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From: "Inker, Evan"
Subject: [hangout] Democracy and the Information Revolution
Date: Thu, 21 Aug 2003 01:10:58 +0100
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Democracy and the Information Revolution
Mark Malloch Brown, United Nations Development Programme
October 9, 2001
Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has already changed the way
we work, the way we shop, the way we learn and the way we communicate. Now
it is starting to change the way we relate to governments. And nowhere is
that potential impact greater than in the developing world, where it is
increasingly intersecting with another, equally powerful revolution for
democracy and democratic governance.
In this respect, we are now in a situation similar to that of late 15th and
16th Century Europe. Then, the spread of knowledge triggered by Gutenberg's
printing press both helped to drive, and was supported by, a continent-wide
rivalry of religious ideas. Now, the Internet has become both the fuel and
the vehicle for a dramatic spread in democracy, intensifying demand for and
supporting the spread of genuinely transparent and participatory and more
efficient systems of government at both the national and global levels. The
number of democracies worldwide has doubled in little more than a decade.
But in too many countries, institutions remain fragile, services are weak,
officials unaccountable. And the lack of a democratic dividend-in terms of
jobs and better services-has been undermining public faith in these new
systems, particularly among the poor. ICT offers real hope in all these
areas, offering greater citizen input into decision-making and better social
services for all.
>From the Philippines to Zimbabwe, we have seen over the past year how
cell-phones and e-mail have been used to gather supporters and spread ideas
and information across grassroots and global networks with dramatic effect.
ICT is also proving a vital tool in helping link new civil society networks
around key issues, from global warming to women's empowerment to attempts to
make globalization more responsive to the needs of developing countries and
the poor. And it is a dynamic new way to help connect people to their
governments: When the new Prime Minister of Japan launched a regular e-mail
newsletter in July, 1.35 million people-20 percent of the country's Internet
users-signed up within days.
ICT can also make government services and institutions cheaper, more
efficient and more accessible. Developing countries like Brazil and Chile
already have successful experiments underway in these areas. In parts of
India, online government licensing is cutting through traditionally tortuous
UNDP is involved in a number of pioneering initiatives in this area,
Belarus: using the Web to help make legal systems more transparent and
accessible to the public;
Botswana: linking all legislators online and allowing citizens to follow
parliamentary proceedings on the Internet;
Bulgaria: bringing non-governmental organizations and municipalities
together across a common network as part of a major anti-corruption
These efforts do not require a computer in every house-just a focus on
content relevant to the public and public access that can be developed
through private, public or public-private initiatives.
Still, there is little point talking about the impact of ICT on democracy
and development in countries where ICT barely exists. Just 0.4 percent of
Africans and South Asians have used the Internet, compared to over half of
North Americans. So the first challenge in harnessing limited resources is
to identify the strategic levers of change that best help countries to boost
the spread and application of ICT.
As our Human Development Report 2001 (www.undp.org/hdro) argues, governments
need to put in place an enabling environment that encourages investments in
hard-ware and tertiary education. A Digital Opportunity Initiative study
(www.opt-init. org) that UNDP recently undertook with Accenture and the
Markle Foundation shows the need for developing countries to put in place
comprehensive national e-strategies that address issues such as
connectivity, regulatory environment, and human capacity. Usually a
well-educated technically-qualified pool of potential IT employees is a more
critical advantage than the quality of a country's telecom infrastructure.
This revolution really is about people. Helping countries to move forward in
these ways will be a central feature of our Global Network Readiness
initiative that we are rolling out first in Bolivia, Romania and Tanzania.
Estonia is one of the world's best examples of how much can be achieved with
the right enabling environment. That country's Tiger Leap project,
sup-ported by UNDP, wired the entire coun-try starting in the early 1990's
and has ensured that the current generation of Estonian student is 100
percent computer literate. Tiger Leap has also been a catalyst for regional
economic development and provides access points across the country, which
citizens can use to conduct most of their transactions with the government.
Almost all government documents-as well as Real Audio broadcasts of
parliamentary sessions-are available online.
Other countries should follow Estonia's lead. The global surge of democracy
is real but fragile. And ICT can help consolidate the gains of the past
several decades. Not just through encouraging the flow of ideas and
information, not just by transforming how states deliver serv-ices from
schools to security and hospitals to highways, but by supplying the most
important democratic dividend of all: a real say combined with choices and
opportunities, particularly for the poor.
Mark Malloch Brown is the Administrator of the United Nations Development
This article first appeared in CHOICES, the United Nations Development
Programme, Magazine, September 2001.
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