Bridging the digital divide in the region and aiming to boost sustainable development through the ICT revolution that is now unravelling in the world, of which the Asia Pacific has been a key beneficiary, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka (ICTA) has collaborated to organise a two-day expert consultation in Sri Lanka.
The regional expert consultation on connecting Asia Pacific’s digital society for building resilience commenced yesterday in Colombo, bringing together an impressive line-up of participants comprising of local and international speakers, panellists and moderators.
Initiated by UNESCAP along with the UN Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL), the consultation aims to devise ways and review best practices in using ICT connectivity for the resilient development of the region. It will focus on several aspects of regional connectivity, both in terms of infrastructure and the enabling legal environment.
The consultative meeting has been organised as a preparatory meeting to discuss and review the relevant strategies for adoption at the third session of the Committee of Information and Communications Technology (CICT).
Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratuga who delivered the keynote address at the inauguration of the prestigious event and was unanimously re-elected to the position of the UNESCAP’s ICT Committee chairmanship since his first election to the chair.
Promoting digital inclusion
Information and Comm-unications Technology and Disaster Risk Reduction Division Director Shamika Sirimanne delivering the opening address at the inauguration noted that the results of the progress made through the ICT revolution has possible to leverage economic, social and environmental benefits. This in turn can make a contribution to the sustainable development goals that all countries in the region are looking to achieve.
“However the digital divide remains prevalent in our region. This is particularly observed in broadband internet connectivity, the access to which is still highly uneven across the region and this gap is widening. This event will bring about an opportunity for experts in ICT and policy practitioners to discuss issues related to the expansion of broadband and application of ICT for economic and social development in our region,” she stated.
Giving a brief outline of the two day programme, she revealed that the key issues of broadband access will be deliberated along with ways in broadband access can be expanded to achieve a seamless, uninterrupted, accessible and affordable broadband network. New trends in ICT and broadband will also be discussed in order to build a more resilient society as well as how to make the availability of ICT and broadband more meaningful to all, promoting digital inclusion.
“As you all know the internet can offer great scope for economic development provided the right law and provisions are in place and so we will focus on the United Nations convention on the use of electronic communications in international contracts which was recently adopted by Sri Lanka. We will also discuss trade facilitation tools that can be activated through the internet and promote paperless trade.”
Empowering the rural poor
Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga commenced his keynote address by observing that the Asia-Pacific region has been showing remarkable progress since recent years. While developed economies in the rest of the world have been stagnating at around 2.7 per cent growth rate as indicated by the 2010 figures, developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region had grown at a rate around 8.8 per cent.
“I think this is a remarkable feat. This growth is also a result of the contribution made by the rural poor – let me emphasise this because there are so many rural economies in the developing economies in this part of the world. Their contribution in turn has been greatly facilitated by the ICT revolution that has empowered the rural societies,” he said.
The objective of the regional expert consultation is to devise, rate and reveal best practices in using ICT connectivity for resilient development in the region, he explained. The consultation will focus on several aspects of regional connectivity, both in terms of infrastructure and enabling legal environment.
“There will be much information generated during today and tomorrow on how countries can contribute towards the collective efficiency of the region and I think this is a very important point at this point of time because the entire Asian region is becoming the driver of the world economy with many people referring to it as the economic powerhouse of the world,” Weeratunga added.
Amongst the popular themes that will be discussed there will no doubt the broadband revolution and ICT innovations, noting that Sri Lanka too can offer a number of ICT innovations which have applied been to rural populations.
The keynote speaker revealed that out of five people in developing countries, particularly in rural societies, remain offline which means just one-fifth of the world’s population has access to whatever the internet has to offer. Unfortunately, the digital divide is happened precisely in the technology that is most potent in creating transformations – that is the mobile broadband area.
Asia-Pacific region also has 950 million people living on less than $1.5 a day. Protecting the poor and the vulnerable and ensuring that they could have access to opportunities should remain a high priority.
“We all agree that ICT is our tools that can be used to effectively empower people and help governments deliver their services effectively. As declared by the United Nations Broadband Commission for Digital Development, broadband will represent the momentous economic and social gain that will be a game changer in addressing a myriad of aspects, be it healthcare costs, education and social change,” he said.
“Government and private industries must be encouraged. In this aspect, governments have a huge role to play in encouraging the private sector. I see the private sector getting more involved development activities now; they are not waiting on the government institutions to come up with new solutions. The private sector is investing a lot of money today to improve solutions. We must join hands with the private sector to develop ICT for inclusive and sustainable development,” he stressed.
As an example, he shared the story of how Korea built successful knowledge society through a public private partnership. Today, Korea’s 3G mobile networks cover 99 per cent of its population, which he stated is remarkable.
In the case of Sri Lanka, being a small country, reviving its economy and building a new nation after three decades of the terrorist conflict, there is now a wealth of opportunity for ICT investment.
He observed that a number of private sector players and private sector organisations that support this cause and motivates governments to support them and help them achieve this target was present in the audience.
