MDGs: Transforming Poverty to Prosperity Using ICT

In an effort to address the problem of poverty and promote sustainable development, the United Nations Millennium Declaration was adopted in September 2000 at the largest ever gathering of Heads of State and Government, committing countries both rich and poor to some specific goals. The goals include those dedicated to eradicating poverty, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, as well as ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development. The eight main targets, using 1990 as a baseline, are:
1.    Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger – 2015 target – Halve proportion of people living on less than $1 a day, and those suffering hunger.
2.       Achieve Universal Basic Education – 2015 target – Achieve universal primary education.
3.    Promote gender equality and empower women – 2015 target – Eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education enrolment by 2005, and achieve equity at all levels by 2015.
4.       Reduce child mortality – 2015 target – Reduce by two thirds the child mortality rate.
5.    Improve maternal health – 2015 target – Reduce by three quarters the proportion of women dying at childbirth.
6.    Combat AIDS, Malaria and Other Diseases – 2015 target – Halt and begin to reverse the incidence of HIV-AIDS, malaria and other major diseases.
7.       Ensure environmental sustainability – Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes and reverse the loss of environmental resources. 2015 target – reduce by half the proportion of people without access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation. By 2020 achieve a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers.
8.       Develop a Global Partnership for Development – This Goal commits north and south to work together to achieve an open, rule-based trading and financial system, more generous aid to countries committed to poverty reduction, and relief for the debt problems of developing countries. It draws attention to the problems of the least developed countries and of landlocked countries and small-island developing states, which have greater difficulty competing in the global economy.  Interestingly, target 18 of this Goal stressed the importance of ICT and indicated that “In cooperation with the private sector, the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications should be made available”.
 
From available statistical data, for sub-Saharan Africa, the United Nations has declared that “although there have been major gains in several areas and the goals remain achievable in most African nations, even the best governed countries on the continent have not been able to make sufficient progress in reducing extreme poverty in its many forms”.
 
Nigeria still has a lot of challenges with infrastructure facilities such as roads, electricity, water supply, including ICT (Information and Communications Technology) infrastructure. Our public educational facilities are facing major challenges.  It is also true that our hospitals leave so much to be desired in terms of equipment, medical personnel and work ethics. The consequence of this being that the possibility of considerable reduction in the rate of infant and maternal mortality to achieve the MDGs targets by 2015 is low, unless some decisive actions are taken. Based on available information, it is unlikely that Nigeria will be able to meet some of the goals by 2015 especially the goals related to eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, reducing child and maternal mortality and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
 
But, we can accelerate the transformation of the economy using the power of ICT infrastructure. With increased usage of ICTs in the economy, the achievement of most of the MDGs could be fast-tracked as no modern economy can thrive without an integral information technology and telecommunications infrastructure. Indeed, no nation can effectively succeed in solving her 21st century development challenges, unless the national vision and strategies are anchored on ICT.  ICTs provide the veritable platform for rapid growth of our economy, if well harnessed. The power of ICTs can be effectively harnessed through the participation and cooperation of all stakeholders in our society – government, private sector and development partners.  ICT remains an enabler that could help Nigeria and other African countries get out of the doldrums of backwardness and move faster.
 
Achieving the MDGs, is in itself, a challenge that many developing countries are grapping with. They face enormous challenges in developing their education systems – from providing universal basic education and tackling gender bias, to increasing access to and quality of education, all the way to strengthening tertiary education to produce a critical mass capable of taking advantage of technological innovations of this day and age.  It is strongly believed that the vision of becoming top-20 economy can only be achieved if Nigeria also makes the transition to a new economy based on knowledge, productivity, and innovation that will enable it to be competitive in a 21st century context. Indeed, for Nigeria and other African countries to bridge the gap of development between them and other advanced economies of the world, there is urgent and dire need to optimize the power of technology and innovations. Nigeria must learn from other economies were technologies have been deployed to tackle poverty and accelerate growth in all sectors.
 
