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A global information society: are we there yet?

Samia Melhem's picture
Gender and inclusion
must be more
integrated into global
information and 
​communication
technology
​(ICT) strategies.
The concept of a global information society is one of the most discussed and misunderstood “Big Ideas” of our time. While we’ve made gigantic strides toward connecting the world through information and communication technologies (ICTs), we have not attained that goal.
 
Over the last decade, ICTs have contributed to globalization, shaped economies, transformed society and changed our history. Companies that didn’t exist in 2003 – including Facebook and Twitter – are now essential components of media strategies and contribute to job creation. Broadband drives economic development across the world, and there are more than seven billion mobile cellular subscriptions.
 
Despite this meteoric change, we’re not quite there yet. While billions of people are already connected to these systems and opportunities, we need much more collaboration to bring about an information society for everyone.

Last month, I participated in the World Summit for Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva, Switzerland. This event brought together a wide variety of senior policy-makers, academics, business leaders and international organizations to present and discuss their perspectives on technological progress. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and International Telecommunication Union Secretary General Hamadoun Toure opened the summit, reflecting on the status of the information society and transformational impact of ICTs. In addition, World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan called for more widespread adoption of ICTs for health services delivery and infrastructure for vital statistics.
 
During the summit – where I spoke and participated on several panels on behalf of the World Bank – I had the chance to discuss public sector and education reform through ICTs with fellow participants from several different countries: Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Tunisia, Egypt, Vietnam, Argentina, Qatar, Japan, South Korea, and Mexico. These conversations invariably contained the terms “finally” or “at last,” referring to the often-lengthy time period before nations begin to see results from ICT investments. A decade is not unusual before an investment in an ICT project starts to show a significant impact on education, health or economic outcomes.

One of WSIS’s many functions since its founding has been securing commitments to pursue ICT-related targets that complement the Millennium Development Goals. These 11 targets are:  
  • Connect all villages with ICTs and establish community access points;
  • Connect all secondary schools and primary schools with ICTs;
  • Connect all scientific and research centers with ICTs;
  • Connect all public libraries, museums, post offices and national archives with ICTs;
  • Connect all health centers and hospitals with ICTs;
  • Connect all central government departments and establish websites;
  • Adapt all primary and secondary school curricula to meet the challenges of the information society, taking into account national circumstances;
  • Ensure that all of the world’s population has access to television and radio services;
  • Encourage the development of content and put in place technical conditions in order to facilitate the presence and use of all world languages on the Internet;
  • Ensure that more than half the world’s inhabitants have access to ICTs within their reach and use them for personal and community development; and
  • Connect all businesses with ICTs.
The World Bank has led the way on many of these initiatives, partnering with a range of clients and partners to achieve sustainable change. I was pleased to hear many government ministers – including those from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Comoros, Burundi and Pakistan – acknowledge World Bank ICT operations for their beneficial impact.
 
Yet much more is needed to bring the benefit of ICTs and the information society to the world’s entire population, and especially our planet’s poorest individuals.
 
We need better leadership mobilization. Technology experts, government ministers and ICT regulators need to partner with national and world leaders to ensure comprehension, cohesion and collaboration at the highest levels. This is not about technology, but about smart development. Isolated efforts will not be impactful.
 
We need to better incorporate gender and inclusion. This was a hot topic at the WSIS summit, especially given the alarming barriers women entrepreneurs face in a sector that created the most millionaires and billionaires over the last 20 years. One report that does a great job of describing these challenges is the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s new publication on empowering women entrepreneurs through technology.
 
We need compliance with international standards in systems and data. This includes data exchange and interoperability, as well as institutional strengthening and capacity building of public servants in data management, Open Data and big data analytics.
 
We need better enforcement of cyber security policies in order to protect critical ICT infrastructure and build skills for governments and society. Unfortunately, as it currently stands, this is one of the weakest points in most ICT national strategies.
 
Thankfully, there is a growing, increasingly vocal consensus to do these things. Initiatives like Open Data, e-Government, access to information and citizen feedback loops are pressuring governments to move faster in achieving the targets listed above.
 
Much effort has been made in the connectivity and access agenda; however, a lot more needs to be done, in synch with programs that develop local, national and regional skills, content and services. Several governments that realize those gaps are requesting the World Bank’s help in planning and implementing ICT platforms for service delivery of health, education and social protection. Such projects imply process modernization and major changes in service delivery models, which by necessity combine internal reforms with ICT-enabled reengineering of government services.
 
While we’ve not yet arrived at a full-scale information society, we’re well along the way. In collaboration with clients, stakeholders and citizens, we’re developing the roadmap, brainstorming solutions and tackling the challenges. And, once we achieve this goal, the world will be a much more connected – and better – place for us all.

