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06 November 2003

Information Technologies Critical to Achieving Development Goals

U.S. diplomat says WSIS will focus on development needs

(The following article by Ambassador David A. Gross, U.S. coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, appears in the International Information Program Electronic Journal "The Evolving Internet" issued in November 2003. This article and the rest of the journal may be viewed on the Web at: http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itgic/1103/ijge/ijge1103.htm. No republication restrictions.)

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The Digital Dimension of Development: A Strategic Approach
By Ambassador David Gross

(A top U.S. diplomat says the freedom to innovate, create, and share ideas is critical to development. He describes how the U.S. government is utilizing information and communications technology to achieve development goals.)

"In the new century, growth will be based on information and opportunity. Information drives markets, ensures a rapid reaction to health crises like SARS, and brings new entrepreneurial opportunities to societies....The keys to prosperity in an information economy are education, individual creativity, and an environment of political and economic freedom. An environment of economic and political freedom is the sina qua non for the kind of progress we are talking about."

-- Secretary of State Colin L.Powell before the World Economic Forum
June 22, 2003

Over the past decade, breathtaking advances in information and communications technology (ICT) have changed the way we live, learn, and do business.

Whether it is responding more rapidly to health crises like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), delivering education to the underserved, increasing government transparency, or creating new forms of commerce, technology is transforming our world.

ICT has become the new tool for achieving economic and social development. In fact, a growing global consensus has emerged in recent years that information-based technologies are fundamental to meeting basic development objectives.

The future prosperity and well being of all nations, including the United States, now depend in part on our ability to access and use these new tools effectively.

For much of the world, however, that remains an elusive goal. The number of Internet users in the world today exceeds 500 million but some 40 percent of that number live in the United States. Over the past 10 years, global telephone penetration rates have doubled, but there are still more telephone landlines in New York City's borough of Manhattan than in all of Africa. On the other hand, technology is dramatically changing things almost everywhere -- for example, there are now many more wireless phones in Africa than traditional landline phones.

World Summit on the Information Society

The upcoming United Nations World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), scheduled for December 10-12 in Geneva, will focus precisely on these challenges.

The summit, the latest in a series of U.N. summits focused on development, will be attended by more than 50 heads of state and government from around the world. A second phase of the summit will be held in Tunis, November 16-18, 2005. Leaders from business, civil society, and international organizations are contributing to preparations for both phases.

The summit's mission is to outline a clear vision and a concrete plan for putting ICT into the service of development.

What considerations should guide the Summit's work?

Development begins with freedom. The freedom to innovate, the freedom to create, and the freedom to share ideas with people around the world are the foundation of a global, inclusive information society. Our overriding vision for the information society is one that expands political and economic freedom by offering our citizens the opportunities to access and utilize information to better their lives.

More specifically, we believe success in making freedom possible and crafting an ICT-for-development agenda depends on three fundamental building blocks.

A Strategic Approach

First, we believe countries should focus on creating a domestic policy environment that encourages privatization, competition, and liberalization, and that protects intellectual property.

Private investment is by far the largest source of funds for the development, deployment, maintenance, and modernization of the world's communications and information networks and facilities. Public policies that do not actively invite such investment simply delay development.

Around the world, there are encouraging signs that rules favoring competition are paying big dividends. In Uganda, for example, a price war broke out last year in the country's competitive telecommunications sector. Costs per minute for telephone calls tumbled and some firms scrapped fees. The result has been more opportunities for entrepreneurs and cheaper rates for all users.

Second, it is critical to build human capacity. Users must have the ability to effectively use ICT tools. Without adequate education and training, infrastructure investments will yield little.

Teachers, school children, health professionals, citizens, and business people must have the knowledge needed to take full advantage of distance learning, e-healthcare, e-government, and e-business applications.

To be used effectively, ICT tools also must be adapted to local needs. Local content that reflects local culture and is in the language of the users' choosing is vital to sustaining the effective use of ICT. The U.S. government believes such content should be widely available.

At the same time, content restrictions must be avoided. Uncensored print and broadcast media provide independent and objective information and offer a vehicle for citizens to openly and freely express their opinions and ideas.

Artificial barriers that unnecessarily restrict the free flow of information and news are the enemies of innovation, retard the creation of knowledge, and inhibit the exchange of ideas that are necessary for people to improve their lives.

The realization of the many "digital opportunities" that ICT tools make possible depends on access to information. Electronic government, for example, can increase government transparency, accountability, and accessibility and lead to better development decisions as long as governments are prepared to share information with their citizens.

Third, users must be able to use ICT with confidence if the economic and social benefits of these technologies are to be achieved. Network security ICT tools and networks can never be made invulnerable to attack. But countries can protect their ICT infrastructure by adopting effective substantive and procedural laws.

Companies, consumers, and citizens can contribute as well by raising awareness and implementing widely recognized network security guidelines compiled by the United States and its partners in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Together we can create a global culture of network security that protects all users, no matter where they live.

In addition to creating the right policy environment, building human capacity, and protecting networks, governments also must avoid erecting new hurdles that will undermine efforts to harness ICT to development goals.

Whether it is weakening intellectual property protections, limiting press freedoms, or injecting governments unnecessarily into the technical management of the Internet, such misguided steps can quickly reduce choice, stifle innovation and democracy, and raise costs.

Partnerships for Development

The U.S. government's involvement in WSIS is only one aspect of our commitment to using ICT to foster development. Over the years, many of our assistance programs have incorporated ICT to achieve economic and social goals.

The Digital Freedom Initiative (DFI) is one of the leading examples of the U.S. government's (USG's) commitment to using the latest tools to achieve longstanding development goals. The program builds on previous USG initiatives, including the Leland Initiative, which was launched in 1996, and the Internet for Economic Development, which was launched in 1999.

The DFI promotes the use of ICT by entrepreneurs and small businesses in developing countries and leverages existing infrastructure to improve access to local, regional, and global markets. It also assists countries in creating a pro-competition policy and regulatory environment that will help entrepreneurship blossom.

The pilot program was announced in March 2003 at a White House ceremony and was first launched in Senegal. At the October 20-21 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in Bangkok, President Bush announced that Peru and Indonesia would join the program.

Over the next five years as many as a dozen countries may be invited to join the initiative.

The U.S. government advances ICT-for-development through numerous other programs. These include:

-- Literally hundreds of individual U.S. Agency for International Development projects that use ICT to address health, education, and capacity issues;

-- State Department-sponsored "e-logistics" workshops that provide practical real-world advice to developing country business owners, especially small and middle size enterprises eager to improve productivity and expand into new markets;

-- Regulatory and technical training programs sponsored by the U.S. Telecommunications Training Institute, which, over the past 20 years, has graduated more than 6,200 ICT professionals from 163 developing countries; and,

-- A $30 million Internet Access and Training Program (IATP) that develops Internet skills and computer knowledge among diverse populations in Eurasia while promoting the free flow of information and ideas.

Whether it is these programs, a new initiative to promote the spread of wireless technologies, or efforts to raise awareness about the value of "electronic government," all our ICT-for-development programs rest on the building blocks outlined above.

We believe that these building blocks can help all countries achieve their digital progress and prosperity agendas, thereby helping the children and generations to come.

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