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Fifty-ninth Session,
2nd Meeting (AM & PM)

As COVID-19 Exposes Global Disparities, Closing Digital Gap Key for Achieving Sustained Equitable Growth, Speakers Say as Social Development Commission begins Annual Session

With the pandemic exposing massive disparities in access to health, education and employment across the world, countries must urgently usher in a socially just transition towards sustainable development — first and foremost by enacting policies that close the digital divide, United Nations officials emphasized today, as the Commission for Social Development opened its fifty-ninth session.

“We are living in a time which is testing all paradigms,” said María del Carmen Squeff (Argentina), Commission Chair, following her election to the role.  There is a moral imperative to prioritize the world’s forgotten.  Stressing that COVID-19 has laid bare the problems of poverty, inequity, and unfair conditions between and within countries, she said “it is our responsibility to follow up on the objectives of Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action” — adopted at the 1995 World Summit for Social Development to fight poverty, achieve full employment and foster social inclusion.

The session’s priority theme — titled “Socially just transition towards sustainable development: the role of digital technologies on social development and well-being of all” — reveals the need to foster digital equality, she continued.  The pandemic has highlighted the enormous gap in access to digital technologies.  “We need to reinterpret commitments made by the international community in social development in light of the tragedy we are facing.”  Social well-being will not be possible without a digital transformation, facilitating interactivity through various channels, and bearing in mind those who either lack access to digital technologies or face socioeconomic barriers that restrict their use.

Volkan Bozkir (Turkey), President of the General Assembly, said the world is facing its largest setback in socioeconomic development since the Second World War.  “Untold resources are at risk of being wiped away if we do not act,” he warned.  For all its tragic effects, however, the pandemic has unlocked incredible resources and political will, creating an opportunity to align recovery with the Sustainable Development Goals.  He called for a new social contract that focuses on the causes of vulnerability, promotes equal opportunity and seeks to close the gaps across the Goals.  Praising the work of the United Nations development system, he said recovery must remain people-centred, with social policy playing a key role alongside visionary action and multilateral cooperation.

Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, said technology is critical for achieving all the Goals, but to fully harness its potential, rapid action is needed to close the digital divide, promoted inclusion and make the Internet accessible to the more than 3 billion people who are not yet online.  He added that a socially just transition requires a rethinking of economic activity to advance human well-being while also protecting the environment.  Outlining key priorities, he pointed to the need for a new social contract that guarantees quality public services and promotes equal opportunity, as well as investment in decent work, particularly for those in the gig economy, care economy and related sectors.  Fostering economic security is imperative and closing the digital divide a must, he added.

Echoing those remarks, Munir Akram (Pakistan), President of the Economic and Social Council, pointed out that 26 people currently own half the world’s wealth.  The pandemic has put into stark relief inequalities in the financial and economic architecture.  “It is painfully obvious that the poor and vulnerable countries are impacted the most”, he said.  “We need to foster transitional resilience by choosing policies that tackle high and rising inequality.”  Emphasizing that universal broadband access will cost $428 billion, he said affordability is a key obstacle to closing the digital divide.  There is an urgent need to build a digitalized global economy characterized by fair competition.  “This is the time for innovation, creativity and solidarity,” he declared.

Maria Fornella-Oehninger and Monica Jahangir-Chowdhury, co-chairs of the Non-Governmental Organization Committee on Social Development, recalled that the lack of access to education, health care and housing are cumulative deprivations that are compounded by the lack of access to the Internet or electronic devices.  Internet connection must be established as a fundamental right for all, they said, with Governments providing digital access to social protection services, based on a human-rights approach that prevents abuse, dehumanization and stigmatization rooted in technological design bias.  Critical investments to achieve a just transition to sustainable development remain underfunded, the said, calling instead for a return to the notion that citizens — as owners of pensions and savings — are at the centre of the economy.  Moreover, Internet data and artificial intelligence must be considered public goods, with protections in place for digital identity and privacy, among other issues.

Broadly agreeing, Marwa Azelmat, youth representative from Morocco, said more must be done to deploy technologies in the service of people-centred development, beyond simply enacting emergency measures, stressing that “digital technologies are public goods and must be safeguarded as such.”  The fact that millions of children lack Internet connection in the home has deprived them of educational opportunity during the pandemic.  It is important to address questions of privilege and critically examine the impact of disparities on children through the lens of race, class and gender, to name a few.  Young people are also exposed to fake news, disinformation campaigns and sensitive data breaches during their time spent online for educational purposes.  More and better-informed programmes should examine the adverse effects of digital technologies on mental health.  Combined with diverse human potential, digital technologies can expedite strides being made in social development, she underscored.

In other business, the Commission elected by acclamation Kouadjo Michel Kouakou (Côte d’Ivoire) and Julie Oppermann (Luxemburg), and re-elected Nikola Nenov (Bulgaria) as Vice-Chairs, with Mr. Kouakou also serving as Rapporteur.  The Commission also adopted its provisional agenda (E/CN.5/2021/1) and work programme (E/CN.5/2021/1/Add.1), the latter as orally revised.

