E.U. helps draft regionwide Carib ICT

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Nov. 22, 2010 – When Caribbean leaders gather for their annual summit in July 2011, they expect to finally have a draft information and communication technology (ICT) for development strategy that technocrats have been putting together over the past three years.

“The major problem was finding the information that spoke to development because the strategy is not simply a matter of finding out which countries do not have technology, do not have connectivity,” Dr. Carmela Rhone, the lead consultant, told IPS.

Ken Sylvester, chair of the Regional ICT Steering Committee tasked with formulating the new strategy, said that the idea was to develop a plan “that will help the Caribbean transform itself into an information society”, particularly in the labor market.

He told IPS that several of the 15 Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries lack the resources to develop an individual ICT plan, so “what we have done is to bring the countries together.”

“We have developed a plan which is available to any country that wishes to utilise it in implementing technology for development,” said Sylvester, who is also the chief executive officer of the Grenada-based Caribbean Knowledge and Learning Network (CKLN).

The European Union, along with other development partners, has been key in funding efforts to develop the Caribbean’s ICT sector.

“The whole world can see the interest in every country having sufficient use of information technology, having access to the Internet,” Robert Baldwin, first counsellor of the European delegation to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, told IPS.

He recalled a recent World Bank study that showed “if you can get a 10 percent increase in access to broadband [technology] your gross domestic product can go up by 1.4 percent.”

“This is very significant. It is a key to the development of any country and we’ve become involved both at the national and regional level” in the Caribbean, he said, adding that the EU develops its regional programs “in negotiations with the region itself”.

“The region basically determines where its priorities are. Our money is not infinite and therefore the region has to decide where it thinks the money should go,” Baldwin said.

The broad objectives of the new regional ICT plan are to fully establish modern regulatory and open telecommunications infrastructures with affordable networks, to build a digital community culture, and to increase the value and volume of the region’s trained ICT workforce, as well as manage and use ICT to demonstrate good governance.

Dr. Rhone stressed that the region must move quickly to implement the new strategy. “The technology has gone ahead of us,” she said, adding that “while we are still looking at access in terms of telecommunications, the technologies have converged and gone digital and we are still trying to catch up.”

“Things are moving so fast that as we make one step forward, we have another 100 steps to take,” she added.

The European Union has been working with countries like St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, St. Lucia and Barbados in ensuring that at the local level there is a wider use of ICT.

In addition, Baldwin said that EU funding to the tune of nearly 12 million euro had been made available to the Caribbean governments to establish the CKLN “which will join initially learning institutions in the entire region and they in turn will link up with similar networks that already exist in Latin America, North America, Europe and Asia.”

“If you look at a map of the world, everywhere else already has this type of regional research and learning network and the Caribbean is the only one left,” he said.

The CKLN, launched by CARICOM and the sub-regional Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) in 2004, is mandated to help colleges and universities to develop a virtual learning network which will provide students with cost-effective access to quality e-learning programs and knowledge resources drawn from the region and around the world.

“We want to provide an opportunity for any Caribbean student to be able to take a course or a program from any institution anywhere in the Caribbean. We are already implementing real tangible projects that give expression to the strategy we are developing,” said Sylvester.

Baldwin admits that the Caribbean countries face “different challenges” in their ICT development.

“Just like everywhere else in the world, some countries move faster than others, some have the priorities more clearly set,” he told IPS. “But I think you need to look at it both at a national and regional level, there is no point is just working at a regional level because any regional project sits basically in the national constituents.” (IPS/GIN)