15 December 2003


(Reissued as received.)

GENEVA, 11 December (UN Information Service) -- The issue of how to use information and communication technologies (ICTs) to achieve the Millennium Development Goals was this afternoon discussed by a round table of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

Mark Malloch Brown, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Moderator of the round table, contended at the outset that this question lay at the very heart of the Summit.  During the debate, a strong and common commitment to the Millennium Development Goals emerged.

The key points of the debate hinged on the role of capacity-building, including expanded access to education and training; ICTs for sustainable development and economic growth; and the use of ICTs for the delivery of social services, such as health care and education.  Speakers said that ICTs had the potential to help achieve the Millennium targets by supporting education, creating jobs, such as through call centres, and acting as a tool to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Beginning with capacity-building, speakers highlighted the need to develop human resources, especially concentrating on the education of girls and women.  Other vulnerable groups such as the elderly also needed attention.  Obstacles to wide enjoyment of the potential of ICTs included the population explosion in developing countries; the brain drain; lack of reliable energy sources and basic ICT infrastructure, said Oman.  Additionally, small islands faced special challenges in establishing connectivity due to their geographical remoteness and lack of resources, said the Federated States of Micronesia.  Small island States sent out a message that they needed support; they could not go it alone and asked for lower costs and financial assistance to cope with their unique circumstances.  Distance-learning was another element for small islands to exploit.

Turning to sustainable development, participants asked how to create pro-poor policies in national e-strategies.  Chad noted that least developed countries were struggling with basic priorities and could not think of e-strategies yet.  Mr. Malloch Brown reiterated that the ICT component in development was central to the overall development strategy and should be mainstreamed as such.

It was important to stress that the digital divide extended not only between developed and developing countries, but also national digital divides were often greater than the international divide.  Bridging the national divide would go some way towards eradicating poverty, the first Millennium Goal.  In the final analysis, ICTs could only be helpful to the extent that users could have access to them.  Appropriate national strategies were, therefore, crucial to redress the balance.  Growth should avoid concentration and generate strong internal markets in developing countries.  Local content needed to be developed for new opportunities to grow.

Romania highlighted that small- and medium-sized enterprises needed more assistance to benefit from ICTs than large business concerns.  This would be one way to break a monopoly in communications, open competition and let market forces work.  An additional advantage would be the reduction of bureaucratic red tape.

Information and communication technologies were an undeniably powerful tool to deliver social services, namely, in the fields of health and education.  They could increase access to health information and encourage knowledge-sharing.  Local content delivery would, therefore, be a prerequisite if people were to benefit at the grass roots.

The question of affordability came up.  Donor countries demonstrated willingness to extend assistance when development was linked to specific Millennium Development Goals issues such as gender equality and respect for human rights, as stated by Norway.  The ICTs could promote democracy and good governance, conditions conducive to realizing these Goals.

Yoshio Utsumi, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and Secretary-General of the WSIS, recounted a personal experience regarding the costs of ICTs.  He said that low cost telecom services existed worldwide, but the price of PCs was not going down; as Microsoft upgraded software, consumers needed new PCs that were compatible.  “The free market of PCs is not working well”, said Mr. Utsumi.  Global political will was needed to reduce costs.  Today, not much training was required to use ICTs, thanks to the development of a good human interface; what was needed was cheap ICT equipment for developing countries.  Political will was also necessary for broadening access to open-source software, said Mr. Malloch Brown.

The private sector expressed willingness to be part of the process.  Civil society, on the other hand, voiced a sense of urgency and asked if the WSIS Plan of Action was really on track to achieving the Millennium Goals.

Participating in the round table were the Presidents of Estonia and Kyrgyzstan, the Prime Ministers of Bangladesh and Norway, the Vice-President of Panama, the President of the Cuban Assembly, as well as Ministers from Ireland, Malaysia, Kenya, Portugal, Oman, Romania, and Sweden. 

* *** *