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.
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.