By 2016, one per cent of the world’s population will own more than half of its wealth. The staggering projection, from a recent study by anti-poverty group Oxfam, made headlines just as the World Economic Forum (WEF) was getting started in Davos last month. One concern for secretary general of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) Professor Tim Unwin, who was at the WEF, is that the rapid spread of information and communications technologies is not helping to reduce that growing gap between poor and rich.
“The difference between the least developed and the most developed in getting greater. In that way, you can say that ICTs are actually increasing inequality,” he said, in a telephone interview from the annual gathering of top political and business leaders in Switzerland.
As head of a body bringing together perspectives of telecoms stakeholders from across the 53 countries of the Commonwealth—about one-third of the world’s population—Unwin is deeply concerned about that growing digital divide, and the dual impact of technology development on the world’s poorest.
Developing Caribbean capacity
“One of the things that always strikes me when I visit the Caribbean is how much more advanced and successful and connected it is than many other parts of the Commonwealth,” he said.
While the islands’ size is a source of some economic challenges, it also provides some advantages.
“The islands are relatively small, so it is not so problematic to get universal connectivity, as compared with, say, Nigeria or Pakistan,” Unwin said.
But Internet access and connectivity alone won’t reduce the gap between poor and rich. For Unwin, the real priority is not simply to increase the quantity of Internet users but to improve the overall quality of Internet usage. Two major issues affecting quality, he said, are bandwidth and cost, which is where Internet service providers and industry regulators play such a critical role in the region’s Internet eco-system.
“What you can do with large bandwidth compared with low bandwidth is incredibly different, particulary with the rapid increase in applications that use video and large amounts of data. And the second variable is cost. That’s where regulators play a crucial role in helping to ensure that markets operate as effectively as possible.”
Delivering Caribbean content The point of developing local capacity, Unwin was quick to point out, is to deliver local content. The potential of the underlying technology is only realised if it is used to facilitate the delivery of other services, such as digital banking, online education, mobile health or e-government. But that is easier said than done.
“Content development is quite expensive and resources aren’t always put into that. It’s much easier to lay a bit of fibre than it is to develop the content that is going to go over it,” said Unwin, who also sits on the advisory board of the m-Powering Development Initiative of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
One obstacle to developing local content, he said, is the lack of functional relationships between government ministries or even ministerial departments, which would need to harmonise their operations in order to produce high-quality local content.
So significant is the difficulty involved in developing relevant local content that there is a great temptation to simply import content from abroad, and sidestep the growing pains of building local capacity. But shortcuts are dangerous, Unwin said, citing the example of MOOCs, or massively open online courses, which are web-based courses aimed at unlimited participation through open access.
“I’d like to challenge some of those who think that things like MOOCs are the solution for the education of small-island states. I completely disagree because MOOCs can be a form of cultural or intellectual imperialism. The fact that people can get access to courses from richer countries is problematic, to me. What we want to have is locally developed, locally produced content, that is indigenous to users in Caribbean countries.”
The challenge for Caribbean societies, therefore, is to define and produce content that is appropriate and relevant, to enable solutions that align with development priorities. “You have to make sure you have the right content in the right formats for the right people. If you’re just importing content from outside, you’re not building the knowledge-base of your own countries.”
Beyond the divide
One of the CTO’s key partners in helping the region to face up to this challenge is the Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU). The two work together on policy development, and have collaborated closely at significant international gatherings, including meetings held by the International Telecommunication Union.
“We believe, as does the CTU, in the real importance of avoiding duplication and overlap. One of the things we respect about the CTU is their openness to working collaboratively,” Unwin said. The CTU was established in 1989 by the heads of Caricom governments, to support its members in leveraging telecommunications for social and economic development. Unwin explained the importance of the CTO in helping the CTU pursue that mission in a globalised environment.
“Across the world, there are different regional telecommunications unions, sometimes working in isolation and therefore unable to learn from each other. So, what’s happening in Africa may not be known in Asia. Or what’s happening in the Caribbean may not be as well known to people in the Pacific. One of the things that the CTO can do is bring together perspectives from people from many different parts of the Commonwealth, so that together we can do far more than any one of us could do by ourselves.”
Several Caribbean ministers were among 30 official delegates from across the Commonwealth who signed an agreement outlining shared principles for the development of broadband, at the CTO’s first-ever Commonwealth ICT Ministers in London in March of last year. The CTO is working with the Organisation of American States and the CTU to help Caribbean states seeking to take that commitment forward, Unwin said.
At one upcoming workshop, organised in partnership with the Antigua and Barbuda government, Unwin will focus on how technology can help improve quality of life for people with disabilities. “Last time I was in Port-of-Spain,” he said, “we ran a workshop for young people on how they can use technology to build their entrepreneurial skills and contribute to the economy.”
Partnering with success Unwin returned to Trinidad this month as a feature speaker in the CTU’s 25th Anniversary ICT Week, which ran from February 2 to 6, at the Hyatt Regency hotel.
The event celebrated the achievements of CTU members and the contribution of strategic partnerships, like the one with the CTO, drawn from within and beyond the region. The last two days featured workshops organised in partnership with the Internet Society, the Latin American and Caribbean Internet Addresses Registry, the International Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers, the Organisation of American States, the University of the West Indies, The American Registry of Internet Numbers, Caricom Implementation Agency for Crime and Security and Arkitechs.
Among the highlights of the five-day event was the signing of new agreements between the CTU and the International Telecommunications Satellite Organisation and the ITU.
This article was originally published in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian.