ICTs and Sustainable Development: Tacking Stock

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Background

The idea of SDNP ( http://www.undpegov.org/sdnp/) emerged during preparations for the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit with the perception that many countries, especially poorer ones, lacked a reliasdnpheadble information base to make effective decisions and promote sustainable development issues. The question was: how could countries take responsibility and be accountable implementing UNCED agreements in the absence of up to date information required to comprehend current situations and oversee developments in the future?

SDNP found its formal basis in Chapters 27, 37 and 40 of Agenda 21, respectively calling for a stronger role of NGO as partners, for participative forms of capacity building, and for the development of user-friendly information resources and services to encourage greater access to existing information , the strengthening of electronic networks, and the better use of indigenous knowledge.

The rapid emergence of the Internet in the 1990s provided fertile ground for the implementation of SDNP’s core goals. In principle, the development of a global network accompanied by the “digitalization” of information resources allowed not only for a sharp reduction in information sharing but also open the door for the “democratization” of such information among all, in particular, non-state actors.

Vision and Implementation

SDIn visionary fashion, UNDP was able to bring Agenda 21 and the Internet together and launched SDNP as a Global Programme which had two core goals: 1) Facilitating access to information for decision making by development stakeholders; 2) Promoting a multi-stakeholder approach to encourage greater participation by all development actors and stakeholders in the development process. And the critical tool does accomplish this were the then emerging Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).

UNDP was thus the first UN agency to make strategic use of ICTs to promote sustainable human development goals and targets.

SDNP ran from 1992 to 2002 and supported close to 80 countries focusing on bringing the benefits of ICTs to people in the developing world so they could be part and parcel of local and national sustainable development processes. The programme received funding of close to 9 million USD and was able to leverage 25 million USD in complementary funding from national governments and private sector partners in both the developed and developing world. SDNP was also the first UN programme to secure in 1996 a donation of 1.5 million USD from a leading US IT company, a feat unheard of in the UN system as a whole.

To achieve its goals, SDNP relied on the 3 Cs concept: Connectivity, Capacity development, and Content. SDNP brought Internet access for the first time to at least 40 developing countries while tackling policy issues related to telecommunications and local Internet Governance. SDNP also spent a large part of its resources in capacity building and training efforts which range from using ICTs to developing negotiating skills for civil society actors. Over 350,000 government official and civil society stakeholder were reached by the programme. Finally, SDNP also helps create the first web sites for many public institutions and CSOs while assisting the public sector “digitize” and make public for the first time information that was usually sitting in paper archives located in the basement of public entities.

Impact

An independent evaluation of SDNP completed in 2005 ( http://undpegov.org/docs/SDNP-assessment-report-Final.pdf) highlighted the main achievements of the programme. They include:

  • SDNP demonstrated again and again that the provision of information in itself is not enough. Information becomes valuable only when activated within a specific dynamic, and the challenge is to how effectively articulate it in national contexts
  • SDNP successfully brought together multi-sectoral stakeholders in many different settings. However, this is not automatically translated into more open and participatory decision-making processes as resistance from governments was notable, There were a few exceptions here which were related to the degree into which local political junctures evolved
  • ICTs, and and the Internet, were indeed critical tools in fostering information networking and more participative decision-making. As enabling tools, ICTs were necessary, but not sufficient to structurally change policy and decision-making processes. SDNP identified their potential very early and capitalized on it
  • SDNP was a pioneer in promoting ICT for development (ICTD), at both the application and policy levels. From the outset, SDNP insisted that ICTs were a means, not ends in themselves, a view that went against the grain of international institutional thinking in the early to mid-1990s which was heavily focused -and still is today in some quarters, on the so-called “digital divide.”

Legacy

SDNP’s success and global scope had all sorts of multiplier effects on most activities related to the use of ICTs in development. These include, among others:

  • Launching on similar regional or national programmes in UNDP independent from SDNP
  • Creation of an ICT for Development Practice in 2000, later mainstreamed (in 2004) into both Poverty and Democratic Governance practices
  • Introduction of ICTs into the MDG agenda and creation of Target 18 on ICTs
  • Positioning UNDP high on the ICTD agenda and joining the Digital Opportunity Task Force created by the G-8 in 2000
  • Assisting the UN Secretariat in creating and launching the UN ICT Task Force
  • Providing a new framework for working closely with the private sector on a large scale and providing real experiences for the emergence of the Global Compact
  • Supporting more than 90 countries in the development of national ICTD strategies linked to PRSPs and, later on, complementary e-governance strategies
  • Supporting participation of developing countries in global Internet Governance for a
  • Demonstrating the relevance and effectiveness n multi-stakeholder approaches to development and fostering democratic governance and human rights

Looking Ahead

Many of the lessons and pitfalls from SDNP can still be relevant in today’s context where the social media and mobile “revolution” are once again being pitched as silver bullets for development issues. If anything, the Rio+20 process should bring back to the forefront the role of ICTs in sustainable development as both tool and enabler that can transform they way in which development goals are achieve while ensuring that a multi-stakeholder is kept at the center of such processes.

Cheers, Raúl

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