For information only - not an official document.
      17 November 2000
 New Information Technology Has Enormous Potential to Promote Economic Growth and Help Eradicate Poverty, Secretary-General Says

NEW YORK, 16 November (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s address this morning to the United Nations World Television Forum 2000:

I am honoured to be part of such a distinguished panel of top media brass, to open a discussion on such a vital issue as the challenges facing television in the digital age.  As leaders of the television and broadcasting industry, you know better than anyone how important the role of information is in any society, and that it is more important than ever before in the new world of instantaneous global communications we have now entered.

Throughout history, there has been an essential link between knowledge and the growth of civilizations.  No civilization ever flourished by keeping its knowledge to itself.  On the contrary, civilizations are based on the exchange of knowledge and nurtured by mutual influence.

Yet the paradox is that in our own age of globalization, it sometimes seems as if only knowledge is not being globalized.  Indeed, the knowledge gap between the North and the South is getting wider and wider.  

In every society, education is the premise of progress.  Alas, millions of people in the developing world are still deprived of this crucial tool of prosperity.

It need not to be so.  With your unique reach and influence, you in the audio-visual media can help make knowledge and information accessible to all.  You can make your industry an agent for change and a partner for progress.

There are about 1.5 billion television sets and 2.5 billion radios in the world today.  Their impact varies from country to country and region to region, but, overall, it is estimated that they reach three quarters of humankind, whereas only 5 per cent of people have access to the Internet.

So radio and television are, in a sense, the advance guard of the knowledge revolution.  One of the things you can do is to inform people about the Internet and its possibilities, and so help generate and create the demand for the next stage.  But at the same time, you must help the spread of literacy and other basic skills.  Connecting the poor to the Internet will hardly improve their lives if they cannot even read or write.

Once certain basic conditions are in place, new information technology does have enormous potential to promote economic growth and to help eradicate poverty.  It has already brought extraordinary benefits to the developed world, and it can improve the chances for poor countries to leapfrog some of the long and painful stages in the development process that others had to go through.  Countries where most people don't have access to this technology cannot play a full part in the new global economy.  And the countries which are least integrated into the global economy are, not surprisingly, those with the highest proportion of very poor people. 

Information technology is not a magic formula that is going to solve all our problems.  But it is a powerful tool that can help liberate the poor and empower them:  a farmer who has access to information about market prices is less likely to be abused by a middleman.  The Internet can even enable him to cut out that middleman altogether and deal directly with clients far away.  And there are numerous other applications from which developing countries can benefit.  Information technology can facilitate distant learning at low cost.  Telemedicine can provide access to up-to-date health and medical information to even the most remote facilities throughout the world.  Information technology can also empower civil society, strengthen democratic institutions and make governments more transparent and accountable.

Bridging the digital divide is not going to be easy.  Overcoming the obstacles will require concerted measures from a whole range of actors.  That is why I have asked my newly appointed Special Representative on Information and Communication Technologies, Costa Rican former President José Figueres, to work with me at the establishment of a United Nations Digital Task Force, which will bring together governments, multilateral development institutions, private industry and foundations.  This Task Force will provide overall leadership and help devise a strategy for information technology development.  I very much hope that you, or people from your organizations, will agree to be part of that initiative.

I realize that this is a television Forum and not a Cyber Space Forum.  But in the developed world, the two industries are rapidly merging into one.  Television is clearly one of the big players in the new multimedia landscape.  So, let me appeal to you once again.

By informing and explaining, you can make people aware of the potential offered by the digital revolution.  Those who most need the opportunities information technology offers are at present the people who know least about them.  That, at least, is something you can change.  

There must be other ways you can help, too.  I am not an expert.  But I am convinced that you have a vital contribution to make, and, therefore, I am eager to hear your views.

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