October 8, 2017

How we can better use tech to improve lives in least-developed countries

By ITU News

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) now form the backbone of today’s digital economy, but how can these transformative technologies do more to improve lives in the world’s least-developed areas?

How can ICTs accelerate the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially for Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs), and Small Island Developing States (SIDS)?

This was the topic of discussion at a lively Ministerial Roundtable held Sunday on the eve of ITU’s quadrennial World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC-17) in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“Focusing our attention on these countries [sharpens] our focus on the SDGs, because if we don’t focus on these countries, we won’t meet the SDGs on time,” said Ms Heidi Schroderus-Fox, Director of the UN Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (UN-OHRLLS), noting that LDCs, LLDCs, and SIDs comprise more than 90 countries.

Many of these countries need to structurally transform their economies in order to progress — and ICTs are key to this effort, she said.

Progress, but more needed

To be sure, the last decade has seen great progress in terms of connecting previously unconnected areas and ICTs have brought new opportunities to most people in the world.

However, more than half the world’s total population – some 3.9 billion people – are still offline today.

The majority of these people live in the world’s most vulnerable countries where development challenges hamper the spread of ICTs. These challenges include limited and costly access to national and international connectivity in small and isolated communities, difficulties in the rollout of terrestrial communication infrastructure across large land areas, and lack of limited direct access to the sea.

Realizing the potential of e-government “requires business process re-engineering. It calls for changing mindsets.” — Bernadette Lewis, Caribbean Telecommunications Union

The Ministerial Roundtable highlighted how ICTs are accelerating the attainment of the SDGs, and discussed national initiatives on how to address and overcome barriers to ICT affordability, connectivity, access, and use.

Innovative policies at work

The Ministerial Roundtable also identified ICT strategies and policies, innovative technologies, and investment opportunities to drive ICT developments.

Nepal’s Minister of Information and Communications, Mohan Bahadur Basnet listed a number of programs Nepal has enacted to increase connectivity both within Nepal and across borders with neighboring countries.

“Being a Landlocked Developing Country, one of the major issues is the cost of international bandwidth,” said Mr. Basnet, asking the ITU to make specific efforts to help decrease the cost of broadband.

Samoa’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Afamasaga Lepuia’i Rico Tupa’i, told the audience how Samoa has moved from a least-developed country to a developing country in part by leveraging ICTs to develop faster. He also detailed how costly ICT infrastructure has been for his Small Island Developing State, but expressed optimism that the cost would soon decrease dramatically due, in part, to new subsea cable projects.

Digital skills become key focus

Mr. Tupa’i echoed a theme that emerged during the discussions when he said that Samoa is now focusing more on capacity building. He mentioned that the University of Samoa is starting a digital literacy program, which may be made available to all government workers so they get up to speed on digital skills.

“To be able to provide digital literacy is something we are working on now,” said Tupa’i. “The request to ITU is to assist us … especially in the area of capacity building,” specifically requesting that ITU help with how to incorporate coding into schooling.

Being at WTDC is a privilege, he said, not only for what he and his colleagues can share, but also because of what they can learn from others.

Ms Bernadette Lewis, Secretary General of the Caribbean Telecommunications Union shared what Small Island Developing States in the Caribbean are learning. She mentioned that, despite advances in ICT connectivity, most Caribbean countries are “not seeing a realization of the potential” of e-government services. That is partly because they are sometimes still reliant on bureaucratic procedures that are 100+ years old, she said. “It requires business process re-engineering. It calls for changing mindsets,” she stressed.

She also mentioned the high cost of ICT infrastructure in the Caribbean islands and stressed the need to construct a regulatory framework that courts more private investment. The region needs to do more to harmonize regulatory frameworks and encourage multilateral collaboration. “You have to work through the cultural differences, the bureaucratic nuances,” she said, noting significant progress in the region.

New report issued

The event also included the presentation of ITU special report on ICTs, LDCs and the SDGs – Achieving universal and affordable Internet in the Least Developed Countrieswhich has been prepared by ITU, jointly with the UN Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (UN-OHRLLS).

The report highlights that:

  • By 2016, all LDCs had launched 3G services and 61% of the LDC population were covered by a 3G network.
  • LDCs are on track to reach over 90% mobile broadband coverage and making Internet prices relatively affordable by 2020.
  • 800 million people in the LDCs remain offline and in 2020, less than 1 out of 4 people in the LDCs will be using the Internet. Digital skills remain a key barrier.

The main objective of the report is to monitor where we stand in terms of achieving the SDG 9c and to identify some of the most important steps to take to move forward, said Vanessa Gray, Head of the LDCs, SIDS & Emergency Telecommunications Division at ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau.

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How we can better use tech to improve lives in least-developed countries

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