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Poul Nielson

European Commissioner for Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Aid

« Everybody Go Surfing? : The European Commission on the role of IT in developing countries »

Euforic Annual General Meeting 2001

Bonn, 11 June 2001

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In May, the European Union hosted in Brussels the third UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries. This was a stark reminder that after 5 decades of development co-operation, the challenge of under-development and poverty is still with us. Poverty is not an abstract concept, nor a macro-economic notion. It hurts human beings all over the world, physically and also in their dignity.

This is why the Commission is reshaping its development co-operation policy, giving it a stronger poverty focus. This has now become the central element of the policy Statement on the European Community Development Policy, adopted last November by the Council and the Commission. The Commission also intends to concentrate on a more limited number of areas and crosscutting themes, where it can offer value added. This approach is based on the principle of complementarity and division of labour with Member States and international organisations.

So how does Information and Communication Technology (ICT) fit into all of this? Let me say something about our approach:

The digital divide, that is to say the unequal access to ICT among and within countries, is a reflection of existing social and economic inequalities in both industrialised and developing countries. IT didn't create inequality, but it may add to greater inequality unless we are conscious about its impact. Consider the wide-spread phenomenon of the urban poor tapping electricity through illegal hook-ups to the public network to power TV sets, radios and light. ICT may give the urban poor another advantage over the rural poor, who don't even enjoy the privilege of an opportunity to steal electricity!

On the other hand, if applied with a pragmatic sense of realism, IT can be a useful tool for economic development and possibly even underpin a positive evolution of democracy.

The discussion on ICT and development has a tendency to focus on the potential role of the Internet. Our definition of information and communication technology is of course much broader than this. The telephone is also IT, and in many developing countries, it is IT to which the vast majority has not yet gained access. But let me say a few things about the internet.

Let us think ahead for a second. "Access to the Net" may be the slogan of the next NGO campaign. If so, let's keep the following fundamentals in mind: The developed countries have decided in favour of market-based mechanisms for their telecom markets. This has gradually led to lower prices and better service to the consumer. However, policy-makers have their work cut out in addressing the very high cost for developing countries in accessing internet backbones that are generally located in the US or in Europe. Under these conditions, the real issue is how to bring the cost of connectivity down. Many African countries and Pacific Islands pay the price of international long-distance calls to access the net. Using traditional telephone lines where available, they are at best - limited to e-mail traffic. As to fancy web-sites, enjoying the World Wide Web is likely to turn into the World Wide Wait!

Addressing these issues means paying attention to national and international policy and regulatory frameworks. Building on recent US and European experiences, the international governance orthodoxy on these issues is strongly advocating privatisation.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) suggests that the most effective way to reduce Internet costs in developing countries is to promote the entry of additional players in the telecom market, such as opening the market for satellite connections in order to provide alternative international links for internet service providers. Indeed, as a concrete example of the effectiveness of such steps, the liberalisation of the market in Nepal in early 1999 led to the establishment of several new international gateways. This, according to the ITU, reduced usage costs for dial-up Internet access in Nepal to the lowest in South Asia by January 2000.

But the ITU Nepal Case Study also recognises that high connection charges still result in internet access being far beyond the reach of the average Nepali. Indeed, the cost of 15 hours of monthly use is calculated to cost 65 per cent of GDP per capita. Also, electricity only reaches around 15 per cent of Nepal. Figures for Africa are even worse. And in this world, 2.2 Billion people have no access to electricity. This is why I've entitled this speech "Everybody go Surfing"? question mark...

This leads me to caution against privatisation becoming "piratisation".

One has to keep in mind that the market-based approach is partly the cause for the current "digital divide". While the market has a lot of advantages, it is no guarantee of equitable access.

The European experience is telling: Rural electrification of Europe was not a short-term profitable business. And the current coverage of telephony in our developed world is a product of deliberate society-driven systems' development.

Having reached a mature stage of development, these markets can increase efficiency through gradual privatisation introducing real competition. But keep in mind that their development happened in a process that was planned and constructed by public utility companies and broadly based equity considerations.

