Despite many steps forward in social and economic conditions around the world in recent decades, there remain huge disparities in the quality of human existence. We are now at a critical juncture. Unprecedented global flows in information, products, people, capital and ideas offer great potential for radical improvements in human development, but left unabated, they may also serve to worsen and entrench the spiral of poverty which already exists in many communities and countries.
These flows are enabled by Information and Communications Technology (ICT): their sheer scale and pace would not be possible without the ability to connect vast networks of individuals across geographic boundaries at negligible marginal cost. This is why decisions about the use of ICT will be critical in determining which road we go down, to wider development or greater inequality. The old debate, about choosing between ICT and other development imperatives, has shifted from one of trade-offs to one of complementarity. The Digital Opportunity Initiative (DOI) aims to provide some fresh answers for this new reality. The uniquely diverse nature of this partnership has made it possible to combine for such a purpose the skills and expertise that each of its membersAccenture, the Markle Foundation and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)enjoys in their respective fields.
Numerous factors influence the extent and speed of social and economic developmentnot least political stability, physical infrastructure, basic literacy and basic health care. There is no suggestion that ICT can eliminate the need for these or offer a panacea for all development problems. But detailed analysis of experience around the world reveals ample evidence that, used in the right way and for the right purposes, ICT can have a dramatic impact on achieving specific social and economic development goals as well as play a key role in broader national development strategies. The real benefits lie not in the provision of technology per se, but rather in its application to create powerful social and economic networks by dramatically improving communication and the exchange of information.
ICT is already being used highly effectively to directly address development goals. In Gambia, for example, it is being used to achieve better health outcomes. In Chile, it is starting to reap significant results in primary school education. In Bangladesh, it has led to the creation of direct employment for thousands of local women and men, while in parts of India new Internet-enabled centers mean better access to different government services for remote communities. In Indonesia, too, ICT is enabling local citizens groups to monitor compliance with environmental standards.
What lessons can we draw from these success stories? The identification of, and continued focus on, both economic and social development goals is a key determinant of success. Solutions should also be realistic, flexible and sensitive to local conditions, and should be backed by strong public and private institutional support. Above all, there should be a strong commitment to local participation and the fulfillment of local needs, as well as political will at the highest level.
Additional analysis of the approach to ICT policy taken by developing countries shows that ICT can play a significant role as part of an overall national strategy for development. In this respect, countries have pursued diverse strategies: some have focused on developing ICT as an economic sectoreither to boost exports (Costa Rica and Taiwan) or to build domestic capacity (Brazil, India and Korea)while others are pursuing strategies which seek to use ICT as an enabler of a wider socio-economic development process. Countries which use ICT as an enabler may be further subdivided into those which have focused primarily on repositioning the country's economy to secure competitive advantage in the global economy (Malaysia, Trinidad and Tobago) and those which explicitly focus on ICT in pursuit of development goals such as those set forth in the UN Millennium Summit (Estonia and South Africa).
These varied experiences have revealed some important lessons about the role of ICT in development:
Based on these lessons, the DOI has developed a strategic framework to help guide stakeholders in investing in and implementing strategies which take advantage of the potential of ICT to accelerate social and economic development. The framework consists of five critically interrelated areas for strategic intervention:
Infrastructure deploying a core ICT network infrastructure, achieving relative ubiquity of access, and investing in strategically-focused capacity to support high development priorities.
Human Capacity building a critical mass of knowledge workers, increasing technical skills among users and strengthening local entrepreneurial and managerial capabilities.
Policy supporting a transparent and inclusive policy process, promoting fair and open competition, and strengthening institutional capacity to implement and enforce policies.
Enterprise improving access to financial capital, facilitating access to global and local markets, enforcing appropriate tax and property rights regimes, enabling efficient business processes and stimulating domestic demand for ICT.
Content and Applications providing demand-driven information which is relevant to the needs and conditions experienced by local people.
This strategic framework does not assume that action in these five areas can be taken all at once. It is imperative to acknowledge the practical limitations faced by development efforts. Development gains can be achieved through interventions in any one area, but there are considerable benefits from a more holistic approach. This framework offers a tool which can be used at global, national and local levels to prioritize development initiatives so as to maximize their long-term impact. Providing such strategic interventions are properly conceived and implemented, interaction between them has the potential to create significant multiplier and network effects. These can ignite a virtuous circle of sustainable social and economic development"a development dynamic."
For this to happen, there is a need not only to understand, in the context of local conditions, the critical relationships between strategic interventions, but also to secure the participation and commitment of all key stakeholderslocal communities, NGOs, governments, the private sector and multilateral institutions. Heads of government should provide the necessary leadership to confront existing barriers and promote innovative solutions. National and international private industry should work closely together to adopt, adapt and develop technologies to meet the unique needs and challenges of the less fortunate. Civil society should be a critical player and help assure that ICT is used in a way that targets and addresses specific development goals and priorities. Through innovative vision and leadership, win-win situations can be created, thus aligning stakeholders' critical objectives and unleashing the potential of new collaborative alliances and strategic compacts to harness the power of ICT for development.
© 2001 Accenture, Markle Foundation, United Nations Development Programme.
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