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

Havana, Cuba
9 February 2009

Distinguished colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It’s a great pleasure to be with you here in Havana this morning.

I have always been a firm supporter of the Global Alliance for ICT and Development, and am pleased to see ICTs in education on the agenda. This is one of the most vital issues we face today.

Education is not just the bridge between today’s generation and the next, but the only sure way to guarantee a positive future for all of our children.

Cuba has long been aware of this, and is renowned for the successful efforts it has put into education in even the most difficult of times.

In the twenty first century, ICTs have a vital part to play in education – both in terms of making education itself more effective, and in ensuring that today’s young people can play a full and equitable role in the world of tomorrow.

ICTs are the great enabler and transformer of modern society, helping people communicate across distance and across cultural divides, facilitating trade, and providing access to vital resources – especially in health and education.

Indeed, the vital role of ICTs in education was recognized by world leaders in the World Summit on the Information Society who agreed to achieve the following targets by 2015:

  • to connect universities, colleges, secondary schools and primary schools to ICTs and

  • to adapt all primary and secondary school curricula to meet the challenges of the Information Society, taking into account national circumstances.

Leaders participating in WSIS agreed to a host of other WSIS connectivity targets: to connect villages, libraries, cultural centers and to ensure that more than half of the world’s population has access to ICTs within their reach.

Ladies and gentlemen, great progress has been made on some of these targets. 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 other sectors.

My friends,

As many of you will know, the ITU is the UN specialized agency responsible for ICTs, and its mission is to ‘Connect the World’ and ensure that all people, wherever they live, have access to the vast range of benefits ICTs can offer.

Among its many key ICT-related activities, ITU is the world’s leading source of impartial, up-to-date statistics and analysis on ICT infrastructure and services. We proactively track market developments across every economy worldwide, measuring the key indicators that quantify local access to services like fixed and mobile telephony, Internet and broadband.

How much progress has been made in recent years, particularly in the group of the 49 UN-designated Least Developed Countries who need ICTs the most?

I am 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 just 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.

This would give Cuba a mobile teledensity of 15%, a figure which can only be expected to rise rapidly as the technology becomes more affordable and widespread.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The next great ICT challenge for developing countries will be broadband, which in the twenty-first century is becoming as vital to social and economic development as networks like transport, water and power.

There are positive growth trends but growth rates and access speeds are still nowhere near fast enough.

Accessing information via a dial-up connection today is like being stuck on the hard shoulder on the Internet superhighway, watching the rest of the traffic speeding by.

Locking users in developing countries out of the full online experience risks locking them out of the modern world altogether.

Which brings us back to the subject of today’s seminar: ICT and education.

Social and economic development is simply not possible without a sound educational background. And a sound educational background, in this new era we live in today, is simply not possible without ICTs.

It is therefore nothing short of our moral duty to ensure that all of the world’s children are given equal access to the full benefits of ICTs.

The time is ripe to remind national leaders of the vital WSIS targets for ICTs in education and to set in place projects and programmes to make sure they can be reached.

We have no time to lose. It is already 2009! Just six more years to go until the WSIS targets are to be met.

Are our schools connected to the Internet? Are we training students to develop ICT literacy skills and to meet the challenges of the Information Society?

Let us remember that to connect a school is to connect a community. And by connecting communities we open each smaller world to the vast opportunities of the wider world.

I encourage each and every one of us – today, and into the future – to strive for this vital common goal.

With our hard work and determination, there is no reason why today’s children should not inherit an equitable, inclusive and thriving Information Society.

That, my friends, is the challenge we face.

Thank you.