Annan Urges High-Tech Aid for Poor Countries


By Barbara Crossette

New York Times
April 4, 2000

United Nations - Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed today that the United Nations take the lead in bringing advanced information technologies to poor nations, which he said could enable them to leapfrog over traditional stages of development at a surprisingly low cost.

In a report intended to set the agenda for a millennium assembly in early September to which all the world's leaders are invited, Mr. Annan announced plans to create a new international voluntary corps, the United Nations Information Technology Service, to train groups in developing countries to use the Internet. He also proposed an Internet health network for 10,000 locations in poor nations to give hospitals and clinics access to the latest medical information.

And, in a major initiative to be led by the Ericsson telecommunications company of Sweden, the world's largest producer of mobile phones, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross will establish a quick-response service. The program will provide mobile and satellite phones along with microwave links to relief workers facing natural disasters or other emergencies.

The recommendations were part of a broad report also covering such predictable subjects as a deteriorating environment, persistent poverty and the spread of weapons worldwide. But in making the information proposals, Mr. Annan took another step out of the traditional limits of United Nations action -- through member governments and with their approval.

He gave his backing to a leading role for private enterprise, to the discomfort of a number of member nations that strongly oppose growing links with both global business and nongovernmental organizations, which often oppose government policies. "Much of the heavy lifting will be done by private investment, and partnerships with philanthropic foundations will also be very important," Mr. Annan said of his partners in the proposal, which he suggested would make the United Nations more relevant to a new age. "Probably the best ideas will come from outside government."

The secretary general had a warning for governments that try to block or roll back the information age. "They are depriving their nations, their people of great opportunity by trying to limit access to these technologies -- and besides, they are going to fail, so they shouldn't waste resources trying to block it," Mr. Annan said at a news conference after presenting his report to the General Assembly. "I know it is frightening for those who want to control everything, for those who would want to control information in their society and what happens in their country," he said. "But it's simply not going to be possible. I would urge them to be forward-looking for the sake of their people."

In a world where more than a fifth of the population exists on a dollar a day or less and foreign aid has dropped, information technology may be a cost-cutting device rather than an extravagance, Mr. Annan said at his news conference. "It can be used without having vast amounts of hardware or financial capital," he said. "What you need above all is brains, which are the one common commodity equally distributed among the world's peoples. So for a relatively little investment -- in education, for example -- we can bring all kinds of information in reach of poor people, enabling poor countries to leapfrog some of the long and painful stages of development that others have had to go through."

In his speech to the assembly, Mr. Annan acknowledged that there has been a backlash against globalization, with its effects seen as negative or even threatening. He mentioned concerns over biotechnology's inroads in food production and announced that he would set up a network for discussing the issue and allaying fears "so that the poor and hungry do not lose out." Speaking to reporters later, Mr. Annan said his report "contains some pretty alarming facts, particularly in the chapter on environment, and some pretty shaming ones regarding poverty."

He noted in his speech that in the last decade, civil wars have killed five million people and driven many times that number from their homes. Mr. Annan described his report as "a comprehensive account of the challenges facing humanity as we enter the 21st century, combined with a plan of action for dealing with them."

UN Press Release on the Secretary General's Millenium report
More Information on Inequality of Wealth and Income Distribution

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