U.N. Calls Global E-Commerce Challenges Daunting

NEW YORK (07/06/2000) - Government bureaucracy, rickety telecommunications infrastructures and a lack of qualified information technology professionals are hindering the growth of e-commerce around the world, according to a group of delegates who spoke at a United Nations-sponsored IT conference here today.

Much of the discussion focused on how governments themselves will need to act as change agents between various agencies and with their own citizens in order move digital commerce forward within their own borders.

Most underdeveloped nations are woefully behind the digital curve, according to a report issued last year by the U.N.-based International Telecommunication Union. The report found that Internet users from developing countries make up less than 6% of the online population, even though those countries constitute 84% of the world's population.

"The state is the biggest company in [our] country," said George Doukidis, advisor to the Prime Minister of Greece, which is planning to invest $300 million (U.S.) over the next five years on its national e-commerce infrastructure.

But the key to helping Greece catch up with European Union members and digital leaders such as Finland and Denmark is less about money than the cultural overhaul needed to move the Greece forward, he said. "That's our biggest challenge," he added.

Delegates from other countries pointed to different e-commerce obstacles they need to overcome. For example, Mpho Malie, the Minister of Industry and Trade for Lesotho, bemoaned the shortage of skilled IT workers in Africa. "You're maybe asking for an [IT] consultant that's being used by 15 [neighboring] countries and when you want to use them, they're not available," he said.

In contrast, the number of Brazilians who file their tax returns electronically has grown from 600 in 1997 to more than 8 million this year, said Vanda Scartezini, secretary of Brazil's Ministry of Science and Technology.

Even though the U.S. and western Europe might be "four or five meters ahead in the 100 meter e-commerce race," as Bruno Lavin, head of e-commerce at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, said, the U.S. government still has a long way to go, said others.

Case in point: 96% of all transactions conducted by the U.S. government are still done manually, said Rosendo G. Parra, senior vice president of manufacturing, worldwide services and public sector at Dell Computer Corp. in Round Rock, Texas.

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