Access to Information and Communication for Sustainable Development Opportunities and Challenges for the International Community

Recommendations of the Access Working Group

of the Global Knowledge Partnership


by Kerry McNamara and Rory O’Brien

February 4, 2000



The Problem 


There is broad consensus within the international community that gaps in information and knowledge, both within and between countries, are increasing.  The new information and communications technologies, which are being rapidly deployed throughout the world, are important factors in both creating and addressing these gaps.  At a time when these critical tools hold the promise of allowing the local and global information-sharing needed for sustainable development in the 21st century, there is broad concern that gaps in access to these tools and resources are increasing, and that the information revolution could paradoxically become a cause of even greater inequality and worsening poverty. 


There is an urgent need for the international community – including public, private and not-for-profit agencies – to work together to promote universal access to information and communication technologies.  Yet it is equally important to make the right choices about the scope and focus of those interventions, so as to encourage and complement, rather than interfere with, the innovation and private initiative that are a vital source of these new technologies and their global extension.  In addition, it is important to give particular attention to the specific needs and diverse traditions of poor communities.  “Universal access” should mean access by all to all the world’s diverse riches of knowledge and information, including the knowledge of poor and traditional communities, not just the universal spread of the “content” of those countries at the forefront of the information revolution.


The challenge for the Global Knowledge Partnership in the area of Access, then, is to identify key areas of need and opportunity for joint action that will facilitate the growth of diverse, innovative solutions to the access challenge.  These solutions should foster private sector innovation and investment while preserving a legitimate concern for equity and sustainability, encouraging the preservation and spread of diverse sources of information and knowledge (including the information and knowledge of poor and traditional communities), and mobilizing information and communication technologies as tools of broader sustainable development objectives.  These solutions should focus, in particular, on ways to empower poor communities and individuals with and through information and communication.  Governments and civil society organizations, in particular, have an important role to play in ensuring that ICT is used to support citizen participation in meeting needs not addressed by the private sector.


It is highly recommended that interventions target specific communities most likely to suffer from inadequate access.  Access for rural communities is especially important, given the large number of people in the world that do not dwell in large cities.  In addition, there are many traditionally disadvantaged people who must be given more consideration in matters of access.  These include women in general, as well as poor, illiterate and disabled people. In conjunction with these communities, the barriers to access that challenge them must be singled out and overcome.  These barriers include such things as differences in cultural practices and languages, gender issues, lack of affordability, inadequate infrastructures, and censorship concerns.  All ICT-related interventions would benefit from including these communities in efforts to eliminate their  difficulties in achieving equitable access.


The Access Working Group has identified six key areas where the greatest need and opportunity exist for effective collaboration by members of the Partnership that will help advance the goal of universal, sustainable, economically viable access to information and communication technologies, particularly for the world’s poor.


1. Sharing Information, Analysis and Evaluation on the Scope and Nature of the Access Challenge


Much of the work of the international community on Access issues in the past few years has been based on spotty information and limited research,  insufficiently rigorous analysis of the nature and scope of the market demand and market failures, little effort to inventory what we already know and what we've already done, and little understanding/evaluation of the IMPACT of those interventions we have made so far.  So the first priority area for action is a much stronger commitment to information-sharing, analysis and evaluation in order to properly inform our actions.


Within countries, it would help if local users were consulted and research done on their needs and circumstances prior to the implementation of ICT initiatives, such as telecentres.  This will help identify the configuration of technologies and their utilization that are most appropriate to the local situation.  Between countries, more effort must be made to include voices from developing countries in international research and decision-making forums regarding the use of ICT.  This will avoid creating patterns of ICT deployment that are biased in favour of the advanced economies of the world.



2. Encouraging Well-Targeted Public and Private Investment


One of the critical, and complex, dimensions of the access problem is identifying the proper focus and scope of public (local and international) and private investment in creating conditions and resources for universal access.  Addressing legitimate equity concerns and public sector priorities while at the same time encouraging private sector innovation and investment is particularly tricky, but particularly important, in the area of information/communication technologies and the infrastructure of universal access.  Recent research has suggested that there may be many more opportunities for effective and sustainable private investment, and much more real and sustainable demand, than the development community has traditionally believed.  The public, private and non-governmental members of the GKP need to work together much more effectively to push the envelope of what is commercially attractive, so that we can at the same time more effectively TARGET public investments in priority areas where commercial approaches are not likely to be viable for some time and/or where critical public needs/interests/goods are at stake.  Given the scope and speed of private sector innovation, and spread of technology, we need to be very careful not to crowd out incipient private investment by poorly targeted and unsustainable public investments, particularly by international organizations.  There is a fine line between pilot projects that test and stimulate demand and pilot projects that distort or stifle indigenous responses to incipient demand.  (For example, and relating this point to priority #1, we urgently need to assess the impact of the various telecenter projects of the past few years.)


Specific instance: Open Source Software


In addition, the Partnership should consider carefully targeted “venture capital” investments to foster private innovation in areas where new forms of technology could generate significant opportunity for developing-country entrepreneurship in the information economy.  A prime example is the Open-Source software movement.  A consortium of Partners, working creatively with the private sector in developing countries, could play a valuable role in seeding the emergence of robust, innovative, and globally competitive software industries based on the Open Source model.


