The developing world has long been at the forefront of demanding equitable access to our digital world and the global innovation that it spurs every day.
I can personally trace this demand for digital equity back to ITU’s 1985 World Administrative Radio Conference in Geneva. At that time the developed world wanted to ‘prospect in space’ – ensuring it had its pick of the prime satellite orbit spots, but the developing world objected.
I attended the conference as a reporter for The Economist news magazine because it seemed odd to me and my editor why countries, who had neither the money nor the technology to launch communications satellites, cared so passionately about having equitable access to orbits.
Fortunately, ITU and the Maitland Commission report ‘The Missing Link’ provided the answer.
First, telecommunications was recognized as an increasingly important determinant of economic growth; the ‘digital divide’ was identified and a lofty goal was set – every citizen on the planet was to be within 5 miles walking distance of a telephone by the year 2000.
No one at the time foresaw the explosion of information and communication technology (ICT) that would make this aspirational goal of 1985 look rather silly by 2000. However, the digital divide didn’t disappear, and neither did ITU’s determination to help the developing world get the equitable access they both deserved and demanded.
The most recent manifestation of the developing world’s persistence for ICT equity is represented by the Istanbul Plan of Action for the Least Developed Countries (IPoA). Established in 2011, it was the first to recognize the importance of ICT as an essential catalyst for sustainable digital development. It did this by establishing ICT networks as an infrastructure priority on par with water, electricity and transport.
For those of us who don’t live on less than USD1.25 a day, this emphasis on connectivity by those who often struggle for the bare necessities of life, may seem strange. After all, you can’t eat a mobile phone.
But in 2016, connectivity is a basic tool of empowerment – not only a lifeline to family, friends and community, but a way to tap into the information you need to make decisions for your future.
The ground-breaking language of the IPoA was thankfully reflected in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which recognizes that ‘the spread of information and communication technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress.’
Furthermore, SDG 9.c calls ‘to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020’.
There is no doubt this aspirational directive and specific target is transformative and achievable, but it will not happen without a concerted partnership between governments and the private sector.
And it won’t happen without regulatory reform in the LDCs, in order to give the private sector the confidence it needs to invest.
Nor will it happen without public commitment and investment in the essential ICT backbone infrastructure.
We are now looking at the half-way point in the deployment of the Istanbul Plan of Action, and ITU was pleased to report to the Midterm Review of the Istanbul Plan of Action for the LDC’s 2011-2020 conference held in Antalya, Turkey that extraordinary progress has been made to expand access to ICTs in the LDCs’ through mobile technologies.
In the past year mobile-broadband has become 20-30 per cent more affordable globally. The largest decrease in prices occurred in the LDCs, where average prices for all types of mobile-broadband service were reduced by more than 25 per cent.
However, significant gaps remain in ICT development between developed and developing countries, with LDCs falling even further behind developing countries.
The biggest disparity is access to broadband technology – which is a revolutionary use of the ‘electromagnetic frequency spectrum’, and the lifeblood of global connectivity and the Internet.
This gap must be addressed if the potential of ICTs, including the Internet, is to fulfil its potential as a primary enabler for all three pillars of sustainable development.
Last year, only 6.7 per cent of households in LDCs had Internet access compared with 46 per cent of households worldwide. While 80 per cent of households in the developing world are online.
To address this, ITU Member States agreed to set up the overall strategy for the ICTs sector, known as Connect 2020. Within the four main goals for ICT growth, inclusiveness, sustainability and innovation & partnership, a number are focused on LDCs:
For example: In the LDCs, 15% of households should have access to the Internet by 2020 and 20% of individuals should be using the Internet by 2020
To help the LDC’s achieve this goal we have developed comprehensive capacity building and digital inclusion programmes;
We have rolled out strategies to help LDCs maximize the selection and use of appropriate new technologies;
We are providing assistance in dealing with cyber security issues, to build trust and confidence in ICT networks;
And we continue to provide guidance on how best to create an enabling policy and regulatory environment that will attract the private sector, especially broadband service providers.
ITU has mainstreamed the needs of LDCs in all its activities, programmes and projects and has undertaken, financed and implemented programmes since 2011 to assist LDCs in using ICTs for climate change adaptation and disaster management.
ITU provides seed money to Countries in Special Need, which includes LDCs, for the development of new rural infrastructure, reconstruction of old systems and the development of the human capacity necessary to sustain and maintain this increasingly important utility.
ITU’s assistance for the LDCs also includes:
- The design and review of Emergency Telecommunications Plans;
- The promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in ICT access and careers – there are at least 200 million fewer women than men online, and this digital inequity is even greater in the LDCs. [updated: 10 June 2016]
ITU is confident that by 2020, through effective people-centered, private/public partnerships, that ICTs/broadband and technological innovations will play a critical role for the sustainable economic and social development in the LDCs.
We believe that if everyone in the LDCs had an affordable point of connectivity to our knowledge society and the basic digital literacy skills to use that connectivity, we will see an explosion of innovation which we can’t even imagine.
Technology’s greatest strength has always been its ability to help an individual to solve the most pressing problems in their own lives and that of their community by drawing upon the vast repository of ‘connected’ global knowledge.
A mobile phone may never replace food and water as a necessity of life but it provides a key tool to empower the Least Developed Countries to leap frog many of the hurdles they face in creating their own sustainable future.
MORE FROM ITU: Watch ITU’s statement to the Midterm Review of the Istanbul Programme of Action in Antalya, Turkey here.
Gary Fowlie (@) is the Head of the ITU Liaison Office to the United Nations in New York, where he actively promotes ICTs as a tool of empowerment and development.