UN launches IT task force

The United Nations launched Tuesday a new Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Task Force, a group intended to form broad partnerships to advance the United Nations' development goals and bring the benefits of technology to developing nations.

In the works since June 2000, the ICT Task Force comprises an array of diplomats, business executives and representatives from nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations. The group is currently led by José María Figueres Olsen, special representative of the secretary-general on ICT and former president of Costa Rica.

The ICT Task Force does not, in general, intend to finance and organize projects. Instead, its mission is to facilitate connections among a variety of agencies to aid implementation of the projects it chooses to promote. The group's primary focus is on speeding the use of technology to fight poverty and otherwise aid developing regions.

"One of the most pressing challenges of the new millennium is to harness this exploding force, and spread it through the world and make it meaningful for all humanity, particularly the poor. The specific mission of this task force is to tell us how we might accomplish this ambitious goal," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said at the start of Tuesday's inaugural meeting of the ICT group. "We look to you to help build the digital bridges to the millions of people now trapped in extreme poverty, beyond the reach of the digital revolution."

Reaching the people of Africa, where Internet penetration is negligible, will be a key focus for the group, according to several members.

Africa is "the most marginalized continent of the new economy," said Martin Belinga-Eboutou, speaking through a translator. Belinga-Eboutou is president of the U.N. Economic and Social Council and a native of Cameroon.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Han Seung-Soo, president of the U.N. General Assembly. Africa represents 12 percent of the world's population, but generates less than one percent of the global Internet content, he said.

"We need to arrest and then reverse the current trend before it may be too late," he said. "It would be a cruel irony if the world's newest technological revolution were to widen, rather than narrow, the existing gap between the developed and developing nations. The vast majority of human beings remain untouched by (information and communication technology)."

Much of the ICT Task Force's work will be done within working groups focusing on specific issues, including global policy, low-cost connectivity, human resource development and entrepreneurship. The working groups offered initial organizational reports at Tuesday's meeting, and will continue collaborating online until the ICT group's next formal meeting, scheduled for early February.

Issues that working-group leaders identified as priorities include mapping the efforts of other organizations working globally on IT issues and development, and identifying what deliverable advances can reasonably become short-term goals. Disseminating health and educational content, creating business opportunities for women and youth and working with governments and private partners to lower access costs and develop IT infrastructure were projects mentioned by group members as pressing concerns.

Information on the United Nations Information and Communications Technologies Task Force is available online at http://www.unicttaskforce.org/.

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