Digital collaboration to build back better

Houlin Zhao, ITU Secretary-General

This article is based on my opening remarks at the UN Leadership Contact Group on 18 March, where I joined Professor Jeffrey Sachs and members of The Lancet COVID-19 Commission to discuss how UN agencies could help address the wide-ranging challenges of the pandemic.

Digital technologies and services have proved essential since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We owe this in large part to the two phases of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), organized in 2003 and 2005 by ITU on behalf of the UN family, which laid out the foundations for the remarkable development of information and communication technology (ICT) that we have witnessed over the past two decades.

As the United Nations specialized agency for ICTs, ITU has the responsibility to bring these technologies to all, including the 3.7 billion people who are still unconnected across the world. Looking beyond today’s health crisis, we aim to harness the digital revolution to build the world back better in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
ITU’s response
Early in the crisis, when demand for broadband communication services soared almost overnight last March, ITU leveraged its regulatory and policy-maker platform to help countries and industry cope with this unprecedented surge. We created the Global Network Resiliency Platform (REG4COVID), which has helped regulators, policy-makers and stakeholders from all over the world respond to and cope with the impact of COVID-19 on global connectivity.

While the world’s ICT infrastructure has proven remarkably resilient, it is not something we should take for granted.

Imagine how much worse the situation might have been without the ICT development undertaken over the last 20 years.

ITU’s response has brought together our Members and partners, including many sister UN agencies. Together, we are working in areas as diverse and critical as digital finance, e-education, e-health, e-government, and teleworking. We have launched new guidelines on emergency telecommunications, child online protection, and on making digital information, services, and products accessible to all people. We have also built on partnerships such as the ITU-WHO Focus Group on Artificial Intelligence for Health, the ITU-UNICEF Giga initiative to connect every school to the Internet, and the ITU-ILO initiative to boost decent jobs and enhance digital skills for youth in Africa’s digital economy.
A new strategy
My vision going forward is based on four pillars, or “4 I’s”: Infrastructure, Investment, Innovation and Inclusiveness.

Up to now, the investment in ICT everywhere has mainly been made by the private sector. But what happens in areas that generate no or little return on investment?
The UN Secretary-General has called for universal connectivity with affordable services by 2030. It is a formidable challenge, one that will require a new strategy – especially for digital infrastructure investments in underserved areas, where we need innovative ideas to attract investment and use investment more efficiently.

In this context, for example, ITU has partnered with the Governments of Japan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to launch Connect2Recover, an initiative that will help countries recover from COVID-19 by expanding access to affordable and reliable connectivity.

Connectivity is a challenge affecting all nations. It requires the broadest possible cooperation and solidarity.

Recovery efforts need to be built on new regulatory and policy frameworks that embrace collaborative participation, with a new whole-of-government investment strategy at their centre. When ICT investments are fragmented among different ecosystems and not well coordinated within the same country, we risk causing capacity inefficiencies and resource shortfalls at precisely the time when more investments in ICTs are needed.

I have stressed the importance of the “4 I’s” at major global venues with world leaders since the start of the crisis, and I also count on the Lancet COVID-19 Commission and the UN Leadership Contact Group to help move these efforts forward.
Improving inclusion
COVID-19 has stalled or reversed many of the development gains that were achieved pre-pandemic. It has undermined progress on global sustainable development and has changed everything, not least the way we work at the UN and beyond. As the ICT leader in the UN family, ITU has adapted key tools and processes to bring our events and meetings fully online.

Despite the challenging environment, ITU events and meetings have become more inclusive than ever.

Still, much remains to be done.

Building back better means, above all, leaving no one offline. All of us at the forefront of digitization need to collaborate in the decisive weeks and months to come. As we respond to COVID-19, we must also look beyond it. Together, we need to connect the unconnected and drive the development of the new technologies – from artificial intelligence to 5G mobile infrastructure – that are central to digital health and the digital economy.

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