ITU

My message to ITU Council 2022: Time to cooperate on digital transformation

Houlin Zhao, ITU Secretary-General

As I review the latest activities and results of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), I am pleased to reflect on what our organization has achieved amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Successful recent conferences – namely the latest World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA) and the sixth World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum (WTPF-21) – attest to ITU’s resilience in challenging times.

ICTs for peace

Our world, however, is now also concerned with what is happening in Ukraine. This moment calls for global cooperation. On the opening day of WTSA three weeks ago, I called for all participants to be united in doing their best to stop this war. Unfortunately, it has not come to an end yet.

I am saddened by the loss of civilian life and suffering, including from our own community of telecom experts and engineers. I echo the call of the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and my UN counterparts for an immediate peaceful resolution.

I am also concerned by the mounting damage being caused to telecommunication infrastructure, which provides a vital lifeline for people and economies everywhere. I called on the ITU Council to promote information and communication technologies (ICTs) for peace.

Addressing inequalities

In the draft 2024-2027 ITU Strategic Plan, two clear goals have been identified – universal connectivity and sustainable digital transformation. This document comes at a time when 2.9 billion people are still unconnected around the world, most of them living in developing countries.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that equitable access to digital technologies is not just a moral responsibility.

It is also about recovery, growth, and sustainability. None of this will be possible if the ability to connect is as profoundly unequal as it is now.

Ongoing adaptation

The challenges of COVID – 19 have helped to prepare us. Despite working largely virtually for two years, we have ensured business continuity and delivered on all our core competencies.

WTPF-21, hosted online from 16 to 18 December 2021, adopted a set of Opinions in areas ranging from inclusive connectivity and digital skills to fostering an effective enabling environment. Apart from confirming how effective ITU can be in holding virtual and hybrid meetings, this timely forum sent a powerful message – one that aligns ICTs and emerging digital technologies with global priorities for sustainable development.

In a welcome signal of normality, WTSA and the associated Global Standards Symposium brought around 1,000 delegates from 120 countries together in Geneva, Switzerland, and was further enhanced by strong remote participation.

These conferences have underlined the fundamental importance of international cooperation – and the need to accelerate digital transformation for all. I hope we keep thinking about how we can best provide equitable opportunities for participation by all administrations going forward.

What’s ahead

This year is important in the plan to refit ITU for a dynamic future, as we prepare to dismantle one of our existing buildings and clear the site for our new, purpose-built sustainable headquarters. What we have learned about teleworking will be key to successfully managing the transition phase. In addition, some ITU Member States have expressed their interest in hosting our meetings during this period, and I encourage others to come forward.

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum 2022 has now started, bringing together wider networks of public and private stakeholders to advance ICT development.

In May, ministerial roundtable sessions will address key WSIS challenges and calls for action. As we mark this year’s World Telecommunication and Information Society Day on 17 May, we will highlight the benefits of digital technologies for older persons and healthy ageing.

The World Telecommunication Development Conference – taking place in Kigali, Rwanda, in June, preceded immediately by the Generation Connect Global Youth Summit – offers an opportunity to re-energize the global development agenda and accelerate progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Finally, the preparations are well underway for ITU’s upcoming Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-22) in Bucharest, Romania, from 26 September to 14 October.

When the pandemic first hit, we had to act quickly and efficiently – to keep up ITU’s regular engagement and address a succession of pressing issues. It was not always easy, but we forged ahead together.

That is what it means to be part of the ITU family, and it has never been more important. We have learned some important lessons, which will be invaluable as we navigate one of the busiest and most important years in ITU’s recent memory.

Based on Houlin Zhao’s State of the Union Address to the ITU Council on 21 March 2022.

See the full speech transcript.

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