Leveraging Science, Technology, Information Must Transform Least Developed Countries into Knowledge Societies, Speakers Tell Round Table as Doha Conference Continues
DOHA, 6 March — By leveraging science, technology and information, least developed countries must be transformed into knowledge societies, speakers at the second high-level thematic round table emphasized as the fifth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries began its second day.
Opening the meeting, Lotay Tshering, Prime Minister of Bhutan, noted that his country is excited to graduate from the least developed country category at the end of the year. Highlighting the role of digital literacy in development, he said that Bhutan has taken major initiatives to review the national education curriculum to ensure that “everyone is ICTized”. Investing in youth and education is crucial; even schools in remote areas have science and technology labs. Further, the King of Bhutan has gifted coding packages to every child in the country. Bhutan might be small, but it is doing its best, he said, adding that the country is on the verge of completing a digital identification system. About two weeks ago, one of the crown princes of Bhutan became the first digital citizen of the country. In addition, the Ministry of Finance is rolling out a digital system for taxation while a newly designed electronic health record system will serve each citizen from the womb to death.
Édouard Ngirente, Prime Minister of Rwanda, commending Bhutan’s success story, cited comparative statistics regarding development expenditure on information and communication technologies (ICT) in least developed countries versus the rest of the world. He also noted their low number of patents and the relative shortage of researchers. Partnership and cooperation are essential to improve this situation, he said, adding that inclusive economic growth and development in these countries depends on access to finance and strengthening the ecosystem for intellectual property. These countries are not just consumers; they should also become producers of technology and technological knowledge. To this end, his Government has launched various research and innovation funding programmes, he said, adding that these programmes have started to pay off in terms of improved services for citizens. Calling on the international community to establish centres of excellence in least developed countries, he also stressed the need for a framework to ensure that intellectual property benefits humanity, especially in crisis situations such as pandemics.
Titled “Leveraging the power of science, technology and innovation for the sustainable development of least developed countries”, the round table featured a keynote address by Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). She stressed the need to unleash the power of digital technologies in order to transform lives and create opportunities. Technology alone is not enough, she said, adding that a holistic approach is crucial to ensure that digital technology cuts across every sector. Governments must establish regulatory frameworks that are reliable while fostering innovation. Highlighting the need to keep services and devices affordable, she called on States to work with the private sector on cost. “We need advanced skilling,” she said, adding that information and technology ministries must work with education ministries. Least developed countries need to build a pool of digital skilled professionals, especially in emerging sectors such as cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. Pointing out that only 1 in 5 women in those countries have access to the Internet, she called on the international community to close the digital gender gap. She also highlighted her organization’s initiatives to ensure the development of science and technology in least developed countries, including a digital platform for Government services called GovStack.
The panellists for the round table included: Omran Hamad Al-Kuwari, CEO of Qatar Foundation International; Rajkumar Ranjan Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs of India; Maikel Wilms, Partner and Director, Boston Consulting Group; and Mohamed H.A. Hassan, President of the Sudanese National Academy of Sciences (SNAS) and Chair of Council of United Nations Technology Bank.
Mr. Al-Kuwari said that his organization was set up over 25 years ago to advance science and technology in the region. The impetus for its establishment was the need to transition away from fossil fuels and move towards a knowledge-based economy. Noting that the Foundation runs a dozen high-quality schools, he also pointed to its collaborations with libraries, institutes and technology parks. The Foundation is focused on research, development and innovation, and has incubated a national research fund to support homegrown universities and enable entrepreneurs to develop and commercialize ICT products. Least developed countries can learn many lessons from his country’s experience, he said, adding that they must invest in education and training to enable people to adapt and localize technology. Science and technology must also be embedded into other sectors such as tourism, sports and creative industries.
Mr. Singh said that digital technologies are transforming how the international community mobilizes solutions to poverty and economic inequality. People who lack opportunities to engage fully with digital technologies face increasing disenfranchisement. Noting how the pandemic exposed the digital gaps between countries, he said that technology should be a tool for inclusion and not exclusion. E-commerce and e-governance must be deployed in sustainable and inclusive ways, he said, noting that his country has developed several education programmes and courses on cybersecurity, data science, quantum computing and cyberpsychology. His Government is also bringing together global South leaders around this issue during its Group of 20 presidency. The international community must tackle its greatest challenges through partnerships, he stressed, adding that India stands ready to share its experience in financial inclusion, digital public goods and leveraging technology.
Mr. Wilms highlighted various examples of technological innovations in least developed countries, including mobile money applications that were used in Uganda to identify and support those who lost income. He also pointed to the use of detailed satellite imagery to predict flooding in the Congo. Beyond such examples, there are numerous e-commerce enterprises in least developed countries, each of which has an impact on reducing poverty, not only for the entrepreneur but also for the whole village. Stressing the role of locally driven innovation, he said, countries will need to facilitate digital ecosystems to harness the full potential of technology. Each country must ensure that it has core infrastructure in place. Horizontal platforms are essential to ensure that digital transactions are safe and private, with secure payment and data exchange. Stressing that States must invest in building digital skills, he said that vertical applications in digital health and education cannot thrive without Government support. While building such digital ecosystems can look daunting, it is easy to start with basic devices and local adaptations, he said.
