UN alliance aims to promote IT in poor countries

UN alliance aims to promote IT in poor countries

Participants at a United Nations (U.N.) meeting in Berlin has proposed creating a global alliance that would spur investment in communications technology in the world's poorest countries as a follow-up to next year's World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

At the meeting, representatives from the public and private sectors and other nongovernmental organizations agreed to submit a proposal for the new alliance to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in the hope of having the initiative adopted by delegates at the WSIS gathering in Tunis, Tunisia, in November 2005, according to Sarbuland Khan, a director with the U.N. ICT Task Force.

"The idea is to keep the ball rolling after (next year's) summit ends," said Khan, who attended the Berlin meeting. "We need to help governments in developing countries make significant policy reforms and regulatory changes so that the private sector can play a key role in ICT investments. "

Investments in computers, telecommunications systems and other infrastructure equipment are not happening in these countries because they are viewed by the public sector as risky, Khan said in a telephone interview from his office in the U.N. headquarters in New York

The first step is for local governments to make necessary market reforms, he said. Then, in a second step, wealthier countries and multilateral organizations such as the International Finance Corp. could absorb some of the risk by guaranteeing support to investors in the public sector.

"Donor countries should join hands and say 'OK, we'll cover risks up to 25 percent of the investment but the rest should come from the private sector,'" Khan said. "If the necessary market reforms are in place, why shouldn't the private sector be interested?"

The proposed global alliance will serve as "a facilitator" that brings key people together on a global basis to discuss policy, reforms and investment mechanisms, according to Khan. It will not be "an operational organization," such as the Development Gateway Foundation or the World Bank, which implement projects, he said. "The alliance will facilitate action, but the action itself will be taken over by the operating units," he said.

Although the global alliance would be linked to the UN, it would be a totally independent body to ensure that it does not become "hobbled by bureaucracy," Khan said. The U.N. has 191 member states, making the agreement process highly complex, he said.

Ten organizations, including the International Chamber of Commerce and the World Bank, have agreed to gather views from partners in the public and private sectors and in multilateral organizations before the ICT Task Force meets again in April to draft a proposal for the global alliance, Khan said.

In Berlin, Task Force participants also discussed some of the financing ideas that will be a key focus of the second summit, according to Khan. "Debate is raging over the various financial mechanisms," he said.

One proposal, supported by several European countries, is to have contractors that bid on public sector tenders contribute 1 percent of the contract to a solidarity fund.

Another is to impose a tax on computer chips.

"The U.S. is opposed to any taxes because it feels these would have the opposite affect by raising prices and reducing incentives to invest," Khan said. "The U.S. favors a market-oriented approach."

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