Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Panel Discussion at GAID 2006

The Panel Discussion was themed "National ICT Strategies For Achieving The MDGs" and featured panellists from around the world including Peter Bruck of the World Summit Award, Kim Hak-Su, Executive Secretary, UN/ESCAP, Ali Abbasov, Minister of Communications and Information Technologies, Azerbaijan, Anne Cobb, President, VISA International CEMEA, Dato Lee Yee Cheong, Co-Chair of Task Force on STI, United Nations Millennium Project, Dato Suriah Abdul Rahman, Advisor, Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, Malaysia, A.W. Khan, Assistant Director-General, UNESCO and Renate Bloom, President of the Conference of NGOs (CONGO).

Some of the discussion was quite interesting, in particular the frank and open manner in which the Azerbaijan Minister put forth his views on corruption as an issue for business development and how it affects the private sector progress in a free, open and transparent manner. His comments were met with wide (and loud) applause from the audience. Anne Cobb (VISA) stressed the need for electronic payments instead of cash as the solution, however her comments sounded more like a sales pitch to use VISA as a payment medium. Whilst there are definitely merits with electronic payment, the bigger issue is whether someone like VISA will support the small scale prevalent in regions such as the Pacific and the Carribbean, and whether these regions have the infrastructure (and economy) to support such transactions on an all-encompassing scale. She also raised how RFPs from developing countries tend to be complex and over-engineered (and I absolutely agree - some RFPs leave me scratching my head, perhaps a reason for the follicular fallout) and she questioned why this is so prevalent in developing countries and emerging economies. She was also asked whether VISA would be interested in helping finance telecentres in the developing world, but she dodged the question and went off on a tangent on bureacracy and the difficulties of market entry in some countries.

Lee Yee Cheong talked about ICT being just one enabling technology amongst many others, eg. biotech, space technology, nano-technology, etc., and stressed for an increase in donor work by developed countries. He also stated that physical infrastructure must be relevant to local conditions and must be approached in a holistic manner eg. including electricity - I guess he was trying to say what use is ICT if there is no electricity. He also suggested the failure of the millenium project was the lack of recognition/regard for youth, who are probably the most important social group in society. Suriah Abdul Rahman stressed that strong political will must exist for real success. He also stressed the need to connect schools to a network. Malaysia has 10,000 schools connected serving 5,000,000 children. There was also the question raised on the actual viability and use of telecentres. He suggested success is totally dependent on community engagement in the process and I would add providing real, demonstrable benefits for improvement in socio-economic conditions in the long-term - not just putting in PCs with an internet connection for surfing.

Kim Hak-Su from UN/ESCAP suggested a pilot project of best practice, and this must also consider cultural and religious perspectives, which are often strong in developing countries. He also stated that the public and private sectors must partner for long-term viability and there is a need to involve inter-government and regional organisations. AW Khan from UNESCO also stressed my point earlier about the mere existance of telecentres not being the answer - he stressed there must be a valid linkage to poverty reduction by ICTs. He also stated there must be a viable business model in place for sustainability, which is something I would say enough real attention is not paid to - there appears to be a scramble to deploy telecentres (I guess it looks good on an Organisations profile when they say they have installed x number of telecentres in this and that region to improve people's lives). Khan also stressed on the quality of education improvement - introducing technology for the sake of introducing technology is meaningless. My take on this is having 50 PCs in a school is useless if the proper and relevant curriculum does not exist to make use of the PCs. Khan also stated a need to identify the role of ICT in non-formal education. His parting shot was that the "C" in "ICT" stands for "Communications", not "Computer" and suggested that after some 5 years of the WSIS process this has still not been realised and fully understood. What he meant here was that, much like the telecentre scramble, PCs are being thrown left, right and centre by various Organisations (I have seen many a profile stating the number of PCs donated to this and that school, community, etc.) and this may not be the appropriate technology. Sometimes the ubiquitous radio may be the best medium to achieve an objective and this all points to using the appropriate technology based on local conditions.

The key points in the panel discussion for me were the existing conditions in developing economies which include corruption and over-complicating desired solutions (whether through a RFP or otherwise), both of which need to be addressed for progress to be made, and the use of technology relevant and practical to local conditions as being one of the most critical factors to real success (as compared to perceived success as expressed by the proponents, which is pretty much always present in every ICT-related project!).

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