UN, IT leaders brainstorm on foreign development

While business and government leaders hunkered down recently to discuss global issues in the tiny resort village of Davos, Switzerland, a group of United Nations delegates and IT industry officials gathered in New York to discuss possible approaches to leveraging IT to improve social and economic conditions in developing nations.

The upshot is that government, academia and business need to partner more often to create business and educational opportunities for citizens in emerging countries. But to help make that happen, said attendees, governments will have to open their markets to investment capital.

The problem for many underdeveloped nations is that “there is a severe lack of capital,” which is needed to improve primary and secondary education, as well as to support the growth of industry and improve the existing communications infrastructures, said Percy Mangoaela, the UN ambassador from Lesotho.

Mangoaela was one of 17 attendees of the roundtable discussion co-sponsored by the UN Working Group on Informatics and AIT Global Inc., a worldwide association of IT professionals based in Kings Park, N.Y. The event was held at the residence of the Danish Mission to the UN.

One organization that’s helping is New York University (NYU). The school is working with U.S. and Albanian government agencies and businesses to set up a computer sciences degree program for several hundred students in Albania.

The program is scheduled to open in about 18 months, said David Finney, dean of NYU’s School of Continuing and Distance Education.

Still, Finney acknowledged that one of the biggest challenges that countries like Albania face is a fear among government officials that students will receive long-distance, computer-based learning from IT professors in New York and then be courted to work for U.S. companies.

That is certainly true in India: 60 to 70 per cent of computer science students who are attending elite universities there “are being recruited by foreign companies,” said Nitin Desai, the under-secretary general for the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

“A lot more work needs to be done” in partnerships between government, industry and academia in India to prevent the “brain drain” that has been occurring there, Desai added.

Perhaps the most sombre message came from Martin Belinga-Eboutou, the UN ambassador from Cameroon who is also the president of the UN Economic and Social Council.

“Eighty-eight per cent of the world’s Internet users [live] in industrialized nations. In Africa, we have less than one telephone per 100 inhabitants,” Belinga-Eboutou said. “So talking about the use of information technology for social and economic development is a huge problem [for us].”