This year marks an historic turning point for development policy. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) end their fifteen-year run as the centerpiece of global development activities, and intergovernmental negotiations are now underway at the UN to inform a summit scheduled for September to adopt a new strategy—the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
One of the most dramatic changes since adoption of the MDGs has been the global spread of information and communication technologies (ICTs), especially mobile phones and the Internet. This phenomenon made increasing access to ICTs important in development thinking. However, whether the proposed SDGs adequately reflect and integrate the importance of ICTs in development activities is the subject of debate. Should the proposed SDGs, which will shape development efforts for years to come, make ICTs more prominent, or have ICTs already become so critical to development strategies that emphasis in the SDGs is not necessary?
The MDGs and ICTs
The UN adopted the MDGs in September 2000 to provide a blueprint to guide countries, development institutions, and non-state actors in addressing the needs of the world’s poorest people. None of the eight MDGs is specific to increasing access to ICTs, but Goal 8—Develop a Global Partnership for Development—included a target of making the benefits of new technologies, especially ICTs, more available.
The growth of mobile-cellular subscriptions and Internet users, especially in developing countries, demonstrates the progress made on the ICT target of MDG 8. In 2000, only thirty-five percent of the world’s approximately 720 million mobile-cellular subscriptions were in developing countries. By 2014, seventy-eight percent of the world’s nearly seven billion subscribers lived in developing nations. In 2000, only about seven percent of the world’s population used the Internet, and the vast majority of users resided in developed states. In 2014, over forty percent of the world’s population used the Internet, with a substantial majority of Internet users living in developing countries. In addition, Internet penetration rates in developing countries reached nearly thirty-three percent in 2014.
The importance of ICTs became ubiquitous in development thinking after adoption of the MDGs. The World Summit on the Information Society held by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 2003 and 2005 stressed the role of ICTs in promoting development objectives around the world. The World Bank embraced ICTs as development-enhancing tools. In its International Strategy for Cyberspace, the United States identified development as one of the strategy’s key goals.
The SDGs and ICTs
As the 2015 end date for the MDGs approached, the UN began to focus on another set of development goals. In 2012, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (the Rio+20 Summit) agreed to establish an inclusive, intergovernmental process that would propose "Sustainable Development Goals" for the General Assembly to consider and adopt. The Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals delivered its proposed SDGs to the General Assembly in August 2014. The UN Secretary-General endorsed the proposal in December 2014. Intergovernmental negotiations in the UN on the proposed SDGs began in January 2015, with the next session scheduled for next week.
The Open Working Group’s proposal includes 17 SDGs with 169 targets. Unlike the MDGs, which focused on developing countries, the proposed SDGs are intended to apply to all countries. Like the MDGs, the proposed SDGs do not contain a goal on ICTs. According to an ITU and UNESCO commission, only four proposed goals specifically reference ICTs:
- Goal 4 on education includes the target of increasing ICT training in developing and least-developed countries;
- Goal 5 on gender equality and empowerment of women and girls seeks to improve the use of ICTs to promote such empowerment;
- Goal 9 of building resilient infrastructure, promoting sustainable industrialization, and fostering innovation includes a reference to increasing access to ICTs and providing universal and affordable access to the Internet in least-developed countries by 2020; and
- Goal 17 on revitalizing the global partnership for sustainable development identifies the need for increased use of enabling technologies, especially ICTs.
The ITU and UNESCO commission argued that a "systematic approach to integrating ICT as a means of implementation is lacking" and that "there is considerable scope to integrate the unique role of ICT more fully into the current proposal for SDGs." The commission further argued "that broadband and ICT should be explicitly included as means of implementation in fulfilling most, if not all, of the proposed SDGs." A global group of non-governmental organizations delivered the same message in asserting that the proposed SDGs do "not include sufficiently strong commitments to advance information and communication technologies as a key means to achieve sustainable and inclusive development."
Whether the UN negotiations heed these critiques remains to be seen. UN members have to confront many controversial issues in the negotiations, such as how to finance the activities the SDGs advocate. The global dissemination of ICTs makes ICT issues less pressing compared to other topics. The challenge of exploiting the digital data revolution in advancing the SDGs constitutes a more cutting-edge issue than focusing on the global spread of ICTs, which will, in all likelihood, continue whatever the final SDGs contain. Finally, the global growth of ICT access has created new policy headaches with implications for development strategies, including the polarizing debate on how governments regulate the use of ICTs. Unfortunately for ICT advocates, these factors make it unlikely that ICTs will get a more prominent role in the final set of SDGs.