Real-time data flowing to people through their mobile phones is driving social and economic progress worldwide. For example, with mobile Internet access, people in developing countries are receiving life-saving disaster warnings. Pregnant women are benefiting from antenatal care advice. Farmers are growing crops more efficiently. Entrepreneurs are reaching new markets. And people in hard-to-reach areas are opening digital bank accounts, allowing them, often for the first time, to save and borrow money, and plan for the future. Thus, with just a few finger taps on a screen, previously underserved populations can become healthier, wealthier, and more resilient.
As Deputy Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), I feel passionate about the International Day for Universal Access to Information, which is celebrated on 28 September.
At ITU, the specialized United Nations agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs), we are working to ensure that everyone, everywhere, has access to the Internet and the vast resources it provides.
“Access to information is a foundation for democracy and an engine for development.”
In order to connect the world, ITU rallies stakeholders from around the world to develop global standards on communication technologies and services, manage the radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits, and assist developing countries for infrastructure and policy development on ICTs. Together with our 193 Member States and over 800 industry, academia and other members, we strive to ensure that ICTs are available to everyone, everywhere, and are accelerating progress on each of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Access to information is a foundation for democracy and an engine for development. It’s also a basic human right: the freedom to “seek, receive and impart information” is enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But there is a lot of work to be done.
Today, about half of the world’s population is still not using the Internet. That represents 3.8 billion people. In order to bring the rest of the population online, we are assisting our members to build the necessary infrastructure for connectivity, ensure digital inclusion for all, and deliver public services to remote areas.
ITU assists its Member States in building the necessary infrastructure for connectivity. Most of the people offline live in remote, rural or isolated communities. Connectivity is difficult in these areas not only due to terrain and their isolation but also due to poor return on investment compared to urban areas.
“Connectivity and digital access alone are not enough to ensure that everyone has access to information.”
Government policies must encourage the necessary investment, help develop public-private partnerships, build capacity and advocate take-up. It is a big challenge. The size of investment needed to roll out and upgrade national networks is huge: estimated at USD 450 billion to connect the next 1.5 billion people.
Connectivity and digital access alone are not enough to ensure that everyone has access to information. Internet services and equipment also need to be affordable, and provide relevant local content and services in the relevant local languages.
To promote the digital inclusion of people with specific needs, including indigenous peoples, people living in rural areas, people with disabilities, women and girls and youth and children, ITU raises awareness and assists countries in developing the policies, legislation, regulations and business practices to promote affordable and relevant Internet services and content. At the same time, ITU is boosting the aspects of trust and cybersecurity through its work on standards.
One of our initiatives is the Digital Skills for Decent Jobs for Youth campaign, which – together with the International Labour Organization – will equip millions of young people with job-ready digital skills.
Another one of our initiatives focuses on expanding digital financial inclusion. Today, more than 2 billion adults do not have a formal bank account. But among them, 1.6 billion have a mobile phone.
That is why, in 2017, ITU launched a global partnership with the World Bank Group, the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to accelerate digital financial inclusion in developing countries.
“At ITU, we believe that the principles of universal design, affordability and equal opportunities to accessible ICTs and assistive technologies are key for building inclusive societies.”
Accessibility for people with disabilities is also a priority issue in ITU, something I have strongly promoted ever since joining ITU more than 10 years ago.
In the 1990s, ITU pioneered international work on standardization of telecommunications for the deaf with the standard V.18, a major landmark allowing different and previously incompatible text phones in different countries to communicate. It was the first step towards universal design for accessibility of telecommunication products. ITU has never stopped promoting accessibility ever since. At ITU, we believe that the principles of universal design, affordability and equal opportunities to accessible ICTs and assistive technologies are key for building inclusive societies.
Gender inclusion is another important objective for ITU. International Girls in ICT Day, held every year in April, is part of a global movement to inspire girls and young women to learn more about the amazing opportunities and careers offered by the ICT sector. This year I joined the event in Kumasi, Ghana where 600 school girls were trained on coding and then entered a competition on coding.
In addition, ITU co-founded with UN Women the EQUALS initiative, which is a network of organizations working together to ensure that women are given access to ICTs, are equipped with ICT skills, and develop the leadership potential to work in the ICT sector.
And ITU is committed to gender equality within its own organization. We encourage women to apply for jobs in ITU, and we encourage our members, 193 governments and over 800 companies and other organisations, to include women on their delegations to ITU meetings and conferences.
ITU collects and disseminates data on ICTs, and this data is analysed to provide evidence of the extent of women’s participation in the information society. Unfortunately, this shows that much is still needed to be done.
One important element in all these efforts is to highlight how successful women can be, and have been, in the ICT sector. Role models are important for everyone, and this is why in 2013 ITU started to award individual women who have been particularly successful and have contributed to improving gender balance in the ICT sector.
“Everyone, everywhere, has the right to equal access to public information and services.”
Of course, let us not forget that men as well as women have a role to play in improving gender balance, and I am proud to say I myself received such an award on International Women’s Day last year from the Geneva Environment Network – as a Visionary and Inspiring Leader – the first man to achieve such an award!
ITU also contributes to the achievement of SDG16 — which calls for peace, justice, and strong institutions. SDG 16 includes a specific target that obliges all member states to “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms.”
At ITU, we have started the smart village platform, which is a multi-stakeholder, cross-sectoral initiative that showcases how to cost-effectively accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals in remote areas through an integrated development and technology platform model. With this model, governments can increase the efficiency, security and effectiveness of public services while reducing their cost, strengthening governance, and promoting transparency. ITU is collaborating with the Niger Agence Nationale pour la Société de l’Information (ANSI), as well as other UN agencies and stakeholders to support a smart village initiative in Niger.
Bringing coverage to remote populations is something I feel strongly about as I was born in a small village in Wales. Everyone, everywhere, has the right to equal access to public information and services. To mark the International Day for Universal Access to Information, I invite the world to explore the ITU News website to find out more about how access to information and services through ICTs can help people break cycles of exclusion and poverty. Because together, we can bring the benefits of the 21st century to everyone everywhere and accelerate the achievement of all 17 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.