Specific instance: Applications Development


Here again, the Partnership could best contribute to the growth of innovative applications relevant to the needs of developing countries and the poor by fostering an environment for innovation and private investment and helping the emergence of INDIGENOUS innovators.   Devoting resources to applications that are designed and built in developed countries for use in developing countries should be a last resort in urgent cases.  Priority should be given to fostering the growth of indigenous applications developers.


3.  Strategy, Policy and Regulation: Creating an Environment for Innovation and the Free Flow of Information


In order to foster universal access to information and communication tools and resources, the international community needs to pay attention not only to specific policy/regulatory areas such as telecommunications reform, but also to broader issues of helping developing countries create and implement a strategy for joining the information economy.  This involves giving clear and unambiguous messages to decision-makers about the need to make planning and preparation for the deployment of digital communications a priority, and on the negative consequences of following a strategy of centralizing control of public information. It also involves developing templates and toolkits for policy and regulatory reform that promote the growth of the information economy and enable the free, multidirectional flow of information and knowledge, both within and among countries, and coordinating more effectively the training and capacity-building efforts of the Partners in policy and regulatory areas.  The Partnership also needs to give more attention to building the capacity of non-governmental groups in developing countries, including the private sector, both to play an active role in creating the enabling environment for the information economy and to assert the rights and principles of universal access to information and knowledge.   Part of their role is to help foster an environment of greater accountability and transparency in the use of, and policy affecting, information and communication.


Specific instance: Internet Governance


Access by developing country representatives (from government, the private sector and NGOs) to international decision-making bodies on Internet governance and related issues of the information economy is an important issue.  It may be an exaggeration to say that in the area of telecommunications, standards setting is replacing legislation, but the standards that are adopted, whether by international governance bodies or private consortia, determine the choices that are available in the future.  This can have a tremendous impact on access.  One could argue that the best thing developing countries could do over the next 2-3 years to assure themselves a meaningful and credible voice in international governance mechanisms for the information economy is to make their countries full and vibrant participants in that economy by an aggressive program of policy and regulatory reform, creatively-leveraged public sector investment, and encouragement of domestic and international private sector investment and entrepreneurship.


Specific instance: Access for Rural and Disadvantaged Communities


In the next 2-3 years, the best contribution the Partnership can make to increasing access for rural and disadvantaged communities is by focusing intensely on fostering positive policy and regulatory environments for innovation and private investment (including competition in the telecommunications sector), by helping to find creative solutions for DEMAND in rural and underserved communities to express itself, and by directing private investment to those opportunities, in partnership with the public sector and the international community.  Subsidies and other non-market interventions should be used whenever it is clear that the private sector is unable to adequately provide the access required. 


4. Targeting Public-Sector Access Interventions for Short-to-Medium Term Impact on Universal Access, Poverty Reduction and Sustainable Development


To the extent that the public-sector members of the Partnership do engage in specific access-related interventions (projects), they should be targeted more tightly on interventions that have an urgent, short-to-medium term impact; i.e., things that might get done by the market in 3-5 years, but for which the wait would be unacceptable because the damage in terms of inequitable access and poverty is too great.   We should be more disciplined in asking ourselves whether a specific public-sector project (particularly by the international community) is responding simply to an opportunity for public investment, or responding to an urgent need that would not otherwise be addressed in a timely fashion by private investment even if the proper environment for such investment were created.  Government-sponsored ICT initiatives will likely be required most in the areas of universal access, poverty reduction, and sustainable development.


5. Human Resources and Capacity Building


Here again, the Partnership’s priority should be on focus and selectivity.   The market will increasingly take care of the "retail" demand for training/capacity building if the international community would focus INTENSELY over the next few years on training/capacity building for those KEY sectors (both the government and "intelligent intermediaries" such as the media, NGOs, teachers, etc.) that are either the impediments to or the key vectors of the spread of the information economy.  Business and government leaders should be especially encouraged to improve their knowledge of ICT and related issues, particularly where access is concerned.  The Partnership’s greatest contribution in this area over the next 2-3 years could be to combine an intensive and coordinated capacity-building effort for key audiences with technical assistance to emerging private and non-profit providers of training in developing countries, to promote and facilitate the emergence of diverse and locally-relevant capacity-building initiatives.


6. Access to What?  Supporting Diversity of Global Information/Knowledge Flows


Even a highly successful, coordinated international effort to foster universal access to information/communications technologies will not advance the underlying goal of sustainable, equitable development if it only assures global access to the “content” disseminated by advanced economies.  The public, private and NGOs members of the Partnership need to work together to create opportunities for the development and dissemination of information and knowledge from a variety of sources, in a variety of languages, representing a variety of views and traditions.  Here again, selectivity and focus are key.  The priority should not be on “retail” content projects, but on supporting indigenous capacity and creating the conditions for the more effective dissemination of diverse content.  The 'many-to-many' communication channels available could prove highly beneficial, if, for example, it allowed rural farmers to access expertise provided by local and international scientists, or if access to information on the operations of government and corporations allowed citizens to more fully participate in democratic policy-making.


Citation reference:


McNamara, K., & O'Brien, R. (2000, 7-10/March). Access to Information and Communication for Sustainable Development Opportunities and Challenges for the International Community - Recommendations of the Access Working Group. Presented at the Global Knowledge II conference. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Global Knowledge Partnership Secretariat.