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Can the World Summit on the Information Society Contribute to Development?

By Karla Suárez and Luis Alejandro Otero

Executive summary
Today, the world is experiencing a digital revolution in which Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are growing rapidly. This situation has changed the way people think, behave, work and communicate. In a sense, it has restructured economic and business practices.1 For this reason alone, ICTs are considered the ideal vessels for achieving progress. Millennium Development Goals or MDGs, provide a vision of, as its name implies, development in order to reduce poverty and improve lives.2 ICT infrastructure has grown dramatically and there is good reason to believe that this growth contributes to the success of MDGs. Now, the need is to make certain that regions base or place MDGs on ICTs. In recognition of this global need, the International Telecommunication Union proposed to hold the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). It consisted of two phases, the first one already celebrated from the 10th to the 12th of December 2003. During these two days, participants developed a Declaration of Principles and Plans of Actions to ensure a future of good technology to all the countries where everyone can have access to all the benefits attributed to ICT. It is a fact that the summit principles established ICT as an important aspect and also as an issue that can make Millennium Development Goals succeed.

It is said by the World Bank and some other analysts that the world may now be going through a distinctive ‘third wave’ of globalization.3 Now, we are having complex patterns of changes in national inequality. In order to provide a vision of global development, in September of 2000, the United Nations Millennium Summit adopted eight specific Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which provide a political benchmark for measuring the progress of global development. These goals are focused in sustaining advances and in the elimination of poverty.4 As an important issue related to progress, the worldwide development of information and communication technology (ICT) could be cited. “There is a growing acceptance that ICT can play an important role in providing new and more efficient methods of production, bringing previously unattainable markets within the reach of the poor, improving the delivery of government services and facilitating management and transfer of knowledge, a key factor in reaching the MDGs.”5 It is certain that ICT contributes to develop strategies but it cannot do the job on its own. This requires principles that establish the goals in technology issues.6 As a response to this need, on December 12 and 13 of 2003 the first meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was celebrated, symbolizing the international recognition of the role that ICT can play in social and economic development and the reduction of poverty.7 The WSIS represented the first global meeting sponsored by the United Nations that specifically addressed the opportunities offered by this Information Revolution. Does it really try to ensure a technological future in all the countries where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge to improve their quality of life? Does it mean that it is trying to achieve the millennium development goals (MDGs)? This report will focus on the World Summit on the Information Society and will analyze and determine if this means a global challenge to progress.

Background of the WSIS
Conferences have played a key role in guiding the work of the UN since its inception. These conferences have turned into a high-profile level in need to resolve security issues and make progress in every aspect of human development. The Summits involve Heads of states and governments and other high-profile world leaders from intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. UN Summits provide the grounds for a free exchange of views. UN Conference venues are designated United Nations territory and governed by the rules and regulations of the international body. All delegates and accredited participants as well as the media must be provided access by the host government and enjoy all internationally recognized rights and freedoms wherever the conference may be held.

UN Summits have been held on a variety of issues, one of them related to information and communication technology. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) expressed its desire to hold a World Summit on the Information Society on the agenda of the United Nations Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC). The ACC reacted positively to the petition and decided to hold the summit under the high patronage of the UN Secretary-General, with ITU taking the lead role in preparations.

In 2001, the UN General Assembly Resolution 56/183 endorsed the holding of the World Summit on the Information Society in two phases: the first one took place in Geneva, Switzerland on December 2003 and the second one will be held in Tunisia on November 2005.8

Why a Summit on the Information Society?
The world is living a technological revolution. A fundamental change from an industrial to information-based society is taking place. This information revolution affects the way people live, learn and work, and how governments interact with civil society. Information is a powerful tool for economic and social development as well.

A new culture has emerged, based on symbols, codes, models, programs, formal languages, algorithms, virtual representations, mental landscapes, which imply the need for a new “information literacy”. Information and knowledge have not only become the principal forces of social transformation, they also hold the promise that many of the problems confronting human societies could be significantly alleviated if only the requisite information and expertise were systematically and equitably employed and shared.