Knowledge has always been central to development and can mean the difference between poverty and wealth. Countries such as Korea, India and the United States of America, etc have harnessed the power of new technologies to nurture a cadre of knowledge workers that can push the productivity and innovation frontiers. Others that failed to do so remain mired in poverty and deprivations.  Nigeria must place importance on the need to advance the course of information and technology to fast-track the growth of the economy and achieve our vision. Indeed, there is a paradigm shift in global development agenda and Nigeria cannot pretend not to be affected by its current and emerging impact. Any nation that wishes to attain and sustain meaningful development must therefore enthrone science and technology, and in particular, ICTs.
 
The global financial crisis and the concomitant fall in oil prices have shown that countries can no longer rely on narrow and static paradigms of growth, such as Nigeria and its natural resource endowments. The era when natural resources dominated trade has given way to an era in which knowledge resources are paramount. Our world is changing rapidly and those who are able to acquire, adapt, and utilize new ideas and innovations, regardless of who has invented them, will create tremendous wealth in the process. To achieve a quantum leap on MDGs as well as  achieve Vision 2020, Nigeria needs to move beyond stop-start development patterns of an oil-based economy to create a stable and prosperous base for a 21st century society built on a critical mass of knowledge workers.
 
Indeed, given the short to medium term limitations in power and transport, the most promising area is the service sector, and more specifically the absorption of ICT. Growing the sector implies embracing the knowledge economy paradigm, developing education and skills, and putting in place a modern communications infrastructure. Freeing up the country’s dynamic businesses to create
more ICT jobs will create more opportunities for our teeming youth, and accelerate the achievement of the MDGs and Vision 20.20.20. Indeed, there is no better leverage for self employment and entrepreneurship opportunities than through the use of ICT.
 
One of the key strategic objectives of NV 20.20.20 is to promote development of local capacity in ICT for global competiveness. The ICT for development (ICT 4D) Strategic Action Plan is targeted at encouraging research and development, local manufacture, capacity and content development in key areas of ICT. Among the areas to achieve the above are the following initiatives:
–         facilitate development of a national multimedia superhighway.
–         establishment of a national ICT backbone connectivity and Bandwidth aggregation solution.
–         establishment of appropriate legal and regulatory framework to support e-biz and ICT-enabled activity.
–         provision of appropriate incentives including tax benefits and enabling environment for investment, innovation and exploitation of ICT-enabled services.
 
Currently, all successful economies of the world are knowledge-based and technology driven. They have established a new global society, where the core value system is domiciled in the skills to create productively, by transforming knowledge and information into innovative products and services. But, we may not, as a nation, be able to keep pace with the rapidly changing world without a fundamental shift in our value system and education model.  Today, knowledge has become the centre of gravity for human progress, productivity, sustainable growth and wealth creation.       
 
To become a knowledge economy, we will need to improve the quality and relevance of education, particularly of vocational training, and expand access to ICTs. The challenges faced by the Nigerian education system are great, but so too are the potential and the scope for meaningful government participation as an architect, provider and partner, rather than just as a regulator. To improve access, quality and funding of education, our country must harness the contribution of the private sector. The government can play a catalytic role in the process of building strong public-private partnerships that could provide funds and know-how to improve curricula and realign priorities. By generating a critical mass of educated people whose skills are continually refined through lifelong learning and the progressive upgrade of the education system, our country can build the foundations of a knowledge-driven economy.
 
But, as a first step, Government should provide the needed enabling environment for ICT to thrive in Nigeria, and efforts should be made to automate all parastatals and agencies. The modern world does not deal in missing hard files.  Besides, government should create awareness on the importance of IT as a way of life and business culture. We must embark on e-government to radically change how government functions. This will lead to transparent accountability. It will also allow for unhindered monitoring of government behaviour.
 
In today’s knowledge-based world, ICT plays a critical role in boosting productivity, economic growth and poverty reduction. Recent evidence has shown that an increase of 10 mobile phone users per 100 people can boost GDP growth by almost 0.6 percent and a 1 percent increase in the number of internet users can increase GDP growth by 4.3 percent.  Rapid advances in information infrastructure are drastically affecting the acquisition, creation, dissemination, and use of knowledge, which in turn affects economic and social activities, including how manufacturers, service providers, and government are organized, and how they perform their functions. The establishment of a liberal regulatory structure in Nigeria which allows for competition and private sector participation over the past 10 years has led to outstanding growth rates in the sector with multiplier effect on the economy. But, there are still challenges and limitless business opportunities in the sector.
 
