ICTs and LDCs:
Opportunities and Challenges
More than ten years after the onset of the UN Millennium Declaration, developing countries have, on average, made substantial progress towards the achievement of Internationally Agreed Development Goals (IADGs). Governments, in partnership with the private sector and civil society, have redirected strategic resources to directly tackle poverty and inequality, improve health and education systems and foster greater transparency and accountability of public institutions.
At the same time, poor countries have also encountered unexpected challenges that have threaten to set back key development gains and put at risk the large efforts that have been made to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs.) Climate change, food prices, natural disasters, and the recent global economic crisis, ti name a few, have taken a toll not only in past investments but also put in jeopardy future efforts as the number of priorities that developing countries need to address multiples -while basic development goals are not yet reached. This is even more true for Least Developed Countries.
Simultaneously, the last decade have experienced a dramatic change when it comes to Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs). Perhaps against all expectation, the accelerated growth of mobile technologies is now a truly global phenomenon. In fact, this is the first tine in history that a new technology, of any sort, diffuses so fast among so many countries and so many people. The most optimistic indicators suggest that nowadays 5 billion people have access to a mobile device. Being that as it may, it is now possible to argue that the so-called “digital divide” has been vanquished in unexpected fashion.
ICTs and Development
But there is perhaps a more important and critical divide that has no relation to access to digital tools and digital content.
ICTs have been used for development purposes since the 1990s when many UN agencies, donors and governments jumped on the so-called “Internet revolution”. The focus back then was on access and connectivity where ICT infrastructure was the main, if not the only goal. Stock taking studies from that time strongly suggest that most ICTs investments did not really have an impact on development targets.
Being that as it may, this perspective of ICTs in Development made its way into the Millennium Declaration. So while, for example, the MDGs do include specific targets related to access to the new technologies, there is however no explicit link between, say, investments in education or health and the use of ICT solutions and applications to deliver such services to those who even today do not have access to them. It is thus no uncommon to see large scale efforts in poor countries to achieve some of the MDG targets that do not take into account the use of ICTs. By the same token, many ICT for Development programmes and projects seem to run as standalone initiative and do not explicitly factor in national and local development priorities
This is indeed a more critical divide, a policy and implementation “divide” that can bring forward duplication and resource waste that will only end up delaying the achievement of IADGs, particularly in LDCs where resources are rather scarce and local capacities still need to be substantially strengthen.
ICTs and LDCs
LDCs have not been excluded from the explosive growth of mobile technologies and its benefits across the economy. Although there are still challenges in terms of adaptation and absorption of the technology, the potential to capitalize on them is at the tip of our fingers.
The new ICTs have thus become critical enablers for sustained human development. There are now numerous examples as to how ICTs have contributed to eradicate poverty and bring to the most vulnerable and marginalized populations basic services for the first time in history. Several LDCs, in turn, are following the example of India and have long-term plans to developed an ICT sector geared towards catering the global knowledge economy.
In any event, in order to make strategic use of ICT and have impact on development goals and targets, there is need to explicitly address the “policy divide” mentioned above. For many areas of development, it has become almost unthinkable not to use the new technologies and deploy new and innovative solutions on the ground. But at the same time, it is also unthinkable to have ICT initiatives that are oblivious to the sheer needs and priorities that the poorest segments of LDC populations face today.
The goal of the UNGIS session on ICTs and Development is to start building the bridge to close the policy divide and ensure that policy makers and ICT experts work together towards one goal: helping countries quickly abandon the LDC club.