The role of information and communications technologies in the development of Pacific Islands has been recognised with the development of a digital strategy. But ICT should not be taken to have too narrow a meaning, says John Budden, of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.
It can be hard for island people to access essential technologies as basic as telephone and radio, he told a Pasifika ICT meeting held in parallel with last month’s ICANN meeting in Wellington.
A meeting of Pacific Island leaders issued the “Wellington Declaration”, confirming this crucial role for ICT and completing the digital strategy.
Priorities lie in reducing access costs, increasing bandwidth and connecting to the “global backbone” of digital communications as well as developing appropriate skills among the Islands’ population.
Communications costs have suffered from a failure of many Pacific Islands governments to make their regimes more amenable to private-sector entry into the market, says Budden.
A regional approach to ICT-assisted development is seen as being desirable, as it could boost demand to a critical level. But this will conflict to some extent with the powerful consciousness of individual sovereignty in the island nations, he says.
The first stage in the digital strategy, however, is a stocktake of where the countries are now to be followed by a coordination of policy “so everyone understands where we want to go”. That stage, says Budden, should have been reached in all countries by the end of this year.
Priorities are in education, health information and assisting export-generating industries to find wider markets.
A comparatively small proportion of the population have ready access to ICTs, and “telecentres” where people can access these resources are seen as a crucial element in development.
Aggregating satellite bandwidth across the region should enable better-priced services.
Internet governance is an issue in the Pacific, as it is worldwide.
A clutch of intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations stand ready to help, but Abel Caine of Unesco’s Apia office warned of “love ‘em and leave ‘em NGOs,” who offer only short-term benefit and fail to bring projects to the stage of self-sufficiency.
The Pasifika ICT event drew around 70 people from 16 countries. More than 20 speakers discussed topics ranging from Maori language dictionaries to building wireless networks in hostile terrain.