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Improving Connectivity, Technical Infrastructure Critical to Meeting Needs of Most Vulnerable, Speakers Agree, as Social Development Commission Continues Debate

The protection of vulnerable communities took centre stage in the Commission for Social Development today, as representatives of Government and civil society alike explored ways to digitally connect the elderly, persons with disabilities, minorities, migrants and people living in rural, coastal or inland areas with the services they need to enhance their well-being.

In a half-day of general debate, held online, speakers from around the globe shared local, national and regional experiences in adapting technical infrastructure to meet the needs of their communities.  Most emphasized the imperative of closing the digital divide by addressing issues of investment, affordability, cost, skills and awareness-raising, including through content and campaigns in local languages, and even personal outreach.  “Social wellness enables people to create opportunities that encourage communication, trust and conflict management,” the speaker from Sense International India explained, echoing themes raised by counterparts from other regions.

The role of the family was highlighted as a model for inclusion, with some speakers drawing attention to the dark side of the digital world, where parents worry about the impact of the Internet on children’s lives and about the lasting effects of cyberbullying.  Some of the discussion centred on how teleworking has impacted the balance within families, policies that can bridge the intergenerational divide and instruments for banning child abuse online.  “Technology is not neutral,” an observer for the Holy See agreed.

Throughout the meeting, speakers affirmed the need for a socially just transition to sustainable development — marked by frameworks, policies, systems and strategies that help societies emerge forcefully and vibrantly from the COVID‑19 pandemic.  In those efforts, partnerships harnessing the talents of civil society, the private sector, technical communities and Governments — both local and federal — will be required.  “The advancement of digital technologies is fundamental for social development,” the representative of Saint Kitts and Nevis said in conclusion.

An observer for the Holy See said the family is a model of inclusion, where children learn they are part of a community.  Efforts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic should recognize that many families are struggling and need targeted support.  Education is another field that features interconnectedness, including through digital technologies, he said, as teachers, parents, policymakers and young people have had to adjust to remote schooling.  “The importance of computer literacy and computer skills have never been clearer,” he said, citing a marked disparity in opportunities that has allowed too many children to fall behind.  In areas with low population density, the cost of building digital infrastructure is often prohibitive, he said, stressing that resolving such issues will require collaboration among policymakers, Internet providers and those affected.  “The economy should not serve itself or the wealth of the few, but the common person and the health of society,” he asserted.  “Technology is not neutral,” he added, noting that the dark side of the new digital world cannot be underestimated.  Among its most serious aspects is the spread of new forms of criminal activity, among them, terrorist recruitment, human trafficking and the production and distribution of child pornography.  Combating these activities is essential.

The representative of the United Kingdom called for harnessing the strengths and perspectives of Governments, the private sector, civil society, the technical community and others to build an enabling environment for digital transformation.  Digital inclusion is about ensuring that all users can maximize access to digital technologies.  The United Kingdom is committed to increasing access and building digital skills, locally-relevant content and digital services.  Noting that restrictions on free information flow online can deny the public their right to know, preventing them from holding decision makers to account, he underscored the importance of creating an enabling digital environment that fully upholds rights online and offline.  “We must have effective safeguards for the right to privacy and freedom of expression,” he said, and work with diverse stakeholders to build the capacities of institutions, the private sector and other users, including by promoting “cyberhygiene” skills.  The United Kingdom supports partner countries in adopting a whole-of-Government approach to digitalization and improving the delivery of Government digital services, he added.

The representative of Iran said his country is implementing its five-year national development plan through the development of a knowledge-based economy.  A strong legal and legislative framework provides a solid platform for planning, implementation and follow-up of poverty eradication policies.  In the area of education, Iran has ended illiteracy and provides free education through secondary school, he said, noting that there are 400,000 students registered in school.  In the area of women’s participation, 27 per cent of faculty and more than 50 per cent college students are women.  More broadly, the Government has provided special packages for the poor, economic support measures for small businesses, and implemented testing and treatment programmes for Afghan refugees.  Yet, illegal sanctions have hampered Iran’s efforts to acquire medicine and medical supplies, violating Iranians’ right to health, and he called for the lifting of unilateral coercive measures so that his country can fully achieve social development.  He underscored the vital importance of international cooperation, calling for timely, equitable access to diagnostic medical equipment, medicines and vaccines.

