By Malcolm Johnson, ITU Deputy Secretary-General
The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated two things like never before: firstly, the importance of digital technologies – where would we have been over the last year without mobile phones, radio and television broadcasting, or the Internet? – and secondly, our ever-deepening global interdependence.
Indeed, no one, is safe until everyone is safe.
Yet a staggering divide remains between digital “haves” and “have-nots”.
The pandemic has underlined the need to get everyone connected, especially in the rural and remote communities which are most underserved.
A central promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to leave no one behind. But to succeed, we need common, cross-sector goals – like those outlined in the ITU Connect 2030 Agenda.
In terms of the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, the world was behind schedule before COVID-19. Now, progress is disrupted and, in some cases, undone.
Digital divides are increasingly apparent between the rich and the poor, urban and rural, and young and elderly, as well as on gender and for persons with disabilities. Investments must be encouraged, both for information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure and to ensure affordability and digital literacy.
In the face of setbacks, efforts must be redoubled to put the sustainable development agenda back on track. Along with leveraging ICTs to drive sustainable development, governments and other partners can draw on the principles and action lines established by the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) back in 2003.
This spirit of multi-stakeholder cooperation, which was always at the heart of the WSIS process, has become more crucial than ever to harness ICTs and solve the world’s most pressing challenges.
Last month, I had the pleasure of moderating a WSIS Forum 2021 Ministerial Roundtable.
The discussion revealed commonalities and core elements, expressed by ministers from a diverse range of counties around the world.
All, notably, recognized uptake of ICTs as the backbone of building back better.
They emphasized a whole-of-government, whole-of-country approach –- spanning governments, regulators, the private sector (including small, medium- and even micro-sized businesses), development agencies and other stakeholders – to mitigate COVID-19 and move forward.
Often, the central coordinating role will go to the ministry responsible for ICTs.
I was gratified to hear how national efforts to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), along with WSIS action lines, have helped countries weather the crisis and cope with the pandemic.
Multistakeholder engagement – a core element of the WSIS process – has fostered partnerships across the public and private sectors. These have forged vital initiatives to boost e-learning, e-government and e-health, disseminate essential information, help establish connectivity, and build an enabling environment.
Countries can and should learn from each other in many areas, from technology choices to rolling out infrastructure and investment.
The WSIS Forum is the ideal venue for sharing such knowledge and best practices.
COVID-19 has prompted unprecedented digital infrastructure investment. Countries have expanded their fibre-optic networks, stepped up digital learning, installed free wireless access in health care facilities, and allocated free radio spectrum to help operators meet user needs.
Even so, business continuity has been hard to maintain amid recurring lockdowns. All-pervasive connectivity and new ways of interacting and doing business, including hybrid formats, need to become the norm. Technologies like AI, 5G, and the Internet of Things will be ever-more crucial to meet pressing challenges.
Based on recent experience, countries can now re-think their infrastructure and network designs to prepare for future crises. Teleworking, e-learning, and e-government capacity must be stepped up further. Digital skills gaps, evident in the pandemic, call for more investment in online education.
The WSIS Forum – bringing together governments, industry, academia, civil society, and various regional and international organizations – is a key platform for multistakeholder collaboration going forward.
The 2021 edition achieved record participation. Between January and May, the Forum hosted over 200 virtual events, engaging more than 50,000 participants and followers from over 180 countries. In a sign of the changing industry, nearly half our 960 speakers this year were women, and we are working towards 50:50 gender participation next year.
As the world approaches the recovery phase, we at ITU look forward to embarking on the next step – collaborating with WSIS stakeholders to build back better, further broaden our partnerships, and bring the benefits of ICTs to everyone, everywhere.
Based on remarks at a ministerial panel moderated by Mr. Johnson on 21 May as part of WSIS Forum 2021, discussing “ICTs for Inclusive, Resilient and Sustainable Societies and Economies” and reviewing WSIS Action Lines for achieving the SDGs.
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