Towards a Sustainable, Connected World: Views from Middle-Eastern and African Thought Leaders
Key takeaways from the SAMENA Leaders’ Summit 2023 in Dubai.
Co-authored by: Xiang Liang Ming, Huawei Technologies
There is an ancient Chinese proverb that goes along the lines of “If you want to get rich, first build roads”. That is how your village was first connected to the outside world. Only then could trade (and knowledge flows) really begin.
Today’s equivalent proverb might be “If you want to get rich, first build excellent digital infrastructure and connect to the internet”.
Digital transformation and connectivity yield unquestionable benefits, including improved productivity, innovation and modernization, accelerated economic growth and advanced human development. This is particularly pronounced in emerging markets. As a result, digital transformation has also become a priority for sustainable development. Connectivity – as the foundation for digital transformation – is also fast becoming a basic requirement for everyone.
However, moving towards sustainable connectivity and enhanced ecosystems requires overcoming a multitude of challenges. We believe that there are common market failures that occur naturally during the process of national digital economic development. These market failures provide a rationale for government intervention because the private sector cannot – or rather it lacks resources or incentives – to produce socially efficient outcomes on their own for a nation as a whole.
But they also present a need and an opportunity for government, private sector stakeholders and civil society groups to work closely together to overcome these obstacles.
These challenges can be grouped thematically across four main areas:
• Access: Expand digital inclusion (infrastructure) and close digital divides.
• Innovation: Support new start-ups, provide financial funding to develop domestic digital ecosystems and digital industrial transformation.
• Development: Encourage digital skills development and foster resilience and digital autonomy nationally.
• Environment: Perhaps the biggest market failure of all – environmental degradation and climate change. Support sustainable economic growth paths and national de-carbonisation efforts with digital tools and solutions.
Further digitalization also brings new cybersecurity challenges. Security and trust are crucial to ensuring online access and trusted exchanges of data and information. To fully reap the immense socioeconomic benefits of digital connectivity, appropriate measures to maximize potential must be taken, digital trust must be built, including trust and confidence in the use of ICTs as well as trust among stakeholders to collaborate with others.
What the experts said
To discuss these and other issues, we were fortunate enough to recently participate in the SAMENA Leaders’ Summit 2023, organized under the “Sustainable Connectivity and Emerging Ecosystems in Digital Economy” theme, in Dubai on May 15, 2023.
Huawei was the event’s lead sponsor for the 10th consecutive year. Its key contributions to the event included organizing the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) session in collaboration with the ITU and SAMENA.
Held during SAMENA, the WSIS is a global multi-stakeholder platform facilitating the implementation of the WSIS Action Lines for advancing sustainable development, organized by the ITU, UNESCO, UNDP and UNCTAD. It provides an opportunity for discussion about the steps needed for digital transformation to realize its potential social and economic benefits.
In his keynote speech, guest of honour for the SEMANA summit his excellency Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, Cabinet Member, Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence United Arab Emirates, emphasised the many benefits digitalisation has brought so far, including accelerated economic growth and advanced human development and that,
“ICTs will be the backbone of the future”. But his excellency also stated that “the digital world should be sustainable, secure and committed to the best international standards”.
Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) restated the ITU’s commitment to “Meaningful Connectivity.” She highlighted the still substantial digital divide that remained globally, with 2.7 billion people around the world remaining offline.
Bogdan-Martin went further to say that, “We should climate-proof our telecoms industry in a universal and meaningful way to promote sustainability.”
On the theme of collaboration between government and the private sector, Ursula Owusu Ekuful, Minister of Communication & Digitalization for Ghana, outlined how her government was exploring new public-private partnerships that support shared digital infrastructure. Its aim would be to connect 4-5 million currently unconnected rural citizens. She also emphasised that, “Governments have a role to play in digital entrepreneurship such as helping to ensure financial capital to start-ups”.
Adel Darwish, Director ITU Regional Office for Arab States Egypt, also spoke about the importance of collaboration. Mr. Darwish said that “Collaboration and multi-stakeholder participation is crucial… no single entity can address the range of challenges on their own.”
In her keynote speech, Cao Wenji of Huawei Technologies emphasised the importance of industry associations and standards organizations in setting global cybersecurity rules and that we should better leverage their expertise. She said, “We believe that facts must be verifiable, and verification must be based on standards.”
After much lively debate for an hour, the WSIS Panel provided a set of recommendations. Leading the way, Eng. Mohamed Ben Amor, Director General of the Arab Information & Communication Technologies Organization (AICTO) suggested that “Cybersecurity cannot be looked at solely in the context of national borders. All actions will have an impact beyond, hence there is a need to think and act globally”.
In addition, Dr. El-Sayed Azzouz, Senior ICT Industry Expert, recommended the need “to have official intervention to boost collaboration, investment, education for digital literacy, and also to have unified and common standards for cybersecurity, which gives the industry stockholders a clear baseline to follow”.
Mr. Jawad Jalal Abbassi, Head of Middle East & North Africa for GSMA, suggested that digital ecosystem stakeholders better utilise GSMA’s Network Equipment Security Assurance Scheme (NESAS), “which provide an impartial method for governments, telcos and vendors to certificate products and build digital trust”.
Mr Adel Rashed Almehairi, Director of aeCERT, mentioned that, “Trust should be about meeting end-user expectations. For government, it needs to be one that exceeds expectations”.
Finally, representing the telecoms industry, Mr. Haitham Alfaraj, CTO stc Group Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stated that “Digital trust should be part of product development” while Mr Alaa A. Malki, CTO Mobily KSA said that “Widespread certification is an important recommendation for the industry”.
At the heart of the collective view of the speakers was the consensus that collaboration between all stakeholders is essential not just on a national level, but cross-border and pan-regional. A standards-based approach will help to align stakeholders to create a sustainable future that promotes economic prosperity for all via digital connectivity.
Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.