This revolution has eliminated the frontiers of the global village, but still, the majority of the world is not participating in it. There is a division among several countries in technological infrastructure. So, it has become imperative to bridge this digital gap and place the MDGs on the ICT. (It requires hardware, software, networks, and media for collection, storage, processing, transmission and presentation of information as voice, data, text and images).9 In order to respond to this need, it was established as the World Summit on the Information Society’s objective to reduce the gap between developed countries and developing countries based on the aid of information and communication technologies.

In order to achieve the main objective of this Summit, the organization faced many different challenges. The main challenge that the Summit on the Information Society planned to address, is the digital divide. This great problem causes the accentuation of the disparities in development, excluding entire groups and countries from the benefits of information and knowledge; in other words the digital divide is causing entire countries not to have access to the technical tools that would enable them to become fully-fledged members of an information society.

Work towards ensuring the free flow of, and equitable access to, data, information, best practices and knowledge across all sectors and disciplines is another challenge for the WSIS. For free flow to be meaningful, access to information and knowledge alone will not be enough. Other needs must also be addressed, such as building human capacities and technical skills and developing content necessary to translate knowledge and information into assets of empowerment and production.

It is also important to build international consensus on newly required norms and principles to respond to emerging ethical challenges and dilemmas of the information society. The growing commercialization of many spheres previously considered as public goods, such as education, culture and information, jeopardizes weaker economically less powerful but nevertheless equally important segments of the world community. Technological innovations and powerful mechanisms of control demand new approaches for the protection of the rights of the individual, that, at the same time, ensure adequate protection against e-piracy which severely affects the development of creativity.

Key points of WSIS Declaration of Principles
The focus issue of the WSIS’s Declaration of Principles was the building of an Information Society: a global challenge in the new Millennium. Based on the World Summit on the Information Society report, the most important points about its principles are the followings:

* The Declaration recognizes that ICTs are an essential foundation for an inclusive Information Society. Many of the building blocks of the Information Society are the result of scientific and technical advances made possible by the sharing of research results.
* Boosting trust and confidence in ICTs including information and net work security, authentication, privacy and consumer protection have been underscored as prerequisite for the development of the Information Society. The WSIS reaffirm the commitment of the Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says “that everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of their personality is possible, and that, in the exercise of their rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a demoratic society.”
10 So, the World Summit on the Information Society promotes human respect.
* ICTs are also important tools for good governance. The Declaration stresses the need to create a supportive, transparent, pro-competitive and technologically neutral environment at the national and international levels. Governments should intervene to correct market failures, to maintain fair competition, to attract investment, to increase the development of the ICT infrastructure and applications, to maximize economic and social benefits and to serve national priorities.
* The utilization of ICTs should seek to create benefits in all aspects of life. ICT applications are important in government, health care, education, training, employment, business, agriculture, transport, envi ronment protection, culture, poverty eradication. The declaration considers that only by inspiring and educating populations unfamiliar with the Internet and its powerful applications changes can be made.
* An important issue is that resources must be channeled to marginalized and vulnerable groups to help them in their education in order to participate in the technological development. By this form, they could be part of an active economy.
* The Declaration reaffirms the universality and indivisibility of all human rights as fundamental freedoms in the Information Society. It respects the values of freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, shared responsibility and respect for nature.
* According to Intellectual Property, the Declaration underlines the importance of both encouraging innovation and creativity and the need to share knowledge.
* The respect of cultural and linguistic diversity as well as tradition and religion is an important aspect. The creation, dissemination and preservation of content in diverse languages and formats are major assets as well as the protections of the rights of authors and artists. The preservation of cultural heritage is a crucial need.
* As for Internet management, involving all stakeholders and intergovernmental organizations to address both technical and public policy issues has been underscored. Overall, the global Internet governance issue was too complex to resolve in detail. Agreement was therefore reached to set up and open and inclusive working group on Internet governance to investigate and make proposals for action prior to the second phase of the Summit in 2005.
* The principles of freedom of the press, independence, pluralism and media diversity are also upheld. Freedom to seek, receive, impart and use information for the creation, accumulation and dissemination of knowledge are important to the Information Society.
* And finally, the Declaration expresses an unconditional support and commitment to close the Digital Divide through international cooperation because Information Society requires new forms of solidarity and partnership among governments, private sector, civil society and international organizations.

