12 December 2003


(Reissued as received.)

GENEVA, 11 December -- The first high-level round table of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was held this afternoon with Abdoulaye Wade, President of Senegal, opening an interactive dialogue which was moderated by Maria Livanos Cattaui, Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Commerce.

President Wade began by posing the question of how to achieve universal access.  He identified three main elements that participants addressed based on their national experiences and lessons learned. These factors were access, which entailed infrastructure development and knowledge sharing; partnerships, which were an absolute necessity for building an inclusive information society; and financing, the all-important issue of digital solidarity, requiring innovative mechanisms involving all development stakeholders, but especially the private sector.  It was also important to channel funding for the right implementation and to set priorities for development.

On the question of access, many issues emerged, namely, connectivity, especially in remote and rural areas.  President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and others said that access to information was a human right; therefore, the matter should be treated as such and institutions should do everything to ensure that right.  All actors should pool efforts and all sectors had to bear responsibility.  However, participants stressed the central role of governments as the lead actors and catalysts for promoting the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs).

As for partnerships, participants recognized that the private sector was an essential component in delivering services to citizens. In fact, President Wade stressed that, in many countries, business investment was often more important than foreign aid.  Nonetheless, national development strategies had often met with success and numerous cases existed of governments prodding business.  The role of volunteers also deserved recognition, especially in capacity-building.

Regarding financing, participants underscored the importance of committing to a Digital Solidarity Fund and the need to increase foreign investment to promote a transparent, stable and predictable environment.  Public-private mechanisms could better leverage each other and encourage investment in connectivity, especially for rural telephony.

Speakers also highlighted the need to preserve cultural and linguistic diversity; tackle structural constraints, including access; provide technologically neutral legal and regulatory frameworks; and widen access to open source software.  Finally, knowledge-sharing was a key aspect in promoting the ideals of an information society.  France made particular mention of telemedicine, e-education, natural disaster prevention and climatology as areas where information sharing would benefit humanity.

Senegal maintained that G8 countries had not helped in expanding telephony and had not foreseen how to help Africa overcome the digital divide.  The North had not fully grasped the importance of the huge potential market on that continent.  Many speakers said that telecommunications concerns did not expand to remote or rural areas.  In Africa and elsewhere, the private sector needed return on their investments and were reluctant to develop where returns were low.  Governments should, therefore, play a role in this respect, but they had limited resources.  Developing countries called on partners to help finance universal access. 

Many speakers noted that economies in transition needed special attention.  Morocco Telecom said that the creation of cybercafes was a solution to prohibitively expensive PC costs.  France said that satellite technology needed strong digital solidarity.  Broadband application should be widened.

The World Bank reported that in Bangladesh the number of mobile phones had surpassed land lines.  Liberalization and competition were important, but community-based efforts could achieve the last stretch.

Abdoulaye Wade, President of Senegal, chaired the round table.  The Moderator was Maria Livanos Cattaui, Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Commerce.  Participating were King Letsie III of Lesotho; President Paul Kagame of Rwanda; President Festus Gontebanye Mogae of Botswana; Lee Boon Yang, Minister of Information, Communications and the Arts of Singapore; Claudie Haigneré, Minister of Research and New Technology of  France; Martha Helena Pinto de De Hart, Minister of Communications of Colombia; Surapong Suebwonglee, Minister of Information and Communications Technology of Thailand; Tómas Ingi Olrich, Minister of Education, Science and Culture of Iceland; Pavel Gantar, Minister for Information Society of Slovenia; Yoshio Utsumi, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU); K.Y. Amoako, Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa; Nemat Shafik, Vice-President for Infrastructure at the World Bank; Koïchiro Matsuura, Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); Giuliano Berretta, Chairman & CEO, Eutelsat, France; Abdeslam Ahizoune, CEO of Maroc Telecom, Morocco; Peter Leuprecht, Professor, Faculty of Law, McGill University, Canada; Casio Taniguchi, Mayor of Curitiba, World Federation of United Cities (FMCU), Brazil; M, Richard Stallman, President of the Free Software Foundation (USA); and a representative of CIVICUS - International Conference Volunteers (ICV), South Africa.

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