While the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are being felt across the world, they have impacted the least developed countries (LDCs) in unprecedented, profound, and disproportionate ways.
Despite the target set by the Istanbul Programme of Action calling for universal and affordable access to the Internet in LDCs by 2020, too many people in these countries remain unconnected, deprived of the technologies and services that have become essential in the age of COVID-19.
Will this realization accelerate digitalization in the LDCs, or will it deepen digital inequalities within between countries?
Since the start of the pandemic, I have stressed the need both for increased investment in ICT infrastructure and for a new, whole-of-government ICT investment strategy, especially in unserved communities.
Many of these communities are found in rural areas. Rural connectivity gaps are particularly pronounced in LDCs, according to the latest ITU data.
Action to connect the unconnected
To address this situation, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has launched new initiatives like Connect2Recover, to help expand access to affordable and reliable connectivity in some of the least well-connected countries.
At a preparatory meeting next month for the 5th United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC5), ITU Member States and stakeholders will learn more about how they can engage through Connect2Recover and other projects.
The LDC5 preparatory process will also feature ITU’s Emerging Technology Week dedicated to LDCs, landlocked developing countries (LLDCs), and small island developing states (SIDS).
Our objective is to help these countries benefit from emerging technologies, ranging from artificial intelligence to the Internet of Things, that will be essential – not only to connect the unconnected, but also to achieve sustainable development for all.
These two concepts are at the heart of the next ITU World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC-21), set to take place in Africa for the first time ever. I am confident that WTDC-21 will help reshape the connectivity agenda to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the end of the decade.
A network of partnerships built up with sister UN agencies fosters all aspects of sustainable development for LDCs. For example, ITU is working with the International Labour Organization (ILO) on enhancing digital skills for youth; with the United Nations Institute on Training and Research (UNITAR) on producing e-waste statistics in the LDCs; and with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on connecting every school to the Internet through the Giga initiative.
ITU and the Office of the High Representative for the Least developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (OHRLLS) have also been collaborating closely. For example, we are updating our joint report, first published two years ago, Achieving universal and affordable Internet in the least developed countries.
As we formulate a new programme of action, I wish to reaffirm ITU’s strong support to LDCs.
This, after all, is the Decade of Action to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly in 2015. ITU will continue working to harness the power of information and communication technologies (ICTs) for the LDCs, aiming to step up action for universal Internet connectivity as well as promote ICTs as a key part of sustainable development.
Based on Mr Zhao’s opening remarks at the 22nd meeting of the Inter-Agency Consultative Group (IACG) of the United Nations system and international organizations on the Implementation of the Istanbul Programme of Action (IPoA) for LDCs.