Interview with Yoshio Utsumi

“ICT is as important as Food in life”
The role of International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in initiating The World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) has been stupendous in making information society a global phenomenon. That ITU has been spearheading the movement in ICT penetration worldwide is being recognized well by all. And WSIS is such a platform for ICT penetration. Since WSIS 2003, we have been discussing the importance of content with Mr. Yoshio Utsumi, Secretary General, ITU, on various occasions. On one occasion in Baku, during WSA road show, Mr.  Utsumi, spoke to Osama Manzar, author of this book on a wide range of issues on how ITU and WSIS is moving forward to make ICT a really happening event world over to bridge the digital divide across societies. Excerpts from the interview:


How did your work and ITU affect underdeveloped countries?

Well, it is difficult to say, but ITU has been making serious efforts to encourage telecom service penetration in every corner of the world. ITU is also promoting exchange of experiences and good practices, direct assistance and holding workshops. Of course, ITU is not a financial institution and it is not giving money to anyone. On the other hand, it is working towards capacity building and creating an environment where private capital can be invested.

Will it be true to say that ITU has been successful in making Information society almost a world phenomenon?

I think it’s been very successful. If you have been noticing, this phrase – Information Society – was not known or was not popular before. However, because of WSIS, many political leaders are now paying attention to it. The ITU is not the only one that is doing this; other organizations are also involved in it. ITU is just doing it more effectively. Lots of people are not aware of it.

How important is the role of ICT in the developing world where the majority is still deprived of basics like food, shelter, education?

I think it is correct to say that ICT has very strong correlations with livelihood and basic needs in life. This is because, without communication, you cannot sustain the empowerment that comes from information. Of course, food, sanitation, and health are the basic pre-requisites and quite important but ICT is also one of the means to work with poverty and among the downtrodden. The investment in ICT is not as big as the investment, in, say, roads and infrastructure. Concurrently, one cannot live without getting in touch with someone on the other side of the world – and that is what information society is all about. I think ICT is as important as food in life.

Can you describe four objectives that you have achieved through WSIS?

The first is that we’ve been successful in creating awareness about the importance of Information society. Second is, we’ve had a number of countries on a common platform sharing a vision and common aim for the creation of information society.

Third, we succeeded in setting a target, that by 2015, we would connect every household through ICT. Fourth, we have also agreed on our plan of action – on how to do this. The process has been very inclusive bringing together stakeholders, government, international organizations, the private sector and civil society. And we have all agreed on the principles and action plans. So it’s been a big success. What we need is a concrete action plan. The entire plan will hopefully be worked out during the Tunis phase of WSIS in November 2005.

What will happen after Tunis 2005? It is the second phase and we need to know how we will concretely move ahead after 2005?

It all depends on what happens in Tunis. In fact, during the first phase of WSIS in Geneva in 2003, we reached an agreement about the division of work among stakeholders. Every stakeholder should have a clear understanding of his responsibility. We hope to have a series of achievements in the next few years. However, the progress of WSIS will help us decide the next course of action.

What has been the biggest hurdle in organising the World Summit on Information Society?

The biggest challenge is to bring so many stakeholders and countries on a single platform. Every person is embodying this process, so it is difficult to have consorted action.

Whether many a time it becomes a political issue?
Yes, and that makes it really difficult to handle.

Do you have any agenda to overcome the price problem of ICT ownership in ITU, since  computers even today are still expensive and far above the reach of the majority?

First of all I am quite optimistic, new technologies are making everything cheaper. As time goes by, cheaper technologies will become available – therefore, technology itself would solve the problem of reach and affordability. At the same time, technology alone cannot solve the problem and of course ITU is trying to make things happen. Besides, market competition is an important factor for offering new and innovative technologies; it is a decisive factor for developing countries. It may be advisable, in terms of reaching the masses, to ignore sophisticated equipment and go for affordable solutions available in the market.

The divide between the haves and the have-nots is an ancient one. In a digital world, the divide is increasing everyday. Yet, we dream of overcoming it. Will we ever overcome the so called divide? What would be the strategies?

Yes, if we do not make any effort now, the divide will widen. At the same time new technologies have in fact narrowed the divide in terms of basic communication. The gap is narrowing in terms of availability and infrastructure.

Will it be correct to say that you’d basically want to raise the threshold to provide basic telecommunication for everybody and leave them to move on ahead themselves from there?

That may be true. But the fact is that though the technology exists, you cannot solve this gap for ever. This will always be there.

What is WSIS global e-school and how do you see the third world benefiting from that – especially India?

There are many projects and one of them is e-school. You know the children are the youth of the future and without their education, the world cannot prosper.

Do you comprehend the term glocalisation? It is something about globalising the local content? Your comments about global society and glocal society vis-à-vis the role of telecom.

I have not yet heard of this word, glocalisation. But I can tell you some success stories, perhaps in Ghana. A woman opened a boutique and started selling clothes through the Internet and became quite successful. In fact she started using the Internet café in Ghana alone. Today she employs many Ghanians. Which clearly is an example of glocalisation, isn’t it!

What is the importance of content in an information society?

What I want to say is that, knowledge needs to be accessed. We all know that the Internet is something like a public library. Even if you have a big public library, if you do not have the means to reach and use it, it is useless. The correlation between connectivity and Internet is also the same. If you talk about content, of course, content is important, but more important is connectivity to use the content.

What you are saying is that while creating a village is important, creating roads to reach the village is more important because until you reach the village, how do you get to its precious treasures?

Yes, the connection is important. The question of content arises after connection. There is a plethora of content lying about and once the connection comes through, it will grow. You will always have supply where you have demand.

What is your message for India? What do you think about India?

Indians are deep thinkers; they have knowledge and by nature, Indian national conditions are very conducive for the creation of a modern moral society. The future lies with moral society and I think Indians have a great capacity and advantage being an International IT capital.

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