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Digital Volidarity Agenda
Priorities and strategies
Building national and regional capacities to participate in international forums
This item tops the list of priorities because pivotal issues that will profoundly affect information societies in the decades ahead are presently being negotiated without effective participation from most Asia-Pacific countries. This problem stems partly from a lack of recognition of the importance of these issues among many policy makers and partly from a scarcity of national representatives who can confidently engage in these issues at key international forums. Ironically, the most important forums do not appear to be those to which ICT practitioners and policy makers are devoting most of their efforts.
The really crucial forums are those dealing with trading arrangements that lead up to the finalisation of binding treaties and agreements encompassing ICT-related issues of intellectual property rights and access to markets for a variety of goods and services including cultural materials. These issues when aggregated have the power to impact on key facets of how social and business processes may be conducted, how much restriction may be imposed on presently free and open communication processes, how intellectual property will be protected and accessed, and how trade in information and communication goods and services will be managed.
For a start, regional policy roundtables on WTO, WIPO, ICANN and WSIS need to be organised very urgently where negotiators from the region will be briefed and sensitised on the long-term implications of the various treaties, agreements and other multilateral and bilateral instruments that are being negotiated. These briefings should be accompanied by presentations by experienced negotiators on the most effective strategies for engaging in the various rounds of talks and negotiations. The roundtables may also usefully set aside time for unstructured sessions during which countries sharing common needs and facing similar challenges may convene their own working groups to find solutions to their common problems and concerns.
Understanding how ICT helps to bring about socioeconomic development
Most ICT specialists working on development projects have a gut feel of how technologies can help to bring about change but not well-grounded knowledge about the complex processes which connect the sharing of information to the alleviation of poverty. In the absence of such knowledge, ICT projects are often designed to facilitate development without a firm foundation of underlying experiences upon which to base such designs. Priority must be given tosynthesizing and analysing the rich pool of experiences generated over the past decades to arrive at knowledge that can help us test the popular assumptions which underpin most project designs. The synthesis will at the same time be invaluable to the conception and planning of future projects.
Involving communities in project design
People whom ICT initiatives are intended to support must be actively involved in the design and implementation of activities that are supposed to benefit them. Their involvement will ensure that project objectives address priority needs of the communities and better choices are made of technological solutions to be deployed. Too many ICT projects have been implemented in recent years with computers and Internet access as default solutions not open to negotiation. Often, what the people really want is a public telephone that works dependably, or literate facilitators who can assist them with bureaucratic procedures. A method for conducting such group decision-making processes may be quickly evolved from existing participatory problem-solving methodologies. A community of practice may be formed among practitioners in the region who are able to facilitate these processes to help train other facilitators as well as to refine the methodologies on a continuous basis.
Customising new digital technologies
India and Sri Lanka have led the region in efforts to design and manufacture appropriate digital hardware that may be used by developing communities. India invented the Simputer, while Sri Lanka conceptualised the village PDA.
World-class ICT hardware manufacturers in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Singapore need to be encouraged to collaborate with their counterparts in developing countries to refine their inventions and, more importantly, to help bring down the cost of appropriate technologies to levels that are affordable to their intended users. For example, both the Indian and Sri Lankan inventions were designed using chips and other components imported from large Asian chip foundries and parts manufacturers, which have a potentially central role to play in influencing the retail prices of these devices.
Developing low-cost technologies to enable illiterate people to go online
The 614 million illiterate people across Asia Pacific who cannot make use of the Internet in its present form must be provided with technologies that enable them to get online. A regional R&D team needs to be formed with the priority task of developing these technologies. Because of the complexity of the challenge, the team must comprise social scientists, development communicators and indigenous-knowledge experts, in addition to ICT specialists. The multidisciplinary composition of the R&D team will ensure that the technological solutions will meet the requirements of their users.
