Communication: the missing link in sustainable development

James Goodman
11 December 2003

Delegations from the governments of 130 states, along with United Nations staff, NGOs and businesses, are meeting in Geneva this week because they believe Information and Communications Technology (ICT) can provide real benefits to the world’s poorest people. They aim to develop a better understanding of the revolution in ICT and its impact on people in both developed and less developed countries.

The World Summit on the Information Society, whose central areas of concern are analysed by Solana Larsen in this edition of openDemocracy, has been the target of intense criticism for a number of reasons. The politics are difficult: preparations have come late in the day, there are disputes over internet governance, and likely splits between developed and less developed countries over how ICT access should be funded in the global south.

The birth of global connectivity

Moreover, the whole agenda is not sufficiently rooted in evidence. Two of the most famous examples of the use of ICT for development are Vodacom’s phone-shops in southern Africa, and Grameen Bank’s “phone ladies” in Bangladesh. These successful and valuable initiatives have attracted numerous case studies providing ample anecdotal evidence of their effects on the lives of individuals or even local communities. But are they contributing to sustainable economic development in the countries concerned? Can their effects be seen in indicators such as GDP and productivity? More importantly perhaps, do they influence overall welfare and quality of life?

Read Solana Larsen’s assessment of the main issues of the WSIS summit

Such initiatives may indeed impact positively at a higher level, but there is scant quantitative evidence as yet to support this. That makes it difficult to know which ICT strategies will work best on a local and national level.

So it isn’t surprising that there is considerable pessimism that anything constructive can be achieved at the summit. It has received fewer headlines in the way that interested parties have hoped; the danger is that it will be forgotten even more quickly than last year’s World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

That would be a pity. The potential contribution that the appropriate use of ICT could make is vast – in opening up access to global markets and finance, bolstering political institutions, empowering individuals through education, to name only a few.

The negative effects of ICT are outweighed by its benefits including the emergence of global connectivity that gives greater power to the values behind sustainable development.

What is more, ICT has become vital for sustainable development, as my colleagues and I show in our recent book, Making the Net Work: Sustainable Development in a Digital Society. We do identify important negative effects associated with the production of ICT including increased energy demands, materials use and other environmental impacts such as demand for transport. But we argue that these are outweighed by the benefits, the most significant of which is the emergence of a global connectivity that gives greater power to the values behind sustainable development.

Practitioners of sustainable development typically dissect issues according to their social, environmental or economic facets. This is a useful approach when trying to make sustainable development a reality, convince people of the need for it, simplify problems, or allow analysis and management of impacts.

A question of values

However, what underlies all of these approaches is a set of values: diversity, tolerance, self-determination, compassion for others, respect for the principle of equity, and respect for the rights and interests of non-human life, natural systems and future human generations.

Those who would like to see sustainable development work as an organising principle for governments and businesses need to embed these values in our social, economic and political systems. ICT presents us with the possibility of doing this for the first time.

For example, compassion for others and respect for the principle of equity rely on an awareness of others outside of our immediate circle of influence, and the impacts that our actions have elsewhere. Already, well over a billion people in the world are using mobile phones, and the number of internet users isn’t far behind. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) predicts that by 2005, one in three of the world’s people will be connected to the global community of ICT users. We argue that this kind of connectivity and distribution of information will help to build empathy and allow people and organisations to see more clearly the consequences of their actions.

A woman in India picks up weather reports from a US navy website and broadcasts them to fishermen in her village. Fishermen as a result know when storms are forecast and don’t take their boats out when it looks too dangerous.

Furthermore, the internet changes the relationship between people and information. The fact that there is more information available now is not important if people don’t have control over information sources. But increasingly it is possible for people to pull the information they want off the internet and use it creatively, rather than have it pushed at them.

In our book, we cite the example of a woman in India who picks up weather reports from a US navy website and broadcasts them to fishermen in her village. Fishermen as a result know when storms are forecast and don’t take their boats out when it looks too dangerous.

The internet functions this way partly because of the values built into it by its makers. Tim Berners-Lee famously said that “hope in life comes from the interconnections among all people in the world”. The internet was created as a global commons, a space open for participation by all, built around what Pekka Himanen calls a “hacker ethic” of values not too far off those that underlie sustainable development.

That ICT could be an important facilitator of sustainable development isn’t a new idea. James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis (that the planet functions as a self-regulating system), wrote of the importance of global communications in restoring the critical links between human societies and natural systems. He argued that “We might claim that the spread of information about our problems is leading to the development of new processes for controlling, if not solving them”.

By way of example, Lovelock asked us to “imagine a world with the present-day arsenal of nuclear weapons but with no means whatever of telecommunication. A key factor in our relationships with the rest of the world and with each other is our capacity to make the correct response in time” (Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford, 2000).

The world’s move towards more sustainable development depends on our ability to communicate effectively, exchanging trusted information globally and acting on it. We need a global conversation to match our global economy and the global environmental challenge.

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