The role of ICTs in sustainable financial development

Gary Fowlie speaking at the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Thank you Mr. President – Excellences. 17935322860_f9ef49a5ff_z

On behalf of the International Telecommunication Union I would like to thank all of the Member States, Civil Society and business delegates who during the past week have acknowledged the potential of information and communication technologies, and the data they generate, for sustainable financial development.

I expect the importance information and communication technologies (ICTs) play in our lives today was brought home to many of you this week when your global connectivity was interrupted and you found yourself on the wrong side of the digital divide. That frustration should serve as a reminder of why the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the Istanbul Plan of Action in 2011 insisted that ICT networks be considered basic infrastructure on par with water, transportation and energy.

The LDCs also set an ambitious goal for universal access to the Internet by 2020. They did this because the Internet is arguably our first truly global and shared utility – and with other ICTs it has taken on increasing importance as a cross-cutting and catalytic enabler for all three pillars of sustainable development.

However, like many of us from the developed world, we take ICTs and global connectivity for granted. It’s like breathing, we only think about it when we can’t – the network is down, you aren’t able to access your bank account or your own personal data, maybe the your energy source isn’t working because the smart grid upon which it operates has malfunctioned.

You can be forgiven, because what we’ve also forgotten is how small a role ICTs played at the beginning of the millennium. In the year 2000 there were only 740 million mobile subscriptions and just 7% of the world was online. By the end of this year there will be 7.1 billion mobile subscriptions and more than 3.2 billion people will be online.

The growth in the ICT sector – for a large part based on open transparent licensing and healthy public private partnerships – has been tremendous.

And the potential for innovative financing and sustainable development solutions that harness ICTs as a means of implementing those solutions is infinite.  This is illustrated by the ICT innovations in mobile banking developed in Africa – by Africans for Africans, but as an example to be shared with the world.

We believe we’ve only just begun to see the avalanche of innovation that is possible when we have universal and affordable access to ICTs. The Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium set the challenge for us all in this room when he said we need to turn the “digital revolution into a development revolution.”

While we are close to bridging the digital divide in mobile telephony new gaps are appearing.

More than half the world still doesn’t have access to the Internet. In addition to an affordability gap, there is a huge gender gap; 200 million fewer women have access to the internet than men.

Recent studies have indicated that by connecting everyone in the developing countries at the same levels as in developed countries, we could create 140 million jobs and lift 160 million people out of poverty.

For every 10% increase in broadband network penetration in the country, the World Bank estimates GDP growth of approximately 1.8%. And this doesn’t include the benefits of increased social inclusion and environmental sustainability these networks enable.

Yesterday, Dr Jeffery Sachs called on member states to develop national broadband plans and strategies, saying broadband networks are our greatest hope for creating real time data analytics, which will be essential for accountability, monitoring and achievement of the SDGs.

Now it is true that you can’t eat a mobile phone – even a broadband enabled smartphone. But the evidence is there – they can and must be used as a means of implementation for all 17 proposed SDGs and the majority of the targets.

Let’s just look at one of those targets; universal birth registration by 2030.

In an age of almost ubiquitous mobile coverage it is hard to understand why up to 35% of children born today won’t have a birth certificate. Not only are these children invisible but they are potentially the most at risk for the development challenges we’re here to tackle.  It also can be argued that birth registration is their gateway human right; Article 6 assures them recognition as a person.

If we could secure these children’s ‘digital footprints’ and there is no doubt they will eventually have a digital footprint, we might also be able to assist Member States in building strong broadband based civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) systems, and by doing so strengthen other e-services in the process.

This year is a landmark on many fronts.  The UN turns 70, and ITU is celebrating 150 years of helping to connect the world.  In September we will gather in New York to set the sustainable development agenda for all. In December in Paris we will tackle the pressing issue of Climate Change, and one week later we will be back in New York in the General Assembly to conduct the mandatory 10-year review of the UN World Summit on the Information Society.

It will be a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring together all three pillars of sustainable development and to better understand how we can strengthen the people centered Information Society we are so dependent upon.

We should remember that Information isn’t necessarily knowledge and knowledge isn’t necessarily wisdom. Regardless, I’m confident that we will have the wisdom to capitalize on this once in a generation opportunity to create a sustainable digital future.

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