The WSIS "High Level Panel"
  A missed opportunity? A comparison of two panel events
 
 
  The High Level Panel on ICT for Development turned out to be not so "high level" after all. A closer look on the less pretentious parallel events sometimes can be much more worthwhile than just striving for the big titles. An event by the Swedish Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) focused on the same issues and certainly gave more answers.

Despite the controversy about internet governance, which dominated the whole PrepCom process until this week, the only High Level Panel established during the conference was dealing with the subject of "ICT for Development". This definitely fits into the image of the whole summit laying strong emphasis on the collective international efforts to bridge the digital gap between industrialized and developing countries.

The panel, taking place on Wednesday evening, consisted of Mr. Uzumi (President of the ITU), HE Brinkhorst (Minister of Economic Affairs in the Netherlands), Mr. Samara (Entrepreneur in ICTs), HE Paulwell (Minister of Commerce and Technology in Jamaica) and Dr. Diouf (as representative of NGOs). The panel was chaired by Prof. Noam of the University of Colombia. Besides the fact, that the panel in this constellation could (with exception of the presence of Mr. Uzumi) not really be regarded as "high level", the whole event was in general quite unsatisfying. This was mainly due to two reasons:

First, Mr. Noam's prepared moderating questions obviously failed to address the issues which could possibly be of main interest to the rest of the auditorium. Instead e.g., he went into matters like "could the current EU decision on the new legal framework for telecommunication regulation slow down development processes". A topic which probably few in the room could take up with.

Second, panelists often failed to get the point of the questions which came from the auditorium. For example, Mr. Uzumi managed to completely miss the point when answering the very important question on how to prevent Africa from becoming the world's trash can for IT hardware, by stressing generally that "you cannot eradicate poverty without using ICTs". Even the attempts of assistance by panelist Diouf could not help to create a solid feedback on this important issue. And things didn't improve.

Minister Paulwell's rather emphatic praise of the establishment of broadband connections in Jamaica, as well as Uzumis proud reiterations of ITUs plans to connect every village until 2015, still left a burning issue open: How will broadband connections (and ICTs as a whole) solve the poverty problem?. Finally reaching the heart of the whole matter about ICT and development, the panelists again failed to give clear answers or perspectives, but again stressed the general necessity of implementing the ICT4D agenda. It was then up to the representative of the private sector to make a clear and understandable statement. He pointed out, that we must not confuse means with results: the main goal is to deliver information, not digital technology. The gap we are talking about therefore is not a digital gap, but a knowledge gap. Every discussion about ICT and development should have this perspective as "critical driver". In this light, we therefore must also not concentrate only on digital means as if this summit were only about the internet, but we must include TV, radio and print media likewise. All in all, as this was the only High Level Panel taking place at a World Summit which should conclude a 4-year process, the aftertaste of this panel was more than unsatisfying.

That things could be done better was proven by the Swedish Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), who had invited this afternoon to a panel on the matching subject "ICT for poverty alleviation". In three short presentations, Mr. Alan Greenberg (Senior Consultant of Greenberg ICT Services), HE Albert Butare (Minister for Energy and Communications in Rwanda) and Ulf Pehrsson (Vice President of Ericsson) provided food for the later discussion. Mr. Greenberg gave a pin sharp analysis on the questions

- Why is the connection between ICTs and poverty alleviation still unanswered?
- Can ICT help?
- Which are the preconditions and guidelines for making ICTs contribute to poverty alleviation?

The bottom line of his speech summarized the results of his recent study "ICTs for Poverty Alleviation: Basic Tool and Enabling Sector": We must not focus on ICTs and how they can be applied, but we have to focus on the requirements of poverty reduction processes and how ICTs could help in these requirements. The following application of Information and Telecommunication Technologies must then happen according to the same guidelines which underlie all traditional development efforts: the mechanisms must be simple, supportable sustainable and scalable, including local involvement, training components and - regarding ICTs - a clear division of competencies between development and technology experts.

Minister Butare then gave a rather emotional overview on the possibilities ICTs can bring to a small and landlocked country lacking of resources like Rwanda. He did this not in a self-praising manner, but in a inspiring conviction that the good practice experience of his country could also server others. He also stressed, that it's often the simple changes that empower people to improve their living and working conditions significantly. Like enabling a mushroom distributor to call his customer at the city market by mobile phone to ensure that the long travel to the market is not in vain.

Finally the Ericsson company presented a new business model, which deliberately focuses on rural areas to build up telecommunication infrastructures, as they see the market potential of world-wide mobile phone subscribers rapidly rising from 2 billion people today to over 3 billions in the next five years. Illustrating this kind of development approach by presenting their pilot telecommunications infrastructure project at the coast of Tanzania, Ericsson managed to lead over from strategy aspects to concrete implementation efforts.

Subsequently, contributions from the audience questioned the feasibility of this business model and the position of Ericsson as possible monopolist or mere profit-seeker in such an engagement. But all in all it became quite clear, that here we have an example of what everybody is striving for in all the development discussion of the last years: A relevant theoretical analysis of the prerequisites of poverty reduction, a clear commitment of governments to seize the opportunities of ICTs not as game toys but as means to face the issue of poverty, and finally an effective partnership with business entities which lead into solid and monitorable implementation activities that provide benefits for all involved parties.

This is a major aspect of what this summit should be all about and parallel events like the SIDA panel give rise to the hope that Annans words of a "summit of solutions" were not only a pathetic wish.
 
 
 
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