It is significant that the Declaration of Principles gives a lot of importance to the information and communication technology (ICT). As it was mentioned above ICT infrastructure and use have been growing too fast in developed and developing countries. There is every reason to believe that this growth contributes to the progress in meeting the MDG.

Why are ICTs important for the World Summit on the Information Society?
The World Summit on the Information Society is based on the development opportunities that can be offered by the Information Revolution and considers ICT as an important factor in reaching progress. This belief is supported by the evidence of contributions of ICT to economic growth. The Cross-Country evidence has showed how much influence Information and Communication Technology has had on economic growth. The US has enjoyed markedly better results, “capital inputs have raised output growth since 1995 by nearly a full percentage point, with ICT accounting for more than half of that increase.”12

In East Asia, “the ICT sector is growing in importance, particularly in production. Today, 28 percent of the region’s manufacturing exports are ICT goods and ICT production has contributed significantly to GDP growth in the region.”13
On the other hand, in Europe the growth has been more sporadic compared with the one presented in the US. In East Asia, high levels of ICT production have not resulted in an increase use of the technology because issues as language, culture, technical standards, and weak legal institutions are not helping the regional diffusion of ICT and Internet applications. “In regions such as South Asia, the Middle East and Africa there is no data available for growth accounting analysis. In Latin America and in Central and Eastern Europe, ICT investment levels are too small to measure their impact on economic growth.”14 If Latin American and African countries, for example, have the support to develop the technology investment and it could help them to create an infrastructure, might this represent an important impact in their progress? Yes, definitively, but as it was mentioned, they need support.

It is a fact that technology is changing the way world economy works, so there is a need to focus in this matter to profit from its advantages. That is why WSIS gives a vital importance to ICT. Countries have to respond to this situation. As a response to this need, “the WSIS’s challenge is to harness the potential of information and communication technology to promote the development goals of the Millennium Declaration, namely, the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger; achievement of universal primary education; promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women; reduction of child mortality; improvement of maternal health; to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and development of global partnerships for development for the attainment of a more peaceful, just and prosperous world.”15

So, these issues can be obtained through the progress that the access on information and knowledge of the ICT involves and that is what WSIS tries to promote.

How can ICTs help achieve the Millennium Development Goals?
As it is seen through analyzing the Key points of WSIS’s Declaration of Principles, the summit tries to ensure a technological future in all the countries, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge to improve their quality of life. In order for this to happen, the summit recognizes “that education, knowledge, information and communication are at the core of human progress”16 and that ICTs have a huge impact in reducing many traditional obstacles, especially those of time and distance. Under “favorable conditions”, these technologies can be a powerful instrument to increase productivity, generate economic growth, job creation and employability.17 Only under favorable conditions can the ICTs help the MDGs to achieve success. It is for this purpose that the World Summit on Information Society has worked in the creation of principles which will help to establish guidelines for this matter.

The Information Society is an evolving concept that has reached different levels across the world, reflecting the different stages of development. Technological and other change are rapidly transforming the environment in which the Information Society is developed, and that is one of the main causes for the planning of a Plan of Action that has as one of its main objectives to build an inclusive Information Society; to put the potential of knowledge and ICTs at the service of development; to promote the use of information and knowledge for the achievement of internationally agreed development goals, including those contained in the Millennium Declaration; and to address new challenges of the Information Society, at the national, regional and international levels. Specific targets for the Information Society were established as appropriate, at the national level in the framework of national e-strategies and in accordance with national development policies, taking into account the different national circumstances. Such targets are serving as useful benchmarks for actions and for the evaluation of the progress made towards the attainment of the overall objectives of the Information Society.

It is looking for development and to ensure this progress, MDGs have to be targeted. What does the Summit need to consider in order to benefit from the information revolution? They have to be aware of ICT’s role on MDGs.

