Speech from Dr Hamadoun I. Touré, ITU Secretary-General

Caribbean Association of National Telecommunication Organizations - Connect the Caribbean
Paradise Island, Bahamas
14 July 2008

Distinguished colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It’s a pleasure to join you this morning, as we prepare to tackle the important task of developing strategies to increase connectivity across the Caribbean region.

As we all know, ICTs have emerged as the great enabler of modern society, helping people communicate across distance and across cultural divides, facilitating trade, and providing access to the educational resources and information that are vital to just about every human endeavour.

Nowhere are these enormous benefits more apparent than in the Caribbean, where ICTs provide the vital bridge between communities separated by formidable geographical barriers. ICTs also help the region leverage its many assets – from an extraordinary natural heritage that attracts more than 15 million visitors each year, to its primary producers in agriculture and fisheries, to its booming service sector, where outsourced call centres in particular are forecast to generate tens of thousands of new jobs over the next few years.

The UN World Summit for the Information Society, hosted by ITU in 2003 and 2005, highlighted the importance of ICTs to the economic development of every country and every community on our planet. The Resolutions and commitments that emerged from that Summit helped spur the eLAC2007 Plan of Action for connecting the Caribbean and broader Americas region. They also prompted ITU to embark on a new series of initiatives aimed at accelerating efforts to build the enabling environment, core infrastructure, and applications and services essential to tomorrow’s Knowledge Societies.

The first of these new initiatives, Connect Africa, was held last year in Kigali, Rwanda. Leveraging the success of our Connect the World multi-stakeholder development programme, the event drew an unprecedented level of participation and support from regional and international leaders, and generated over 55 billion dollars of investment commitments. These funds and in-kind contributions have been pledged to key regional projects, including new wireless and fixed network infrastructure and work to streamline and harmonize regulatory frameworks.

I am most encouraged, therefore, that CANTO has decided to build on this momentum through an event focused on the very particular needs of the Caribbean region. ITU will be only too delighted to channel the important inputs and initiatives generated over the next three days of top-level discussions into a broader ITU Connect Americas event, which I hope will help you further capitalize on the growing interest among investors in financing ICT projects that fall outside traditional mainstream markets.

ITU is already pleased to be actively involved in a number of projects to help strengthen connectivity across the Caribbean. We’re currently working to improve spectrum management in the region, alongside partners like the Caribbean Telecommunications Union, the Canadian International Development Agency, and the European Union.

To create an enabling environment conducive to future ICT growth, we recently launched a Caribbean ICT market harmonization project, funded by the European Union and involving all key regional stakeholders. This project will develop common guidelines for harmonized policies, legislation and regulatory procedures, and provide capacity building to ensure effective implementation of the guidelines.

I’m also proud to report that our Caribbean Centre of Excellence is proving to be one of our most successful capacity building initiatives, thanks to the large and varied number of participating institutions and public and private sector partners.

Ladies and gentlemen,

ICTs are a vital business facilitator. They are an essential tool for education and for healthcare. But there are two more very good reasons why we must work as fast as possible to Connect the Caribbean.

The first is climate change. Commendably, the Caribbean region is not an important emitter of greenhouse gases. Regrettably, however, it is almost certain to be one of the earliest regions to feel the first major effects of the carbon-hungry habits of the industrialized, and industrializing, worlds.

Rising temperatures and rising sea levels are of obvious concern to a region comprised of small island states, whose economies are highly dependent on tourism, agriculture and fishing. The Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre estimates that sea levels are now rising by 2 millimetres per year, with projections for much steeper change in the next four decades. Rising temperatures can adversely affect crop and fishing yields, as well as damaging the natural marine environments that currently serve as a major tourist draw.

Because ICTs are one of the most powerful weapons we have at our disposal to track and combat climate change, ITU is making climate change a key policy priority.

Sophisticated computer modeling is absolutely critical to our understanding of mankind’s impact on the environment. Likewise, strategically-placed ICT-enabled monitoring systems are helping amass the data essential to accurately track changes in our environment.

As the steward of the world’s radiofrequency resources, ITU is committed to allocating the necessary spectrum to support radiocommunication systems and satellites used for climate monitoring and control, weather forecasting, remote sensing and disaster prediction and detection. Last year’s Radiocommunication Assembly and World Radiocommunication Conference adopted a number of Resolutions on studies related to remote-sensing, which has become a vital component in the science of climate change.

In the future, it is to be hoped that such systems will be able to warn us of impending thresholds, or longer-term effects, and that we’ll be able to use the information generated by these systems not only to convince policymakers around the world to act more quickly, but to prepare for negative repercussions and adapt our national plans to help minimize the impact on the lives of local people.

The second – and related – reason for ramping up ICT capacity across the Caribbean region is disaster preparedness and emergency telecommunications. Over the past two decades, Hurricanes Dean, Wilma, Lenny, Mitch and others have cost billions of dollars in destruction of basic infrastructure and public property like schools and hospitals, in lost agricultural output and lost tourist dollars, and in lost jobs and depressed economic growth.

As the impact of climate change becomes more profound, extreme weather conditions seem likely to worsen. 2005 was already the worst year on record for Atlantic hurricanes. Let us pray that it remains so. But we must also take the necessary steps to prepare and protect our local populations.

ITU has long been active in the area of emergency telecommunications, and continues to ramp up activities to meet global need. The Tampere Convention, which was brokered by ITU in 1998, plays a vital role in emergency response by providing a cross-border framework for rapid deployment of ICTs for humanitarian aid.

Let me therefore take this opportunity to urge all countries to ratify this crucial treaty, so that we may harness the power of today’s advanced communication systems to alleviate much unnecessary suffering.

ICTs are a vital tool in early warning systems. Following the Asian tsunami in 2004, ITU has been working with international partners to develop new early warning systems that can help avert loss of life and property.

When disasters do occur, ICTs – particularly wireless telephony and satellite communications – play a critical role in rescue and clean-up efforts, helping aid teams on the ground coordinate their activities and get extra help where it is most needed. ITU partners with a large number of equipment and network providers, as well as governments and NGOs, to provide access to resources like satellite communications and handheld wireless systems wherever they’re needed. So far in 2008, we’ve provided emergency satellite links and terminals to China, following the Sichuan earthquake, to Myanmar, to help after Cyclone Nargis, and to Zambia, in the wake of massive flooding in March.

ITU also has a Memorandum of Understanding with international NGO Telecoms Sans Frontières, whose volunteer experts travel to disaster zones to set up fast emergency communication links. By improving the speed and effectiveness of response, these links can play a vital role in saving lives and helping reunite families and loved ones.

Through Programme 6 of our Doha Action Plan, we’re also working with a range of UN and other agencies to develop Minimum Operating Procedures for disaster relief, to carry out infrastructure damage assessments and network rehabilitation activities, and to provide special assistance to Small Island Developing States most vulnerable to the catastrophic effects of global warming.

Distinguished colleagues,

ICTs have so much to offer, and perhaps nowhere more than here, in the Caribbean. It is therefore highly encouraging to see initiatives such as this event, which will help pave the way towards increased connectivity – not just in the Caribbean, but across the Americas as a whole.

Thank you.