Created: Wednesday, 21 August 2013
Statement by H.E. Dr Palitha Kohona, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka
to the United Nations in New York at the High-Level Forum on South-South Cooperation for Sustainable development
ICT, Innovation, Culture and Sustainable Urbanisation,
Hong Kong - 18th July, 2013
The Prime Minister of Fiji,
The President of the UN General Assembly,
First, I would like to thank South-South News for organising this timely event. Additionally, I take the opportunity to thank Hong Kong SAR of China for providing the forum and for its impeccable and gracious hospitality.
ICT has become a major part of our lives as the years have progressed. Almost imperceptibly, ICT has percolated many aspects of our daily existence. The PGA will recall that thirty years ago as we were negotiating the various environment related instruments, the key concern among developing countries was the looming digital divide. Happily this has not eventuated. As we have heard from previous speakers, the digital revolution has embraced most developing countries to some extent or other making a major impact on those societies and economies. Many developing countries are leapfrogging the traditional path to development through the use of ICT. I must say that in the case of many countries of the South, including Sri Lanka, the technology required for this purpose was transferred, not by industrialised countries but by other developing countries. Corporations from Malaysia, India, China and Qatar were responsible for the major modernisation and expansion of Sri Lanka's telecoms network. As the economy expands, more such opportunities remain to be exploited in Sri Lanka.
Migration to cities is a major challenge in the modern world and is encouraged by many factors: economic, political, environmental, and others. The drift to cities is caused by the attraction of employment, schooling, health facilities, housing and, sometimes, simply the bright lights. Many individuals in developed countries drift to cities from rural areas attracted by the bright lights and better life styles. But such drifts to cities carry costs, both to the cities which are required to support more costly services and to the rural areas which are denuded of workers. These are real challenges that need to be met.
Governments are required to manage these population flows so that social harmony is maintained and people's economic and social aspirations are met. Sri Lanka has for a number of years attempted to provide many amenities in rural areas to encourage the population to stay in rural areas. Essentially a policy framework was created to encourage many industries to locate in rural areas. Facilities that are normally found in cities were established in rural areas that helped to keep the people in their own communities, such as schools, health facilities, efficient government services, etc. The digital network was extended to rural communities and used in this effort. I note that many other developing countries are doing exactly the same thing. The result was that rural youth was able to find employment in their own localities and travel from home to their work places. Hundreds of thousands of rural folk now work from their village homes. The drift to cities was arrested. Sri Lanka, as a result, avoided many of the social problems, particularly those affecting young women and men, of over crowded Asian cities. The cities still remain green and pretty.
Sri Lanka enjoys a high literacy rate resulting from a state funded free education system that covers all our children from grade 1 to university level. School books, mid-day meals and uniforms are subsidised. Youth literacy rates have reached 98%. Girls enjoy a higher rate. 50 new schools were opened recently in 2011-2012 in the former conflict affected areas.
New businesses have begun to take off in rural areas. The extension of the national electricity grid has been a major contributor to this development. The government helps with small loans. In 2009, the northern, north central and Uva provinces contributed 12.8% of the national GDP, up from 5% in 2009.
Sri Lanka is a clear example of the rapid expansion of the ICT revolution. Since 2000, Sri Lanka has embarked on a well orchestrated programme to bring ICT to rural areas. ICT in rural areas will bring more innovative local employment opportunities. Sri Lanka’s 5th largest GDP component is ICT-based Business Process Outsourcing (BPO). This will likely surpass traditional industries and services in a few years. In this approach, the private sector utilizes government-constructed rural ICT infrastructure to create jobs, discouraging the tendency of youth to migrate to cities in search of "better employment".
Crucially, ICT has become a new and effective way to quickly deliver information to rural areas. Sri Lanka's e-Gov serves a significant portion of the country’s population. More and more information about public services is becoming available to citizens via the internet. Initiatives such as the government information centre (1919) are examples of citizen services being made available to anyone with access to a mobile phone. Time-consuming and costly visits to urban centers to access government services have now become unnecessary. Sri Lanka’s national broadband policy is further helping to narrow the digital divide. The country was the first in the region to introduce 3G mobile-broadband networks, which began operating commercially as early as 2006 (ahead of India, where 3G only became available in 2011). With a significant proportion of the population being online by 2012, Sri Lanka compares well with other countries from the South Asian region. The planned island-wide national backbone network also supports this policy. The service is open to private enterprise and a fierce competition has emerged among service providers, making Sri Lanka a leader in this area. Of course, business is a beneficiary from this. The rural telecenter network was a special innovation, in which a collaborative partnership was promoted among the government, corporate and individual entrepreneurs and civil society organizations, in particular, places of religious worship. A thousand telecenters or knowledge centers (Nena Salas) were constructed island wide under one of the following models: Rural knowledge centers, e-libraries, distance and e-learning centers and tsunami camp computer kiosks. Differently-abled persons have also benefited from this ICT expansion. Blind persons and wheelchair users have access to the internet. The non-English speaking blind population in Sri Lanka has benefited from software such as Unicode fonts and Text-to-Speech which has been introduced in Sinhala and Tamil.
Today’s challenge is to manage time and space in cities in light of ever increasing demands from the population and the many resource constraints. Energy-efficient ICT is one way to face this challenge. Improved digital communication facilities, population databases, online payment systems, security systems and supply-chain management systems are all digital tools that could be used to sustainably manage urbanization. Creating digital opportunities in rural areas is another creative contribution. ICT, properly used, can contribute significantly to curbing the urban drift by providing urban amenities in rural areas.