Mr. Hassan, noting that 60 per cent of least developed countries are in Africa, said that science and technology will play an essential role in transforming their economies. A clear example is agriculture, he said, pointing to the need for satellite information for crop growth, as well as mobile and drone technology for farmers. Solar energy is extremely important, yet half of the population in least developed countries have no access to electricity. Electricity is a human right and one cannot have digital access without it. Highlighting the role of the African Union, he pointed to the establishment of the Great Green Wall, which aims to combat desertification in the continent. The desert energy initiative will connect 250 million people to electricity, he said. Highlighting various challenges, he said that the quality of education needs to increase. There isn’t a single university in least developed countries that ranks among the top 500 in the world, he pointed out, underscoring the need for inquiry-based education.
Taking the floor next were the lead discussants, including Mariin Ratnik, Deputy Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development of Estonia, and Hasan Mandal, President of the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Türkiye (TÜBİTAK).
Ms. Ratnik said a forward-looking mindset is crucial and highlighted the cooperation between private and public sectors in her country. Strong political leadership can help to create the necessary environment for this, she said, adding that 99 per cent of her Government’s public services are available online, which helps save time and money. Estonia’s ID card solution was inspired by Finland but adapted to the local situation in the country. Her country is a strong believer in co-creating and reusing existing technology applications, she said, adding that Estonia’s digital Government code repository is a public good that is available for other countries to use. The open Government data portal has helped bring the public and private sector closer and boost innovation. She also highlighted the electronic procurement register, which is mandatory for the public sector to use and popular with businesses. Technology can foster trust, she said, stressing the importance of “human centricity” of digital services. If the services are not easy and safe to use, they will not be used, she said, adding that sharing and cooperation is about emphasizing local empowerment.
Mr. Mandal highlighted the importance of a multidimensional approach, stressing that least developed countries can save valuable time by ensuring a green and digital transition. Boosting access to modern technologies for sustainable development means building human capital, infrastructure and institutions. Highlighting recent initiatives of the Technology Bank in Türkiye, he pointed to the Technology Makers Lab and its pilot implementation in Niger. This important initiative will support synergies based on skilled human resources. Also noting the post-harvest management project in the Gambia, established in cooperation with TÜBİTAK, the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and research institutes, he said it focused on technology transfer to ensure the preservation, storage, processing, packaging, distribution, marketing and use of key agricultural products. The wealth of young human resources is an opportunity for many least developed countries, he said, calling for co-creation and collaboration.
When the floor opened, many Heads of State, ministers and delegates expressed optimism about the possibilities of science and technology in improving living standards in their countries. However, they also voiced fear about the increasing digital gap between wealthy and low-income countries. Especially, many delegates expressed concern about women being left behind in science and technology education and spoke of measures adopted by their Governments to enhance women’s participation in science, technology, engineering and math education. Many also described examples of technological innovation in public services.
The representative of Sierra Leone said science and technology is crucial for sustainable development. Noting the limited fiscal space in many least developed countries and structural challenges such as lack of access to electricity, he said that his Government is providing certifications to accelerate workforce development in technology. Countries with developed economies should support research in countries such as his, he said, adding that Governments must adapt to e-services in order to diffuse technology among their populations.
The representative of Maldives highlighted the risk of many least developed countries being left behind. The digitalization of the world is a good thing, but there are many who are not even aware of the parallel world of electronic services. Noting that he, himself, is not a citizen of the digital world and is doing his best to come up to speed, he said that the rapid changes may often leave people confused.
The representative of Sweden, noting that her country is a global leader in technological innovation, said that its partnership with least developed countries benefits from this. Emphasizing that better data collection is crucial for health system management, she pointed to a groundbreaking interactive application that Sweden has made available to many such countries.
Responding, Mr. Singh reaffirmed his country’s commitment to least developed countries while Mr. Hassan called for education partnerships between India, Brazil and China and such countries. Mr. Wilms called for a common understanding of collaboration between the global South and North. Offering closing remarks, Mr. Ngirente stressed the importance of closing digital gaps, while Mr. Tshering underscored that whatever is given to least developed countries will be used wisely and efficiently.
Also speaking were Heads of State, ministers and delegates of Sao Tome and Principe, Togo, Slovenia, Bahamas, Spain, Latvia, Singapore, Niger, Zambia, Greece, Sweden, Kazakhstan, Cuba and Israel.
Representatives of civil society organizations, including Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration, as well as the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), also spoke.