How ITU is boosting digital inclusion in the Arab region

TU and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will organize the fourth ITU-UNESCO Regional Digital Inclusion Week for Arab States from 22 to 28 September 2019. ITU News caught up with Ebrahim Al Haddad, ITU’s Regional Director for the Arab Region, about the challenges and opportunities for digital inclusion across the region.
What is the purpose of ITU-UNESCO Digital Inclusion Week for the Arab region and the activities planned this year?
The Week aims to highlight and raise awareness about mechanisms to integrate marginalized sectors of Arab societies using information and communication technologies (ICTs), especially persons with disabilities, women, youth, children, rural and remote populations, as well as migrants.

This year’s Digital Inclusion Week will be held under the theme “Health, Education and Big Data for Enhancing Wellbeing”.

Celebrations will take place in seven Arab countries: Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Tunisia. They will be organized by 16 partners representing a wide array of stakeholders in the Arab region, including governments, academia, private companies and civil society organizations. Activities planned include Tech Talks, seminars, family run/walks, digital health challenges (hackathons) and much more.

More information on the Week’s activities is available at:

You can also follow all activities on social media using the hashtags: #Digitalinclusionweek and #AccessToInfoDay
What do you see as some of the biggest opportunities for digital inclusion in the Arab region?
The Arab region has a population of around 420 million people, representing a wide range of marginalized groups.

Women constitute 49.7% of the population, according to the World Bank. Persons with disabilities are estimated to be around 15% of the population, according to UNESCWA. Also, more than half of the population is below the age of 25, according to UNFPA, and there are around 37.7 million migrants and 9.1 million refugees displaced within the Arab region according to UNHCR.

As evident through those statistics it is quite challenging for all stakeholders, particularly governments, to integrate these segments in the societies of the Arab region.

“We have a variety of activities that vary from direct assistance to countries, to projects, to forum and workshops and developing regional studies.”

Fortunately, the ICT sector in the Arab region has made great strides in development in the past few years and, as a result, profoundly impacted digital inclusion throughout the region.

According to ITU data, mobile penetration rates have reached 103.1% across the region, mobile broadband subscriptions reached 62.7%, and more than 50% of individuals and households are connected to the internet.

ITU is working with all relevant stakeholders in the region to connect the other half within the coming few years and to create digitally inclusive societies that integrate those marginalized and vulnerable groups.
How will this week’s events in Iraq address the themes of health, education and big data for enhancing well-being?
The week’s events will focus on the role that ICTs are playing in combating non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and strengthen ITU’s existing work in combatting NCDs in collaboration with the WHO and relevant stakeholders.
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NCDs are today the leading cause of death worldwide. They result from a combination of genetic, physiological, environmental and behavioral factors. Each year they cause the death of 41 million people, representing 71% of all deaths globally, according to the World Health Organization. This is a staggering number, particularly when one considers that only three countries in the Arab world – Egypt, Algeria and Sudan – have populations greater than 41 million.

Also, 85% of all “premature” NCD deaths (between the ages of 30 and 69 years) occur in middle- and low-income countries. The segment of the population most affected by NCDs are the over 30 age group, who are among the most economically active part the population. So better managing and reducing the incidence of NCDs is therefore of vital concern to Arab countries and essential to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Education and behavior change can help manage the risk of developing NCDs. Improved access to information, facilitated by ICTs and digital health services can play an important support role in this process. This is particularly true for the four most prevalent NCDs – cardiovascular diseases (for example heart attacks and strokes), cancer, respiratory diseases (for example asthma) and diabetes. Through improvements in diet and nutrition, adopting more active lifestyles, avoiding smoking and having regular medical checkups NCDs and their risks can be better managed.

The Week will direct attention to ongoing initiatives in areas such as telemedicine, improvement in prescription management, social media advocacy and other areas that are improving learning and health outcomes for the public especially remote, underserved and vulnerable sectors.

By sharing case studies and experiences, identifying best practices and supporting public awareness, the Week seeks to contribute to positive change, the adoption and development of more effective policies that can contribute to inclusive thriving societies.
What are you looking forward to most about the activities in Iraq?
We are happy to collaborate with the Communication and Media Commission of Iraq to organize four activities from the 22nd to the 25th of September 2019 as part of Digital Inclusion Week.

“We are determined to assist Iraq in the coming few years to create enabling environments in areas that include digital financial inclusion, cybersecurity, smart learning, ICT accessibility for persons with disabilities and smart villages.”

These activities are a Regional Forum on Digital Inclusion, a National Workshop on ICT Accessibility Policies, a National Workshop on Smart Learning Policies and a National Workshop on Cybersecurity for Financial Services.

These activities represent a series of ongoing activities that we have launched in Iraq in implementation of the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference Resolution 211 entitled “Support for the Iraqi Du3M 2025 initiative for advancement of the telecommunication and information technology sectors”.

We are determined to assist Iraq in the coming few years to create enabling environments in areas that include digital financial inclusion, cybersecurity, smart learning, ICT accessibility for persons with disabilities and smart villages. We hope that through this targeted assistance we can assist in Iraq’s digital transformation through the Du3M 2025 initiative.
What are some of the ways ITU’s work in the Arab region addresses digital inclusion?
Digital Inclusion has been one of the key focus areas of the Arab Regional Office in recent years. We have a variety of activities that vary from direct assistance to countries, to projects, to forum and workshops and developing regional studies.

Apart from the activities related to ITU-UNESCO Digital Inclusion Week, we are actively promoting digital financial inclusion by assisting countries in this domain, currently Egypt and Iraq, and also this year we will launch a regional assessment study on the enabling environment for digital financial inclusion in the Arab region.

On the issue of ICT accessibility, we have assisted Egypt, Sudan and currently Iraq in formulating national ICT accessibility policies in addition to organizing web accessibility trainings annually.

Regarding women and children, we recently organized an innovation challenge titled “Arab Girls can Innovate” in collaboration with the Arab Women Organization and the Chamber of Information Technology of Egypt.

Furthermore, we play a pivotal role regionally in raising awareness about Child Online Protection (COP) through assisting countries in formulating COP strategies and through the various forums and workshops we organized.

Currently, we are developing a project titled “Arab Girls Can Code” with key regional partners, including UN Women, the Arab Women Organization, the World Bank and the Egypt ICT Trust Fund.

Moreover, are working with the Saudi Arabian organization Meem Ain to launch two projects to promote digital safety and resilience for women and youth in the Arab region and to promote digital financial literacy of children in the Arab region.