Recommendations & Conclusions
Based on the document, “How ICTs Can Help Achieve the Millennium Development Goals,”18 an analysis was obtained that shows ICT’s roles in achieving the Millennium Development Goals in form of recommendations. It is very important to analyze these concepts in order to understand better how the desired development is going to be reached with today’s technological advances. The conclusions are next outlined.

The first Millennium Development Goal is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger which has represented for a very long time, a point of preoccupation. Now, if the power of technology is well guided towards everyone’s development, this goal could be attained. The success of this depends on an increase of education at all levels, and other factors. The first would be education to children, to young people and to adults, using network connection, databases and computer equipment to distribute knowledge through countries. Another solution can be the access to market information to help poor farmers and traders to understand global tendencies and to be prepared to compete. To do this, it is very important that organizations participating in WSIS collaborate in the creation of specialized institutions installed in each country, that can give students, farmers and traders help, technological education and advice based on new technological advances to enhance their ability to participate in global economy. The education will help in the creation of a community prepared and interested in progress. If they study and receive preparation, they can participate in global labor market and so reduce their poverty.

The second Millennium Development is to achieve universal primary education. Everyone should have the necessary skills to benefit fully from the Information Society. Therefore capacity building and ICT literacy are essential. ICTs can contribute to achieving universal education worldwide, through delivery of education and training of teachers, and offering improved conditions for lifelong learning, encompassing people who are outside the formal education process, and improving professional skills.

Financing the supply of trained teachers and distance training using ICT networks that link teachers to their colleagues is one of the main actions that organizations and governments should practice in order to reach this development goal in an easier and effective way. This strategy can be helped by specialized WSIS institutions in each region – hardware, software, networks and media for collection may be used to disseminate knowledge and guarantee education to every person. At the same time, this technology may be used to deliver educational and literacy programs specifically targeted to poor girls and women – to satisfy the third Millennium Development Goal – which is to promote gender equality and empower women. The world needs to work on removing the gender barriers to ICT education and training and promoting equal training opportunities in ICT-related fields for women and girls. WSIS suggest that an early intervention programs in science and technology should take place in order to achieve this gender barrier removal; thus intervention programs should target young girls with the aim of increasing the number of women in ICT careers. In this area, it is also important to use ICTs to promote public opinion on gender equality through information and communication programs.
According to the health related Millennium Development Goals which are: reduce child mortality (goal 4), improve maternal health (goal 5) and combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases (goal 6), information and communication technologies could be used to deliver training to health workers, to increase the information-sharing on disease. One important solution is that network connections and Information Technology could help specialists in the support for remote diagnosis. Also, it may help to increase access to reproductive health information content in local languages.

It is important to promote collaborative efforts of governments along with the participation of international organizations for creating a reliable, high quality and affordable health care and health information systems and for promoting continuous medical training, education, and research through the use of ICTs, while respecting and protecting citizen rights to privacy. By doing this, the facilitation of access to the world's medical knowledge and locally-relevant content resources for strengthening public health research and prevention programs and promoting women's and men’s health, would increase considerably.

The seventh goal is to ensure environmental sustainability. In this issue, ICT can help in monitoring resource management and in the mitigation of environmental risks through remote sensing technologies and communication networks. Also, Governments, in cooperation with other stakeholders need to be encouraged to use and promote ICTs as an instrument for environmental protection and the sustainable use of natural resources. WSIS recommends establishing monitoring systems, using ICTs, to forecast and monitor the impact of natural and man-made disasters, particularly in developing countries, LDCs and small economies, in order to achieve this important millennium goal.

Another recommendation is to use IT to increase access to development strategies to people in areas such as agriculture and sanitation. The technology could help to facilitate knowledge exchange and networking without distance obstacles.

The eighth goal is related to create a global partnership for development. Here, it is important to use ICT to connect least developed, landlocked countries and small islands to share information and start negotiating with the global market, and also, create centers helped by international organizations, to provide access to telecommunications and direct employment for women and men. The most important issue here is that information and communication technologies well structured will help to eliminate borders, so countries can integrate easily and help make the dissemination of knowledge feasible in order to share the best practices, information and help.

