Ministerial Roundtable Part 2: Growing the digital economy: the role of government

Digital World Daily Highlights 2

Opening the second session of the Ministerial Roundtable, H.E. Dr Mohd Salleh Tun Said Keruak, Minister of Communications and Multimedia, Malaysia, highlighted three key areas of government activity in growing the digital economy: network infrastructure, interoperable platforms for services, and relevant regulation.

Increasing digital bandwidth and connecting communities in remote and rural areas is paramount for Malaysia, which is working together with various private sector companies and has earmarked USD30m for government spending on rural infrastructure development. Interoperable and enabling platforms riding on top of that infrastructure will increase the volume of digital transactions and harness data as a resource. Applications and developments such as identity verification, payment systems, cloud and big data solutions will call for new regulatory approaches, in particular in collaboration with mobile and fintech companies to establish digital identities in the future. Referring the scope of the digital economy, the Minister pointed out that “All government priorities for the digital economy are different, it depends where we focus our resources.”

H.E. Karma Wangchuk Penjor, Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communications, Bhutan, outlined the country’s ICT policy based on the vision of an ICT-enabled knowledge-based society as the foundation for gross national happiness, the driving force of development in Bhutan for the past four decades. ICTs are essential “for good governance, for the Bhutan information society and as an enabler of sustainable economic development,” he said.

Key to growing the ICT sector is enhancing accessibility, of particular importance in the rugged, mountainous terrain of the Himalayan kingdom. The government is focused on enhancing the broadband network and broadcast infrastructure; implementing a national data centre to enhance cybersecurity; and enabling legal and regulatory frameworks for e-government.

On an operational level, the government is establishing the interoperability framework necessary to enable various sectors and ministries to deliver services to citizens, and to aggregate requests for data from citizens through one point of contact. The digital future in Bhutan will focus on bringing technology for all into health and education services, in accordance with SDG 9, and creating an attractive environment for foreign direct investment into the ICT industry as a green and sustainable sector, by offering hydro-electric power, stability and fiscal and monetary incentives.

Aware of the impact of the digital economy, H.E. Dr Debretsion Gebremichael Measho, Minister of Communication and Information Technology, Ethiopia, has doubled efforts in the national digital strategy, looking for further development in the ICT sector and in the global economy. The National Broadband plan is working towards nationwide availability of high speed internet, vital for many different sectors: to allow health professionals to communicate; to allow children to access online educational content; to enhance productivity and incomes in agriculture; and to engage with the digital dividend through job creation and innovation.

Ethiopia is aiming to achieve its targets to transform the country through broadband and the social and economic development it brings, with the goal of reaching the SDGs and middle income status.  A second area of growth and transformation will be in ICTs and digital solutions to expand the manufacturing section, in particular in light electronic manufacturing for export.

But to develop the digital economy, it is paramount that the challenges of digital inclusiveness and cybersecurity are met. The digital divide should not allowed to continue by doing business as usual. Affordable, inclusive access to and use of ICTs will only happen once government, private sector and civil society work together, move in tandem with the pace of technology, and commit to inclusiveness. The sustainable goals will otherwise not be met.

H.E. Alain Claude Bilie-Bi-Nze, Minister of the Digital Economy, Gabon, took the floor to emphasize the importance of regional integration in initiatives such as Smart Africa, where leaders of African nations came together to create a common environment enabling the development of ICTs, tangible opportunities for social and economic develop and common projects relevant to the needs of the people of Africa.

The cost for digital infrastructure is often beyond the means of one state alone, so joining together with know-how and financing is critical; as is innovation funding and common legal and regulatory approaches, making business easier to do across a wider region. “Regional organization can also help Africa in developing the digital economy and providing the necessary human resources to reach these objectives,” reiterated the Minister, concluding that “digital is the future of the country and the solution for the future of Africa”.

HE Jean Philbert Nsengimana, Minister of Youth and ICT, Rwanda, spoke clearly of the role of government in promoting the digital economy based on the experience of his country in its shift from an agriculture-based economy to a knowledge-based economy in the years since 2000 – a period which have seen Rwanda become a world leader in ICT vision, promotion, government efficiency and ICT-enabled health, education and financial services.

Governments should firstly connect, making sure business and especially those in rural areas are online; then promote, to drive adoption and prevent gaps in digital inclusion, in particular the gender gap; educate, to ensure the next generation of consumers and producers of digital goods; and then demonstrate, leading by example in e-government services such as land registration, recruitment, procurement, or construction permits.

The next steps are to regulate, providing a level playing field for competition to thrive; protect consumers, investors and the vulnerable, such as children; innovate, leading with an entrepreneurial mindset and innovation in extending services to people and businesses; mitigate the risk of cyber crime; invest in areas where the market will not go, in research and development, and in infrastructure and education; and finally, governments should quit – “taking a back seat to let the private sector drive.”

Agreeing that creating or facilitating a regional framework for innovation was important, the Minister for Posts, Telecommunications and the Digital Economy from Guinea, H.E. Moustapha Mamy Diaby, stressed the need for a national strategy giving more visibility to the private sector. Stabilizing the business environment means creating transparent mechanisms for better competition, as well as creating an independent regulatory authority. Government must be a role model in innovation in public services, and in increasing or facilitating access to those services.

Any national policy must keep people in mind, at the heart of all policies: building capacity, training youth, building infrastructure, creating content and applications – and ensuring competent, well-trained human resources.

