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 Tuesday, 2 July 2002

Closing the gap

During the general statement session of day two of the preparatory meeting for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a consensus emerged among the attending member states about the need for a collaborative and comprehensive effort to close the gap between industrialized and non-industrialized countries. Dr. Toufig Ali, Bangladesh's Ambassador and Permanent Representative, noted that WSIS "will be an event of unparalleled significance" in the evolution of the global information society. Mr. Ali also pointed out that "it is now practically impossible to compete in world markets without adequate telecommunication infrastructure or e-business capability," thus underscoring the need to connect the historically disconnected segments of the global village.

In virtually every speech, the representatives expressed an overwhelming commitment to using ICTs as the change agent to narrow the digital divide. Moreover, most member states indicated that the creation of a sustainable global information society depends on the international community's ability to broker lasting and mutually beneficial partnerships between national governments, the private sector, NGOs, and civil society the world over.

While the preparatory committee attendees believe ICTs offer great promise for developing countries, they realize that many institutional and organizational reforms must precede widespread deployment and diffusion of ICTs throughout the developing world. Many representatives specifically mentioned the need for governments in less developed countries and transitional economies to create an enabling environment for ICT infrastructure build out and end user adoption. Norway's representative, Mr. Jens Koch, noted that the developing world would need to embrace good governance, democratic and anti-corruption policies in order to eradicate information poverty. Mr. Vinod Vaish of India's delegation stressed the importance of the creation of an independent telecom regulator and the creation of a friendly policy framework for modernization.

A commitment to collaboration

WSIS is designed to be a transparent, participatory and inclusive summit on addressing the digital gap that currently keeps many countries at the periphery of the ever-growing global society. By engaging stakeholders from all segments of society in the preparatory sessions, the ITU-led initiative seeks to ensure that all relevant parties' issues and ideas are represented. Ms Shope-Mafole Lyndall of South Africa noted that the participation of non-government and the private sector "will enrich our process and that all sectors of society have a responsibility to building a better world." Her comment underpins the commitment to widespread collaboration in building the framework for the global information society and narrowing the gap between the haves and have nots.

What is causing the digital divide?

Although member states, UN organizations, the private sector and civil society might differ in their view about the underlying causes of the global digital divide, most parties would agree that the underdevelopment of human capacities throughout the world, coupled with a shortage of information and technology transfers, are at the heart of the digital gap. In its prepared statement, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) offered a very concise viewpoint that best captured the sentiments of most of the WSIS preparatory committee members, which read, "the rural divide is not only concerned with infrastructure and connectivity, but rather is a multifaceted problem of ineffective knowledge exchange and management of content, lack of human resources and institutional capacity."

It's Infrastructure

Concurring with the FAO, the World Health Organization (WHO) also noted that the lack of infrastructure build out throughout the developing world hinges on the extreme lack of available financial resources. However, the World Bank and many member states from the developed world vowed to continue providing financial assistance to facilitate the procurement of equipment and knowledge in underprivileged countries. "Connectivity should be accessible and affordable for all," said Iran's representative Mr. Mohammad Rez Alborzi. The speaker from Nigeria concurred, stating that WSIS is the ideal moment to ignite ICTs for social and economic development. Mr. Vanish of India also said, "telecom infrastructure must be recognized as the essential backbone and an essential prerequisite for bringing about an IT revolution in any society."

No, it's content

Noting that "content and technology go hand-in-hand," the WHO best captured one of the key components of the digital divide. Not only do many developing countries lack the infrastructure, but they also lack the prerequisite localized content to draw them to use ICTs in the first place.

Speaking for Iran, Mr. Mohammad Rez Alborzi said, "Development of local content, as another major element for utilization of ICT, is not only vital to ensuring broader access but also guarantees recognition of diverse cultural and linguistic identities." Libya's representative, Mrs. Al-Hajjaji Najat, also stressed the importance of preserving cultural diversity in the new global order. While the ideal is to help the developing world become knowledge producers in their own right, the realism is, as the Zimbabwe delegation pointed out, that the "architects of ICTs are in the developed world."

Social and cultural ideologies are the reason

While some member states touched on the importance of the gender dimension, it was the UN's special advisor to the Secretary General on gender issues that stressed the importance of incorporating the needs and desires of women into the planning framework. Reading for Angela King, who was unable to attend in person, Hanne Laugesen pointed out that the gender divide needs to be aggressively addressed throughout the developing world. UNIFEM reinforced Ms. King's argument for the inclusion of women's issues in ICT development and deployment plans. UNIFEM's representative highlighted three specific areas that needed to be addressed by WSIS:

- Women's participation and analysis when designing ICT policies and programs

- Invest in innovative capacity building techniques to ensure that women can be active participants in the global knowledge revolution

- Ensure social responsibility and gender justice

Although women's role in development has been realized for decades, the time is optimal to ensure that the gender dimension is included in the rollout of ICTs throughout the developing world.

Tanzania's representative rightly pointed out that ICTs offer a means for an intercultural dialogue, which is a crucial component to global peace and social development. The Tanzanian speaker went on to point out that ICT's must be "homegrown" in order to transform less developed countries into knowledge producers. It was apparent from the dialogue at today's meeting that there is a strong desire to create contextually relevant ICT development initiatives that address the uniqueness of each target country.

Views from UN and affiliated agencies

Harking back to the infrastructure argument made during the morning session, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) delegation pointed out that narrowing the digital divide largely depends on effectively addressing the human capacities and infrastructure deficits in most developing countries. United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) Philippe Queau stated that the development of universal principles to protect cultures, the promotion of equitable access to the global information pool and the sharing of unique cultural expressions/ identities are essential for bringing marginalized societies closer to the center. In terms of using ICTs to improve the health of underprivileged peoples, the World Health Organization (WHO) pointed out that it is essential to cultivate the capacities of indigenous healthcare workers. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) also offered insights on how ICTs can be used to help developing countries, where many natural disasters occur, avert economically and socially devastating natural disasters.


"The information society is at the heart of the political, social, cultural and economic issues confronting us in the beginning of the 21st century. Therefore, the focus of the Summit should not only be technology but the human being," said Prasad Kariyawasam, the Sri Lankan Ambassador. Many members of the WSIS preparatory committee meetings would appear to agree in that ICTs are not a panacea for addressing the marginalization of developing societies. Although there are some best practices that can be employed in most situations, the member states were in agreement that grand theories and simplistic models are not applicable to the unique cultural and social contexts in the developing world.

Capturing this sentiment, Mr. El Khateeb Abdeldafi of Sudan noted that ICT plans must be designed around the specific needs of each country. However, India's Mr. Vaish rightly stated that "accelerating the growth of the telecom network [the underlying backbone for ICT deployments] in any developing country is not a smooth and easy task." Regardless if it's debt burden, poverty, lack of infrastructure, content or untapped human capabilities, day two of the WSIS preparatory committee meetings clearly demonstrated that the international community is committed to eliminating the digital divide that keeps so many countries at the periphery of the evolving information society.

For media information concerning the second phase of the Summit, click here

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