ICT essential for country health: UN chief

Information and communications technologies are essential for developing countries' self-reliance, economic health and parity with more developed nations, even when they might not see it that way, says Sergei Kambalov, deputy head of the United Nations ICT Taskforce secretariat.

Information and communications technologies are essential for developing countries’ self-reliance, economic health and parity with more developed nations, even when they might not see it that way, says Sergei Kambalov, deputy head of the United Nations ICT Taskforce secretariat.

The UN will find it impossible to meet its Millennium Development Goals by 2015 without a deeper penetration of ICT into such countries, he says. “We see [ICT spread] within a development context”, not simply as a set of technical and administrative questions.

Kambalov spoke to Computerworld NZ in New York last week.

When the perceived choice is between technological development and more immediate aid such as seed or building material, it can be hard to persuade governments and the people that ICT is important, Kambalov acknowledges. It must be made relevant to their lives.

“You show them”, he says, “how it can be used to monitor prices on the market to judge the best time to send goods; or to watch the weather forecast and avoid putting to sea when a storm is in prospect.”

Education is a significant resource that can be brought more readily to the people of a developing nation using ICT. The UN taskforce has a set of current projects in Namibia, Bolivia, Ghana and India’s Uttar Pradesh region, aimed at demonstrating this.

Linking people to “worldwide information flows” and then letting them see others’ experience, through the medium of ICT, is a powerful tool of advancement, Kambalov says. “We don’t say ‘you should do this, this and this’ but ‘this is what others have tried, this is the sequence in which they have done things, these are the resource requirements. Perhaps this is relevant to you’. But the ICT infrastructure must be there to convey that information.”

The taskforce was founded in 2001 specifically to push forward this need.

“We are trying to develop a matrix of indicators to show the association between ICTs and positive outcomes in such fields as education and health,” Kambalov says. “These things have to be measured; if you can’t measure something, you can’t improve it.”

A number of nations are conscious of the potential benefit and have formulated an ICT strategy, but relatively few have implemented the strategy to any significant extent, he says, owing to a variety of problems to do with scarcity of resources and knowledge exchange. Here the UN may act as a catalyst.

The flipside of a commitment to ICT-mediated advance is that moderately industrialised countries are finding ICT in due course essential to essential functions such as government. Brazil, for example, has entrenched electronic voting and an internet-assisted taxation system. These countries perceive that they have inadequate decisionmaking power in the international arenas of ICT’s development, such as the powers that govern the internet.

This has sparked the cry for a greater say in internet governance and promoted the questioning of Icann’s suitability as the partial governor of the internet.

As an outcome of the raising of this question at last year’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the UN has set up a separate working group specifically to deal with internet governance. This plans a report by later this year, so it can serve as input to the second phase of WSIS, planned for next year in Tunis.

The existing ICT taskforce probably had the background knowledge to pursue the internet governance question itself, but “some people disagreed” with its playing that role, says Kambalov and UN consensus was for the creation of a new body.

The working group is currently choosing suitable parties from the political and commercial spheres and the internet community for consultation. The choice will probably not satisfy all, Kamalov says. “The best [the UN] can do is aim for equal dissatisfaction from all sides.”

While many parties have expressed disappointment with the results of the first phase of WSIS, Kambalov has a positive view of its conclusions. It initially seemed as though WSIS would be technically focussed, but the social development perspective was successfully brought to the agenda and is reflected in its conclusions, he says.

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