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

Havana, Cuba
9 February 2009

Esteemed colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be with you here in Havana to open Cuba’s 13th International Convention and Fair, Informática 2009.

Like Cuba itself, I am firmly committed to bridging the digital divide – and I would therefore like to say a few words this afternoon about the vital role that ICTs are playing in helping us reach the Millennium Development Goals.

I will also mention my biggest fear today – my fear that a new digital divide is being created: a broadband digital divide.

When the Millennium Declaration was approved in the year 2000, world leaders expected ICTs to provide a unique contribution to meeting the MDGs.

We are now over half way to the 2015 deadline, and I can confirm that ICTs have indeed been playing a huge part in getting us there.

Over the past eight years, ICTs have improved farming practices and assisted micro-entrepreneurs. They have promoted equality for women. They have helped prevent AIDS and other communicable diseases. And they have fostered environmental protection.

ICT-based systems and services – such as electronic commerce, distance learning, telemedicine and e-government – are improving the quality of life for countless people around the world.

ICTs reduce poverty and empower people through reducing transaction costs, integrating local and global markets, and increasing the potential value of human capital.

Dear friends,

Let me cite just a few examples:

ICTs are helping to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
For example through village phone projects, where poor women are given assistance in buying mobile telephones, and can then sell phone services on to fellow villagers. In just a few years this initiative created 100,000 new jobs, boosted the incomes of local micro-entrepreneurs, and provided phone access to more than 60 million people in poor rural areas.

By connecting low-income artisans to global markets, online cooperatives give poor craftspeople direct access to consumers, rather than having to sell to middlemen, who take most of the profits.

And by providing direct, valuable agricultural information online, ICTs can also help farmers vastly improve the productivity of their land – by planting the right seeds, using the right fertilizer and weeding and harvesting at the right time.

ICTs are helping to achieve universal primary education, as well as promote gender equality and empower women.
Distance learning is being widely used to train school teachers, for example, or to deliver information, education and critical life-skills, over solar-powered radios, to orphans in Rwanda.

Distance learning is also being used to help break the cycle of women’s poverty by teaching girls and women in remote areas to read, learn maths, and develop basic ICT skills.

ICTs are helping to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
More than 50 television networks are working directly to expand public knowledge and understanding, not only increasing awareness and prevention, but also helping to remove the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.

Concerning malaria, satellite monitoring now helps identify, target and control mosquito breeding areas.

And telemedicine is making possible great advances in the fight against tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, as well as many chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

ICTs are helping to ensure environmental sustainability.
Through initiatives as diverse as using radio programmes to promote better farming practices; using satellites to monitor rain forests, glaciers and the polar regions; and reducing the energy requirements of new technology.


Ladies and gentlemen,

As I noted this morning, when addressed the Global Alliance for ICT and Development’s ‘Regional Seminar on ICT and Education’, ICTs have now become ubiquitous. The number of mobile cellular subscribers globally has just passed the four billion mark, and well over one and a half billion people now have access to the Internet.

This makes ICT a significant sector in its own right, typically accounting for around 5% of global GDP and an even higher proportion of GDP growth – in addition to its important facilitating role in many other sectors.

But how much progress has been made in recent years in the countries which most need it? I am referring in particular to the 49 UN-designated Least Developed Countries, the LDCs.

I am very happy to be able to say that it has been a miraculous millennium for most of the world’s poorest nations.

The total effective number of telephone subscribers in the LDCs as a whole has risen by more than 30-fold since the year 2000, from under 4 million to well over 120 million.

In 2001, just seven LDCs had a teledensity of 5 lines per 100 people or more; By 2007, fully 37 of them had reached or surpassed this level of penetration.

Mobile telephony has been the main driver behind this extraordinary success story. From sharing 800,000 mobile connections between them just eight years ago, the 49 LDCs now boast over 110 million mobile subscribers, with several LDCs currently ranked among the world’s fastest-growing mobile markets.

Here in Cuba, there has been tremendous progress of late, with a combined annual growth rate in mobile subscribers of 62%, from 2002 to 2007. And I was delighted to read in the Cuba News Headlines last month that the mobile subscriber base grew to some 330,000 users by the end of last year, and was forecast by the operator to reach 1.6 million within three years.

And this number will almost certainly continue to rise rapidly as the technology becomes more affordable and more widespread.

Distinguished colleagues,

This is excellent – but as I said at the beginning, I fear that a new digital divide is being created, just as we are succeeding in bridging the original digital divide.

In the twenty-first century, affordable broadband access to the Internet is becoming as vital to social and economic development as networks like transport, water and power.

And while there are indeed positive growth trends – millions of people in LDCs now have access to the Internet – growth rates and access speeds are still nowhere near fast enough.

This is a bigger and more serious issue than many people realize.

While broadband users speed along the Internet superhighway, dial-up users are left stuck in traffic jams, choking on our exhaust fumes, unable to benefit from anything like the full online experience.

Do we want to lock away the riches of the modern world from these users, most of whom live in the developing world?

Of course we don’t!

Indeed, to do so would be unfair, unjust, and immoral.

So I urge you all, at this important conference, to consider what can be done to bridge this nascent broadband digital divide.

With technology, regulation, ingenuity and sheer determination, I believe we can find the right answers. Working together, for our common future, we can succeed.

So let us roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Thank you.