Impressions of WSIS-2 in Tunis

Oumy Ndiaye

Oumy Ndiaye attended the second World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS-2) held in Tunis, 16–18 November 2005. Here she gives some impressions of the meeting.

What were your main impressions of the WSIS-2 gathering?
I was impressed by the enormous number of people – it seemed that everyone was there – and the Tunisians’ evident organizing skills. The official programme, where government representatives presented statements and negotiated details of the Tunis Commitment and the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society, was similar to other UN summits. The key aspect of WSIS was that it focused on the Information Society and on finding ways to bridge the digital divide. What I found most useful was the informal programme, where representatives of civil society groups, NGOs, research organizations and donor agencies were able to network.

In what way was the informal programme useful to you?
World summits are of course organized so that the governments of UN Member States can discuss and reach agreement on global issues. What was useful for me, however, was to meet with CTA’s partners and to network with other organizations involved in ICT4D programmes, both to learn from their experiences and to discuss future initiatives.

What was for you the most exciting event at WSIS-2?
For me personally, it was the launch of the ‘$100 laptop’ by Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The laptop has been designed as a learning tool for children in developing countries. It includes all the features of a modern laptop, as well as wireless broadband so that it can be linked up with other laptops to create an ad hoc local area network. Even more important, it can be ‘wound up’, and so can be used in areas where electricity supplies are unreliable. I see this as an extraordinary opportunity for training young people in the rural areas

The reactions to the $100 laptop were generally rather sceptical. It is too expensive for children, there are insufficient software applications in local languages, and there are no repair facilities in rural areas. How would you respond to these criticisms?
I confess that I am rather dismayed by the critical reactions in some quarters to the mere mention of high-tech solutions. The $100 laptop is a real breakthrough and exactly what is needed in rural Africa. It can’t of course solve all problems. The laptop has been designed for use in schools, and that may take some time to achieve. But in the meantime I’m sure that people will find many other uses for it. Just look at what happened with the mobile phone – no one could have predicted that it would be so popular in Africa. In my home country, Senegal, CTA’s partner Manobi developed a very popular agricultural market information service that farmers and traders can access via mobile phone.

Returning to the subject of agricultural development in ACP countries, was anything achieved at WSIS-2?
The FAO ensured that promoting the use of ICTs to improve agricultural production in developing countries was included as one of the policy objectives in the Tunis Agenda. It also lobbied to make sure that e-agriculture was one of the ICT applications listed in the ‘action lines’ to be undertaken by the development community.

What is the meaning of ‘e-agriculture’?
E-agriculture is an emerging theme in agricultural development. Originally it focused on Internet-based solutions to make agricultural information more easily accessible. Recently, FAO proposed to widen the definition of the term to include satellite technology, GPS, advanced computers and electronic monitoring systems in applications such as precision farming, in order to improve all aspects of agricultural production.

But hasn’t ICT Update has been reporting on such applications for some years?
Yes, that’s correct. There have been some breathtaking developments in recent years, especially in linking together stand-alone devices, and in the design of sensor technologies. Many of these applications may seem like science fiction, but the potential benefits for developing countries are enormous, as we will continue to show in ICT Update.

Oumy Ndiaye ( ) is head of CTA’s Communication Channels and Services Department.

15 January 2006

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