Continuing assistance to improve developing communities? access to ICT
Financial and technical assistance to developing communities for establishing the infrastructure required for making effective use of ICT needs to continue. However, such assistance is best allocated to isolated rural communities that private sector providers will avoid. Aid of this nature has been focused on building Internet access facilities in the past; future assistance should consider adopting an integrated development communication approach by involving intended users in the selection of the technology package to be deployed. Such a package may include community media, group events, formal and non-formal education programmes, in addition to Internet access. Such integrated ICT packages can better respond to people?s information-seeking behaviour and help to develop a diversity of information sources and a multiplicity of communication channels for the information society that the people are working to build.
Building local capacity in open source software
Developing local open source capacity is a priority that the economies in the region can work on collectively. Regional and subregional R&D centres should be established to adapt open source software to local requirements and to develop local expertise in the use and localisation of such software. The trained personnel should then be provided with financial assistance for conducting training after returning to their own countries.
As noted earlier, anti-piracy campaigns must be accompanied by the promotion of open source software as an alternative so as to prevent the widening of the digital divide resulting from a lack of affordable software applications. Such national and regional open source initiatives need long-term support in order to firmly establish the use of open source software and to stamp out software piracy.
Strengthening national expertise in the localisation of software
A community of practice of software localisation specialists may be formed to share their expertise with other practitioners beginning work in this area. Effective sharing of expertise may be facilitated through centralised training events followed by online technical backstopping.
Governments in the region should convene technical working groups with a formal mandate to establish technical standards for open source software after a predetermined period of public consultation. The immediate task is to resolve the problem of the lack of standardised fonts for many languages in the region. These working groups may individually, or as a subregional group, collaborate with international technical working groups such as Unicode and multinational software companies on font standardisation.
Establishing a region-wide Creative Commons
The trend of protecting intellectual property rights through various multilateral treaties and trading arrangements has presented the region with the prospect of a widening digital divide as poor communities cannot afford the information they need in building the information society. The region can help to halt this trend by joining global efforts to build the Creative Commons, which advocates free access to intellectual property.
A network of facilitators representing the various language groups in the region is needed to champion the building of the Asia-Pacific Creative Commons. Originators of content should be encouraged to contribute works to the Creative Commons, and content in the various languages can be made available to people of other language groups through the use of gist translation facilities.
Priority should be given to the establishment of the network of champions and facilitators for the Creative Commons. It will be expedient to turn to personnel from broadcasting, news and R&D networks to play this role so that a network of networks may be formed in a short time. Civic groups, indigenous people, and artistes should be enlisted at the same time
Converging divergent interests
The economies of the region are approaching the Tunis phase of WSIS in 2005 with different economic interests that threaten to fragment, rather than unite, the region. A deep chasm now separates the advanced ICT powerhouses on one side of the digital divide from the countries that are painstakingly rebuilding their infrastructure from scratch on the other side. The current trend of establishing rigid and binding treaties, copyright regimes and trading arrangements that further impede the free flow of knowledge and innovations promises to widen that gulf.
Governments, civil society and the development community need to urgently restore balance to this trade-driven approach towards closer collaboration between economies in the region. Promising first steps have been taken in this direction by ASEAN and APEC (see the chapters on ASEAN and APEC). The former launched the ASEAN Regional Forum on convergence in October 2004 in collaboration with the Pan Asia Networking programme of IDRC. The forum will support the development of a convergence framework for ASEAN member states, share convergence best practices, and provide a focal point for the presentation of activities to address convergence issues by member countries and selected non-member Southeast Asian states.
The economic-centric emphasis currently prevalent across the region, if left unchecked, will eventually weaken the core values that have made Asia Pacific resilient. Overemphasis on trade will likely also lead us down the path to conflict. The digital divide has provided us with an opportunity to work together in reinforcing the cultural foundations of the region as a valuable asset for human development. We will find in our joint efforts to build the information society a great many more common interests that bind the peoples of Asia Pacific than divide us.