Daniela Bas, Director, Division for Inclusive Social Development, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, introduced Secretary-General’s reports titled:  “Socially just transition towards sustainable development:  the role of digital technologies on social development and well-being of all” (document E/CN.5/2021/3); “Social Dimensions of the New Partnership for Africa's Development” (document E/CN.5/2021/2); “Policies and programmes involving youth” (document E/CN.5/2021/5); and “Implementation of the objectives of the International Year of the Family and its follow-up processes” (document A/75/61–E/2021/4); as well as a Secretariat Note (document E/CN.5/2021/4) prepared to facilitate the Commission’s consideration of the agenda item entitled, “Emerging issues”, providing an overview of the social impact of COVID-19 in the areas of poverty, employment and decent work, inequality and social exclusion.

Paul Ladd, Director of the Institute for Social Development, introduced the Secretary-General’s Notes on:  “Statute of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development” (document E/CN.5/2021/6); “Nomination of members of the Board of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development” (document E/CN.5/2021/7); and transmitting the “Report of the Board of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development” (document E/CN.5/2021/8).

In the afternoon, the Commission held a high-level panel discussion on the session’s priority theme.

The Commission for Social Development will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 9 February, to continue its fifty-ninth session.

Interactive Discussion

In the afternoon, the Commission held, via video-teleconference, a high-level panel discussion on the priority theme “Socially just transition towards sustainable development: the role of digital technologies on social development and well-being of all”.  Moderated by Maria Francesca Spatolisano, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, it featured a keynote presentation by Peter Major, Chair of the twenty-fourth session of the United Nations Commission for Science and Technology for Development.

Four panellists delivered remarks:  Karen Abudinen, Minister for Information and Communication Technologies of Colombia; Ana Mendes Godinho, Minister for Labour, Solidarity and Social Security of Portugal; Silvana Vargas, Minister for Development and Social Inclusion of Peru; Boris Zürcher, Head of the Labour Directorate at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, Federal Department of Economics, Education and Research of Switzerland; and Elsa Marie D’Silva, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Red Dot Foundation and President of Red Dot Foundation Global.

Ms. CARMEN SQUEFF delivered opening remarks, saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated the social and economic benefits of digital technology.  However, those benefits have not been within everyone’s reach.  “The digital divide is very big,” she said, adding that yardsticks for measuring poverty must in the future include digital inclusion.

Mr. MAJOR, citing the Secretary-General’s most recent report on the Sustainable Development Goals, said that the world today is experiencing two trends.  One is the forward march of Web 2.0, which is at a peak stage, with a big push now under way for digitalization and e-commerce in developing countries.  The other is Industry 4.0, including the “Internet of things,” which is at an initial stage, and which for many low-income countries is something that lies the distant future.  He emphasized the policies to promote digital technology are context-specific and that technology alone cannot solve far-reaching problems such as poverty and climate change.  Underscoring the work of the United Nations Commission for Science and Technology for Development, he said that he hoped that the pandemic will prompt the international community to scale up the role of science and technology for the benefit of all people, with Member States united in solidary to build an inclusive path towards achieving the Goals.

Ms. SPATOLISANO said that the panel discussion would seek, among other things, to identify and address existing barriers at the global, regional and national levels.  It will also aim to deepen understanding of the benefits, opportunities and potential risks of the accelerated pace of digital technology.

Ms. ABUDINEN discussed the situation in Colombia during the pandemic, including the expansion of high-speed Internet services to thousands of families, enabling children to study remotely and adults to keep their jobs.   Plans are afoot to connect 42 per cent of schools in the most remote areas.  Throughout the country, thousands of cellular phones will be provided, enabling university students to be permanently connected.  Progress will not be possible without connectivity, she said, describing Colombia’s plans to train 100,000 computer programmers and to nudge the informal economy towards digital technology.  “We are working with passion and knowledge, but we are also thinking about economic reactivation and closing gaps,” she said.

Mr. ZÜRCHER said that structural changes in Switzerland’s economy over the past 10 years have led to fewer jobs, but also new opportunities, resulting in a 10 per cent increase in the net number of employed persons.  He underscored the shift towards knowledge-intensive industries which require better-educated workers.  So far, employees have responded to the increased skills requirement by scaling up their qualifications.  The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digitalization, but the degree to which this trend will continue has yet to be confirmed, he said, adding that digitalization and accessibility are at the heart of Switzerland’s inclusion policy.  He described Geneva as a hub of digital governance and emphasized the importance of further aligning education with the skills that will be required for the digital economy.

