Perspective: Kofi Annan's IT challenge to Silicon Valley

In a special column for CNET News.com, the U.N. Secretary-General says the bridging of the digital divide depends on the active involvement of America's tech decision makers in a global IT initiative sponsored by the world body.

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(Editors' note: For the holidays, CNET News.com is revisiting some favorite pieces from earlier in the year. This perspective first appeared on Nov. 5, 2002.) The new information and communications technologies are among the driving forces of globalization. They are bringing people together, and bringing decision makers unprecedented new tools for development. At the same time, however, the gap between information "haves" and "have-nots" is widening, and there is a real danger that the world's poor will be excluded from the emerging knowledge-based global economy.

Information technology is extremely cost-effective compared with other forms of capital. Modest yet key investments in basic education and access can achieve remarkable results. Estonia and Costa Rica are well-known examples of how successful IT strategies can help accelerate growth and raise income levels. But even some of the least-developed countries, such as Mali and Bangladesh, have shown how determined leadership and innovative approaches can, with international support, connect remote and rural areas to the Internet and mobile telephony.

Public tele-centers have been established in places as diverse as Egypt, Kazakhstan and Peru. Indeed, information technologies can give developing countries the chance to leapfrog some of the long and painful stages of development that other countries had to go through.

But bridging the digital divide is not going to be easy. Too often, state monopolies charge exorbitant prices for the use of bandwidth. Governments need to do much more to create effective institutions and supportive regulatory frameworks that will attract foreign investment; more generally, they must also review their policies and arrangements to make sure they are not denying their people the opportunities offered by the digital revolution.

We need to think of ways to bring wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) applications to the developing world, so as to make use of unlicensed radio spectrum to deliver cheap and fast Internet access. We also need to explore the possibility of creating an open international university. Surely, experts can think of many more ideas along these lines.

The United Nations is working hard to enlist this power in the cause of economic and social development. A Health InterNetwork, spearheaded by the World Health Organization, is creating Web sites for hospitals, clinics and public health facilities in the developing world to bring high-quality information within reach and to facilitate communication in the public health community. The United Nations Information Technology Service, a global consortium of volunteer corps coordinated by the U.N. Volunteers program, is training people in developing countries in the uses and opportunities of information technology.

If all countries are to benefit, we need more and better strategic public-private partnerships.

As promising and invaluable as they are, such efforts--and others involving trade promotion, disaster response and education--merely scratch the surface of what is possible. If all countries are to benefit, we need more and better strategic public-private partnerships. That is one of the primary functions of the United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force, which brings together CEOs, government officials, nongovernmental organizations, technical experts and other information industry leaders.

And if all countries are to benefit, we must define an inclusive, long-term vision and approach for the future. That is one of the main reasons why the United Nations General Assembly has decided to hold, under the leadership of the International Telecommunication Union, a "World Summit on the Information Society," in two parts: The first in December 2003 in Geneva, and the second two years later in Tunis.

That summit would benefit greatly from the active involvement of Silicon Valley decision makers. I know a number of Silicon Valley enterprises already are supporting social causes or eagerly looking to do so. But those activities are focused primarily on the United States. I hope the industry will broaden its horizon and bring more of its remarkable dynamism and innovation to the developing world.

Governments themselves are acknowledging that they cannot successfully pursue development on their own. Thus there is unprecedented scope for public-private partnerships that match real investment opportunities with the real needs of the poor, and I hope that the Silicon Valley community rises to this challenge. Even small initiatives can make an enormous difference.

I hope the industry will broaden its horizon and bring more of its remarkable dynamism and innovation to the developing world.

In September 2000, the member states of the United Nations adopted a Millennium Declaration--a landmark document for a new century that reflects the aspirations and concerns of all peoples, sets specific targets for reducing poverty, and calls for concerted action to fight injustice and inequality and to protect our common heritage, the earth, for future generations. Among the commitments they made was to "ensure that the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communication technologies, are available to all."

Information technology is not a magic formula that is going to solve all our problems. But it is a powerful force that can and must be harnessed to our global mission of peace and development. This is a matter of both ethics and economics; over the long term, the new economy can only be productive and sustainable if it spreads worldwide and responds to the needs and demands of all people. I urge everyone in a position to make a difference to add his or her energies to this effort.