ICTs — no luxury, a catalyst for development

An Internet satellite dish. Should increasing broadband access be a part of the sustainable development goals? Photo by: Alan Levine / CC BY-SA

Should the international development community push for increasing broadband access in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals?

The answer is a definitive yes as information and communications technology is not a luxury but a catalyst for development, members of the International Broadband Commission agreed during the 10th meeting of Broadband Commission for Digital Development on Sunday in New York.

The commission was established in 2010 by UNESCO and the International Telecommunication Union — the specialized U.N. agency for ICTs — to boost the importance of broadband access on the international policy agenda and accelerate its expansion as a key tool for achieving global development goals.

More than half of the world's population will have Internet access by 2017 and mobile broadband access will become the fastest growing technology in human history, the commission said in its annual report published Sunday. Right now, more than 40 percent of people across the globe are already online, and the total number should rise from 2.3 billion last year to almost 3 billion by the end of 2014.

Joanna Rubinstein, chief of staff for global philanthropist Jeffrey Sachs, explained that we can replicate with broadband the lessons learned from bringing together the public and private sectors on global health in initiatives like the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

“ICTs are a critical enabler in achieving sustainable development, education, health, and gender and other development challenges," said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. "The transformational power of ICTs is immense.”

The development community can reach out and work with governments on policy, work on ICT products and help create enabling environments for broadband. Eliminating extreme poverty will not be possible without using all potential tools, and members of the commission believe ICTs are a critical tool for poverty eradication.

Where the aid industry can really pitch in is by creating the right content for broadband to develop, according to Hamadoun Touré, ITU secretary-general, who said development organizations can serve a “catalytic role triggering demand” though creating content.

Klaus Leisinger, former chairman of the Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development's board of trustees, believes the development community can do three things to help expand broadband access in service of achieving development goals:

1. Cooperate together for common solutions, instead of competing for funds.
2. Be pragmatic and collaborate with the private sector with the understanding that all stakeholders can bring something to the table.
3. Find a focus and a competitive advantage.

Even as more people in developing countries now use smartphones, access to broadband Internet services remain a challenge to the majority. Improving connectivity is therefore a necessity, and while some small and midsized enterprises are addressing this in few nations, not enough is yet understood about how to standardize economic models to increase access and to improve digital literacy so people know what to do when they are finally online.

Sam Pitroda, an Indian telecommunications inventor, entrepreneur, policy-maker and former adviser to the prime minister, pointed out how information is critical to modern governments, but everyone is focused on using the technology rather than the outcomes. Much of the potential presented in these technologies is lost when used within outdated models and systems, resulting in little change in the outcomes.  

“Everything we do today is essentially obsolete,” he said.

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About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.