Serving the Citizen: Information Technology for Inclusive and Sustainable Development

8 May 2008, Jakarta, Indonesia

The 21st century is marked by the growing interdependence of people in a globalizing world. It is a world where opportunities are opening up for millions of people through new technologies, expanding media and internet connections, trade, and investment. All this offers enormous potential to eradicate poverty and reduce suffering. But this is possible only if the growing interdependence of people’s lives is accompanied by shared values, shared commitment, and shared solidarity for inclusive and sustainable development, where progress is for all people.

If all citizens are to be served through the transformational power of IT, the theme of this conference, we need a globalization and growth with ethics and e-quality. We need a globalization that reduces disparities within and between nations, empowers people, and responds to the needs and priorities of vulnerable communities and individuals.

In Asia-Pacific, the opportunities and benefits of globalization and growth need to be shared more widely and wisely. Despite being one of the world’s most dynamic regions, Asia-Pacific is still a region of great disparities. Economic, social, and environmental imbalances are regrettably the hallmarks of the region. In a region characterized by rapid and impressive economic growth, income inequalities have increased in 14 out of 20 countries that were surveyed in a recent joint report produced by ESCAP, UNDP and ADB. In a region where medical tourism hubs attract patients from all over the world, one quarter of a million mothers die in childbirth each year, while 4 million children die every year before reaching the age of 5. Close to 1 billion people in Asia-Pacific lack access to electricity, while 1 in every 6 persons lack access to safe and sustainable water supplies. These harsh realities are not inevitable. And it is our collective responsibility to bring about change.

Stronger systems of governance and accountability are needed at national, regional, and global levels to ensure that advancements in technological innovation can be transformed into advancements in human well-being. For this to happen, we need strong commitments, partnerships, and policies, built on a common set of values. These values must be based on principles of justice, equality, participation, and rights, as enshrined in the UN charter, and must be shared by governments, private sector, and civil society alike.

Communication technology sets this era of globalization apart from any other. The internet, mobile phones, and satellite networks have shrunk space and time, unleashing new ways of communicating across the globe. There have been fundamental leaps in innovation, not just better ways of doing old things, but radically new ways of doing previously unimagined things. Old economic boundaries have given way to new centers of power, especially in the private sector. At the same time, communication technology has also opened up new opportunities for small players to enter the global stage. Cutting across national communities, online communities have arisen, drawn together by politics, ethnicity, interest, gender, or social cause. Using the network, they have initiated debates and brought new power to previously silent voices. Network communications have also forged closer local communities, providing community information and making local government more effective and transparent.

If we want to use Information Technology for inclusive and sustainable development, we need to focus on four Cs: Connectivity, Capacity, Content, and Collaboration. Let me start with Connectivity by telling a story of women in a rural community in Guyana.

Ten years ago, there was no telecommunication infrastructure in the village as it cost too much for the government to bear alone. Eventually, the government decided to turn to the private sector to develop a public private partnership to provide communication services to the local community. Guyana Telephone and Telegraph installed an innovative satellite system in the village and provided $12,000 worth of computer equipment and free internet access to women weavers. The company paid to have a young member trained in Internet and create a website. A year later, through this connectivity, the women successfully developed a virtual market for hand-made hammocks, selling them for approximately $1,000 each to an external market and generating new wealth for their families and community.

Information and communication technologies have enormous potential to link remote communities to global markets, to make telemedicine and tele-work available to communities in need, to democratize decision-making, to support distance learning. But if the global community and national level policy-makers are not proactive about ensuring that the benefits of ICTs are equally available to and shaped by women and men, we will fail to reap the full potential of these powerful tools.

The second C stands for Capacity. Current access to Information Technology runs along various fault-lines, dividing the educated from the less educated, rich from poor, young from old, urban from rural, men from women. We need to bridge this divide by building capacity of those still excluded from access to the benefits of information technology.

The third C is Content. The information highway cannot be a one way street. Websites need to be created locally, adding new voices to the global conversation and making content relevant to communities everywhere. Local content can enhance local participation and institutional transparency, leading to better and more accountable governance. For example, in India, the State Government of Andhra Pradesh set up a network to connect tele-center access points with government offices and services, allowing ‘social audits’ of these services by local communities.

The fourth C is Collaboration. Collaboration is needed to harness the power of technology to respond to the needs of poor countries and communities at risk. In addition to poverty and increasing inequalities, humankind now faces unprecedented risks from natural disasters, climate change, and ecological degradation. Without effective collaboration and preparedness, there will be greater loss of life and livelihoods, greater destruction to property, and greater damage to our resource base and to our environment and even extinction of some small island States. We cannot afford this devastation.

In the face of this alarming scenario, the importance of technology transfer cannot be underestimated. Through collaboration, preventive measures and technologies can be used to prepare communities living in disaster-prone areas, to enhance the capacity of governments and civil society to respond to emergencies, and help countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. By so doing and being proactive, we can reduce the risk of a climatic hazard escalating into a major disaster.

ESCAP, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, is the regional development arm of the United Nations. We are pleased to have an on-going partnership with Microsoft. Since 2006, Microsoft has supported the ESCAP Center for Information and Communication Technology for Development. This facility is a regional resource for policy-makers and trainers from developing nations across the region to learn from and share good practices in the area of ICT development, helping in the transition to the knowledge economy. This center provides ICT skill development and capacity building, bringing technology to governance in the Asia-Pacific region. In addition, ESCAP has three other regional institutions which facilitate knowledge sharing and technology transfer, including technology for renewable energy, serving as depositories of best practice with respect to technology capacity building and national and local innovation systems that can foster inclusive and sustainable development.

We look forward to building partnership with governments and other stakeholders so that together we can make a difference.

Let me end by repeating my main message: commitment, partnerships, and policies are urgently needed to turn the advances in new technologies into advances for all of humanity.

I thank you.