An example of the potential in the country was highlighted in the Global Services Location Index published by A.T. Kearney, known to be one of the world’s leading barometers on the relative attractiveness of countries as service locations.
The indexing is based on the several fundamentals – financial attractiveness, people skills and revenue and how friendly the business environment is. Sri Lanka is positioned at 21 out of 50 countries which is considered a remarkable feat for a small country in the midst of giants such as China, India, Egypt and Mexico, he said. Furthermore, Sri Lanka’s position in the Network Readiness Index published by the World Economic Forum has also improved from the 86th position to 66th position out of 138 countries in 2010 and 2011.
Several eGovernment initiatives have resulted in enhanced delivery of public services online with overall 15,000 Government officials having being trained and skilled in ICT. “The President has given a lot of support to ensure that the entire public sector will be capable of using ICT instruments. We have also trained over 25,000 citizens under an ICTA project through which they entered disadvantaged areas, helped out people who could improve their lifestyles and livelihoods though ICT and given them special training.”
Weeratunga added that Sri Lanka is also famous for its rural test centre network which is a very interesting concept, held by ESCAP over the last couple of years. Speaking on ICT initiatives implemented locally, he stated that in this week alone, the Government launched the eServices project facilitated by the ICTA by introducing 22 eServices provided by 10 Government agencies.
This is only the initial step taken by eServices arm of the ICTA to enable the public to obtain their services quickly and efficiently and in the comfort of their home or office. “Sri Lanka has to learn a lot from giants like Japan, Korea, India, China and I’m sure that with the collective discussions here, the deliberations will come up with a set of outcomes that will be helpful to all in the region.
“I think the fact that you are here today gives Sri Lanka a great privilege because we are at a point that we can learn from you and I’m sure that there are a few things that we can share with you which have empowered our rural populations.”
One such initiative is the Government Information Centre with the short code 1919 which won an award as the best eGovernment initiative, a call centre of the Government operative 365 days of the year, providing a range of services. Over the past five years, it has added on to its portfolio of work a large number of services that have helped people particularly in the rural areas. “Sri Lanka having a population of 20 million people, we believe that everyone has access to a telephone with 21 million mobile connections recorded which is something we are very proud of.”
ICT legal framework
The Attorney General of Sri Lanka Palitha Fernando, who was the Guest of Honour at the inauguration, while addressing the audience expressed his approval at some of the topics listed for discussion.
As examples, he drew upon the topics ‘Establishing an enabling cross-border legal environment for regional connectivity: the United Nations Convention on the use of electronic communications in international contracts, 2005 regional coordination’ and ‘Building an enabling national and international legal environment for electronic single windows and paperless trade,’ citing them as being important aspects of ICT development.
“Speaking of Sri Lanka’s experience in this arena, I must also tell you that we enacted a Electronic Transactions Act in 2006 and when enacting it, we took into consideration modern laws on electronic sequencing and electronic communications and we have drawn upon various experiences in order to set down or enact the laws that govern the electronic transactions in this country. We shall revolutionise the lives of people all over the world.”
The industrial revolution in the 1800s was part of it that revolutionised the lives of people and with it, lots of duties were brought in and lives became very much easier after the industrial revolution, Fernando pointed out.
“Similarly the IT revolution has revolutionised the lives of a lot of people but one thing that you should remember is that with the revolution and the benefits, there are also problems that also crop up and those problems cannot be addressed unless there is a legal environment conducive to look into those problems and correct them whenever they arise.”
He explained that in Sri Lanka, when the electronic transactions law was introduced and even before it was introduced for that matter, there were certain problems that the country faced.
“People are not used to electronic communications and they found it to be a new experience and it was absolutely necessary to equip them and to make sure that they were ready to accept the new experience. A lot of work has been done. We have now been able to get a generation that is ready to accept this and to work with it. As a result of that, there have been situations where legal culture of the country also had to be changed,” he said.
When these matters came before court, it was found that the law of Sri Lanka was not developed enough to meet these. As a result of that, some changes had to be made and now the necessary laws in place, the Electronic Transactions Act is now in operation and it has provided for many problems that arose. In fact the computer generated documents were not visible in Sri Lankan courts of law.
“We had to do a lot of hard work to bring the law in line with modern developments and now we are on the correct path and the information communication agency which was in operation since the year 2003 has rendered a great service to get this off the ground. I can assure you that in a few years, we will be fully equipped to meet all the challenges that we may have to face as a result of the new technology that is being brought in.
“It is absolutely necessary that the development be sustainable – we have to be resilient, it is something that is important because if it is not present, then we will not be able to draw all the benefits from the developments that come through. I hope that you will be able to make fruitful recommendations at the end of the deliberations.”
Today’s deliberations will feature sessions on promoting digital inclusion, establishing an enabling cross-border legal environment for regional connectivity, national implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Use of Electronic Communications in International Contracts and building an enabling national and international legal environment for electronic single windows and paperless trade along with several discussions amongst the delegates.
This article is carried in Daily FT of 6th September 2012