Let me begin by thanking Oxfam for inviting me to speak at this event on the role of cyberspace in shaping international development.
Cyberspace and development:
The potential is endless to use ICTs and cyberspace as a platform for development which is sustainable, equitable and inclusive. The conference provides a platform to discuss that which is very welcome.
Let’s not forget that MDG8 – on partnership for development included a target to make the benefits of new technologies, especially ICTs, readily available, in co-operation with the private sector.
Thus the potential was seen when the MDGs were launched eleven years ago for ICTs to support poverty reduction and inclusive growth, gender equity, and improved access to basic services like education, health care, and sanitation. They are playing that role in many ways, with small farmers, whether that be by improving access to information, linking information on market prices, providing access to banking services, connecting remote health workers with experts and life-saving information, or by providing students with more access to education opportunities.
ICTs are also playing a transformative role in democratic participation – the uprisings in the Arab World, and other social movements around the globe, show how ICTs and cyberspace create ways for previously politically excluded communities to organize and make their voices heard. But for these technologies to have widespread benefit – they have to be widely available.
For that reason, the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, launched by the International Telecommunication Union and UNESCO, has agreed on four targets to improve broadband access to scale up public and private service delivery to the world’s most vulnerable populations and accelerate progress on achieving the MDGs.
UNDP’s ICT programme focuses on e-governance and getting the delivery of basic e-services and information out to the most vulnerable populations, and on e-participation, to ensure that people who are traditionally excluded - whether because of gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, or other factors, have a voice in policy discussion and decision-making processes.
The internet is now estimated to have over 2 billion users. In Sub-Saharan Africa, less than fifteen per cent of the population is connected to it, but mobile technologies are becoming a key means of closing the gap. Latest UN estimates indicate that at least 5.4 billion people in the world have access to mobile phones. In some sub-Saharan African countries, mobile penetration is now as high as eighty per cent.
That has happened because mobile phone systems have relatively low physical infrastructure requirements, and can be used even where there are sparse electricity grids. At the same time, unlike other digital devices, mobile phones are user-friendly, require only rudimentary literacy to use, and are relatively affordable for many households. These factors have led to a democratization” in access which is transforming lives.
So - how are mobile phones and other ICT technologies being used for development purposes? Just some examples:
To improve health outcomes, UNDP Guatemala supported the use of mobile phones for non-formal, distance education to reach over 300 aspiring nurses with a course on diagnosis, treatment, emergency care, and prevention.
UNAIDS just announced a crowd sourcing initiative, run by young people – for young people, to draft, debate, and help implement a new UNAIDS youth HIV strategy. UNDP has used crowd-sourcing for work on election monitoring. The UN’s Global Pulse initiative will be a vehicle for global grassroots feedback on how adverse events are affecting communities.
To promote financial inclusion, UNDP and its associated programme, the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF), were able to pilot “branchless” banking with some of the largest mobile phone operators in the Pacific – cutting the cost of financial services for dispersed populations.
To improve educationoutcomes, UNDP is supporting the Government of Bangladesh to introduce multimedia classrooms, which will support traditional teaching, and make the learning environment easier for hard-to-learn content, such as gravity and the solar system, the digestive system, or problems in geometry, where interactive tools can make explanations clearer.
There are many other examples of ICT innovations currently being implemented, not only by governments and established development organizations, but also by a plethora of local social entrepreneurs who are able to operate at the community level and provide innovations to tackle critical socio-economic issues. These must be scaled up.
We can focus too on strengthening the interface between the ‘new’ and established technologies to ensure that the poorest and most marginalized, including women, the disabled, or linguistic minorities, are not excluded from the technological revolution.
For example, the “speak-to-tweet” service, which was developed by engineers from Google, Twitter, and SayNow during the revolution in Egypt, recognized that mobile phones were more readily available to poor Egyptians. It provided a critical link between traditional mobile technology and new social media platforms, to ensure that the voice of all Egyptians, young and old, literate and illiterate, could be heard.
ICT innovations from both the South and the North can have a transformative impact on the lives of the poor. These initiatives need to be scaled up to make a real difference and reach the end of the road metaphorically and geographically.
The One Laptop Per Child initiative, which has reached over two million children and teachers in forty-two countries, is a good example of collaboration between the education sector and industry. It has been successful in reaching poor children, not only because the laptops are more affordable, but also because they were designed to be energy efficient, durable, and can be used in direct sunlight where children go to school outdoors.
I look forward to building more innovative partnerships for UNDP in our pursuit to help countries meet the Millennium Development Goals and their national development goals.