Let me now turn to the role of ICT in Community development co-operation, and here again address ICT broadly defined. The Commission approach is inspired by work in this area by other institutions. In fact, what we are doing closely corresponds with the conclusions from the Global Forum on Exploiting the Digital Opportunities for Poverty Reduction organised in March 2001 by the OECD, the World Bank and UNDP. The Forum concluded, like we do, that ICT should be seen as "a tool to help meet existing development objectives in particular the international development goals, not as a separate sector". This is, by the way, also what I have been explaining in the European Parliament.

I think this approach is the best guarantee against a donor-driven and supply-driven approach, of which we have definitely seen enough already. Indeed, ICT should not be seen as a priority sector as such, but rather as a tool to achieve the objectives within the six focal areas endorsed in the Joint Council/Commission Statement of November 2000. ICT are not to be considered in isolation, but as part of an overall development strategy.

Also, an increasing number of Member States' Aid Agencies are getting involved in ICT and development. Some are putting quite considerable efforts and human resources into this. We don't have those resources. I have no claim to set the trend and the Commission will be guided by the principles Complementarity, Co-ordination and Coherence.

In short, I am open for the Commission to use ICT whenever and wherever there is a well-founded demand and within the normal decision-making procedure. Our experience in this area is in fact quickly expanding. A recent Commission review provides examples where the use of ICT adds real value to Commission development programmes. Let me give you a few examples of what I consider to be sensible and sustainable use of ICT in development:

  • We have recently approved a project on pan-African, satellite-based meteorological surveillance in co-operation with EuMetSat and the World Meteorological Organisation. The project will provide weather information and allow effective monitoring of desertification, drought warning, etc. NGOs involved in natural resource management will have a possibility to be associated to the project, so as to provide timely data to the grass-root communities they assist.

  • An EC livestock project in Nepal is strengthening veterinary services. The quality of the programme's administration and results depend on PCs, software and management information systems, with attendant improvements for livestock farmers. But I don't think there is much new in saying that PC's are part of project implementation in modern development co-operation.

  • On transport, the Commission is supporting improved satellite-based systems to improve security for civil aviation in West and Central Africa also support regional integration and trade.

  • Connecting and strengthening centres of local knowledge in regional partnerships also makes a lot of sense in light of our overall development policy. An example of how to do this is our support to "The Virtual University of Africa".

  • In the area of governance and human rights, I could also mention efforts to support free media, such as EC support to TV and radio transmission and programme production in Namibia.

  • 'Shared' is a DG Research-funded project whose objective is to share essential information on health research and development for developing countries using an ICT platform. It is an interesting initiative involving public and private partners in the area of knowledge management. It has been rather successful and has already elicited interest from many partners. NGOs involved in health issues could associate themselves with this initiative.

  • Finally, again on governance, I also find it extremely relevant for the EC to fund IT-supported collection of statistics such as population censuses, voter registration and other proven tools for ensuring the transparent and credible organisation of national elections. What is important here is to get credible work done on censuses. ICT is the tool.

These various examples are all connected to one of the six areas identified as Community focal areas such as food security, trade, regional co-operation, education and health. In pursuing activities in these sectors, the Commission looks at IT as a potential enabling technology.

I have spoken about the role of donors and the EC. Allow me to make a few final remarks on the possible role of organisations like Euforic.

We need innovation and dissemination of lessons learned. Indeed, it may be surprising, but despite the hi-tech rhetoric, we know comparatively little of what works in developing countries and what doesn't. Euforic, and NGOs in general, could contribute to increasing our collective knowledge and to spread best practices.

Use of ICT doesn't make a bad project a good project. A good project is one that makes a tangible contribution to the fight against poverty not one, which is designed to promote ICT. I'm ready to be convinced by proof that the first criterion can be supported by the latter. This is what it is all about.

I wish you success in your annual conference. Thank you for your attention.

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