The Global Initiatives in Addressing the Digital Divide

Dato’ Anwar Fazal, Senior Regional Advisor, the Urban Governance Initiative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) presented this speech at the INFOSOC 2001 Conference, organised by the Malaysian National Information Council and the State Government, Penang, Malaysia on15 June 2001 in Penang, Malaysia.

1.       You know the programme, “Who wants to be a millionaire”? Apart from the fact that the company who produces the programme becomes one frequently, if you asked the question on the show, what is the capital of Malaysia, most people will say Kuala Lumpur although it is getting complicated with Putra Jaya.

2.       The real capital of the nation, however, is five things:

·         Physical capital – resources, materials, technologies, and financial.

·         Organisational capital – human resources, capacity to manage, team work, leadership, structures

·         Political capital - power, authority, influence, interests, voice, and legitimacy.

·         Socio-cultural capital – feeling, spirit of trust, friendship, willingness to collaborate, community, and idealist values.

·         Intellectual capital – knowledge, know how, info plus wisdom.

3.       Of all the capitals, the intellectual capital is probably the most critical and most sustainable.  That is why information and communications technology (ICT) by its very nature is so central and so critical, is “who lives”, “who dies” in this “dog eat dog world”.

4.       Somethings of course, don’t change at all. It is still the age old dynamic that dominates:




      And it is Power and Profits that still drive many decisions.

5.       It is the view of many that ICT can provide a faster, shorter path to the elusive, better quality of life. Others wisely remind us that ICT is only a vehicle (although a powerful/pervasive one) and that unless you have a holistic vision and operational strategy, it can become an expensive hype and only engender:

  • New colonisation and imperialism
  • New fetishes and toys for the super rich and super bored
  • New addictions for feeding the weak and dark sides of humanit.

Unfortunately, if not handled wisely, ICT just reinforces or even accelerates the big divides that continue to feed a world that is cruel, unjust and unsustainable.

6.                   Whatever, like all the other great communication revolutions – the printing press (books & newspapers); the telegraph (the Victorian internet); radio/TV, the new ICT revolution itself is an inevitable and irreversible new wave. We ignore it at our peril!

7.                   Like in all the revolutions, however, there will be victors/beneficiaries and there will be victims. The choice is partly ours and partly how this world is managed. Because ICT as a new face, is so pervasively global, you have to be as much a global actor as a local actor – you have to be “Glocal”, a new word that is getting into vogue.

8.                   First, let me share a quick global ‘snapshot’ of what are some of the ‘goods’ and the ‘bads’. (They are familiar but need reminders).

9.                   Among the ‘goods’, are the following:

·         Access:

-  sheer speed and quantity

-    simply the complexity of culcation (genome map)

·         Empowerment (self learning/cultural division)

·         Governance (democratic space enriching the discourse malpractice cyberdemo)

10.               Among the ‘bads’ and that is the new driving force for the following, among others:

·         the vicious proliferation of pornography

·         gambling

·         currency movement and speculation

·         spending

·         new monopolies

·         the spying business (ie. The ‘Echelon’)

·         proliferating ‘hate’ and slander

·         the dominance of one language.

11.               Because ICT is global, we have to seek and engage in global debates and global solutions. In particular, we have to be aware how ICT is impacting on:

·         Equity

·         Ecology (new kind of eco impacts like lead in the equipment thrown away)

·         Economics

We have also to build new frameworks for:

·         Education

·         Engineering

·         Enforcement

·         And “cyber entrepreneurship” is a new religion for some!

12.               Three approaches are taken globally to address the “Global Divide”:

·         Charity

·         Capacity building

·         Creative chaos (more powerful win but underdogs emerge)

13.               There are three major actors:

·         Prince (government)

·         Merchant (business)

·         Citizen (people)

And we will have tensions. We need to work on “smart smartnership” even more.

14.               Each of the E’s and the A’s have their own dynamics and research is filling the halls of academia and power brokers.

15.               Let me share quickly and briefly some of the global initiatives:

  • The Digital Opportunity Task Force (DOT FORCE) initiative by the “rich” nations – the Group of Eight developed countries’ heads of states (those who run/ruin the world). They brought together 43 teams from government, private sector, non profits organisations both from North, South and building from what they call a multi-stakeholder development dynamic.

The Dot Force has stated:

a)      when wisely applied, ICT can help

b)      it is not a panacea for all development problems but dramatic improvement in communication/interactive exchange can unleash powerful social, economic networks which can provide a basis for advances in development

c)      have developed the Genoa Plan of Action – a nine point agenda with 50 recommendations

  • The UN system is engaged in a similar exercise and a UN ICT Task Force is being developed to be launched in September. Like all UN projects, governance is central so it will have 37 of members 18 from member states, 9 from private sector, 6 from UN and 4 from NGO/academia.

  • The World Bank is developing itself as a ‘knowledge bank’ on development and is working in a super development gateway.

16.               At the operation level and for Malaysia, there are three significant initiatives:

·         Malaysia is home to the UN’s, most dedicated and effective ICT programme APDIP – Asia Pacific Development Information Programme. This award winning UNDP initiative is playing a key role in policy advocacy in developing national e-strategies as well as practical capacity building through an over 30 network academies in the Asia Pacific region.

·         Malaysia is the new host of the Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP). We successfully hosted the GK II conference. This puts us in a new high profile role as a global hub, incubator and capacity builder -a truly great recognition and opportunity and, of course, challenge.

·         Like the world first dedicated institute on the internet (set up at Oxford University - RM 81 million by Shirley Foundation, set up by one of UK’s richest women) efforts are being made in setting up an IIICT – an International Institute for Information and Communication Technologies in Malaysia as a centre of excellence in learning research and development of ICT.

17.               There are other global initiatives and actors which also need our involvement:

·         The Hague Conference in Private International Law (an 108 year old international government organisation) is addressing the complex issues of jurisdiction of the global digital economy. It is hoped that consumers can take up in local court cases involving digital purchases in other countries – US is expected to oppose it like they opposed the World Court.

·         Organisations like Privacy International Consumer International have advocacy and public interest agendas.

·         The 15 European countries are concerned about the proliferation of hate websites and have recently issued a declaration.

·         All the issues of globalisation and trade policies/patents/anti trust laws and restrictive practices/competitions are going to be vigourously debated in WTO and UNCTAD.

·         Group of 15 from developing country networks met in Jakarta recently and are getting into the act. The Prime Minister of Malaysia made a passionate case for an ICT agenda.

·         The city of Shanghai is taking a global role in city ‘infomatisation’ projects.

·         “The Peoples’ Communication Charter” – important policy document for all those interested in public interest. Probably the most important overall guiding framework. It is obtainable from two world class institutions based in Penang: Third World Network and SouthBound.

·         And lastly, a lighter look – the Stockholm Challenge Awards is the ICT version of Academy Awards. It is important to reward creativity, innovation and excellence. Perhaps, Penang can establish such a prestigious award - the ICT equivalent of Langkawi Awards.

18.               The issues are complex, the actors powerful and Malaysia is becoming a key player. We need to enlarge the community of people in Malaysia who can take on these challenges. We need to tap our best and most creative entrepreneurs and power brokers. Malaysia can make a difference to the world of ICT and we are already in the seat of leadership.

Will we succeed? I believe we can do well if we get it right, particularly with human resources.

I have a rapid assessment system to “k-society”; it is called the “Two L method”.

Check the loos (the toilets) and the libraries (our knowledge system institutions). If our people cannot operate and use both of them well and properly and if we do not invest in them, both ends of human activity will not work well.

Thank you.

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