least Developed
Countries, the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau
(BDT) has undertaken diverse activities and provided concentrated
assistance to LDCs to help them develop infrastructure,
improve rural telecommunications, introduce new technologies
and services, and build human capacity.
Criteria for LDC status
The criteria for categorizing a country as an LDC have
been refined over time. Every three years, the Committee for
Development Policy (CDP), a subsidiary body of the United
Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), reviews the
socio-economic conditions of all low-income economies to determine
whether a country should be added to — or recommended
for graduation from — the LDC category. During its most recent
review (in 2009), CDP used the following three criteria to identify
LDCs and to determine eligibility for graduation:
Low income: a three-year average estimate of gross national
income per capita (less than USD 905 for inclusion, more
than USD 1086 for graduation).
Human capital: a composite Human Assets Index based on
such indicators as: nutrition (percentage of population undernourished);
health (mortality rate for children aged five
years or less); education (gross secondary school enrolment
ratio); and adult literacy rate.
Economic vulnerability: a composite Economic Vulnerability
Index based on such indicators as: population size; remoteness;
merchandise export concentration; share of agriculture,
forestry and fisheries in gross domestic product; homelessness
owing to natural disasters; instability of agricultural
production; and instability of exports of goods and services.
Based on these criteria, CDP recommended adding Equatorial
Guinea to the list of countries eligible for graduation. ECOSOC
endorsed that recommendation in July 2009, but the General
Assembly did not confirm it. Samoa was also to be added to that
list. But taking account of the economic and financial crisis in
2008 and the Pacific Ocean tsunami that devastated that country
in September 2009, the General Assembly deferred Samoa’s
graduation from LDC status for an additional three years, to
1 January 2014. Meanwhile, following a similar, postponement
because of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the Maldives graduated
in January 2011.
By design, the thresholds for graduation are set higher than
those for inclusion. This is to ensure that only countries that are
able to maintain improved economic performance are considered
Countries can decline the opportunity of being added to the
LDC list, but their approval is not sought with regard to graduating
from LDC status. Only Ghana, Papua New Guinea and
Zimbabwe have ever refused to accept the CDP’s recommendation
for inclusion in the LDC list, asserting that the analysis of
their particular socio-economic conditions did not reflect reality.
|Source: ITU, based on data from UN-OHRLLS (United Nations Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed
Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States) (www.unohrlls.org/en/ldc/related/62/).
The map is from the United Nations Cartographic Section (Map No. 4170, Rev.10, May 2010).
The next triennial review of the LDC list will take place in
2012. In preparation for this, CDP took another look at the criteria
and indicators for identifying LDCs at a meeting in March
2011. While confirming the reliability of the current criteria, CDP
has proposed refinements to the indicators, in particular to better
reflect the structural vulnerability of countries to climate change.
Moving out of the vulnerable category
Unsurprisingly, countries recommended for graduation are
often reluctant to be removed from the list of LDCs, because of
the potential economic effects of the end of preferential treatment.
To facilitate the graduation process, CDP gives States a
three-year grace period (from the time they are first recommended
for graduation) to coordinate with their development and
trade partners regarding the phasing out of preferential treatment
and special support.
Key findings on the ICT front
Fixed and mobile telephony
There are signs of an upturn in the growth of ICT in LDCs over
the period 2000–2010. Mobile communications have emerged
as a key technology to bridge the digital divide, and as a means
to open up access to governmental, health and environmental
In least developed countries, the mobile penetration rate was
an estimated 29 per cent, at the end of 2010, according to ITU
estimates, suggesting that mobile telephony has been able to at
least partially tackle the infrastructure barrier and bring communication
networks to the previously unconnected (see Figure 1).
In stark contrast, LDCs have an extremely low penetration rate
for fixed telephone (slightly more than one per cent at the end
In many developed countries, mobile networks provide an
additional communication network, sometimes replacing the
fixed-line network. In LDCs, mobile networks are often the main
network, and this is particularly true in rural areas. For example,
in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the
Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea and Lao People’s Democratic Republic
more than 90 per cent of all fixed-telephone lines are in urban
areas, whereas most rural areas have no fixed-line infrastructure.
