A Sting Exclusive: “Technology for all, development for all: the role of ITU”, written by the Secretary General of the United Nations Agency

ITU Secretary General Houlin Zhao 2018

Mr Houlin Zhao, Secretary-General of ITU (ITU/R.Farrell)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Mr. Houlin Zhao, the Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies-ICTs. The opinions expressed in this article belong to the distinguished writer.

The world is undergoing a technological transformation that promises to improve people’s lives on a scale not seen before. The proliferation of mobile devices across the world is already helping to provide better access to health, education, financial services – and many other areas of life. Indeed, information and communication technologies (ICTs) are helping to accelerate progress on each of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But there is much more work to be done.

As the head of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the specialized United Nations agency for ICTs, one of my priorities is to turn today’s digital revolution into a development revolution — for all. Today, more than half of the world’s population is still not using the Internet. That represents 3.8 billion people. If the wave of technological change is not managed properly, it risks deepening the divide between the digital “haves” and the “have nots”.

ITU is at the forefront of the digital revolution. We rally stakeholders from around the world to develop global standards on communication technologies and services, manage spectrum and satellite orbits, and assist developing countries for infrastructure and policy development on ICTs. For over 150 years, ITU has worked to build a more connected and inclusive world, and our experience reveals that technological progress does not have to come at the expense of social progress. Together with our 193 Member States and over 800 industry, academia and other members, we strive to ensure that ICTs are used for good – and are available to all. This is why I applaud the European Union, its Member States, and the European Commission for their efforts to bridge the digital divide. Three of ITU’s top donors are European Member States, and also lead members of the G20, which recently reaffirmed its commitment to connecting all people by 2025. Last year, the European Commission set the Digital 4 Development (D4D) policy dedicated to using the digital revolution as an enabler in achieving the SDGs — by promoting affordable Internet connectivity, digital literacy and skills, and digital entrepreneurship.

The power of ICTs to help accelerate progress towards the SDGs is nowhere better understood than on the continent of Africa, where through initiatives such as the Smart Africa Alliance, the creation of smart cities, national broadband plans and incubators for digital entrepreneurialism, development has increasingly come to mean digital development.

Our leading UN tech event, ITU Telecom World 2018, taking place in Durban this September, will explore the technologies, strategies and policies behind smart digital development in South Africa, across the African continent and throughout the world bringing together leaders from government, industry, regulatory bodies, international agencies, consultants and academia.

The event will play an important role in working towards meeting the SDGs through digital technology, focusing efforts on infrastructure, investment, innovation and inclusivity.

Driving development with the ‘4 Is’

Infrastructure is the backbone of today’s digital economy. Building the next generation of ICT infrastructure will power a range of digital solutions, from smart sustainable cities and climate monitoring to public and financial services.

In the 21st century, broadband networks, which allow users to access the Internet and its related services at higher speeds are as important as roads, railways, and water and power networks.

ITU helps developing countries provide expanded access to Internet infrastructure by harmonizing the radiofrequency spectrum and developing common international standards, supporting the development of forward-looking national broadband plans, and facilitating new partnerships and investments.

But we can never take infrastructure investments for granted.

To create a better environment for investment, in particular in those hard-to-reach rural areas with no Internet access, we need to develop more innovative financing mechanisms and creative public-private partnerships that cut across industries and sectors.

Partnerships are at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. For example, many interesting business models are being developed around infrastructure sharing, mainly on voluntary basis between mobile operators, to help connect the 3.8 billion people currently offline.

Through its many working platforms and events that gather a wide range of private and public sector stakeholders, ITU provides governments, industry members, academics and regional and international organizations to network with opportunities to build partnerships for development.

Inclusivity is a foundation for prosperity and peace. Leaving no one behind is a central promise of the 2030 Agenda, so ITU is working hard to bring the power of ICTs to all nations, all people and all segments of society.

Digital financial inclusion, for example, can lead to job creation, reduce poverty and empower women, so ITU has teamed up with several partners to launch a new global program to advance research in digital finance and accelerate digital financial inclusion in developing countries.

ITU is also leading with the International Labour Organization (ILO) the Digital Skills for Decent Jobs Campaign to help foster decent and inclusive employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for young men and women across the world. As part of its commitment to the initiative, ITU just published a Digital Skills Toolkit to assist countries build their national skills development strategies.

In addition, ITU is pressing for progress for gender equality inside and outside our organization. We are involved in a number of initiatives like EQUALS, a ground-breaking global network to improve women’s access to technology, build relevant digital and STEM skills and promote female leadership in the tech sector.

Innovation is a creator of opportunity. ICTs are helping farmers monitor prices, health workers respond to emergencies, and borrowers connect with potential lenders in emerging markets.

Innovative solutions driving development across all these sectors will be on show at ITU Telecom World in South Africa this month. Many of the best smart solutions, applications and products are produced in response to local needs, in a local context of direct relevance to the target end users; many of the best solutions start life as the ideas or inspirations of tech entrepreneurs, individuals or micro companies.

The South African government’s commitment to fostering tech entrepreneurship, combined with the international platform for micro, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) provided by the event, will open up a rich source of inspiration, business opportunities and partnerships throughout Africa and beyond.

SMEs are a critical element in the digital ecosystem, making up more than 95% of all businesses worldwide and representing a path out of poverty for many developing countries. The very best of those present at ITU Telecom World will be recognized in the event’s Global SME Awards for innovative ICT-based solutions with social impact.

Bridging the digital divide is not only morally imperative, it is also economically sound. Development is not a zero-sum game. The progress of one nation means opportunity for another — to benefit from innovation, for example, or to gain new clients and untapped markets.

Europe has set an excellent example of leadership in harnessing the power of tech for good. I trust that more and more governments, citizens and businesses will act. ITU looks forward to continuing its collaboration with its member states and private-sector members to accelerate progress for all.

About the author

On 23 October 2014 Houlin Zhao was elected 19th Secretary-General of the ITU. His four-year mandate started on 1 January 2015. 

Born in 1950 in Jiangsu, China, Mr Zhao graduated from Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications, and holds an MSc in Telematics from the University of Essex in the UK.

From 2007 to 2014, he served as ITU Deputy Secretary-General, supporting the work of the Secretary-General, principally in terms of day-to-day management, including human resources, financial administration, improving efficiency, and working to help broaden ITU’s membership, particularly in terms of academic institutions.

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