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

ITU TELECOM Asia 2008 - Greater Mekong Subregion, Ministerial Forum
Bangkok, Thailand
2 September 2008

Distinguished colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to have the opportunity of saying a few words on the critical need to bridge the Digital Divide that continues to hold back economic and social development across the Greater Mekong Subregion.

This is a region blessed with many assets – from beautiful landscapes and fertile agricultural plains to abundant natural resources like oil, coal and mineral wealth.

These rich natural endowments have made the GMS a potential new frontier of Asian economic growth. Indeed, the Asian Development Bank confirms that carefully targeted investment in infrastructure and human resources could see the GMS become one of the world's fastest growing regions.

For the moment, however, poverty remains widespread. Many of the region’s 320 million people subsist on just one dollar a day. It’s clear that GMS countries will only get the chance to realize their enormous potential if we can find ways of addressing this chronic problem.

As ITU’s Secretary-General, I believe that information and communication technologies are the most powerful weapons we have at our disposal to drive development and empower people to reach out to a better future.

At yesterday’s Opening Ceremony, I announced ITU’s plans to hold its first Connect Asia event.

Those of you who attended Connect Africa in Kigali last year will recall the extraordinary excitement this event generated within the international investment community. In just two days 55 billion dollars in financial commitments and in-kind contributions were announced. These commitments will help extend network build-out while driving down access costs.

Through the three ‘Cs’ that underpin your collaborative development efforts, you have recognized ‘Connectivity’ as fundamental to future development.
And your enormous untapped potential and position at the heart of the world’s fastest-growing region could not help but inspire investors looking to new markets to sustain double-digit growth.

Having experienced the energy, enthusiasm and entrepreneurship that define Asia’s emerging economies, I have no doubt that Connect Asia will generate enormous benefits right across the region, creating new markets for locally developed and manufactured ICTs, and building a new ICT-empowered labour force. These skilled ‘new economy’ professionals will spur even faster regional growth, while at the same time helping themselves and their nations forge a better, more prosperous future.

In the Phnom Penh Plan for Development Management, the GMS recognized the importance of building a critical mass of qualified professionals. ITU is complementing that work through a range of regional programmes, including our Internet Training Centres Initiative, and our Asia Pacific Centres of Excellence.

Our 21 Internet Training Centres – including a Centre in Laos and another in Vietnam – have already produced 700 young ICT graduates, with a further 700 pupils currently enrolled in ongoing courses.

And I’m delighted to say that all five nodes of our Asia Pacific Centres of Excellence network have now been established, with the signing of an important agreement here in Bangkok last September with the Royal Thai government. This network provides continuous professional development to policymakers, ICT regulators and senior ICT managers, ensuring the region as a whole benefits from the very latest developments in network management and regulatory best practice.

Effective ICT regulation is crucial, not least because it creates environments conducive to investment. In a highly capital-intensive sector like ICT, no government can go it alone. Working in partnership with the private sector allows governments to harness the skills and investment dollars needed to create the state-of-the-art networks that will drive rapid development of other key sectors like trade and manufacturing.

The focus of ITU’s 8th Global Regulators Symposium, held here in Thailand in March, was innovative infrastructure-sharing strategies to promote rapid ICT build out.

In practice this means spreading capital works costs across different infrastructure projects, such as road and rail network development or the laying of underground pipes and cables.

Through the GMS initiative, you already have over 180 cooperative infrastructure development projects underway or completed. As you continue your wide-ranging efforts to expand and upgrade basic networks like roads, water and electricity, I urge you to consider ICT development as a complementary project component. Much money can be saved, and much faster progress can be made, if we work together rather than pursuing narrow goals.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As we plan for future development, we cannot turn a blind eye to the problem of climate change. I am thus heartened to see that the GMS has been actively addressing this issue, through green initiatives and awareness-building campaigns like the ‘Forest for the Future’ documentary, which was screened here in Thailand in June to commemorate World Environment Day 2008.

The Mekong countries are particularly vulnerable to climate change. I therefore urge nations worldwide to work with the GMS to develop sustainable development strategies that help safeguard the region’s natural assets and preserve this vital ‘green zone’.

Technology also has a role to play. ITU has been taking a lead in harnessing the potential of ICTs to combat climate change – and its often catastrophic effects.

We were successful in bringing this topic to the attention of world leaders attending the G8 Summit in Japan, who resolved to promote work on energy-efficient technologies and the use of ICTs for environmental monitoring, early warning systems, disaster response and climate forecasting.

ITU is also an active promoter of ICTs for emergency telecommunications, working with humanitarian relief agencies and technical partners to restore lost communication links; collaborating with experts on new disaster prediction and alert systems; and brokering treaties like the Tampere Convention, which removes barriers to the rapid deployment of wireless equipment by disaster response teams. Such equipment has the power to save many lives. Its lack can have dire consequences, as we saw only too tragically with Cyclone Nargis earlier this year.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Tens of millions of people across the Greater Mekong Subregion still lack an affordable and reliable connection to basic ICT services.

Through the priorities you have established, you have clearly recognized ICTs as key to economic growth. I assure you that with the right mix of infrastructure and services and enlightened, even-handed regulation, accelerated economic and social development will quickly follow.

This will create a win-win situation in which everyone benefits. Booming markets will create more jobs and more wealth. And every child in the region will enjoy access to the information and communications they need to realize their own potential, and turn their future into yet another great Asian success story.

Thank you.