A new decade for digital foreign policy

This article is based on my opening remarks at the DiploFoundation event 2021: The emergence of digital foreign policy, given together with Swiss Federal Councillor Mr. Ignazio Cassis.

One of the big lessons from global discussions over the past year, and since the start of COVID-19, is that information and communication technologies (ICTs) have become the unifying thread that runs through all aspects of our societies and economies.

More than ever, technology is making its way to the top of governments’ political agendas.

One need only look at the increasing number of countries appointing national tech ambassadors.

These changes underline how different the current decade will be from the previous one -- not only because cyberspace has found a much wider audience in the era of COVID-19, but also because technologies and social media are moving fast, amplifying privacy and security concerns. Local authorities are facing challenges and pressure from the empowered public and powerful business owners. Making markets work for all partners has become more difficult, especially at the national level.

A shifting landscape

Developments in the digital technology and policy landscape have shifted to the international arena. People coming to ITU meetings are no longer only technical experts from ICT ministries, as was the case more than a decade ago. In recent years, we have also welcomed people who are engaged in digital foreign policy and those in other ministries, such as finance, education, health, and others.

Policy makers and regulators need to recognize that the technology trends we are witnessing will affect developing and least developed countries differently from developed countries.

Cybersecurity concerns, meanwhile, are reaching unprecedented levels. ITU’s Open Consultation on the Global Cybersecurity Agenda (GCA) framework, held just yesterday. More than ever, ITU remains committed to building confidence and security in the use of ICTs, pursuant to Action Line C5 from the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

A call to diplomats

Diplomats have a crucial role to play. I invite them to rethink the positioning of broadband deployment at the global level. Broadband is as critical as health, clean water, electricity, and other infrastructure.

Countries need to collaborate on these issues, to develop global ICT strategies that stimulate more innovation and investment in ICTs, and especially infrastructure investments.

This also requires ministers responsible for different sectors of the economy to come together under a whole-of-government approach.

Connecting the unconnected is only one part of the challenge facing us. We also need to upgrade ICT services with new technologies, such as 5G, cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI), and many more. Here, too, I call on diplomats to help bring these emerging technologies to all. There should be no difference between developing, least developed and developed countries.

New challenges
This new decade for digital foreign policy also coincides with the decade of action to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In the same spirit, we must leave no one offline. Yet right now, nearly half the world is still unconnected. The challenge before us is to connect those 3.7 billion who are offline, the majority of whom are in rural areas.
But we must also address those who cannot afford, don’t know how to use, or don’t trust technology.

ICTs present us with opportunities that were unimaginable just a few years ago, but also with new challenges for international cooperation. I hope we can use this moment to increase international collaboration, foster ICT infrastructure investment, and build tomorrow’s digital future on a solid foundation of trust -- for everyone, everywhere.

I look forward to strengthening our cooperation with the Swiss authorities, the DiploFoundation and all other stakeholders on this crucial issue in the weeks and months to come. I hope we can all work together, here in Geneva and beyond, to develop effective digital foreign policies. Those policies are essential to achieve universal connectivity with affordable services by the end of the decade.

 

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