All of the actions mentioned above represent a mean to reach development. The solutions sound good but it is a fact that a strong investment is needed. These monetary resources could be an obstacle to build the technological infrastructure desired. For this reason, the World Summit on the Information Society established as a plan of action the mobilizing of resources because it is important that all countries and international organizations should act to create conditions for financing development. In the Plan of Action’s report it is said that:

* Developed countries should make concrete efforts to finance development. Developed countries are urged to make concrete efforts towards the target of 0.7 percent of gross national product (GNP) as Official Development Assistance to developing countries and 0.15 to 0.20 percent of GNP to least developed countries.
* For those developing countries facing unsustainable debt burdens, initiatives for reducing outstanding indebtedness are received as well as national and international measures including debt cancellation and other arrangements. Particular attention should be given to the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiatives. These initiatives would release more resources that may be used for financing ICT for development project.
* Recognizing the potential of ICT for development it is important that:

a) Developing countries increase their efforts to attract private national and foreign investment through the creation of a transparent, stable and predictable enabling investment environment.
b) Developed countries and international financial organizations should give importance to the strategies and priorities of ICTs for development, assisting developing countries and countries with economies in transition to prepare and implement their national e-strategies. For this, developed countries should increase their efforts to provide more financial resources to developing countries.
c) The private sector contributes in this development.

* To bridge the digital divide it is important to promote the technical and financial assistance for technology transfer, cooperation in Research and Development programs and exchange of know-how.
* By the end of December 2004, a review of the financial mechanisms should be conducted by a Task Force under the auspices of the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Based of the conclusions of the review, improvements and innovations of financing mechanisms will be considered to create a voluntary Digital Solidarity Fund.

ICT can help unite every country in the world, with the required financial aid. These recommendations apply ICT towards the achieving of the World Summit on the Information Society’s goal to obtain the development that the Millennium Development Goals have established as a vision. The World Summit on the Information Society, as has been mentioned earlier, has the purpose of building “a people centered, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society”20, where every country enjoys the advantages that technology can offer them. By this format, WSIS’s targets: to connect villages with ICTs and establish community access points; to connect universities, colleges, secondary schools and primary schools with ICTs; to connect scientific and research centers with ICTs; to connect health centers and hospitals with ICTs; to connect all local and central government departments and establish websites and email addresses as other targets21, will be reached and the development that MDGs want will be real.


1 “Basic Information: About WSIS Why a Summit on the Information Society”, World Summit on the Information Society. http://www.itu/wsis/basic/why.html
2 Daly, John, “Information and Communication Technology applied to the Millennium Development Goals”
3 O’Brien, Terry, “Sharing the gains from globalization”, Ecodate, March 2003, Vol. 17, No. 1
4 Introduction. The World Bank Group. P. 1
5 Ibid. P.2
6 Ibid. P.2
7 “World Summit on the Information Society and the role of ICT in achieving the Millennium Development Goals”
8 “Basic Information: About WSIS Background and origins of the Summit” World Summit on the Information Society.
9 Ibid. P.1
10 “Declaration of Principles”, World Summit on the Information Society.!!MSW-E.doc P.2
11 “Basic Information: About WSIS Key point of WSIS Declaration of Principles” World Summit on the Information Society:
12 Zhen-Whei Qiang, Christine, Pitt, Alexander and Ayers, Seth, “Contribution of Information Communication Technologies to Growth,” The World Bank Group., 2003, P. 2
13 Ibid. P. 3
14 Ibid. P.4
15 “Declaration of Principles”, World Summit on the Information Society.!!MSW-E.doc P.1
16 Ibid.P.2
17 Ibid. P.2
18 “How ICTs can help achieve the Millennium Development Goals.” Adapted form United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID), The significance of information and communication technologies for reducing poverty, January 2002.
19 “Plan of Action” World Summit on the Information Society,”!!MSW-E.doc P.21,22
20 “Declaration of Principles” World Summit on the Information Society.”!!MSW-E.doc P.1
21 “Plan of Action” World Summit on the Information Society,”!!MSW-E.doc P.2

This paper was submitted for the course Global Governance: The Role of International Institutions directed by Paul N. Tennassee at The Washington Center in the Spring of 2004.