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Back | Programme Area: Technology and Society (2000 - 2009) | Event: Information Technologies and Social Development Conference

Information Technologies and Social Development Conference

Original Background Note

At a time when the world confronts immense social problems, many hopes are grounded in the development potential of new information technologies. But technical breakthroughs in themselves are not a sufficient condition for improving the lives of most people. In fact, unless the conditions are created for relatively more disadvantaged groups to use information technologies constructively, the digital revolution may well accelerate an already alarming process of polarization and exclusion.

What will it take -- in social, political, economic and legal terms -- to create a setting in which new information technologies can be used to improve the conditions of less advantaged groups? What are the basic elements for promoting an inclusive information society, rather than a world of "information haves" and "have nots"?

The UNRISD conference on Information Technologies and Social Development will provide an opportunity to explore such questions, referring particularly to the situation faced by the majority of the inhabitants of Third World and transitional societies. Over the course of two days, participants representing a wide range of interests and points of view will highlight both the opportunities and the difficulties inherent in using new information technologies for development.

Monday, 22 June 1998

To set the stage for discussion, Session One will focus broadly on the pervasive social and economic shifts that seem to accompany the dawning of the global "information age." Are we on the threshold of a truly revolutionary change in economic and social organization, comparable to that of the Industrial Revolution two hundred and fifty years ago? If so, what does this imply for currently less "developed" regions of the world? How is it likely to affect patterns of trade and finance, strategies of economic modernization, employment opportunities and livelihood strategies for various kinds of people? How will structures of social solidarity be altered and political processes modified?

The principal speaker at this session is Manuel Castells, whose recently-completed study of The Information Age has received widespread international attention. Castells' vision of the "network society" is based not only on a careful analysis of the technical and economic bases of new information technologies, but also on a review of the way various groups in different societies are attempting to mold the future. Far from espousing technological determinism, Castells therefore insists on understanding the scope for action to promote progressive change within the contemporary digital revolution.

Representatives of multilateral development agencies, international NGOs and the information industry will draw on their own experience to enrich this discussion of patterns of global structural change. Then, in Session Two, the conference programme will shift to a consideration of concrete cases in which public policy has been applied to the task of developing national information strategies in Third World and transitional settings. What can one say about the politics and economics of experiences in this field to date in such countries as Bolivia, Chile, Ghana, Malaysia and South Africa? Here it is important to move away from general statements concerning "the developing world," and to look closely at key policy issues in particular socioeconomic, political and cultural settings.

Nations around the globe have many different ways of integrating information technology into their development strategies. The capacity to negotiate advantageous arrangements with powerful multinational firms and industries varies markedly, as does the ability to make creative use of new technologies to improve the lot of the disadvantaged. But all nations are affected by decisions taken in such strategic world bodies as the International Telecommunications Union and the World Trade Organization, where accords fix limits on the use of scarce physical resources (like radio frequencies), determine the nature of satellite access and create binding obligations in trade and financial matters. Policy options in the information technology field are also quite frequently circumscribed by agreements reached between borrowers and both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

In the last presentation on Monday, Cees Hamelink will outline some of the key issues in international information and communications policy, and explain how options for social development are affected by alternative approaches. Hamelink is former President of the International Association for Mass Communications Research, and has long experience in advising Third World governments and citizens’ associations on such questions.

Tuesday, 23 June 1998

The second day of the conference will focus on specific attempts to use information technologies in ways that improve livelihood and defend human rights in Third World or transitional countries. In Session Three, efforts to provide employment and training, and to broaden access to information technologies among disadvantaged or remote groups, will be considered. Discussions will begin with a paper on women and teleworking in India and Malaysia, to be followed by another on the use of information technologies in rural development programmes in Mexico. Case studies of efforts to establish community telecentres in Peru and to promote computer education among street children and adolescents in Brazil will also be presented.

Conference participants with experience in other types of programmes and in other countries should enrich the discussion and help draw attention to elements of public policy, project organization and community commitment that favour some degree of success or render progress impossible. They might also note technical and economic factors that seem central to success or failure. Among other things, insights gained during this session should contribute to a broader understanding of the institutional arrangements that facilitate the design and implementation of effective local programmes for disadvantaged groups.

Session Four is dedicated to exploring the relation between new information technologies, democratization and the defense of human rights. To focus the discussion, participants will hear a presentation on the role of the Internet in promoting democracy in Russia, followed by a comparative analysis of the uses of information technology in strengthening civil society in Brazil and Vietnam.

What are the conditions under which the new technologies become effective tools for empowerment of various groups? How do grassroots networks gain access to new information infrastructures and how do they learn to use them? How do these new tools supplement more traditional forms of communication (radio, telephone, television)? What technical adaptations increase the likelihood that relatively marginalized sectors of society can make their voices heard? What regulatory issues seem to have a particularly direct bearing on the role of electronic networking in processes of democratization and the defense of human rights?

As in earlier segments of the conference, both discussants and the general public will be asked to compare their own experiences with those of the opening speakers.

The event will close with a round table (Session Five). Representatives from a number of international associations, whose members are closely involved in promoting and using new information technologies in both North and South, will be asked to comment on issues raised during the previous two days. After interventions from the floor, there will be a brief summary presentation by conference organizers.