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."
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
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
- 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
"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.
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