An observer for the League of Arab States said the organization warned about limits on movement, put in place because of the pandemic, particularly for older persons, as well as the effects on small and medium-sized enterprises and family companies.  The League also sounded the alarm about an increase in the number of people who would lose their jobs. In the Arab world, this figure has reached 1.7 million.  She cited the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, noting that at the most recent Arab Summit, in Tunisia in 2019, a strategy for older persons was put forward, outlining a road map for ensuring that societies benefit from their expertise.  She also touched on the importance of family programmes.

The representative of Saint Kitts and Nevis said the Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development and Programme of Action of the World Summit for Social Development remain vital instruments for his country and reiterated the importance of digital technology on social development for all its citizens.  The Government has made bold steps to take advantage of the digital transformation, he said, noting that in 2020, the Ministry for Information and Communications Technologies was established and the “2020 Digital Transformation Strategy” launched.  He went on to cite a Ministry of Education campaign to encourage young people to pursue secondary and tertiary studies in digital technology, as well as efforts to strengthen Internet capacities in various communities to ensure equal access.  “The advancement of digital technologies is fundamental for social development,” he stressed.

An observer for the African Union said the bloc’s long-term strategy for transformation of the continent — “Agenda 2063” — is premised on leaving no one behind.  The role of digital technologies in achieving sustainable development for all cannot be overemphasized, she said, stressing that protecting children from online harm should be a concern for everyone.  The African Union key policy framework to address COVID-19 aims to ensure human security through social protection and social welfare services, as well as to promote equality.  Social protection is recognized an economic and social necessity, able to promote people-driven economic growth.  “We call for cooperation and partnerships,” she said, in coordination with all stakeholders.  She called for re-examining policy priorities to build stronger health and social sectors driving people towards inclusion and social cohesion.

A speaker for the International Federation for Family Development said parents worry about the darker side of digital technologies, in particular the impact of the Internet on their children’s lives and health, children being cyberbullied and whether children are safe online.  She touched on several events organized by the International Federation, where United Nations and academic experts have explored how families can safely access the Internet, how telework has impacted family balance, which policies can bridge the intergenerational digital divide, and importantly, which instruments can be developed to ban child abuse online.

A speaker for the Union of Ibero-American Capitals, noting that her organization represents 24 Ibero-American countries, acknowledged that cities around the world are living through unprecedented times during the pandemic, and thus, facing unprecedented challenges.  “We want to rethink what cities we want to have in the future”, she stressed.  As cities have become key players in solving global problems, they must be able to provide services in more sustainable fashion, notably through digital technologies, and make better use of urban spaces.

A speaker from Sense International India, recalling that the word “digital” derives from Latin — digitus, or finger — and refers to one of the oldest tools for counting, said gaps in health outcomes in his country persist, due to limited access to care in many rural, tribal and even urban settings — especially those inhabited by Adivasis/Tribals, Dalits and migrant populations.  “The digital divide forces people with communication disabilities like deafblindness and deafness to remain in the outer most circle of social well-being,” he explained.  It is important to offer friendship to people with deafblindness as a first step, as social wellness enables people to create opportunities that encourage communication, trust and conflict management.  “Today’s digital technology must find solutions to break the communication barrier for deafblind people,” he observed.

