Issue 5 - Fall/Winter 1997
UN Committee Statement on Information Poverty and Inequality
Access to Information, Tools and Services Must Be Worldwide
(page 1 of 2)

1. The world is in the midst of a communication and information revolution, complemented by an explosive growth in knowledge. Information and knowledge have become a factor sui generis in societal and economic development. As generic technologies, information and communication technologies (ICT) permeate and cut across all areas of economic, social, cultural and political activity. In the process they affect all social institutions, perceptions and thought processes. Globally the information and communication sector is already expanding at twice the rate of the world economy. Decreasing costs of increasingly powerful, reliable hardware and software, as well as the fact that much hardware has become a desktop item, will continue to drive the use of information and communication technologies, facilitating access by ever wider segments of society. But this tendency can have profound benefits only if gains in physical access are accompanied by capacities to exploit these technologies for individual and societal development through production and dissemination of appropriate content and applications.

2. The communication and information revolution opens up entirely new vistas for the organizations of the United Nations system; it will bring about a dramatic shift not only in the way our organizations will operate in the future, deliver services and products, but also collaborate and interact with each other and other actors. Indeed, the multilateral system as a whole - and specifically development cooperation - has reached a threshold where our future orientations, strategies and activities have to be revisited and adjusted to the new circumstances and opportunities. We are resolved to respond readily and effectively to these new challenges.

3. We recognize that knowledge and information:

  • represent the life blood of the emerging global information society and its attendant infrastructure:

  • are the principal resources of the burgeoning information economy;

  • are at the heart of the intensifying globalisation trends--and drive the emergence of a tele-economy with new global and societal organizational models (telework, telecommuting, teleservices, telemedicine, distance education, teletraining, teleshopping, telebanking, business facilitation, trade efficiency, trade information etc.); in many instances, physical location is becoming irrelevant for the ability to receive or deliver products and services:

  • will increasingly affect the international division of labour, determine the competitiveness of corporations and national economies and generate new growth patterns and paradigms: and will have strategic consequences for the global power constellation. Knowledge, more than ever, is power. Information about what is occurring becomes a central commodity of international relations--and determines the efficiency and effectiveness of any intervention which is a particular challenge for multilateral actors.

4. Information is not a free good. Comparative advantages are henceforth expressed in the ability of countries to acquire, organize, retrieve and disseminate information through communication, information processing technologies and complex information networks to support policy making and the development process. Abilities in these areas may allow the prevention and resolution of regional and other conflicts or deal with new challenges like international crime, terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and environmental damage by charting better informed decisions - all of which are of utmost concern to the organizations of the United Nations system.

5. We are profoundly concerned at the deepening mal-distribution of access, resources and opportunities in the information and communication field. The information and technology gap and related inequities between industrialized and developing nations are widening: a new type of poverty - information poverty - looms. Most developing countries, especially the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), are not sharing in the communication revolution, lacking as they do:

  • affordable access to core information resources, cutting-edge technology and to sophisticated telecommunication systems and infrastructure;

  • the capacity to build, operate, manage, and service the technologies involved;

  • policies that promote equitable public participation in the information society as both producers and consumers of information and knowledge; and

  • a work force trained to develop, maintain and provide the value added products and services required by the information economy.

We therefore commit the organizations of the United Nations system to assist developing countries in redressing the present alarming trends.

6. Over the past decades, the organizations of the United Nations system have carried out many projects at various levels incorporating communication and information technologies. However, today we must acknowledge that often this was done in a rather uncoordinated manner. We therefore perceive an urgent need for a more strategic and systematic approach to ICT and information management, based on a strengthened collaboration among the organizations of the UN system.

