Ambassador H.E. Dr. Palitha T.B. Kohona
Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations
 
XIII Infopoverty World Conference (IWC)
Innovations for Nation Building and to Empower People
 
26th March 2013

9.00 – 11.00 am - Conference Room 2


Civil Society Facing the Digital revolution: Opportunities and Risks

“Sri Lanka's current e-Government policy and associated projects have ignited a rapid     e-service drive, benefitting a significant portion of the country’s population. Accordingly, more and more information on public services has become available for citizens electronically (via the internet and through the official government call center services). There is, nevertheless, further room for development.”

Let me congratulate the organizers of the IWC for hosting this event for the 13th time. The topic is appropriate at a time when we are seeking to advance people-centric development programmes under the internationally agreed development goals. While the role of governments is central in this exercise, the international community has also recognized the critical role of the civil society.

In Sri Lanka, like in many other developing countries, civil society movements are still in their infancy. The goals of civil society organizations are based on opportunities to exert pressure, and deliver services where both governments and the private sector are unable to or incapable of doing so. However, civil society, irrespective of its level of organization (regional, national or international), will play an important role in bringing ICT to the people.

Well established Information and Communication Technologies are now being acknowledged as being crucial to multiple service providers, as well as being a source of innovative employment creation. We need to be creative in this area, or shall I say, domain. ICT can be a huge source of employment, both in the developed and developing economies.  Many countries are aspiring to developing knowledge based economies and this may be the future.

 Sustainable urban growth is important when countries advance towards industrialization. The effective deployment of the “green” aspect of   technology, and ICT is central, would provide immense benefits to the people, businesses and governments and, of course, to the environment.

At a practical level delivering cost-effective e-services via the internet limits unnecessary and costly visits by rural folk to cities to access different services. There was a time when rural folk would spend days travelling to the big city to obtain simple services. This is now a thing of the past even in some developing countries.
 
Recognizing the growing demand for urban amenities in rural areas, the Government of Sri Lanka first started developing a policy framework for moving certain industries into rural areas, making them readily accessible to rural communities. Simultaneously, heavy investments on ICT infrastructure were readily encouraged from early 2000. Sri Lanka started a rapid ICT drive encompassing the whole country with a special emphasis on rural and backward communities. The benefits of this policy have been widespread.

It is hoped that increasing ICT literacy in Sri Lanka (increased from 5% in 2004 to 30% in 2011) will attract a significant portion of rural youth to ICT based “green” jobs. The government plans to increase ICT literacy to 75% by 2016.

The rural telecenter network was a special innovation, in which a collaborative partnership was promoted among   government, corporate and individual entrepreneurs and civil society organizations. Civil society organizations were at the centre of this initiative.  Rural places of worship were the backbone of this telecenter network as most rural folk tended to congregate at places of worship. The subliminal association with belief was also exploited in this process.

The telecenters operated by civil society organizations have also taken into consideration the growing demands of youth, women and the elderly. They conduct special ICT awareness courses tailor-made for the elderly, especially those who are struggling to keep pace with the digital revolution. Such inclusive approaches to accommodate all societal groups are vital in delivering the benefits of ICT in an equitable manner.

Moreover, Sri Lanka is also collaborating successfully with the global telecenter movement “telecenter.org”. Sri Lanka created several technological applications for this movement to advance their global engagement.

 Sri Lanka's current e-Government policy and associated projects have ignited a rapid e-service drive, benefitting a significant portion of the country’s population. Accordingly, more and more information on public services has become available for citizens electronically (via the internet and through the official government call center services). There is, nevertheless, further room for development.
 
      The national broadband policy of Sri Lanka too is helping narrowing the digital divide. The planned island-wide national backbone network also supports this policy. The service is open to private enterprises, who compete fiercely to provide services, making Sri Lanka a leader in this area. Of course, business is a beneficiary from this. Cell phone penetration is more than 110%.
 
      Sri Lanka’s fifth largest component of the GDP is the ICT-based business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, which is now set to surpass the traditional industries and services.  This target set by the private sector along with the government-sponsored rural ICT infrastructure will help job-seeking rural youth to engage in ICT/internet based income generating activities, thus discouraging the traditional inclination to migrate to cities looking for “decent jobs". Sri Lanka is fortunate in that it has successfully prevented massive migrations to cities by creating rural employment opportunities, thus avoiding the many social issues confronting other developing countries.

It is also noteworthy that Sri Lanka’s first BPO owned by women was started on last year’s International Women’s Day in Jaffna. This city suffered much during the 30-year internal conflict. Many such cities and rural settlements are the focus of the ‘e-Society’ Programme of the Government.
 
     The same result can be expected if we can improve distance education facilities significantly. There are many innovative partnerships in this area and resources in ICT-based media which would help to reduce rural poverty. Global business entities are working closely with the Government of Sri Lanka on creative education content development. However, substituting teachers standing in front of class rooms with such new technologies poses a perceptional challenge, especially with regard to developing educational material in local languages. Providing a solid base for education will help improving social development indicators of developing countries sustainably.
 
    Today’s challenge is to manage time and space for the ever increasing demands in cities and villages in the face of many resource constraints. In this context, ICT helps managing urbanization sustainably using modern means. Improved digital communication facilities, population databases, online payment systems, security systems and supply-chain management systems can be mentioned as the ICT tools of sustainable management.
 
Developing new townships with ICT infrastructure, which are flexible to adopt the rapidly advancing new technologies are imperative to mitigate the many negative results of urbanization. To improve sustainability, energy-efficient ICT and supportive systems should be developed and implemented.

 

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