Although the accelerated liberalization of the sector has allowed the rapid growth of Nigeria’s ICT sector, the prices are still high by international standard, and therefore need to be reduced to spur international investment, especially in the area of business process outsourcing. Besides, the bandwidth needs to be increased to set the stage for all other areas of technology uptake, including e-government services, computer ownership, and internet usage, as well as e-commerce and business solutions.  India, a large country with some similarities with Nigeria, is widely viewed as a leader in offshoring, call centres, and software development. Korea is currently seen as a pioneer in effectively using knowledge for growth, while Singapore is in the process of developing its pillars in order to pursue a relatively new strategy in which innovation becomes the new focus of the economy. But where is Nigeria’s version of Silicon Valley to test out the Nigerian technological knowledge and skills?
 
Outsourcing is a key component in the ICT-enabled services trade. The   global offshore market is huge, and the outsourcing industry if deployed and properly harnessed in Nigeria, has great potential not just for revenue generation, but also economic and technological growth.  Studies have shown that the outsourcing industry is estimated to have the capacity to generate over 5,000 jobs within the first 2 years of commencement in the IT sector with another 5,000 on non-ICT related sectors.  I believe it is time for our country to reposition itself to grab the opportunity as an alternative, low-cost, but high-quality offshoring destination of choice for companies all over the world. The size of the global offshore market in 2008 surpassed the US$100bn mark and it continues to grow at 30 per cent per annum.  If Nigeria can attract even 0.1% of the total outsourcing activities, it will increase the country’s GDP by more than 30% and transform the economy from an agrarian to a service sector-based economy with tremendous impact on the welfare of the people.
  
Since 1999, the telecom has attracted more than US$12 billion worth of investment and is contributing more than 2 percent of GDP (up from 0.37 percent in 1999). This, combined with a burgeoning local IT industry and a prolific film industry (estimated at about US$350 million in 2009), has contributed to providing employment for more than 3.5 million Nigerians, putting the country on the global map for ICT/IT business. However, the rapid strides in expanding the telecom access in recent years are largely confined to the mobile telephony space. Access to landlines has deteriorated and internet access remains costly, with bandwidth severely limited. But, this must be reversed to move to the next stage of the ICT revolution in Nigeria, which will enhance the transformation and growth of the economy. In ICT, there are four segments – communication, hardware, software and services. Globally, the ICT market is worth more than US$4 trillion and communication is worth about 45 percent while other segments hold the remaining percentage. Unlike other segments, Communication is thriving well in Nigeria, but the country must be properly positioned to play active role in all the segments for the economy to derive maximum benefit of ICTs.
 
We are aware of the enormous challenges facing our economy, including infrastructure challenges but I am optimistic of the various steps being taken to address them. Overcoming our challenges and joining the elite club of ‘advanced economies’ will task the energies of all Nigerians and of our developmen
t partners. We must continue to upgrade infrastructure,   promote trade and integration with the rest of the world; drastically reduce the cost of doing business; and build competitive advantage in every sector of the economy. Our challenges cannot be addressed in one day; they will require the concerted efforts and commitment of all. 
 
Undoubtedly, Nigeria’s challenges are clearly not insurmountable, as the examples of several countries have shown.  With a focused and determined group of leaders, backed by a practical and hardworking citizenry, our economy could be transformed within a short space of time. We must put our priorities right and learn to be part of the knowledge-based world.   We must take up the challenge and look forward with determination, confidence and optimism.
 
Given the importance of this Summit, in terms of its goals and objectives, I am optimistic that outcome of various Summits in Nigeria would provide a clear road map for advancing ICTs in Nigeria. I also hope you will leave this Summit with an even stronger commitment to work together with us to realize our common vision for this great country and make it truly a century of hope and a century for the actualization of our dreams. The Government and private sector must work in partnership to mobilize the needed resources and capacities to achieve our common goals, including the MDGs and Vision 20.20.20.  We must synergize efforts and work together in concert to unleash human productivity, reduce poverty, promote healthy competitive environment and foster sustainable growth.
 
Remi Babalola
Nigeria’s Finance Minister of State

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