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WSIS: A Little Could Go a Long Way

Mithre J. Sandrasagra - TerraViva/IPS

TUNIS, Nov 16 2005 (IPS) - Two African leaders launched a public appeal Wednesday for support to a global fund for community-based communication projects.

President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal and President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria launched the appeal for increased funding for the Global Digital Solidarity Fund (GDSF). Few, however, attended the meeting they addressed.

Obasanjo nevertheless made an earnest appeal for more. The fund “relies heavily on contributions by stakeholders,” he said. “Contributions, no matter how small, will help.”

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan backed the appeal for supporting the digital fund Wednesday. “These assets, these bridges to a better life, can be made universally affordable and accessible,” he said. “We must summon the will to do it.” The hurdle, he said, is “more political than financial.”

The fund has so far gathered 5.5 million euros (6.6 million dollars) from its 22 members that include just nine countries. The others are international organisations, cities and provinces.

Developed countries had refused to back the GDSF at the first stage of the WSIS held in Geneva in September 2003. At the world millennium Summit held in New York in September 2005 leaders only “encouraged voluntary contributions to its financing.”

The fund has had some success in Africa. The Association for African Solidarity based in Burkina Faso has used money from the fund to introduce broadband connectivity at HIV/ AIDS clinics. Patients now have up to date medical information, and also access to specialists in other countries.

The African Virtual University (AVU) was established in 1997 with funding from the World Bank. It now has more than 3,000 students in 18 countries.

The Sushiksha project in India funded by the Institute for International Social Development (IISD) based in Britain has involved more than 50,000 slum dwellers in a literacy programme where ICT tools help build individual capacity for development.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation has launched a scheme to help rural communities with access to information to improve farming and marketing methods, and to mitigate the effect of natural disasters.

“Investment in technology is necessary for development,” Ranjit Silva of Worldvision, an international Christian relief and development organisation told IPS. “There are innumerable examples of how ICTs have benefited the poor. We need to be discussing and sharing more of those best practices and success stories.”

Many fear that wrangling over Internet governance has overshadowed the need for concrete steps to bridge the digital divide – the difference between the developed and the developing world in access to information and communication technologies (ICT).

“Governance is taking centre stage,” Silva said. Instead, the summit could be tackling achievable development goals, he said.

“It is essential that this second phase of WSIS give sufficient consideration to how and why technologies can improve livelihoods,” said Anton Mangstl, director of the library and documentation systems division of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

“Often, the weaknesses are not in the infrastructure and tools, but in the process of their adoption and use. So attention needs to be focused on education, information sharing and communication,” he said.

“Rural people and institutions need the opportunity to play a vital role in information sharing,” Mangstl said. “These communities have a wealth of local agricultural knowledge to contribute.”

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