The internet and advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) have revolutionised our lives – the way we find information, the way we communicate, how
we run our businesses, how we entertain ourselves, how we share knowledge – the list is endless. They have also transformed global economies. It is estimated that the internet accounted for 21% of GDP growth in mature economies from 2004 to 2009 and is worth 3.4% of GDP across the large economies that make up 70% of global output.1 There is clear evidence of a correlation between the maturity of the internet ecosystem and several other measures, including increased innovation, entrepreneurship, creation of new business models, and a general rise in standards of living.
Technologically, the internet is a network of networks that serve as a platform for other technological innovations. Cloud computing builds on the internet to make available services and applications globally, democratising access to information, knowledge, and computing resources around the world. This has the potential to transform the 95% of businesses in the world which are small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and which are responsible for about 60% of private sector employment.2
Healthy local SME ecosystems directly impact sustainable economic development as they can develop locally relevant content and services more quickly, provide faster responses to local market demands, and have more immediate impact on local job growth. For entrepreneurs and SMEs, the cloud lowered the cost of capital investments and IT skills required, enabling them to compete on an equal footing with larger and much better resourced entities – IT-enabled SMEs increase revenues 15% faster and create jobs almost twice as fast as other SMEs.3
Availability of cloud resources in turn drives a number of other opportunities. Data analytics and machine learning bring the promise of an intelligent cloud that enables more effective and efficient solutions in a wide range of sectors, including healthcare, disaster response, agriculture, sustainability, and transportation. The internet of things (IoT) can help the farming industry meet the demand to increase food production by 70% by 2050 to feed an estimated population of 9.6 billion people, while also addressing the anticipated challenge of climate change and potential impact of intensive farming practices.4 For crop farmers, for example, the IoT will mean being able to prepare the soil, plant, and harvest at precisely the optimal time given predicted weather.
It was in recognition of the fast pace of the ICT evolution and potential impact on development that in 2001 the United Nations (UN) General Assembly (GA) agreed to convene the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) to define and realise a vision of what should be achieved in two phases: the Geneva Summit in 2003, and the Tunis Summit in 2005.
The Geneva Principles declared the common vision of the information society as “a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented information society, where everyone can create, access, utilise and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life, premised on the purpose and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and respecting fully and upholding the Declaration of Human Rights.”5
It recognised that ICT and the internet must be integrated into national and regional strategies to advance sustainable development. The principles also raised the need for internet governance, and called for a working group that would make appropriate proposals for actions in the 2005 summit.
In the late 1990s, at the same time that tremendous progress was being made on ICT, and the potential of ICT for sustainable development was being considered, there was a concerted global effort to address global challenges such as poverty, nutrition, human rights, and lack of participation by women. This culminated in the Millennium Summit in September 2000, where 189 world leaders met and adopted the UN Millennium Declaration, committing their respective countries to a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty and setting a series of time-bound targets to be achieved by September 2015.6
There were eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), aimed at eradicating poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality; reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and developing a global partnership for development. The last goal on partnership emphasised the need for developed countries to aid developing countries with development assistance and other policies including market access, debt
relief, and increased access to ICT.
Although the MDGs have succeeded in focusing attention on addressing extreme global poverty, progress has been uneven. Some of the achievements include decreasing the number of people living in extreme poverty by more than half, from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015; increasing the literacy rate among youths globally from 83% to 91% between 1990 and 2015, and narrowing the literacy gap between women and men; and improving internet penetration from just over 6% of the world’s population in 2000 to 43% in 2015.7
However, there remain large gaps affecting the most vulnerable populations in equality between genders, between developed and developing countries, and between rural and urban areas; progress in climate change; ongoing threats of conflicts and their impacts; and the more than 800 million people still in extreme poverty.
In 2012, the UN Secretary General launched a consultation on a post-2015 development agenda that would incorporate learnings from the MDGs and define a broader framework to advance the initial objectives. In September 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by 193 countries with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030.8 The SDGs reinforce the MDG goals of “eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions”, linking this to sustainable development, and emphasising that this is necessary to “realise the human rights of all and to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”. The goals balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: economic, social, and environmental.
The Geneva Principles from 2003 specifically made reference to harnessing the potential of the ICT and the internet “to promote the development goals of the Millennium Declaration”, but also to achieve sustainable development and other development goals in building out an inclusive information society. The second phase of WSIS in 2005 produced the Tunis Agenda, intended as a plan to turn the Geneva Principles into actions. This was a seminal document that reconfirmed the central role of the internet and ICT in enabling the information society, laid the foundation for many of the issues in globalising internet governance, created the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) as a global multistakeholder forum to facilitate dialogues on related public policy issues, set up 11 action lines as part of an implementation plan for progress towards the information society, and requested a review of the implementation of the WSIS outcomes in 2015, including the IGF mandate (this is commonly referred to as the WSIS+10 review). In December 2015, the UN General Assembly convened a high-level meeting to review progress over the past ten years, identify gaps and challenges, and consider any future actions.