7. We have concluded that the introduction and use of ICT and information management must become an integral element of the priority efforts by the United Nations system to promote and secure sustainable human development for all; hence our decision to embrace the objective of establishing universal access to basic communication and information services for all. ICT and effective information management offer hitherto unknown possibilities and modalities for the solution of global problems to help fulfill social development goals and to build capacities to effectively use the new technologies. At the same time, infrastructure and services of physical communication, in particular postal services, are a means of communication widely and universally used throughout the world, particularly in developing countries. Postal services are vital and will remain, for the foreseeable future, essential to promoting trade, industry and services of all kinds. Indeed the value of postal services will be further enhanced as new services, such as Ahybrid mail@ combining electronic transmission and physical delivery, gain ground.

8. Individually and jointly, our organizations are already carrying out or are planning at the national level to embark on various projects and activities to highlight the catalytic role multilateral organizations can and must play in this increasingly vital area. We pledge to do more by joining forces in a variety of fields, e.g. in agriculture, education, health, natural resources and environment management, transport, international trade and commerce, employment and labour issues, housing, infrastructure and community services, small and medium enterprise development and strengthening of participatory arrangements (see attachment). It is our intention and determination to demonstrate the viability and suitability of the new technologies and effective information management - especially by reaching out to and targeting the rural areas and most impoverished segments of society so often bypassed by the benefits of technological progress. Unless we are able to show that ICTs make a difference and reach out to more poor people or deliver better services to larger segments of society, the potential of ICTs and information management would remain just that.

9. Harnessing and spreading the potential of the new communication technologies to countries, especially in the developing world, in a timely, cost-effective and equitable manner will be a daunting challenge. The telecommunication infrastructure is weak in virtually all developing countries. The 59 lowest income countries (which account for about 56% of the world's population) share only 7% of the world's telephone mainlines. Excluding China and India, the 57 lowest income countries (which together account for one-fifth of the world's population) have one-hundredth of the global telephone main lines. Wherever there is connectivity, it is limited to major cities, the waiting lists are long and there is no indication that the situation will improve dramatically soon. Within the limits of its resources and priorities, the UN system stands ready to assist governments in designing national policies, plans and strategies to facilitate and guide the development and management of an appropriate national information infrastructure in accordance with their needs and traditions.

10. ICT hold the prospect of an accelerated introduction of certain state-of-the-art technologies superseding the step-by-step process of transferring know-how and technologies which has dominated industrialisation processes. Successful leapfrogging will allow developing countries to advance, bypassing stages of technology development. While being aware of the considerable practical hurdles, we are nevertheless determined to assist our developing country partners in this quest.

11. We are equally conscious of the imperative to build human and technical capacities to enable societies to facilitate access and make best use of the new multimedia communication resources. The rapid expansion of the Internet and its interactive character have introduced a dramatic paradigm shift in retrieval, handling and dissemination of information. The technologies make it possible for those who need information and knowledge to look for it on an electronic network and download what they need, when they need it. The explosion of the Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW) have created an easy to use communication interface for linking together computers in every part of the world for communications, information and data exchange for those who can afford it.

12. The emphasis on networks such as the Internet should however not distract from the potential role and contribution other ICT can make in advancing sustainable human development. Advances in CD-ROM technology, for example, have made multi-media and large scale data transfers accessible to developing countries, even to areas where there is no telecommunication connectivity. Many of the multimedia options - and especially the Internet - depend on the availability of reliable, powerful telecommunication connections with a sufficient bandwidth as well as access to electricity grids or renewable energy (e.g. solar power), which are other limiting factors in the poorest areas. Widespread illiteracy, diverse cultures and linguistic differences pose yet different obstacles for the introduction of new technologies on a universal basis.

13. Massive investment in telecommunication networks worldwide has helped to link most developing countries to international telecommunication networks, albeit in most cases only their capital cities. Thus far this connectivity invariably bypasses rural areas and hinterlands of developing countries, where the incidence of poverty is highest. We believe therefore that the expansion of domestic telecommunication infrastructure to rural areas and its connection to reliable international networks must become a top priority for governments, the private sector and multilateral and bilateral development organizations. Unless telecommunication systems can be expanded, access will be confined to an urban, literate elite in developing countries, bypassing rural areas and the poor. Here, rapidly emerging digital satellite systems offer new solutions. More >>


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