Move towards 'information society' can help development goals – UN officials

11 December 2003

The transformation into an “information society” makes it imperative that countries work together to share the gains derived from information and communications technology (ICT) in order to help reach the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), according to United Nations officials speaking at the first-ever global summit on information.

As the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) moved into its second day, Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said UNESCO was convinced that four key principles underpinned the endeavour to build societies in which both digital and knowledge opportunities could flourish: freedom of expression; equal access to education; universal access to information, including a strong public domain of information; and the preservation and promotion of cultural diversity, including multilingualism.

Fostering and respecting cultural diversity, including linguistic diversity, was one of the fundamental principles of the information society, Mr. Matsuura added. Debates about content and language on the Internet were just one expression of the growing global concern on this issue. Universal access to information and knowledge was central to inclusive knowledge societies. It made no sense to speak about an information society, not to mention knowledge societies, without free and unhindered access to information and knowledge in all forms and media.

The Summit, which opened Wednesday and runs through tomorrow, brings together representatives from government, science, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), industry and media to forge a global commitment on ways to harness the power of ICTs towards achieving the MDGs, a set of measurable and time-bound actions adopted by world leaders in 2000 to combat such global ills as poverty and hunger, inequality in education and diseases such as HIV/AIDS, all by 2015.

Mark Malloch Brown, Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), said information and communication technologies were not just a goal in themselves for a poor country. Such an approach would consign it to a vanity investment. The purpose was to play its role within development. Its role was as a powerful soldier to halve the number of people living below the poverty line and fight HIV/AIDS. With the right policies and practices, ICTs could do far more to address the development challenges the international community faced.

Mr. Malloch Brown stressed that incorporating ICTs into development must be based on three main pillars – practice, policy and partnership. Nothing was automatic in the diffusion of information. It was, therefore, promising that more than 70 countries had elaborated their own national ICT policies. Ultimately, the work could not be carried out by governments alone. The best use of ICTs would be that which involved governments, the private sector, as well as civil society. It was incumbent on the international community to build an inclusive information society that helped lift developing countries out of poverty.

The Deputy Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Robert Blois, said the results of the Summit would have far-reaching implications on how the citizens of the world lived in the twenty-first century. The Summit was an historic occasion. The pace at which communications had changed over the last decade was remarkable. New communication technologies, particularly the mobile phone and the Internet, had radically transformed today's world.

ITU had played a vital role in this transformation through promotion of global inter-operability of network management of the spectrum and by assisting countries to make informed policy decisions, he said. The Summit, as well as being an historical event, was also an opportunity for ITU to identify new challenges and opportunities and concentrate on tangible measures of progress.

For his part, Marcel A. Boisard, Executive Director of the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), said the Institute believed that the Internet and the ICTs had been, above all, an opportunity for the South. Over the past 10 years, UNITAR had worked to assist developing countries in this information revolution. The international community had now also placed ICTs at the heart of building an information society.

The Internet was above all a vector for knowledge, Mr. Boisard said. Of course, he was not denying the existence of the digital divide and the priority must be on training and knowledge capacity. Local capacity must also be reinforced. It was also essential to facilitate access to knowledge, he said, suggesting the establishment of cyber-libraries. Such cyber-libraries would be an important weapon against illiteracy. Political measures were also needed to help Governments, the private sector and the civil society to fully commit to the building of a new information society, including work on e-governments, e-training, e-business and e-democracy.

Addressing the WSIS's opening session yesterday, ITU Secretary-General Yoshio Utsumi said the transformation to the information society would be every bit as profound as the movement from agrarian to industrial societies.

“In the past, such changes have led to winners and losers. Some countries have prospered, while others have fallen behind. It could happen once again and, if we do not take any action now, existing gaps may be widened. We must not make the same mistakes,” he warned.

By taking the right decisions, the international community must shape the direction of the information society and create a more just, prosperous and peaceful world, Mr. Utsumi said, calling on political leaders “to exert their will, the captains of industry to show their business acumen, the NGOs and civil society to provide the zeal, in order to forge a unity of purpose, a unison in the vision of universal access.”

Jose Maria Figueres-Olsen, Chairman of the UN ICT Task Force, said that many people enjoyed the introduction of fast access to the Internet and other use of new technologies, while this was hard for people living in the developing countries. The economic principles of demand and supply should be applied to information and communications technologies.

Working in cooperation was essential in order to realize ICTs. At the national level, efforts should be made to deploy ICTs. The developing and regional agencies should also be involved in the process of information and communication to improve national competitiveness. Further, efforts should be made to improve the capacity of nations in the field of ICTs. There was a collective responsibility of the international community in implementing the Millennium Development Goals.

The Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (ECE), Brigita Schmognerova, noted that the development of the information society was profoundly affecting economic and social life, and dramatically changing ways of doing business. It was also one of the main driving forces behind the globalization process.

While ICT development was a key component of the growth of the information society, significant gaps remained between countries' levels of progress in this area, she stressed. The challenge of bridging the digital divide had an important regional dimension. As recognized in the draft Declaration of Principles, regional cooperation and action were, and would be, a fundamental factor in the use of ICTs for development and in the implementation of decisions made at the Summit.

K.Y. Amoako, Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), told the Summit that Africa's economic performance since the mid-1990s had raised hopes for a turnaround. The new trend was largely attributed to reforms and better governance in many countries, with increased confidence translated into increased growth. However, this was still fragile.

New information and communication technologies were now pervasive, affecting virtually all sectors of society, although some people remained unacceptably distant from the possibilities, mainly the women, children, the poor and those in rural communities, Mr. Amoako said. African countries should take advantage of ICTs to fulfil their potential, and more and more countries were integrating ICTs into their plans. However, Africa needed massive investments in order to become part of the information society.

The acting Executive Coordinator of the UN Volunteers (UNV) programme, Ad de Raad, said that human intervention remains critical, even with the advanced technologies now available and that information technologies have immense potential for strengthening volunteerism, expanding participation in volunteer efforts, and intensifying their impact.

Mr. de Raad said the human dimension remains vital to the programme's efforts, as ICT helps to reinforce – but does not replace – the web of connections that have always existed in the offline world. At the same time, online volunteerism creates new opportunities for people who have too often been excluded from participation – such as older volunteers, people with disabilities, individuals living in remote areas, and those with pressing domestic responsibilities or very limited means.


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