• English

60th Annual Session of ESCAP

Shanghai, 27 April 2004
Statement by Mrs. Brigita Schmögnerová,
Executive Secretary

UNECE’s Role in Promoting ICTs and the Knowledge-based Economy

The ICT (information and communication technology) revolution has generated new opportunities for growth, employment and the creation of wealth. Economies are increasingly based on the exchange of information and knowledge. Transformation to a knowledge-based economy is a new important challenge that developed economies and economies in transition are going to face.

Transformation to a knowledge-based economy is a complex process that needs to be driven by governments strategies, in cooperation with other stakeholders: businesses, NGOs and in which IO will also play a role. Transformation covers heterogeneous areas like development of appropriate ICT infrastructure, production and diffusion of knowledge, closer linkages between generations, dissemination and application of knowledge, linkages between industry and science, new investments into R & D, development of regulatory framework (protection of intellectual property rights, right of access to information, internet governance, etc.), improved governance in a country (including e-government, efficient innovation policy, etc.), development of e-business, education and training. Particularly investment in human capital is a central investment for a knowledge-based economy.

The emergence of the knowledge-based economy is shifting the focus of businesses including needs for employees, changing from production workers to knowledge workers. Workers engaged in using information to produce goods and services are beginning to play a central role in economic growth. Investments to develop, upgrade and improve the skills and expertise of the workforce are therefore crucial to increasing competitiveness.

The structural changes described above were confirmed at a recent high-level conference on ICT and e business strategies in transition economies, organized by UNECE and UNCTAD in October 2003. Among the recommendations adopted, several are particularly relevant to the knowledge-based economy. It was agreed that countries should seek to:

  • Enhance the capacity of ICT infrastructure by increasing access and availability and reducing Internet access costs for businesses and households, inter alia by developing community access points organized on cyber-post principles and integrating telecom infrastructure with postal offices;

  • Use ICTs to enhance transparency, accountability and efficiency in the delivery of public services to citizens and to enterprises;

  • Promote the integration of e-business strategies into national economic and social development plans with broad participation from all sectors;

  • Enhance digital literacy and public awareness of ICT and e-commerce, and increase human resource capacity to meet the challenges of the e-business environment, by using country's basic education system beginning at the primary school level, providing adult training programmes, and investing in ICT in educational environments in general;

  • Develop accessible and affordable ICT and e-commerce infrastructures, and enable transactions between citizens, businesses and governments within and across borders;

  • Review legal and regulatory instruments, enact legislation supporting e-commerce to overcome the complex issues that have arisen from the development of ICT in areas such as taxation, customs, intellectual property, domain names, computer crime, Internet content regulation, privacy and data protection, consumer protection, certification authorities, and the role of accreditation and standardization bodies;

  • Foster regional cooperation through the development of regional and sub-regional action plans and through public and private partnerships in economies in transition, to share resources and knowledge throughout the region;

  • Invite and encourage all concerned organizations to support the efforts of economies in transition in ICT and e-business development, especially in countries with a lower level of e-readiness, including in the area of capacity building.

The e-assessment of 16 Member States provided by UNECE and the assessment of e-readiness of countries by the World Bank show growing digital divide between the UNECE members and worldwide, particularly between the developed and developing countries. The challenge of bridging the digital divide between the more ICT-advanced countries and countries with economies in varying stages of development and transition is pressing. However, based on the practical recommendations above, some policies can be identified to help bridge the divide: These are:

  1. Globalization and rapid technological developments are fundamentally reshaping the business environment. World markets are increasingly integrated, intensifying competition and creating new opportunities, and knowledge and innovation are emerging as key assets. International structural, institutional and business linkages and cooperation are therefore crucial for knowledge economy policy.

  2. The development of the knowledge-based economy is based on using ICT in transforming the structure of governance, institutions, innovation policy, business models, education, telecommunication and services, inter alia. An explicit policy to incorporate effective ICT in these institutions should therefore be adopted. For example, the introduction of ICT in government can create new e-government solutions that give transparency and thus, provides means for strengthened democratic institutions. However, no knowledge economy can develop without a comprehensive effort of learning and education. The importance of education is illustrated by the following figures: in 1999, the United States spent 3.8% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on primary and secondary education, and the average for OECD countries was 3.6% of GDP. (Source: U.S. National Center for Education Statistics.)1

  3. Every effort should be made to remove obstacles to ICT implementation in order to ensure access and use for all of ICT. Two of the most pressing issues identified in the WSIS Plan of Action are Internet governance and the financing of ICT for development. Together with their member countries, the UN Regional Commissions should strive to develop concrete approaches for resolving these issues.

The UNECE region is affected more than other regions by the “digital divide”, as it includes many of the most digitally advanced countries as well as countries in Central Asia with some of the lowest levels of ICT development in the world. Therefore the UNECE is more focused on economies in transition. In assisting these countries in developing a knowledge-based economy UNECE has the following three goals:

  • Narrowing and/or closing gaps and divides between the advanced and less advanced economies in the areas crucial to the development of the knowledge based economy;
  • Promoting the efficient use of ICT for development; and
  • Providing a forum for dialogue between various stakeholders interested in the development of the knowledge-based economy.

In achieving these goals UNECE’s role in this area is manifold, and includes providing assistance with legal, regulatory and standardization matters; providing transition economies with an information, meeting and advisory platform; and facilitating new business processes and applications for information technologies. UNECE also seeks to foster linkages between all stakeholders, including governments, civil society, the business community and non-governmental organizations, to further the transition process and promote economic growth.

In the area of trade, UNECE is working to facilitate electronic business, especially standards for electronic data interchange (UN/EDIFACT), web-based standards and the integrated use of paper and electronic trade documentation (UNeDocs project). UNECE cooperates with other organizations to develop methodologies for monitoring the Information Society. In the area of transport, UNECE is examining new technologies known as Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) and introducing provisions on these new technologies into relevant UNECE Agreements and Conventions to make transport more efficient, safer and more environmentally friendly. Finally, the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) actively promotes the principles and priorities of the Bucharest Declaration, including an Information Society beneficial to all. Legislative proposals to implement this Convention were recently adopted by the European Commission.

Finally, I would like to recall the role of Regional Commissions in the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action in which the regional dimension of implementation was explicitly recognized. UNECE in Geneva was responsible for coordinating the contributions of all the Regional Commissions to the Summit. Indeed, the cooperation of the Regional Commissions in this context was, in my view, exemplary and could perhaps be the basis for future joint activities. UNECE will work with the other Regional Commissions to develop interregional projects on ICT implementation for 2006-7 funded from the United Nations Development Account.


1 The Human Development Report Education Index takes into account a country’s literacy and educational levels. In 2003, the United States’ Education Index was 0.97, as was that of OECD High-Income countries. The Education Index of OECD countries was 0.94, and Central and Eastern Europe and CIS countries had an index of 0.92, while least developed countries had an average Education Index of 0.50. Source: Human Development Report 2003, UNDP.