By Xiaojun Grace Wang, Deputy Director for Programme and Operations, UNOSSC. Spotlighting World Telecommunication and Information Society Day
Today is just another typical day in these pandemic times. I held several virtual meetings with colleagues, spoke during a webinar, ordered groceries on-line, booked an e-consultation with my doctor, was assured the kids had good time during their on-line classes, and even organized a virtual surprise birthday party for a friend. I can’t help thinking how privileged I am to spend the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day in this way. Indeed, digital technologies and connectivity have become a critical enabler of our everyday life, economic activities, and social interactions. However, depending on where you are and who you are, some people’s experience can be very far removed from this “connected” life that we enjoy.
According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 3.6 billion people, nearly half of the world’s population, do not have access to the Internet, the majority being girls and women. 2.2 billion of the unconnected are located in Asia and Pacific, 425 million in Africa, and 121 million in Arab States. The vast digital divide can be attributed to infrastructure gaps, network coverage, affordability of broadband services, or digital literacy levels, policy environment, etc. Indeed, challenges are many, from access, usage, to capacity. However, the solutions are not beyond reach. Digital transformation can benefit all, if all partners work together, including through South-South and triangular cooperation.
While developing countries are deeply impacted by the pandemic, the crisis has created an impetus for innovation, and the necessity to tap into broad networks for knowledge, ideas and solutions. Innovations abound in the Global South, by incorporating existing and developing new digital solutions and ICT services to tackle the impact of the pandemic.
In Cambodia, the government has passed an e-commerce law to ease the registration of e-commerce businesses. In Rwanda, the Central Bank suspended mobile money fees for three months and waived charges on services between bank accounts and mobile wallets. In Senegal and Uganda, e-commerce platforms have been fast to onboard new businesses and local producers, promote contactless payments and logistics, and nurture new partnerships with development partners. In Tunisia, the “label de confiance” initiative has helped build trust across the e-commerce ecosystem. All these solutions are ready to be shared and adapted for use in similar contexts through South-South and triangular cooperation.
South-South and triangular cooperation can play an important role in forging partnerships and tapping into the knowledge, expertise, technology and resources available in developing countries. South-South Cooperation, coupled with embracing new and innovative approaches, present an opportunity to respond to this crisis and recover from it.
South-South cooperation is advancing knowledge sharing in the area of digital economy. For example, thanks to the Government of China’s support, through the South-South and triangular cooperation among Maritime Continental Silk Road Cities for Sustainable Development Project (SSTC Cities Project), UNOSSC, jointly with China Association of Trade in Services (CATIS), organized 15 capacity development webinars on cross-border e-commerce benefiting policy makers, practitioners and Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) from over 100 developing countries and reaching five million views; UNWTO and UNESCO jointly with UNOSSC, facilitated about 30 cities and institutions to share their innovations in deploying digital solutions for sustainable tourism sector recovery.
South-South trust funds are also instrumental in testing and scaling-up digital innovations, with focus on benefiting the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS). For example, the India, Brazil and South Africa Facility for Poverty and Hunger Alleviation (IBSA Fund), managed by UNOSSC, enabled the Central Bank of Sierra Leone, in partnership with UNCDF to provide digital financial services and increased access to emergency COVID-19 credit to over 16,000 customers, including nearly 9000 women. The India–UN Development Partnership Fund helped 2,700 students, 60 percent of whom are girls, to gain computer literacy and access to computer labs in Timor-Leste.
Use of cryptocurrencies has increased in South-South trade, contributing to reduction in costs and increase in efficiency. It has also been applied in support of grants and donations among developing countries. For example, UNOSSC, through South-South Galaxy – a global knowledge sharing and partnership brokering platform, supported our partner, the Finance Center for South-South Cooperation (FCSSC), to mobilize donation through Bitcoin and successfully provided 250,000 masks to the West African Health Organization (WAHO).
And next week, UNOSSC is launching a South-South Cooperation Digital Innovation Challenge jointly with ITU. The challenge has been designed to share and scale up digital innovations through South-South cooperation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, corresponding to the three priority areas (response, recovery, and preparedness) identified by the United Nations Secretary General.
We welcome you to partner with us, in promoting the sharing of digital solutions and supporting scaling-up digital transformation across developing countries. Building a more equal and sustainable world, powered by digital technology, has proved to be even more relevant in these challenging times.
On this day next year, I hope we can share the powerful benefits of digital transformation with many more people in the world, regardless of where they are, girls or boys, women or men, young or aged. As we strive to achieve the SDGs, we must continue to work together to invest in a meaningful digital transformation for all.