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Don’t let the digital divide become ‘the new face of inequality’

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Digital connectivity is indispensable to overcome the pandemic, and for a sustainable and inclusive recovery. Photo: United Nations/Chetan Soni

Without decisive action by the international community, the digital divide will become “the new face of inequality”, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed warned the General Assembly on Tuesday. 

Although technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain are opening new frontiers of productivity and providing opportunities to people and societies, they pose numerous risks, she said, including exclusion. 

“Almost half the world’s population, 3.7 billion people, the majority of them women, and most in developing countries, are still offline”, Ms Mohammed told ambassadors, tech experts and representatives from civil society groups. 

“Collectively, our task is to help design digital environments that can connect everyone with a positive future. This is why we need a common effort, with collaboration among national and local governments, the private sector, civil society, academia and multilateral organizations.” 

A fragmented digital space 

Ms Mohammed outlined areas for global cooperation, highlighting the key role the UN has in responding to what she characterized as the growing fragmentation in the digital space.   

“Geopolitical fault lines between major powers are emerging, with technology as a leading area of tension and disagreement”, she said.  At the same time, tech companies are responding in different ways to issues surrounding privacy, data governance and freedom of expression.   

The situation is made worse by the deepening digital divide between developed and developing countries, she added, resulting in global discussions on digital issues becoming less inclusive and representative. 

‘Global town hall’ needed 

“Now more than ever, we need a global townhall to address these issues and to capitalise on technology’s transformational potential to create new jobs, boost financial inclusion, close the gender gap, spur a green recovery and redesign our cities”, she said. 

The UN deputy chief underlined the value of engagement, as achieving universal connectivity cannot be left solely to governments or individual tech companies. 

She stressed that no single country or company “should steer the course of our digital future”. 

Development depends on connectivity 

The General Assembly debate sought to generate political commitments to address the widening digital divide as pandemic recovery efforts align with the push to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the end of the decade. 

“In a world of unparalleled innovation, where our loved ones are but a video call away, billions struggle to access even the most basic elements of connectivity or live with none at all. Truly, for billions of people the pace and scale of sustainable development is reliant upon digital connectivity,” said Volkan Bozkir, the General Assembly President. 

He stressed that “now is the time to act” as the digital divide, which existed long before COVID-19, was only made worse by the crisis. However, recovery offers the chance for true transformation. 

“As I have frequently stated, we must use the SDGs as a guide to our post-COVID recovery.  This means ensuring that no one is left behind, no one is left offline, and that we apply a whole-of-society, multi-stakeholder, and intergenerational approach to our efforts”, he said. 

“This is particularly important for the world’s 1.8 billion young people, who must be equipped with the skills and resources to thrive in an ever-changing, tech-driven future.” 

Mr Bozkir called for strengthening implementation of initiatives such as the UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, launched last June. In addition to achieving universal connectivity, its eight objectives include ensuring human rights are protected in the digital era.

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Development

Conflict Affected Families in Armenia to Receive World Bank Support

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A Grant Agreement for the “Support to Conflict Affected Families” project was signed today by Sylvie Bossoutrot, World Bank Country Manager for Armenia, and Atom Janjughazyan, Acting Minister of Finance of Armenia. Funds for the project are provided by the multi-donor State and Peacebuilding Fund (SPF), through a one-year grant of $3.72 million.

The Government of Armenia has developed a broader social protection response package with support from development partners and non-governmental organizations. This project will be implemented by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs of Armenia, through its subordinated agency — the Unified Social Service — and aims to improve the resilience of conflict affected people and reduce the financial burden of host families, with a particular focus on women and vulnerable members of the population.

“We are pleased to sign this timely Agreement supported by the State and Peacebuilding Fund Grant,” said Sylvie Bossoutrot, World Bank Country Manager for Armenia. “This project is of extreme importance and the assistance granted to displaced individuals and their host families will help to improve the resilience of families affected by the conflict.”

The proposed project will contribute to selected social protection and employment support programs, which are part of a larger support package targeting displaced people and their host families, from the Government of Armenia.

Specifically, the project aims to:

  • Reach around 11,530 displaced persons with a monthly cash benefit equal to the minimum wage (68,000 AMD) per adult/child for up to four months in Armenia.
  • Provide cash assistance/income support to 3,975 families in Armenia hosting displaced people to help meet basic consumption needs.
  • Temporarily subsidize an employment program for 936 displaced people who are looking to gain work experience in Armenia and facilitate their labor market participation and economic inclusion.
  • Support 115 displaced individuals through the public works program (cash-for-work).

“The project is designed to especially benefit women affected by the conflict,” said Maddalena Honorati, World Bank Task Team Leader. “According to a rapid multi-sector needs assessment conducted last December, women represent 70 percent of the adult displaced population. The cash transfers will help them meet their basic needs on a day-to-day basis. More importantly, the project will improve the resilience of the displaced families and promote social cohesion in their host communities.”

The State and Peacebuilding Fund is a global fund administered by the World Bank to finance critical development operations and analysis in situations of fragility, conflict, and violence (FCV). The SPF is kindly supported by Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, The United Kingdom, as well as the World Bank.

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Circular solution to Mosul’s conflict debris launched

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Photo credit: Gashtiyar Fathullah , IOM / 04 May 2021

Mosul – Iraq’s second largest city – suffered massive devastation during the conflict with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). An estimated 7-8 million tonnes of debris was created by the fighting, mainly in the Old City on the banks of the Tigris River. To deal with this huge debris challenge, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are joining forces with Mosul Municipality – with the support of Japan – to establish the city’s first debris recycling center.