By the end of 2010, just 62 per cent of the population living
in LDCs were covered by a mobile cellular signal. This coverage
is relatively low compared to the world average of 90 per cent,
suggesting that governments in LDCs need to ensure that mobile
operators extend their networks to reach more people.
While there are other factors, the introduction of competition
has played an important role in making the mobile market
the most dynamic ICT market over the past decade. Competition
is an important factor in reducing prices and increasing service
availability, leading to higher penetration rates. A number
of the countries with penetration rates below 10 per cent, including
Ethiopia, Eritrea and Myanmar, have not yet introduced
Another reason that mobile telephony has been so successful
and spread so rapidly is the growing number of applications,
which has increased demand and usage. Non-voice mobile
phone applications are proliferating, including in LDCs.
||Figure 1 — Mobile cellular subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, 2000–2010
|*Data for 2010 are estimates.
Source: ITU World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators database.
A comparison of Internet use in LDCs with that in developing
countries as a whole, and with developed countries, shows that
there are very large gaps between these groups. By the end of
2010, only about 3 out of 100 people in LDCs were online, while
21 out of 100 people in developing countries as a whole were
online. In the developed world, Internet penetration had reached
almost 72 per cent (see Figure 2). These data highlight the significant digital divide that separates the developed from the developing
countries (and in particular LDCs), suggesting that much
more must be done to bring people in developing regions online.
Internet penetration levels in LDCs range from less than
0.5 per cent in Timor-Leste, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sierra
Leone, to more than 15 per cent in Sao Tome and Principe.
Although there are various barriers to higher Internet and
broadband penetration levels in LDCs — including the lack of
infrastructure, limited international Internet bandwidth, and relatively
low educational levels and literacy rates — high prices remain
a major challenge. Fixed broadband Internet prices (which
are tracked by ITU’s ICT Price Basket) remain prohibitively high
in most LDCs.
Because the availability of fixed broadband infrastructure
is very limited in many rural areas of LDCs, mobile broadband
technologies have a great potential to bring people online, at
high speed. The number of mobile broadband subscriptions is
growing fast across the world, and has actually overtaken the
number of fixed broadband subscriptions, but remains limited in
LDCs, with only 0.5 per 100 inhabitants. In the developed world,
mobile broadband subscriptions reached more than 50 per cent
penetration by the end of 2010.
One reason for the low mobile broadband uptake in LDCs
is that by mid-2010 only 13 of these countries were offering
3G services commercially. Since then, several LDCs, including
Senegal and Burkina Faso, have either launched services or have
announced plans to allocate 3G licences in the near future. The
introduction of mobile broadband services is not only expected
to address infrastructure challenges, but also to bring down fixed
broadband prices, as it will introduce inter-modal competition
into the broadband market.
||Figure 2 — Internet users per 100 inhabitants, 2000–2010
|*Data for 2010 are estimates.
Source: ITU World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators database.
ITU’s commitments in the Istanbul Programme of Action for LDCs for 2011–2020
In order to help countries better exploit ICT to drive development,
ITU made five key commitments to the Fourth
United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries.
These commitments have been incorporated into the Istanbul
Programme of Action for LDCs 2011–2020. In brief, they cover:
actions to increase the average phone density in LDCs to 25 lines per 100 inhabitants and the number of Internet connections
to 15 per 100 inhabitants by 2020;
a comprehensive capacity building and digital inclusion programme;
strategies to help LDCs maximize the selection and use of appropriate new technologies, such as broadband, digital
broadcasting and next-generation networks;
assistance in dealing with cybersecurity issues, and strategies to build trust and confidence in ICT networks;
assistance in creating and maintaining a propitious environment for LDC development through an enabling policy and
“The challenge of creating digital opportunities in least developed
countries — including small island developing States
and countries with special needs — remains. Achieving this goal
will require reinforced efforts on the part of ITU to coordinate
with all Member States, the private sector and development partners,
so that, working in consonance to pool resources and muster
partnerships, we can support LDCs in making the best use of
the technological promise of ICT to promote economic growth,”
said Brahima Sanou, Director of the ITU Telecommunication
* Both reports were prepared by the Programme for Least
Developed Countries, Countries in Special Need, Emergency
Telecommunications and Climate Change Adaptation Division
within the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau.
The team was led by Cosmas Zavazava.