“Internet penetration has gone from 6% of the world population in 2000 to 43% in 2015.”
The review process officially began in June 2015, when ambassadors Janis Mazeiks, permanent representative of the Republic of Latvia to the UN, and Lana Nusseibeh, permanent representative of the United Arab Emirates to the UN, were named by the president of the UN General Assembly as the co-facilitators to lead the intergovernmental negotiation and create a preparatory process to produce the final outcome document. The cofacilitators created a process9 to integrate input from all stakeholders within the constraints of the UN model. In addition to including informal stakeholder consultations into the process, they also personally participated in non-UN events to engage in dialogues with stakeholders, including a workshop hosted by the International Institute of Communications (IIC) and Microsoft, and the tenth Internet Governance Forum.
Image: How the SDGs map against the WSIS action lines
With both the 2030 Agenda and the WSIS+10 review occurring in the same year, there is growing consensus that the two discussions should be better aligned, due to heightened awareness of the role of ICT in both, and that the SDGs provide an important socioeconomic context for the development of the information society. While the 2030 Agenda does not focus on ICT, the role of ICT in advancing the SDGs is recognised through mentions that technology and innovation are key in enabling a number of targets. The role of ICT in advancing all the goals is made more explicit by a mapping between the WSIS action lines and the SDGs presented at the WSIS Forum in May 2015.10
In October 2015, just after the SDGs were finalised and just as a preliminary draft of the outcome document became available from the co-facilitators, the IIC and Microsoft workshop took place, titled ‘Dialogue on the Sustainable Development Goals and the WSIS Review’, in Washington, DC.11 Our objectives were to enable a dialogue on practical examples of multistakeholder initiatives in enabling the SDGs and the WSIS action lines, give examples of and challenges in sustainable economic development, and address cybersecurity capacity building as part of bridging the digital divide. Highlights from this dialogue are included below – these are intended to capture some of the topics mentioned throughout the day, and not to imply any consensus or policy recommendation among the participants on these issues.
In the opening session, Janis Mazeiks noted that the WSIS+10 review is an opportunity to take stock of the progress that has been made in enabling an inclusive information society, bridging digital divides, and be forward-looking in how the WSIS action lines can help to realise the SDGs. While participants acknowledged the tremendous progress that has been made in enabling more than 3 billion people to connect to the internet, much more needs to be done to create an enabling environment necessary to connect the remaining 4.1 billion. The challenges are not limited to building out adequate infrastructure with technologies that can provide universal and affordable access, but also include a broader discussion with economic, social, and political dimensions to create opportunities for ‘meaningful inclusion’. Some of the main challenges discussed are as follows.
Adequate investment and funding – this was a recurring theme during discussion. There needs to be greater focus on financing challenges, and that top-down and bottom-up approaches need to be combined and tailored to address and prioritise local/regional investment needs. International organisations, private entities, local organisations and others all have a role to play. An enabling policy environment is also needed to incentivise continued privatesector investments – business models that are viable, replicable and scalable are essential to sustainable development.
Linkage between local/regional development plans and broader UN goals, and participation of local organisations – several participants emphasised the need for local/regional SDGs that would prioritise investment and flexible funding approaches tailored to regional needs, along with local/regional sharing of information on best practices and resources. Participation of local/regional organisations also enables development initiatives that are more sustainable as they address real needs, increasing the long-term viability of each project.
Multistakeholder participation – an “ecosystem of multistakeholders” was cited by some participants in a number of implementation examples, and that “it is essential for stakeholders to work together to address the challenges identified and to produce concrete results – it is not sufficient to issue a statement”. However, it was noted that public-private partnerships often do not work due to lack of consideration of each other’s perspectives and expectations, and that more efforts should be made to develop shared goals. The value of discussion across diverse sectors and inclusion of international organisations such as the OECD was also highlighted.
Protecting freedom of expression and human rights online – although ICT democratises access to information and fosters global exchanges of ideas, there are also increased opportunities for government control and repression of speech, leading to challenges in enabling an inclusive information society.
Closing the gender gap – gender inequality was emphasised as an issue that must be addressed by the WSIS review to achieve the SDGs. The need for more girls and women to participate in global and technical discussions, and “equal opportunities for leadership positions in technology” was also raised.
Participation from developing countries – the lack of participation from developing countries in global discussions and technical discussions was noted by a number of participants.
