Access to Information is  Access to Development [Archives:1999/17/Focus]

April 26 1999

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! 

Riad al Khouri
Beirut-Based Economist
As anybody who has looked at the website of the Yemen Times or many other publications in the region can tell, the use of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) is fast spreading in the region. However, this is not necessarily happening smoothly and noncontroversially. The debate in Amman last month on easy Internet access is a case in point, and many other places in the Middle East have also in the past few years had to start confronting the explosion in ICTs and what it means to the average person. Small but significant examples include the use of color printing in Beirut newspapers (still not common), the spread of satellite dishes in Damascus (now ubiquitous, after a timid and illegal start in the early and mid-90s), Internet in Riyadh (OK today, but problematic and rare until recently), and cellular phones in Cairo (booming as of last year). The fax machine, once touted as having the ability to undermine the state and society in the Middle East, is now found in the grocery and nursery, not to mention the office; modems, virtually unknown five years ago, are today a part of daily life; and CD-ROMs are becoming as important to many as audio or video cassettes were two decades ago. This is not to ignore the low-tech end of the ICT spectrum: voice and speech communication techniques, theater, and drama in education are also part of ICTs, if not as glitzy as some of the electronic gadgetry mentioned above.
Anyway, whether you’re teaching in a primary school in rural Yemen or using state-of-the-art telecommunications equipment in Beirut, the whole range of ICTs Ñ including new and traditional media and communications tools and approaches Ñ can make a significant contribution as instruments and drivers of economic growth and positive change. While technologies alone cannot solve the problems of poverty and sustainable development, ICTs offer an enormous potential to generate, access, disseminate and share knowledge at all societal levels and thus bolster development in general.
However, there are also dangers, threats and obstacles that must be addressed: information flows and knowledge acquisition may be influenced or even impeded by power, institutions and peoples’ interpretation of, and attitudes towards, information, its sources, and the transmittal medium. Exploring this complex issue is a vital part of the world dialog that is being pushed by the Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP). The GKP is an informal grouping of organizations committed to sharing information, experiences and resources to promote broad access to, and effective use of, knowledge and information as tools of sustainable, equitable development. This partnership currently numbers over forty world class bodies from the state, business, and civil sectors alike. The GKP includes financial institutions (e.g. the African Development Bank, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, the World Bank), cultural organizations (the British Council, UNESCO, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), stalwarts of international business (Price Waterhouse Coopers, Daimler-Benz Chrysler, Dell Computer), governments (Canada, Malaysia, and Switzerland), numerous UN organizations (FAO, WHO, ITU) and others operating nationally, within regions, and worldwide.
Hosted by the government of Malaysia, the GKP will be convening its second Global Knowledge conference (GKII), in Kuala Lumpur, 7-10 March 2000. The event will attract some 2000 participants from around the world, representing industry and business, government, civil society, NGOs, and international and development organizations.
The first GK conference, held in 1997, explored ways in which new ICTs are providing valuable possibilities for individuals, communities and states. However, this also poses special challenges for developing countries and the world’s poor, and one of GKII’s main themes will be access: assuring universal access to information and communications technologies and to the knowledge that can be tapped using these technologies. GKII will thus focus on globalization and its impact.
A key to sustainable development in the 21st century will be access to and use and sharing of knowledge, information, data, and communications channels as well as the requisite technological means. Those who do not have access to knowledge and the fruits of the technological and information revolution are in danger of becoming marginalized and part of an underclass, and such a phenomenon is starting to become apparent in the Middle East. The challenge is therefore to enfranchise the poor and disadvantaged so that all are afforded access to information and learning.
GKP is inviting its partners and other actors to share their experiences at GKII. In particular, the partners will explore the impact of information and ICTs on public policy formulation at various levels as well as the significance of access to knowledge for particular cultures. The challenge for GKP at GKII will be to capture the diverse experiences of a wide range of development partners in a way that facilitates productive dialog leading to effective action.
Regional events leading up to and involved with GKII will help to broaden participation and input and to sharpen the focus of the overall endeavor. For our part of the world, a linkup with the third Mediterranean Development Forum (MDF) is planned, as some of the meetings of MDFIII (in Cairo) and GKII are being held on the same dates. A relatively new ICT, video conferencing, will be used to hook up the conferees in Egypt with colleagues in Malaysia.
Ultimately, GKII Ð and its partners such as MDF Ð must focus on an agenda promoting the use of ICTs to further equity, fairness, social justice and intelligent and informed decision-making. Otherwise, a disastrous and paradoxical outcome of the current world explosion in ICTs will be to deprive people of information and to cut communications between groups, particularly the rich and the poor in the same cities or countries. This negative trend is already evident in parts of the Middle East and elsewhere. It will be one of the tasks of the GKP to reverse it.