A speaker for the Baltic Sea Forum said that only 45 United Nations Member States are without ports — facilities that are vital for value creation, production, distribution, and therefore, social development.  Maritime transport and waterways are likewise important for ensuring sustainable transport, with low emission values.  Noting that the Sustainable Development Goals and the goals agreed in the Paris Agreement on climate change require smart traffic coordination, which can be made possible through digital technologies, he said that climate compatible systems are becoming questions of survival.  “Ports are the engine of regional economic and social development,” he said.  They have benefited enormously from the emergence of global supply chains.  These chains, as a source of local prosperity and social justice, also must be constantly readjusted.  A stronger digital exchange is likewise necessary for passenger traffic.  He touched upon a Forum project that offers real-time information on delays and travel times, stressing that smaller ports in the Baltic region will only be sustainable if they can meet the criteria of digitalization.

The representative of Fiji said the Government has taken extreme care to ensure that social protection programmes remain in place during the pandemic, through cash transfers to the elderly, households with disability and other families, as well as through income support to tens of thousands of people who lost their jobs in tourism and other industries.  Stressing that Fiji has faced three climate catastrophes since the onset of COVID-19, he said the Prime Minister met several villages near the epicentre of Cyclone Yasa, which are aiming for relocation.  He drew attention to the fact that the villages most in harm’s way are among the poorest, and that protecting the disabled is extremely difficult during a climate catastrophe.  In addition, those most severely affected by COVID‑19 are the most vulnerable families.  “We too want to build back better,” he said, yet are unable to do so if access to concessionary finance is unavailable.  He added that, prior to the pandemic, Fiji had already achieved 100 per cent school enrolment for free, a remarkable achievement, and opened private sector opportunities to create a digitalized economy.

The representative of France underscored his country’s commitment to a socially just environment that is in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.  He stressed the need to ensure gross domestic product and socioeconomic growth, as well as indicators for education and the utilization of resources.  He also noted France’s launch of an ambitious plan to address digital issues that stresses the need for local connectivity and to work together with the private sector and civil society.

The representative of International Movement ATD Fourth World said that the current profit-driven model for digital development is exacerbating discrimination and surveillance.  Biases in the design of technological tools and software are leading to more insidious forms of structural discrimination and negative stereotypes.  The knowledge and experience of those living in poverty must be taken into account in digital development, she said, also emphasizing the need for accountability at all stages.

The representative of the C-Fam, Inc. said that the pandemic has exacerbated the problem of technology giants who are increasingly controlling where people can go, what they can buy and what they can say.  Such control and suppression are injustices that can beget more injustices.  Fundamental obligations must not be forgotten in the pursuit of new technologies, he said, adding that policies to achieve sustainable development and to build back better must not undermine the right to work and to an adequate standard of living.

The representative of UNANIMA International said that a recognition of safe and adequate housing as a human right can ultimately address a range of inequalities which are exemplified through technology, including homelessness and housing insecurity.  Access to safe and tenured homes mitigates some of the barriers that households faces in obtaining and using digital technology.  Citing an example, they pointed to the Mukuru slum district of Nairobi, where mobile phones have enabled youth to enhance their skills and carry out business.

The representative of the Baha’i International Community said that artificial intelligence has the potential to extend and channel the human spirit to address the world’s most pressing challenges.  “In innovation lies the promise of tools that could stimulate the intellectual, moral and social life of the entire human race,” she said.  However, such potential can only be truly released if artificial intelligence reflects all the perspectives inherent in the peoples of the world.  By bringing together the entire spectrum of viewpoints, innovations can be both just and inclusive.

Representatives of the following organizations also spoke today:  Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women; VIVAT International; International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations; Foundation for Preventing Youth Violence; Brahma Kamaris World Spiritual University; Alliance Creative Community Project; Creators Union of Arab; Movendi International; Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary; Irene Menkaya School Onitsha; Miss CARICOM International Foundation; International Longevity Center Global Alliance, Ltd; UNESCO Association, Guwahati; World Organization for Early Childhood Education; Make Mothers Matter; Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd; and New Future Foundation.

The Commission for Social Development will reconvene on Wednesday, 17 February, at 10 a.m. to take action on draft proposals and elect members of the Bureau of its sixtieth session.

For information media. Not an official record.