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The Road to Addis: Forging new alliances to bring Internet access to all

Connecting the 3.7 billion people who lack any form of online access, and providing an affordable and meaningful Internet connection for the hundreds of millions more, are not feats that any entity can accomplish alone.

Identifying solutions to overcome the digital divide and to connect the unconnected will be the focus of the 2021 World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC-21) scheduled to take place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from 8 to 19 November 2021.

A flagship quadrennial event of ITU, WTDC sets the strategies and objectives for the development of telecommunication and provides future direction and guidance to the ITU Telecommunication Development Sector. To build awareness, engage key stakeholders and communities, and provide an inclusive platform to discuss some of the key themes that will be addressed at WTDC-21, ITU is convening a series of thematic events called The Road to Addis, focusing on 6 enablers of connectivity for sustainable development: partnerships, inclusion, financing, leadership, innovation, and youth.

Partnerships: The connective tissue of sustainable development

The first stop on the Road to Addis series, Partner2Connect, gathered six high-level speakers from the private sector and international organizations to discuss how partnerships can be made more effective to connect the unconnected and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “The new partnership track at WTDC is designed not just to engage ITU’s traditional development constituencies, but to expand our reach, bringing a host of new players and providing all stakeholders with the place to forge the alliances and make the deals that will make concrete our shared commitment to bridge the digital divide,” explained Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau.

The COVID pandemic illustrated not only the vital importance of connectivity for social and economic resilience, but also how the absence of partnerships can slow progress on the SDGs.

“[In the absence of partnerships] the gaps would widen; not just the digital divide but all sorts of gaps,” warned Sanda Ojiambo, Executive Director and CEO of UN Global Compact. “I see the SDG 17 on partnerships as the connective tissue that links the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.”

Last year, ITU forged 42 new partnerships to empower the unconnected, provide them a path out of poverty, and build a more inclusive digital society.

While these partnerships represent a good start, new alliances need to be forged to ensure that the interest of people on the ground are addressed.

Mobilizing across industries

Achieving the sustainable and connected vision of the world will require enormous investments and regulatory and logistical efforts. For that to happen, stakeholders need to forge the right kind of partnerships that can unleash benefits for individuals, families, and organizations across industries, geographies, and demographics. An example is the growing gig economy on the African continent. Its continued growth will require a partnership between telecom companies and other service providers with freelancers to provide them with access to affordable and reliable Internet connection, explained Amadou Daffe, CEO and Co-Founder of Gebeya Inc., a pan-African tech talent pool company. “We cannot reach the SDGs and break the digital divide without mobilizing the private sector,” noted Børge Brende, President of the World Economic Forum. “If we want to succeed, we need to break this impasse extremely fast. What we need now are opportunities for leapfrogging.” According to Brelotte Ba, CEO of Orange Mali, a new mindset and approach to achieving universal access to the Internet needs to emerge. At the country level, regulators, operators, and governments should share their priorities in terms of infrastructure deployment and pay more attention to non-profitable areas. “The pandemic has shown that it is pointless to build a school unless people can access remote education,” Ba explained. “It is thus necessary to build partnerships between all financial and technical actors to ensure that every project has a digital component.” Noting how digital inequality is a critical threat to the world, Wendy Mars, Cisco’s President of Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Russia pointed out that digital inclusion can only be solved through creative and imaginative partnerships of all kinds.

First-ever youth summit

For the first time in history, WTDC-21 will be preceded by a youth summit whose conclusions will feed into the main conference.

With around 60 per cent of its population under the age of 25, Africa is the world’s youngest continent. According to ITU’s latest data, in those areas of the continent where there is connectivity, 40 per cent of African youth is using the Internet.

Engaging young people to help shape the agenda and outcomes of WTDC-21 will be vitally important to ensure the conference represents diverse perspectives and needs. According to Dunola Oladapo, a youth leader, involving youth is “about building trust in an authentic way, especially around common goals that young people across the world are so passionate about, such as climate change, inclusion, equality, and global health. It’s about creating real opportunities and platforms for youth to use their voices, take action and have impact on the world.” Interested young people can take part in the global movement to connect the unconnected by reaching out to ITU’s Generation Connect initiative.

Next stop on the Road to Addis

The next event in the Road to Addis series will focus on inclusion and will take place on the 18 of March. The series will culminate in September 2021 at the United Nations General Assembly, where the outcomes for accelerating digital transformation at WTDC-21 will be presented.

Interested stakeholders can engage with ITU to make WTDC-21 an impactful event by reaching out here.

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