In the conflict’s immediate aftermath, clean-up campaigns cleared hundreds of thousands of tons of debris blocking streets to allow residents access to their homes and businesses, and enable rehabilitation of critical infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and water treatment plants.

The cleared debris, however, was often dumped in an uncontrolled manner in open spaces, gullies and strewn along roadsides for lack of designated disposal sites, creating problems in this city where land is a premium. Furthermore, much of the debris remains locked in damaged buildings which will require complex explosive hazard clearance and demolition and will take many years to release.

“By processing the rubble to produce quality materials that can be used in reconstruction efforts, creating much needed job opportunities for returnees and cleaning-up the urban environment, this initiative practically illustrates how humanitarian needs and sustainable development goals can be addressed in a joint manner,” said Dr. Jassim Humadi, Iraq’s Deputy Environment Minister.  “We are very grateful to the Government of Japan for their support in helping turn the debris problem in Mosul into a means of positive change.”  

The project builds upon lessons learned and best practices gathered under debris recycling pilots implemented jointly by IOM and UNEP in Mosul and Kirkuk. Where conventional practice had been to clear and dump the debris, this new initiative will concentrate on reusing the recycled aggregate for reconstruction.

“Material testing results confirming that the recycled aggregate complies with Iraq’s standards for road construction should also help pave the way for embedding circular economy principles in dealing with routine construction and demolition waste, thereby promoting a ‘building back better’ approach to crisis recovery,” said Gary Lewis, Director of UNEP’s Disasters and Conflicts Branch.

In the destroyed village of Buwaiter, where the pilot debris recycling project in Kirkuk was implemented, “unemployed youth with no work opportunities benefited immensely,” said Salal Othman, who guards the recycling site and used the crushed gravel to pave the area in front of his house, which is typically impassable during the rains.

“Young people in our village view debris recycling as a golden chance in terms of job creation, which additionally, by clearing the rubble, is allowing us to return and rebuild our homes,” added Mijbel Mar’i, a 24-year-old day labourer.

Remarking on the debris recycling in Buwaiter, Hassan Al-Jubouri, the head of Multaqa sub-district, described it as “an excellent step to dispose of huge volumes of debris while simultaneously employing people,” adding that “with this project, in addition to removing the debris we now have the possibility to reuse it. And given that many rural roads in our sub-district need surfacing, the crushed materials are ideal for this end.”

“Japan has provided over USD 500 million as humanitarian assistance to the people affected by the crisis since 2014. Additionally, Japan decided this year to provide a new assistance package to Iraq, amounting to USD 50 million, including this project by UNEP,” said Japan’s Ambassador to Iraq, His Excellency Mr. Kotaro Suzuki. “I commend UNEP’s initiative together with IOM on recycling debris which cleans up the urban environment and produces materials for road construction as well as creating job opportunities for unemployed youth.”

“In Japan, after the earthquakes, people mourned their loss and started to clean up the debris which was all that was left of their homes and memories of loved ones. Our fathers’ generation did the same in scorched cities after the war, to rebuild towns for their people, for their future children,” he added. “We want to assist people in Mosul and Kirkuk in their efforts to revive their towns, rebuild their lives once again.”

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Viet Nam’s mango industry: towards compliance with export market requirements

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A Swiss-funded project, implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), is helping mango value chain stakeholders in the Mekong River Delta to maximize export opportunities.

Viet Nam is the world’s 13th largest producer of mangoes, with an annual production of 788,000 tons (2018). Much of this production is cultivated in four provinces in the Mekong River Delta in south-western Viet Nam.

With world demand for mangoes continuing to surge, Viet Nam is well-placed to diversify its mango export markets. Currently, the vast majority of mango exports are destined for neighbouring China, but the short shipping links to important markets in the Republic of Korea, Japan, Singapore and Australia offer obvious opportunities for diversification.

A project workshop has brought together more than 150 representatives of different mango value chain stakeholders, including government ministries, local authorities of Mekong River Delta provinces, farmers, cooperatives, packing houses, exporters and logistics companies, as well as representatives of importing countries. In the workshop’s technical session, participants were advised by experts on what needs to be done and what conditions need to be met in order to be able to export in terms of quality infrastructure, and value chain and market promotion, and the key requirements for establishing a sustainable, diversified and high-value export market.

The workshop was organized in the framework of the project, “Increasing the standards and quality compliance capacity of the mango value chain in Mekong River Delta”, funded by the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO).

During the workshop, Jonas Grunder, Deputy Director of SECO in Viet Nam, said the country has signed some key trade agreements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Viet Nam-EU FTA (EVFTA).  But he noted that despite the opportunities to strengthen integration into the world trade system, Viet Nam’s agricultural sector still faces numerous challenges in substantially increase their access to global markets. This is why, he said, the Swiss Federal Economic Bureau had decided to join hands with UNIDO to start a technical assistance programme focusing on  the mango value chain in the Mekong Delta.

Tran Thanh Nam, Viet Nam’s Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, highlighted the important role of cooperative in the effort to improve the quality of mangoes. He also added that farmers in the provinces should increase efforts to comply with the VietGAP and GlobalGAP standards of good agricultural practice.

On the margins of the workshop, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, UNIDO, the International Agricultural Development Fund (IFAD), the Dong Thap Provincial People’s Committee and Ben Tre Provincial People’s Committee co-signed a joint declaration to develop the fruit value chain in the Mekong River Delta through the project, “Building Forward Better: A Resilient Women and Youth-Centred and Digitally Enhanced Value Chain Development in Vietnam”, with the financial support of the United Nations COVID-19 Response and Recovery Multi-Partner Trust Fund (UN COVID-19 MPTF).

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