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Remarks of Ann M. Veneman, UNICEF Executive Director at the Web4Dev Conference


Remarks of Ann M. Veneman, Executive Director, UNICEF
Web4Dev Conference
Innovation for Access
11 February 2009 • New York, NY

Good morning and a warm welcome to UNICEF. And welcome to all those who are joining us by live webcast. The Web for Dev conference is an annual event of the United Nations. For the first time, UNICEF is hosting this conference which will explore ways to better use technology to address global development challenges. The participants include representatives from academia, the private sector, and the field of development as well as many others. The task here this week is to put innovation and technology at the service of humanity. And there are some exciting innovations that will be introduced at this conference.

In 1963, when addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations, President Kennedy said: “The effort to improve the conditions of man is not a task for the few. It is a task for all nations - acting alone, acting in groups, acting in the United Nations. For plague and pestilence, and plunder and pollution, the hazards of nature, and the hunger of children are the foes of every nation. The earth, the sea, and the air are the concern of every nation. Science, technology, and education can be the ally of every nation.” These words ring as true today as they did 46 years ago.

The world is more interconnected than ever. In 1492, it took Christopher Columbus 70 days to reach the New World a voyage of about 4,000 miles. Today, a message can travel that same distance almost at the speed of light or about 280 million times faster than the Santa Maria. In effect, this means that the Earth of Columbus’ time has been shrunken to a relative size that is just slightly larger than a golf ball.

This conference will focus on improving: access to life-saving and educational information; the process, speed and accuracy of data collection, necessary to make important decisions; and the delivery of supply-chain items in remote locations and in emergency situations. These are areas that cross-cut the work of United Nations agencies and their partners and will help in reaching the Millennium Development Goals.

The mobile phone and the computer are tools that are used by well-established networks to conduct business and share information. The mobile phone and the internet are used for instant cash transfers, providing health updates, and distance learning, if not to swap opinions of who is the best hiphop artist in South Africa or the top football player in the Premiere League. Often the best innovations are new ways to work with existing tools, from a high-speed internet connection and a computer to a smart phone or a simple mobile phone.

The mobile phone is increasingly becoming a smart computer and the communications tool of choice in the developing world. At the end of 2007 there were some 3.3 billion phones in use around the world. An estimated 64% of mobile phones are now in the developing world and there are some 1.2 million new connections each day. Today, there are 280 million mobile phones in Africa which is more than in the United States and Canada combined with 277 million phones.

Mobile phones are being used to collect and disseminate data including important health information in remote villages in Africa. An estimated 9.2 million children under the age of five die each year mostly from preventable causes. Malnutrition contributes to about a third of all under-age-five child deaths in developing countries. Immediate access to data can provide real time information on drought, diseases and malnutrition allowing needed food and medicines to be more quickly and effectively deployed.

Through mobile phones, community based health workers and families themselves can provide important information about the health and food situation in remote villages which can help shape the responses. In drought stricken areas where people may lack access to basic food the outside world can be quickly alerted to provide a more timely response. At a community health center children might be showing signs of malnutrtion. In the past it would often take several days even weeks to collect and transmit data and information to those who can provide needed supplies.

In Malawi, health workers are using text messages to send information instantaneously on malnutrition from remote communities. This helps ensure that life saving supplies can arrive in time and in the quantity needed to help avert suffering and prevent deaths. In Ethiopia, when faced with the possibility of famine following drought in the South of the country, UNICEF last year pioneered the use of data collection through mobile phones and rapid SMS technology.

The information collected helped monitor supply of needed treatments of acute malnutrition.

The data helps ensure that the distribution centers have the required treatment ready to respond to cases of malnutrition.

The AIDS pandemic has taken the lives of millions of people around the world with hundreds of thousands of new infections reported every year. Every minute you listen to me speak, around five more people have contracted HIV. Because of AIDS, life expectancy has plummeted from the mid-60s to around 40 in several countries in Southern Africa. In those countries turning 20 means reaching middle age.

To break this cycle, young people must understand how the disease is transmitted and how to reduce the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. Here too, mobile phones have played an important role. In Uganda, hundreds of participants in an HIV/AIDS SMS quiz program, Text to Change, have voluntarily visited a health center for testing or counseling after learning more about HIV/AIDS through quizzes sent to their phones. Efforts such as these can help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS while also ensuring that those who have already contracted HIV can get life-prolonging drugs.

Internet usage is growing every year with just under an estimated 1.5 billion people online in 2008. Around the world, people access information on the internet in a variety of ways and with different devices. In Africa, only about 5 per cent of the population is on line yet innovative steps are being taken to provide better access. South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research has built and deployed over 200 Digital Doorways in remote locations around the country. The Digital Doorway is a hardy, weatherproof internet kiosk with three computer terminals, vandal-proof keyboards, reinforced screens, speakers, and webcams within a rugged steel enclosure. Deployable in cities and remote areas through satellite internet the Digital Doorway provides internet access to children and communities that are otherwise unreachable by computer labs or internet cafes. In the absence of internet connectivity, the Digital Doorway offers interactive educational software, reference materials, and game-like learning activities.

In India, a doctor by the name of Sugata Mitra believed that children who had never used a computer or the internet would become comfortable and computer literate in the presence of a publicly accessible computer without external instruction or training. So, Dr. Mitra installed PCs with internet access in slums and rural villages in what was literally a hole in the wall to observe its use by children and passers-by. And indeed, children with little education and rudimentary English or no English at all were drawing, typing, listening to music, and browsing the internet without any instruction. What has now become known as the Hole in the Wall experiment left a mark on popular culture. The project contributed inspiration to the novel that went on to become the award winning film: “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Communication tools are helping young people stay connected around critical global issues, including climate change, poverty, hunger, violence and abuse. Social networks, such as Facebook, connect friends and family but also link people who share similar concerns about global issues. Working in collaboration with others such as Riseup Labs, UNICEF is establishing social networks connecting young people who want to address issues that affect their lives. Virtual groups form around mutual interests and common goals. One such site called StopX was developed to enhance communication among youth who participated in last November’s UNICEF sponsored World Congress Against the Sexual Exploitation of Children and Adolescents. Through StopX young people speak out against sexual exploitation of children and adolescents.

It started with some 300 youths who participated in the Brazil congress but it is now open to young people around the globe who want to join.

Throughout the world, millions of women and children – especially young girls - continue to be victims of sexual exploitation. They may be trafficked into prostitution for someone else’s gain.

In conflict areas like the Democratic Republic of Congo, rape is routinely used as a weapon of war. Later today, I will join playwright Eve Ensler and others to help raise awareness about this issue. In the DRC, mobile phones and the internet are being used to collect vital data and report sexual violence through a program established by Ushahidi. Developed in the violent aftermath of last year’s Kenya elections, Ushahidi uses the web and mobile phones to gather information and track locations of outbreaks of violence. These reports, from the civilian population, provide information to police and also alert the general public on what areas to avoid for personal safety.

Getting detailed data from any corner of the world instantaneously has the potential to dramatically improve development and humanitarian work to help the world’s most vulnerable.

Food and water shortages, violence, outbreaks of diseases and a breakdown in social services such as health and education can be quickly reported even in areas where aid workers and the international press have little access.

The challenges in addressing humanitarian issues are many but the opportunities that technology provides in responding are endless. The goal is to further expand the use, the reach and the innovation to put technology at the service of humanity. As I began, I described the world as shrinking to the relative size of a golf ball. With that image we could, if not literately, then figuratively, be holding the future of the world in our hands. Thank you.




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