|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East I 2002|
|Topic:||The United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force|
|Organisation:||United Nations ICT Task Force, U.S.A.|
“The Task Force belongs to all of us – governments, civil society, the private sector, the organizations and agencies of the United Nations system. Let’s nurture it together.” This quote by Mr. Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, reflects the objectives that the United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force (UNICTTF) will tackle during its three-year term. The UNICTTF is a new global policy body established by the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to bring the benefits of the global digital revolution to the developing world. Launched on November 20th, 2001, the task force (TF) brings together high-level representatives of governments, the UN system, the private sector, non-governmental organizations and the academic community, and is the first United Nations endeavour to fully incorporate world business leaders able to offer a unique perspective and expertise from their respective fields. Through this system of collective input, our TF has already achieved a common understanding on priorities and tasks, as well as on most effective modalities for achieving the goals set out in its mandate.
The United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) meeting held in New York on July 5-7th, 2000, was devoted to the theme ‘Development and international co-operation in the 21st century: the role of information technology in the context of a knowledge based economy’. Besides stressing the role of information technology for future development, the meeting proposed a set of initiatives to be taken at international level. Such initiatives were to promote: a) widened access to the digital economy; b) more transparent and efficient government offering online services ; c) an enabling legal framework; d) the development of local content; e) regional co-operation; and f) the creation of regional observatories to monitor the impact of information technology on the economy. The General Assembly’s Millennium Declaration, adopted on September 8th, 2000, at the Summit, set out an ambitious agenda for peace, security and disarmament, poverty eradication, the environment, human rights, protecting the vulnerable, meeting Africa’s special needs, and strengthening the role of the United Nations in the developing world. We in the United Nations strongly believe that ICTs are a potent tool for achieving the ambitious goals of the Millennium Declaration. The UNICTTF In March 2001 ECOSOC requested the Secretary-General to establish an Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) task force, an initiative intended to lend a truly global dimension to the many existing efforts to put ICT at the service of development. The UNICTTF, which is supported by the Heads of State and Government of all UN Member States that endorsed the ECOSOC Ministerial Declaration at the Millennium Summit, has since its formal launch on November 20th, 2001, worked to help create a conceptual framework for harnessing the power of information and communication technologies to advance the Millennium Declaration agenda. In particular, the TF is committed to the United Nations’ goal of halving the number of people living in poverty by 2015. The TF understands that this mission can be best achieved by empowering developing nations to establish their own national e-strategies, improving the existing national capacities and exploring new development areas. It has been working to establish and provide a global forum for integrating ICT into developing programmes and address such issues as strategy, infrastructure, enterprise, human capacity, content, application, partnerships, and policy and governance issues related to the digital revolution at the regional and international levels, facilitating the effective participation of all. By harnessing the potential of ICT the TF aims to reduce poverty, promote development, end marginalization and give the poor means for empowerment. The TF intends to create innovative and bold strategies that will enable developing countries to partake in the global digital opportunity. It will work to provide the majority of the world’s population access to ICT, particularly the Internet. It will promote capacity building on the local level and work with software developers to encourage local applications that can be easily used in developing countries, and will support developing countries in building human capacity in ICT and forging new livelihoods, especially for women in rural areas and young women and men. In order to implement its Plan of Action and to help stakeholders to share best practices and lessons learned in ICT, the TF decided on the creation of six Working Groups for collaborative action: 1) ICT Policy and Governance; 2) National and Regional e-Strategies; 3) Human Resource Development and Capacity Building; 4) Resource Mobilization; 5) Low-cost Connectivity and Access; and 6) Business Enterprise and Entrepreneurship. Additionally, several Regional Nodes were created to implement some of the basic principles of the modus operandi of the TF, such as decentralization of the activities, an open and inclusive approach, and reliance on existing mechanisms. The Regional Nodes have already been established in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean and in Arab States. They will be conduits for compiling and sharing accumulated experience, identifying region-specific goals and priorities and for supporting best practices. They