UN to help developing countries boost IT infrastructure

Bolivia, Tanzania and Mozambique have captured the first three of 12 spots in a United Nations program aimed at upgrading and building the IT infrastructure in countries that are lagging behind the rest of the world in those areas.

The program, the Global Digital Opportunity Initiative, was created by the UN’s Development Program and the New York-based Markle Foundation and grew out of a study conducted by the Group of 8 nations. In addition to the initial three, 45 other countries are vying for the remaining nine spots in the two-year program.

“It is a medium-scale initiative. It is designed to have some successes,” said Julia Moffett, managing director of the Markle Foundation Inc. There are no plans to expand beyond the initial scope, she said.

The program will begin with an extensive assessment of each nation’s needs. It won’t be an out-of-the-box, one-size-fits-all program for each of the countries, Moffett said. The countries that are applying for help are accustomed to making specific requests about what they need to the UN, the World Bank and other organizations, and their requests to the Global Digital Opportunity Initiative have been just as specific, she said.

After the assessment is conducted, a scalable infrastructure plan will be designed and implemented. The plan needs to be scalable because the UN program is essentially a seed program to help the countries get started. Later on, it is expected that other governments and companies will go into each country to provide additional help and funding.

The program will also be closely monitored because it requires UN, governmental, educational, business and non-profit organizations to contribute in order to be a success. Moffett said that bringing together organizations from the government, nonprofits and the business sector has its advantages and its challenges.

“These organizations have very different styles and very different speeds,” she said. But she added this also allows the project to draw from a variety of experiences and resources to make sure the right plan is brought to bear at the right time.

In addition to the UN and the Markle Foundation, the program will be joined by a number of companies offering pro bono services, including, AOL Time Warner Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. A number of non-profit organizations have also joined the effort, including the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society and the Harvard Institute for International Development. Other groups include the International Chamber of Commerce, the International Telecommunication Union and the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

Moffett said it was important to draw in as many big-name players as possible to give the effort credibility and to assure people that the funding and the knowledge needed to make the project successful would be there.

What the initiative wants to avoid, for instance, is having a telecentre built in a rural village that cannot be used by anyone because of cost and incompatibility with other local systems, she said.

Once the project is under way, said Frederick Tispon, the project’s director, there will be a need for individuals, as well as for the companies and organizations that have already signed up, to assist.