Harmonizing policies across borders will enable us all to take advantage of the ICT ecosystem and open up to private sector investment at scale. “We are playing our part, which is why I call on the private sector to say we do not have perfect conditions to attract investors, but we have a dynamic vision oriented to transparency and stability.”

The Minister for Posts, Telecommunication and Digital Development for Madagascar, H.E. André Neypatraiky Rakotomamonjy, outlined the vision of the country’s president it to make it a modern and prosperous nation underlined by ICTs, through infrastructure and through a regulatory framework that meets the needs of potential investors and existing operators.

The digital divide and illiteracy can be fought through education and training. The population is young, the majority in rural and often remote areas, so the government must enact policies to provide equipment, tablets, solar panels to provide power to create digital spaces in universities and schools. The digital sector offers opportunities to young people, to strengthen their skills for the jobs of the future. Start-up centres will accompany engineers and encourage innovation and creativity. It is critical to find financing, partnerships and continue to exchange with other countries and the international private sector.

H.E. Rodolfo A. Salalima, Secretary, Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), Philippines, spoke of the ideal role of government in serving its people. He reminded the panel of the UN Council’s recognition of connectivity as a basic human right, meaning that every citizen must have access to the tools, devices and technologies with which to use these services.

“ICTs as an enabler for education, for livelihood and for societal participation in democratic processes, is a necessity,” he said, but it is important to balance the right to freedom and the right to privacy in the context of cybersecurity.

Beyond connection, the second duty of government is to educate its citizens, on the use and applications of technology, but also on human values. It is not enough to leave a legacy, it must be a constructive legacy, enabling social, economic and human growth.

H.E. Monise Laafai, Minister, Ministry of Communications, Transport and Tourism, Tuvalu, shared the government’s vision to improve the lives of people and have a brighter future based on ICTs cutting through all sectors of economy and areas of development – “we look at ICTs, we aspire for smart cities, and we hope to able to develop our digital economies”.

The Minister called for government to act as a good referee, administering the rules of the industry in close cooperation and collaboration with all ICT stakeholders.  The challenges are common to all: lack of skills or capacity to narrow the digital divide and deploy infrastructure. Tuvalu is creating an enabling environment with user-friendly legislation, reducing artificial barriers and pricing to foster ICT and technology growth. “Let us invest in our infrastructure in partnerships… and let us look to strong leadership in government, and in the ITU to continue to bring us together to learn and share from one another and improve our own digital economies.”

Sharing the concerns of the previous speaker, H.E. Ahmed Adeem, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Home Affairs, Maldives, highlighted the challenges of inclusion to accelerate growth, improve human welfare and foster open cooperation and development.

The government aims to attract foreign investment, digitalize the broadcast network and create an enabling, flexible regulatory and policy environment. The national information technology centre is the main government agency for propagation of ICT, providing e-government services, and addressing the serious issue of cybercriminality and examining the real impact of social media. New forefronts for collaboration and coordination will create better connectivity and quality of life; he called for the roundtable participants to “make this a summit of solutions and translate our commitments into tangible realities that benefit all the principles and values of thriving digital economies.”

Acknowledging that the role of government in driving the digital economy had been discussed at length, H.E.Dr Win Mlambo, Deputy Minister of ICT, Postal and Courier Services, Zimbabwe, focused instead on wider industry issues such as the need to veer away from silo mentalities, bringing all ministries together in a common approach. He noted the considerable resistance amongst other ministries to adopting ICTs an overarching cross-sector enabler, stating that “we must shift away from this paradigm” to develop a functional national agenda supported by ICTs and adopted by the entire government.

In terms of awareness, he spoke of the “race between technology and education, with technology running away form education”. Creating awareness should fall to governments, leaving the private sector to implement technological solutions, products services and tools; without first ensuring a certain level of awareness would be like putting the cart before the horse.

He echoed the call from the Ethiopian Minister: we cannot continue to do things as usual if we want to move forward. It is a myth and a mirage that we will ever close the digital gap unless there is a deliberate intervention by the international community, injecting enough funds for the developing world to catch up and flourish in the digital economy.

Rounding off the session, H.E. Dr Saoud Humaid Al-Shoaili, Director General, Ministry of Transport & Communications, Oman, spoke from the perspective of a developing country relying on the natural resources of oil and gas as the main source of income. Despite strong infrastructure across all sectors of the economy, efforts at economic diversification have not yet shown great success, so that Oman is now focused on promoting the growth of the digital economy and knowledge-based sectors by making the broadband network available at an affordable price to all citizens and businesses as a platform for digitization.

The strategy to build a smart nation involves enhancing e-government and services, developing human capital with the skills for transformation, and standardizing technology infrastructure and architecture to offer common shared and scalable building blocks to host and integrate government applications and services.

Creating awareness amongst the population of the importance and potential of digitalization is critical, as is supporting SMEs as an essential sector of the digital economy. A government company has been created o to provide world-class broadband services to all businesses and communities and close the digital divide. It important to “enhance infrastructure, enhance regulation, and stimulate demand”.

Despite greatly differing geographies, demographics and stages of market development, the challenge of digital inclusion was common to all Ministers present. Common solutions focused on public private partnerships, collaboration at national, regional and international levels, enabling regulatory and business environments, education, security and putting the individual citizen at the heart of the digital economy.

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