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UN appeals for funds to bridge ‘digital divide’ in the Asia-Pacific region

UN appeals for funds to bridge ‘digital divide’ in the Asia-Pacific region

The United Nations today called for support in bridging the persistent “digital divide” in the Asia-Pacific region, where access to the Internet varies widely between rich and poor countries.

A three-day meeting held by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) wrapped up today in Bangkok, with more than 100 participants concluding that the disparity in Internet access is driven by the narrow coverage of telecommunication networks as well as limited access to computers and knowledge on how to use information and communication technology (ICT).

There are fewer than 10 Internet users per 100 people in more than 25 countries in the region, mainly the least developed and small island developing States, while wealthier nations such as Australia and New Zealand have an 80 per cent penetration rate, said Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

Ms. Heyzer was addressing the First Session of the Committee on Information and Communication Technology (CICT), a gathering of all 62 Member States of ESCAP. This was the first session of CICT, which was set up in April to serve as a forum for discussions on using ICT as a means to propel development.

Although the number of mobile phone subscribers in the poorest countries in the region has increased by some 800 per cent this decade, there remains a gaping gap between rich and poor countries in the ability to gain Internet access, Ms. Heyzer said.

The five most web-connected countries in the region – New Zealand, Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Singapore and Malaysia – have between 55 per cent and 80 per cent of their populations connected to the web.

By contrast, in the bottom five countries on the scale – Myanmar, Timor-Leste, Tajikistan, Bangladesh and Cambodia – less than 1 per cent of the population has access to the Internet, and the average for the Asia-Pacific region as a whole is 20 per cent.

The delegates attending the meeting recognized the need for expanded campaigns to raise awareness and build ICT capacity among a wider segment of society.

They also called for further support from ESCAP in building ICT capacity among government officials in non-ICT ministries and training institutes, through the use of programmes set up by the Asian and Pacific Training Center for Information and Communication Technology for Development – a subsidiary body of ESCAP.

“We have paid close attention to the views exchanged over the past three days and I wish to assure you that we will endeavour to turn them into concrete actions in our future activities,” said ESCAP Director of ICT and Disaster Risk Reduction, Zengpei Xuan.

“In this regard, I call on all entities that are in a position to provide development funding and technical assistance to contribute the much-needed financial and technical support to reach the development goals expressed at this Committee.”