will also serve for providing regional and sub-regional perspective and guidance to the activities of the Working Groups and the TF as a whole. The UNICTTF and Africa On January 21st and 22nd, 2002, the UNICTTF held its first Africa Regional Meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in collaboration with the Economic Commission for Africa. ICT has unquestionably become one of the key development challenges for the African continent, and there is a need for strong partnerships and knowledge and information-sharing mechanisms to meet the challenges. Indeed, the UNICTTF African Stakeholders Network looks at the unique challenges that Africa faces and is addressing major issues in the area of ICT for development: the role of government and the need to put in place a favourable legal, institutional and regulatory environment, the nature of connections to the richer countries, to their technology, capital and companies, and the need to train and retain skilled people, which begins with education but runs far beyond to safety and living conditions. For this purpose specific objectives should include: situating the promotion of the ICT as a key priority within governments’ political agenda, creating and strengthening the existing institutional capacity, increasing the number and quality of ICT projects and programmes in the relevant regions, encouraging the co-operation and establishment of public, private and civil society network, and incrementing the amounts and quality of public expenditures assigned to the development of ICT. There is certainly a need in the African region to secure political will at the highest level possible for optimizing the opportunities in an information and knowledge age for political, social, financial and cultural development. The TF’s ongoing effort aims to demonstrate that the window of opportunity offered by ICTs will enable the region to address the structural roots of inequality and poverty by creating domestic prosperity and global competitiveness and will contribute to a democratic process of efficient, equitable and sustainable development. Digital Illiteracy ICT has been able to empower individuals through knowledge, level playing fields and offering opportunities in multiple spheres. ICT has created a new world of opportunity not only for global businesses but also for civil society as it plays a role in disseminating information and assessing best practices. This New World of opportunity, however, has been limited to the individuals fortunate enough to be able to access these technologies. Without access, history’s exponential progress is evolving without global participation, resulting in what we today call the digital divide, one of the glaring inequalities of our modern society. Reducing these inequalities calls for, among other things, a vision of information and communication technology. Its success will depend on the participation and support of all players in different sectors of society, including government, the academic world, civil society, the private sector and non-governmental organizations. We need to know first how broad the gap is; we need to know what types of policies and programmes will enable the disparate communities in the regions to take advantage of the explosion of information available through the Internet and the opportunities promised by the new economy; and we need to know how the use of information and communication technologies can help to create more democratic, participatory processes. The Internet today reaches less than 10 per cent of the world’s population – a fact that must lead leaders around the world to address the impact of digital marginalization on current government policy, international development programmes, the organizing of civil societies and small enterprises. Yet the question is not one of access to the Internet but rather one of converting information into useful knowledge. In fact, the subject is not just the Internet or the World Wide Web but the range of technologies that are reshaping communications, and their implications for business and the economy, politics and governance, and ultimately how societies organize. The impact of the information revolution touches all of society, and so the different dimensions cannot really be separated. Just like all pillars, the structure of our bridge begins with its base. This movement is being led by the young adults of the world, on both sides of the digital divide. Young adults from developing countries are increasingly realizing the wonders of foreign cultures and customs. Conclusion The tools of information technology have provided the next generation with faces and customs of alien places. People in emerging countries, striving for knowledge, have led the call for ICT accessibility. Universities and small cafés are flooded with young adults attempting to find news not available to them in their city or village. They realize how important this knowledge economy will prove for their future. A fundamental shift in the economics of information has been under way in the last few years, a shift that is less about any specific new technology than about the fact that a new behaviour has reached critical mass. It is our challenge, responsibility and commitment to convert the access to, and the use of, the new information and communication technologies into enhanced participation, better education, more efficient public administration, and innovative business strategies. It is our mission to give societies the capabilities to seize these extraordinary opportunities and to transform the threat of a digital marginalization into a digital inclusion.