July 15, 2014

A global information society: Are we there yet?

By Samia Melhem and Roger Burks

The concept of a global information society is one of the most discussed and misunderstood “Big Ideas” of our time. While we’ve made gigantic strides toward connecting the world through information and communication technologies (ICTs), we have not attained that goal.

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 Touré 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.

The World Bank has led the way on many of these initiatives, partnering with a range of clients and partners to achieve sustainable change. I was pleased to hear many government ministers – including those from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Comoros, Burundi and Pakistan – acknowledge World Bank ICT operations for their beneficial impact.

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.

This is a re-blog from the World Bank’s, IC4D Blog. Hyperlinks have been added. Read the original here.

Samia Melhem is a lead Policy officer at the Transport and ICT Global Practice. She chairs the Digital Development Community of Practice, and leads GICT’s Transformation practice as well as its Knowledge, Learning and Solutions functions. Her current operational responsibilities include lending and technical assistance for the ICT sector. In her 20 years of experience in development at the World Bank Group, Samia has worked on ICT4D in a several sectors: Telecoms & Broadband policy, ICT for public sector Transformation, for improving health and education services, and for innovation and private sector development. She holds degrees in Electrical Engineering (BS), Computer Sciences (MS) and Finance (MBA).
Roger Burks is an Online Communications Officer for the World Bank. Over the course of more than 15 years as an international development writer and editor, he has traveled to more than 30 emerging and fragile countries to report on a variety of challenges and successes. He previously served as Online Managing Editor and Senior Writer for Mercy Corps, as well as a variety of editorial roles for CARE USA. A graduate of the University of Kansas William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, he began his career as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo.

Photo by Christine Roy

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A global information society: Are we there yet?

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