Ms. GODINHO said that the persistence of poverty and unemployment, and their foreseeable growth due to the pandemic, requires a global response.  Stressing the importance of resilience, she said that recovery must truly benefit all citizens and really leave no one behind.  Poverty eradication must remain the major ambition and a priority for any aspiring competitive economy.  Going forward, the focus should be on creating decent work and quality job opportunities, improving employment qualifications, strengthening social protection and investing more in accessible information and technology.  She also stressed the need to develop long-term social programmes that benefit disadvantaged sectors of society.

Ms. VARGAS said that in Peru, the development of information and communications technology (ICT) is giving more people timely access to social protection services.  It has also improved access to more precise information.   She discussed the manner in which her Ministry is working with the Ministry of Production, with support from the Inter-American Development Bank, to promote initiatives to extend ICT to universities, the private sector and non-governmental organizations, thus contributing to social inclusion.  She also stressed the way in which technology can help respond to adverse climatic conditions.

Ms. D’SILVA said that in India, where the schooling of rural girls is still not seen as a priority, education during the pandemic shifted online “and we were not prepared”, with many girls lacking digital devices or Internet access.  Emphasizing that $770 billion could be added to India’s gross domestic product (GDP) if women could participate equally in the work force, she called for a change in the perception of women and girls.  She underscored the manner in which digital technology can tackle highly taboo topics such as domestic violence by democratizing access to information, fostering dialogue without confrontation and building trust among stakeholders.  She went on to give several recommendations, including making access to digital devices and the Internet a human right, ensuring that women and young girls can access high-quality education, and producing disaggregated and timely data to identify gaps and draw up strategies to narrow inequalities.  She also called for governance forums through which women’s groups, among others, can contribute to decision-making.

In the ensuing dialogue, delegates explored policies and strategies at the global, regional and national levels to address the digital divide, with the Vice-Minister for Information and Communication Technologies of Colombia stressing that each group has its own needs.  “We cannot expect one project to meet the needs of all our people,” he said, calling for a differentiated focus, adding:  “Everything the Government does must bear this in mind.”  Colombia is deploying various targeted solutions, such as free Internet access in some areas, a girls’ science, technology, education and math project to break the stereotypes preventing girls from entering programmes in those fields, and the provision of free software for people with vision and hearing difficulties.

Most delegates focused on national initiatives, with Brazil’s representative drawing attention to a $65 billion investment in social assistance policies covering needs from early childhood to those of older persons, while Senegal’s delegate said the digital sector is among the most dynamic in her country.  The representative of the Dominican Republic, meanwhile, said 66 per cent of the population has adequate access to ICTs.  The representative of Morocco pointed to applications that are increasing the production and distribution of goods and services, opening new income opportunities and enhancing connectivity.  She cited the “Digital Morocco 2020” campaign as a landmark initiative to bolster these objectives.

The representative of Argentina similarly highlighted the 16 September 2020 launch of the “National Plan for Connectivity” as a major effort to universalize ICT services, involving provision of telecoms for 100,000 rural families and broadening the fibre optics network.  Efforts are under way to update the national data centre, broaden WiFi plans and offer free Internet access across the country. 

Widening the focus, Cuba’s representative stressed that ICTs and their gains must be shared equitably.  He called for ending unilateral coercive measures, citing the United States blockade against his country as the main obstacle to accessing ICTs.  China’s representative asked panelists how to improve digital infrastructure in developing countries, whose economies are often marked by poor access and affordability.  Closing the digital divide would mean closing the development gap between rich and poor, he asserted.

At the regional level, the speaker from the European Union wondered how to fix the digital divide between and within regions and countries, as well as between genders and ages.  “Young people represent almost one quarter of the online population, they often lack job-relevant skills,” she said, asking about how to boost their digital skills, and thereby, employability.

Civil society participants also took the floor, with the speaker for the International Federation of Social Workers asking how civil society policies and Government interventions can promote ethics related to data collection, and in fighting the rise of polarization and extremism around the world.

Rounding out the discussion, the speaker from the Maryknoll Sisters of Saint Dominic asked about using digital technologies to integrate climate change adaptation and resilience strategies into pandemic recovery efforts, so that socially just transition to sustainable development is ensured.

Ms. VARGAS, responding to questions and comments, described some of the ways that digital technology can tackle inequalities, such as improving women’s access to banking services through cellular phones and identifying issues that demand immediate attention, including domestic and gender-based violence.  She also stressed the need to think about new ways of collaboration, with academia playing a particular role in that regard.

Mr. ZÜRCHER said that skills development and training for workers at all ages can help protect and empower them in the labour market, enabling them to enter new economic sectors while also making personal efforts to find jobs.  He added that not all social protection systems are in the same position to meet new challenges, warning that such systems cannot become hurdles to finding new forms of work.

Ms. DA SILVA said that digital technology can help overcome the problem of under-reporting of sexual and gender-based violence, but women must be able to access such data.  “Technology can solve a lot of problems, but we also have to make a lot of changes in the way we think and implement solutions,” she added.

For information media. Not an official record.