Over the past several weeks there have a number of statements from countries across the Caribbean saying that they are putting an emphasis on ICT. What does that mean? Is it just lip service, or speaks to a transformational agenda?
Making headlines in our latest news roundup was that Dominica was placing considerable “emphasis and importance on supporting the growth of the information communications technology (ICT) sector”. This view was expressed by Kelvar Darroux, Parliamentary Secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister, during the launch of Digital JAM 3.0 “Caribbean Edition” in Dominica, where he also noted
The increasing reliance on information communication technology, as a medium for promoting enhanced business and economic performance has increased significantly in the last few years…
(Source: Dominica Vibes)
The growing emphasis on ICT by Caribbean countries is not new. Prior to the report from Dominica, in last week’s news roundup, Saint Kitts and Nevis indicated that it was creating an Information Society, and the week before, the same country had entered into an agreement with Taiwan to facilitate ICT development. Suffice it to say, if we check the news headlines over the past year or two, we would notice regular entries on a Caribbean country’s growing focus on ICT. However, is that position just lip service on a very topical issue, or will it be translated into direct action?
Worldwide, ICT has ben recognised as an important driver of economic and social development. Organisations such as McKinsey & Company, Booz & Company and the World Bank, have conducted studies that have found a relationship between broadband penetration and economic growths, specifically the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For example, the World Bank found that a 10% increase in broadband penetration results in a 1.38% increase in GDP, and this relationship was more pronounced in low- and middle-income countries (Source: World Bank).
Additionally, we cannot deny that increasingly we are living in a digital world. Organisations, and even countries, are trying to capitalise on the opportunities that the broad range of technologies and platforms afford to maximise profits, to become more efficient and increase productivity. Further, the value of information – for financial gain and to improve decision making – has become increasingly evident, which is causing intrinsic changes within organisations and across our societies.
On the other hand, we are also grappling with the consequences of living in an increasingly digital and information-driven world. Top of mind examples include, cybercrime and the changes that are occurring in individual attitudes and behaviour, and by extension the very fabric of our societies.
Caribbean practice to date
Currently, countries across the Caribbean are depending on improved telecoms to help them become information and technology-driven societies. Although citizens would benefit from improved services, in many instances governments appear to be focussed on having good telecoms infrastructure in order to secure more foreign direct investment.
However, as was evident from our Snapshot series, which highlights the Caribbean’s state of development across a broad range of indicators, penetration in fixed and mobile broadband is still very low. Key reasons for those results include the still limited network deployment in some countries, but more so the limited take up by consumers, which could be attributed to the still relatively high prices for the services.
It is important to highlight that telecoms infrastructure development across the region tends to be driven and financed primarily by the private sector, specifically the telecoms companies. Government offer little to no financial support to facilitate network expansion, but there are frequent calls by policy makers for lower prices and adoption of the latest technologies.
Further, following initial liberalisation initiatives to introduce competition in telecoms sectors, an increasingly arms-length approach to industry policy and regulation has generally been adopted. Hence the focus tends to be on matters such as dispute resolution and pricing regulation, but not necessarily on continually revising policies that foster enabling environments that are more aligned with changing paradigms and global developments.
Is it all just lip service?
Without a doubt, any intention by Caribbean countries to give more attention to developing their ICT sectors should be welcomed. However, it may not necessarily mean a wholesale or far-reaching transformation is imminent. Many of our countries are strapped financially, and would not be able to fund (directly or through donor agencies) projects critical to grow their ICT sectors. Further, and based on the information in the public domain, many countries do not appear to have specific goals, or a coherent plan through which to realise them.
In summary, we are likely to see a number of ad hoc ICT-related plans and projects being implemented across the Caribbean, which in and of themselves, will incrementally develop the ICT sector in their respective countries. It therefore means that for the most part, the Caribbean will continue inch along the ICT development path, but may not necessarily be in a position to truly harness all of the cross-cutting benefits that developing countries, in particular, can realise.
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