Comments

Submitted by Gitanjali Sah on

Dear Samia, thank you very much for this blog, all the outcomes of the WSIS+10 High level event are available here: http://www.itu.int/wsis/implementation/2014/forum/dam/documents.html#high-level. Your blog covers several important aspects of the "ICT Gaps", especially the "Gender Gap". Gender Equality and Mainstreaming is absolutely crucial for Technology. To promote this, ITU and UNWOMEN have launched the GEM-TECH Award http://www.itu.int/en/action/women/gem/Pages/award.aspx. This annual award seeks to create a platform for advancing women's meaningful engagement with ICTs and their role as decision-makers and producers within this sector. Please nominate your projects and individuals for this award and may the most deserving project win!

Submitted by Jeremy Millard on

Dear Samia, all

Thanks for an inspiring blog and discussion! For those of us who would have liked to have been at WSIS but were not able, it’s great to keep up with the debate. Just a couple of points to add to what’s already been said. Yes, access, affordability and addressing gender and other socio-economic inequalities, as well as the basic ICT use skills that go with that, are absolutely necessary. However, in the longer term they will not themselves, in my view, be sufficient to achieve a global information society. In a book chapter shortly to be published, I argue and provide evidence that ICT will only truly start to have widespread development impacts when everybody is also able to pro-actively apply the technology themselves to improve the quality of their lives and livelihoods. This is not necessarily an easy next step.

The critical transition is when we build on access, take account of user characteristics and develop basic use skills, to provide opportunities and incentives for beneficial use. This involves changing mindsets, supporting innovative ecosystems to create new business, market and financial models, all within a conducive framework of regulation and open markets that also allow investors to earn money and the public sector to become more transparent and participative. This will especially require a strong focus on local SMEs and civil organisations so they are not swamped by large multi-nationals nor an inward-looking and closed government. Another critical step will be using ICT to support co-design, co-creation and co-production of ICT-enabled products, services and content, rather than simply their passive use by citizens and local businesses. This is very much a Web 2.0 and 3.0 phenomenon which needs to build on rapidly emerging technologies to develop innovation opportunities using mobile, social media, cloud computing, networks, open and big data and the Internet of Things, all of which can add agility, scalability, cost effectiveness and security. There is a long way to go, though the prospects are bright, and already a number of so-called developing countries are global leaders. So, I too am an optimist, but we need also to help create these broader conditions at local, national and international level.

Samia,
Thanks for the Blog post. At the Alliance for Affordable Internet we have already made it clear why access and affordability is important, that the UN should include affordable broadband access as one of the Sustainable Development Goals to be agreed in September 2015.

Submitted by Samia on

Inclusive and affordable are the words - Thanks for all the good comments, and to all readers who sent me private emails on this blog.
Dr. Ndemo's comment on affordability is very important, what is affordable in terms of Internet costs per household? The recently formed Alliance for affordable internet http://a4ai.org/ has been benchmarking cost of access per Megabit, analyzing costs in Europe, US, and Africa. Earlier recommendations (that costs of access to Internet do not exceed 5% of household income) are being revisited - In Europe the costs are, in most countries, less than 2% of households income on PPP basis. We still have a long way to go, in terms of competition and infrastructure for the Africa markets, and the role of a4ai.org, ITU, AU, AfDB, WBG in coordinating and negotiating with private sector providers and governments is critical. The connectivity of universities, hospitals and community centers is of particular concern, as these should be priorities.

Ms Shah from ITU raises an equally important point, that of inclusion and composition of information society. How can we ensure that Internet is available, affordable, and that women and young girls have equal access to it and learn how to use it to improve their education, health quality of life and income? There are many projects in which women farmers have been able to increase their household income by using mobile based market places (eSoko in Rwanda, for instance) allowing them to sell their agriculture production in the most optimal market. However these programs required special provisions to identify and train the women farmers, and special efforts to develop a local mobile application that would be easy to use for farmers. We have good experiences with training young women in software development or/and network management, in partnerships with Intel, and Cisco, enabling the training recipients to get skills and confidence for highly paid jobs most of the young women could not have imagined prior to the training. We should ensure all our ICT projects include capacity building and access to the Internet to women and young girls sometimes via special awareness building and community based programs.
Kind regards to all, Samia

Submitted by John Garrity on

Hi Samia - Excellent post; highlighting both progress to date, and the work ahead. Yes you are right that much effort has been completed on the connectivity and access agenda, but the task is not yet finished with less than half of the world's population connecting to the Internet (and only two-thirds of those connecting at sufficient speeds to access SD video). And yes, more emphasis is needed on how access and connectivity can improve lives through direct implementation of services (education, healthcare, employment, etc.). That is why to guide policy we emphasize options focusing on expanding broadband supply (competition, spectrum allocation, universal access, etc.), as well as concurrent efforts to increase broadband utilization (ensuring affordable devices and access, e-government leadership, increasing digital literacy and ICT skills, fostering new applications such around m-health, tele-medicine, education etc.)

And yes while there is a significant gender gap in Internet use, STEM training and IT employment (and in networking skills), closing this latter gap, in networking, will help bridge the other gaps.

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