IGF 2016: What is the internet’s role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?

Author's name: 
Serge Daho, PROTEGE QV
Yaoundé, Cameroon

Serge Daho of PROTEGE QV in Cameroon attended the IGF for the first time in 2016 thanks to the APC Member Exchange and Travel Fund.Serge Daho of PROTEGE QV in Cameroon attended the IGF for the first time in 2016 thanks to the APC Member Exchange and Travel Fund.The 11th annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) took place in Guadalajara, Mexico on 5-9 December 2016. Under the theme “Enabling Inclusive and Sustainable Growth”, this global face-to-face meeting brought together delegates drawn from government, the private sector, academia, research institutions, the technical community, civil society, the media, international organisations, and other stakeholders from well over 100 countries.

The IGF is a United Nations activity initiated in 2006 as part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were in force until 2014. Since 25 September 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have taken over from the MDGs. For these goals to be reached, everyone needs to do their part, and unsurprisingly, sustainable development was the main theme of this 11th annual forum.

With well over 30 workshops held each day, PROTEGE QV only focused on some key issues, including:

  • “Assessing the role of the Internet Governance Forum in the Sustainable Development Goals”

This was the first main session of Day 1 of the IGF, with the aim of assessing the role of internet governance in the SDGs in order to advance the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The panellists went through the 17 aspirational “global goals” spearheaded by the UN with the ultimate goal to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. What is the internet’s role in achieving these Sustainable Development Goals?

It is worth pointing out that each goal has specific targets to be achieved over the next 15 years. During an open consultation, each stakeholder group (business, civil society, academia and government) was asked the critical next steps they should take to serve the purpose.

Megan Richards, principal advisor at the European Commission Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG CONNECT), shared the European experience of establishing a digital single market addressing many of the goals of the SDGs.

  • “The Internet of Women by 2020: WSIS Vision into Reality”

Workshop panellists discussed what they were doing to bridge the digital divide and achieving gender equality among all internet users. Claire Sibthorpe of the GSMA provided highlights of a GSMA report, Bridging the Gender Gap, and noted that studies have shown that women feel much safer with mobile applications than desktop/laptop solutions. Another panellist, Nancy Hafkin of Women in Global Science and Technology, gave a PowerPoint presentation highlighting Africa-based research. There are women-specific barriers in the knowledge society, she stressed, ranging from social norms to structural inequalities between men and women around education and income and financial autonomy.

To narrow the digital divide, panellists all agreed that capacity building as well as digital literacy were key factors. Creating a safe online environment for women and girls was also identified as a top priority. Overall, fostering a future of “Internet of Women” requires a holistic approach by taking into account economic, social and cultural norms as well as technology.

  • “Empowerment through Quality Online Education”

Relevant educational content could empower people, mostly the vulnerable ones and thus increase their influence on the local economy and improve their quality of life. Free/libre and open source software (FLOSS), for instance, could help in addressing the issue of transforming education. We learned that in Argentina, online training programmes allowing individuals to acquire certificates in certain specific fields have been developed. The audience was also told of an ongoing programme in Mexico, run by the government, with the aim to allow students and teachers to develop digital skills.

But on reflection, ensuring quality online education in Africa is a challenging issue. This is a continent with its largest part still subject to power shortages, as well as lack of connectivity and technical equipment in schools. Besides, local people still need to be trained, and educational content in local languages is absent.

  • “The Future of the Internet Governance Forum”

The internet is the backbone of our globalised world. Thus, it matters to know more about its future. During a dedicated workshop, Yolanda Martinez, head of the Digital Government Unit for the Ministry for Public Administration in Mexico, set the scene: “The internet offers opportunities, it stimulates economic development, it creates quality jobs, it improves productivity, it enables people to make their own decisions, and it also helps them to participate in governance. The internet has become a common asset.”

Instead of approaching the future of the internet itself, the panel instead organised a dialogue between younger generations of internet leaders and historical internet stakeholders. The aim was to foster conversation between different generations on internet governance, current challenges, and the state of the art of the internet ecosystem. Each continent was represented by one young leader and one pioneer.

Observations

Among the shortcomings of this 11th annual IGF’s four packed days was the level of African participation. Very few session organisers were from the continent, as well as session moderators. There were also only a tiny number of African delegates, including government representatives. “It was not better than usual, but also not worse,” commented Moctar Yedaly, head of the Information Society Division at the African Union Commission.

Only African civil society was somehow present and active, partly thanks to APC’s Member Exchange and Travel Fund (METF). It is really deplorable to notice our absence on critical issues such as those addressed at the Internet Governance Forum.

Personally, this was a great experience, taking part in my first global IGF. I attended rich panel discussions, and I got acquainted with new topics such as the Internet of Things, smart cities and big data, just to name a few. Travelling thanks to the METF also allowed me to meet in person APC staff with whom I have been interacting for years through emails.

“Enabling Inclusive and Sustainable Growth” was the overarching theme of this 11th annual IGF. The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is aimed at the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (a set of 17 goals to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all). Dr. David Nabarro, the Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, addressing the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Council on 1 June 2016, emphasised that ICTs are cross-cutting tools which are key to achieving the SDGs. However, these goals will not be fulfilled until we have universal and affordable access to ICTs and the internet.

Today, at the beginning of 2017, a total of 53% of the world’s population – and that is 3.9 billion women and men – do not have access to the internet. Yet no one should be left behind with regard to the benefits of the ICT-based society.

As a final wrap-up, I would like to support Nelson Mandela’s statement which was echoed during this 11th IGF by Siyabonga Cwele, Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services of South Africa, in his opening remarks: “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.” The internet can play an important role in the actions aimed at achieving the targets set by the SDGs in order to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all. As outgoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon clearly asserted, “There can be no Plan B, because there is no Planet B.”

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