Building capacity to enable quality, localised content and services – some participants noted the importance of addressing both the supply and demand side of connectivity, and that policy frameworks needed to address these together, not as distinct issues. Others noted the need for better information sharing, especially locally and regionally, on solutions implemented, success stories, and resources. Sustainable ‘human trust networks’, grassroots initiatives where citizens train and empower each other on infrastructure building and maintenance were suggested. The need for technology transfer to developing countries was also raised.
Addressing cybersecurity and trust – some participants raised these as issues that would need to be addressed through multistakeholder partnerships, and that cybersecurity capacity training is essential to enable successful realisation of the SDGs.
Government collaboration beyond ‘silos’ – this was raised several times during the workshop. Diverse government agencies, eg. finance, economics, health, education and security must be active participants in the national and global debates on sustainable development.
The discussion also noted the essential role of ICT, not just in realising the SDGs but also in measuring their progress – an element that was an acknowledged shortfall with the MDGs.
Participants also recognised that the IGF is a valuable platform for engagement on these and other issues, as exemplified by the growth of local, national, and regional IGFs. Even without negotiated outcomes, some participants noted concrete results that had been achieved from discussions that originated at the IGF.
Microsoft’s Project Mawingu, which delivers low-cost broadband access to previously unserved locations near Nanyuki, Kenya, evolved from discussions at the 2011 IGF in Nairobi.12 The project uses TV white spaces technology that enables low-cost yet long-range broadband connectivity, and solar panels to provide power for the base stations and for charging the devices that are used. By working together with national governments, local communities and other stakeholders, we were able to deploy a solution that addresses real needs, reinforcing the value of the multistakeholder approach, leading to long term sustainability of the initiative. This single trial has led to over 15 projects around the world, connecting 70 primary and secondary schools with a total of 36,000 students, and eight universities serving 176,000 students.
“Gender inequality was emphasised as an issue that must be addressed by the WSIS review.”
A summary of the dialogue was submitted as an input to the WSIS +10 review process.13 In December, negotiation concluded on the outcome document of the high-level meeting of the General Assembly on the review of the implementation of WSIS outcomes.14 The document calls for “close alignment between the WSIS process and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, highlighting ICT’s crosscutting contribution to the SDGs and poverty eradication, and noting that access to ICTs has also become a development indicator and aspiration in and of itself”. This sets a broader context for the development of the information society, and brings to the forefront additional social, economic, and cultural considerations.
Although the document recognises the tremendous progress that has been made in the past ten years, and the impact of ICT on economic, social and environmental betterment, many of the challenges brought up above were also acknowledged. These include the need to connect remaining people; bridging significant digital divides between and within countries, and between women and men; increasing participation from developing countries; developing financial mechanisms; protecting human rights online; and strengthening confidence and security in the use of ICTs with a renewed focus on capacity building.
Significant is the recognition of the value of multistakeholder cooperation in the WSIS process, and the value of the IGF was recognised through an extension of its mandate for another ten years.
The next overall review of the WSIS outcomes will be in 2025, which will be used as an input into the review process of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, encouraging further coordination between the two processes.
1 McKinsey Global Institute (2011). The great transformer: The impact of the internet on economic growth and prosperity.
2 Edinburgh Group (2013). Growing the global economy through SMEs.
3 Boston Consulting Group (2013). Ahead of the curve: Lessons on technology and growth from small business leaders.
4 Beecham Research (2014). Towards smart farming: Agriculture embracing the IoT vision.
5 ITU (2003). Declaration of principles, building the information society: A global challenge in the new millennium, World Summit on the Information Society.
6 UN General Assembly (2000). United Nations Millennium Declaration. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly. 55/2.
7 UN (2015). The Millennium Development Goals Report.
8 UN General Assembly (2015). Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015.
9 WSIS+10 United Nations General Assembly high-level meeting, unpan3.un.org/wsis10 and also Preparatory Process Roadmap, unpan3.un.org/wsis10/roadmap
10 WSIS Forum (2015). WSIS-SDG Matrix: Linking WSIS Action Lines with Sustainable Development Goals.
11 IIC (2015). A dialogue on Sustainable Development Goals and the WSIS Review. bit.ly/1PvHgEt
12 Microsoft 4Afrika. White spaces project. bit.ly/1OG6D3i
13 IIC/Microsoft (2015). A dialogue on Sustainable Development Goals and the WSIS Review. Summary report. bit.ly/1YI0ZSK
14 UN General Assembly (2015). Outcome document of the high-level meeting of the General Assembly on the overall review of the implementation of WSIS outcomes. bit.ly/1NjXFbw
How can ICT best be deployed to advance the new Sustainable Development Goals? M-H Carolyn Nguyen and Paul Mitchell review the history and current position.
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