Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Global ICTs: The Silent Development Revolution

(as appeared in last Sunday's edition of Sunday World: http://www.sundayworldonline.com):
Global ICTs—The Silent Development Revolution

By E.K.Bensah II

 

When the American poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron wrote the poem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", he perhaps got it right with regard to the development of ICTs in the context of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS).

 

Before 2005, WSIS had assumed an unclear UN process that had little practical connection to development. Now, it is virtually impossible to talk about the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) without talking about the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

 

When world leaders met at the UN in 2000 to draw up the MDGs, one of the goals was to achieve universal primary education. Given that education is, in essence, a passport to one's future and opening up of possibilities for any child, UNESCO has led the way of hosting seminars on Knowledge Societies in the Context of WSIS. For UNESCO, its vision of knowledge societies is based on four principles: freedom of expression; quality education for all; universal access to information and knowledge; and respect for cultural and linguistic diversity. UNESCO is far from the only UN agency involved in the WSIS process, but its role as one of the pre-cursors of the WSIS is moot.

 

Despite the critical involvement of UN agencies, such as FAO and UNDP at WSIS, it is clear for many observers that the Second Phase of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) that took place from 16-18 November in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, was disappointing. It certainly was for civil society organizations (CSOs) who, after an alleged stabbing of a French journalist, were denied by the Tunisian authorities to hold a Citizens Summit on WSIS. For others, however, one of the more concrete things, to have emerged from the whole summit was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)-sponsored One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), going for one hundred dollars.

 

The brainchild of the Professor Nicholas Negroponte of MIT, the lime-green laptop is made of rubber, so that when it closes, it will be sealed to protect it from environments, such as harsh environment in northern Kenya. It can be powered by a retractable crank that can be used to generate 10 minutes of power for every one minute of cranking up the machine.

 

Negroponte's team turned down Apple's offer to use its operating system, opting instead for a slimmer version that uses a 500MHZ processor and open source software under Linux. It is equipped with a 1GB flash RAM instead of a hard drive, a word processor, email application, and programming system.  

 

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called it "an impressive technical achievement", adding that "it holds the promise of major advances in economic and social development."

 

Pressed on why laptops in place of "proper" development, MIT argued that laptops are tools to think with. More specifically, their relatively affordable price of hundred dollars is coupled with how they can be used for work and play, drawing, writing, and mathematics.

 

In October this year, Uruguay bought 100,000 of the machines for schoolchildren aged six to 12, with a view to procuring a further 300,000 for every school-going child in the country by 2009.

 

Here in Ghana, Finance and Economic Minister Baah-Wiredu announced in the annual reading of the budget that the laptops in question will be introduced to Ghana from next year.

 

For many observers of the WSIS process, the laptops have constituted not only something concrete coming out of WSIS, but something that can be used to facilitate development. In the long run, WSIS has highlighted the importance of using ICTS to facilitate development, and so rural areas being able to afford to use such ICT tools is moot in getting closer to the Millenium Development Goals of halving poverty by 2015.

 

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has piloted studies, for example, where the use of ICT tools, such as mobile phones, has helped farmers in Senegal to obtain prices of goods.

 

Yoshio Utsumi, Secretary General of ITU and of the WSIS Summit, said that "the WSIS was not an end but a beginning." What the Tunis phase did was remind one about the much-talked-about Digital Divide; how to govern the internet, and how to use ICTS for development. Whilst the Digital divide—as evidenced by the chasm between those who have ready and steady access to computers and, by extension, the Internet – very much exists even within countries (such as the rate of using the internet cafes in Accra as compared to the rate in the Northern region, which is three or four times the cost), the use of ICTs for development, for example, is being facilitated by non-governmental agencies like the Accra-based GINKS, which aim to " provide information and Knowledge sharing that will facilitate capacity building for ICTs Products and services"

 

Other developments are also taking place. One notable one is that of a story in the Ghanaian Times of 1 April 2006, in which it was reported that Accra Girl's Secondary School has become the "first school in Africa to have an electronic learning (e-learning) center to facilitate the adoption of [ICTS] into its academic programmes." The issue of internet governance, however, is a murkier—and more technical affair that merits as much consideration and study as those issues that pre-dominate international development.

 

Internet Governance, concrete outcomes

The issue of internet governance has assumed similar dimensions characteristic of the North-South divide in, say, the international trading system. If at the WTO, it is the so-called QUAD (comprising Canada, the US, UK, and Japan) that have a major say surrounding the decisions made on the multilateral trading system, so it is that when it comes to the internet, the US is right at the heart of controlling how domain names, for example, are assigned.

 

A communiqué produced by the European Commission in late April 2006 has argued that this system of control by the US is slowly changing—and that is also thanks to the Tunis Agenda on the Information Society that came out of the WSIS Summit last November.

 

In the Agenda, paragraph 63, for the first time, recognises that "Countries should not be involved in decisions regarding another country's country-code Top-Level Domain (ccTLD). Their legitimate interests, as expressed and defined by each country, in diverse ways, regarding decisions affecting their ccTLDs, need to be respected, upheld and addressed via a flexible and improved framework and mechanisms ".

 

Put simply, this means that unlike before when countries needed the approval of the US Commerce Department before changing, say, ghanasundayworld.com to ghanasundayworld.gh, countries, exercising their sovereign right, can now go ahead and change it—ensuring that the existing non-profit ICANN (Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers) oversees the change through regional registries, such as AfriNic, which helps, as its website maintains, to " provide professional and efficient distribution of Internet number resources to the African Internet community, to support Internet technology usage and development across the continent and strengthen self Internet governance in Africa by encouraging a participative policy development" .

 

Even the decision to create "ghanasundayworld.gh", before Tunis, would have meant seeking assent from the US! What this old way of doing things would have meant is that if Ghana were considered not strategic enough a country, the US Department of Commerce cold turn down that domain name.

 

Some of these technical issues were discussed at the first-ever forum on Internet governance, which the Greek government played host to in October 2006. This year, the second Internet Governance Forum was held in Brazil, where the issues of content regulation; the duty of states to protect freedom of expression online, including the protection of children online; a set of global public policy principles—including, inter alia, an Internet Bill of Rights were discussed.

 

The future of WSIS

At the UN level, monitoring what WSIS will do to the access to information is a key concern.   Malaysia's Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, Jamaludin Jarjis, said last year that "access to information should now be regarded as a utility and basic human right." He adds that conventional development means were no longer adequate in today's economic climate, where knowledge capital was the new currency and the new, raw material."

 

The UN, at a Geneva meeting, in July 2006, maintained the world body should continue to play a leading role in expanding information and communication technologies to promote development.  The World Summit requested that a UN group on the Information Society ought to coordinate the work of the UN system.

 

It bears reminding that although the WSIS process seems rather nebulous to many in the sense that linking ICTs to development seems rather tenuous, in the long run, what remains clear is that as long as the Internet and ICTS are with us, so, too, will WSIS. It is a process that remains critical to the MDGs, and like most revolutions, its legacy for posterity can only be for the betterment of society.

 

Emmanuel.K.Bensah is Ag. President of Ghanaian Association of Journalists in ICT (GHAJICT) ( http://ghajict.blogspot.com)

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