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UN information summit puts spotlight on Tunisia: the United Nations brought over 20,000 delegates from around the world to Tunisia in mid-November to discuss the future and raise awareness of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT), with the aim of bridging the digital divide between the North and the South. Mohammed Awar reports from Tunis.

For a few days in mid-November, Tunis was the capital of the world. The biggest ever UN meeting on record was held in Tunisia. The world Summit for the Information Society was different from other UN gatherings. Open to representatives of the private sector and the civil society, it was attended by over 20,000 delegates from 170 countries. The biggest contingent of heads of states came from Africa: Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal, Sudan, South Africa, Nigeria, Togo, Equatorial Guinea, Comoro Islands, Rwanda, Niger, Congo and Libya.

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There were more civil society representatives (5,800) than government officials (5,700), international businessmen and women (4,000) and journalists from all over the world (1,200).

During the three-day summit, and alongside the plenary sessions, there were 300 round tables, workshops and conferences where major issues were discussed. The aim of the summit was to raise the awareness of the Information and Communications Technologies (ICT), bridge the digital and development divide and create a more equitable information society.

Over 50,000 enthusiastic visitors packed the two huge exhibition halls where 328 exhibitors from 64 countries presented their products and services. At the busiest stand, you could have a quick glance at the low cost $100 laptop for children, conceived by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and pre-launched during the summit by the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan. Millions of the laptops will be produced next year. Nigeria and South Africa are among the first countries where it could be distributed to children.

The worldwide delegations, many of whom had never set foot on the continent, were not only impressed by the Tunisian legendary hospitality but also by the excellent organisation of the summit. They discovered a modern Tunisia--with a rich heritage--which is one of the most advanced African and Arab countries. Like the six million tourists who visit Tunisia, the delegates enjoyed the sunshine and the pleasant Tunisian way of life.

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Representatives of international organisations, local authorities, business, civil society, scientific bodies, youth, indigenous peoples and gender associations presented numerous recommendations and reports on their activities. The discussions covered all sorts of subjects, ranging from specialised and technical issues to the more general questions like the governance of the internet, cybersecurity, copyright, free and open source software, patent laws, innovations, freedom of expression, democratic rights, gender inequality, cultural diversity and memory, etc.

While the information society is largely dominated by the Western world, it can offer huge benefits to the developing world. President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, who initiated the creation of the Digital Divide Fund, insists that nobody and no country should be left behind. It is better, he says, to catch the last coach than to miss the train! He is confident that Africa will benefit from the ICT revolution and will reach the goal to connect everybody to the internet by 2015.

According to Wade, the most powerful leaders in the world do not fully understand the technical issues involved in ICT. "But they can share with us a vision for the future. The internet can be used to fight poverty and illiteracy, make progress in medicine, save African languages and cultures from oblivion. An equitable information society will enable everyone to create, disseminate and share information."

Donald Kaberuka, the new president of the African Development Bank, wants to expand ICT in Africa. To connect the continent to the rest of the world and bridge the gap is a top priority, he says. The bank will encourage investment by the private sector in ICT infrastructure and development of new services. This will increase trade and employment. "Training Africans will be made much easier with the internet," he added.

Nobody could have foreseen the explosion of mobile phones in the continent. Likewise, the information society can offer huge benefits to the developing countries. Improved access to information and communications infrastructure and technologies, as well as to information and knowledge, will strengthen economic, social and cultural development.

Despite the enormous success of the summit, Tunisia has not reaped all the benefits which could have been expected from such a world event. All official delegations were unanimous in congratulating the Tunisian authorities and people for a magnificent event, minutely prepared by the government for months and perfectly organised.

The summit was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the image of Tunisia and present the immense achievements--women's emancipation and equality, education, economic development, social progress--of a peaceful and stable small country.

Interestingly, despite the presence of 1,200 world journalists at the summit, there was not one single Tunisian government minister or spokesman to brief them at the press centre!

By contrast, a very active and vocal coalition of representatives of the international civil society, among them the Nobel Prize laureate Shirin Abadi, the International Federation of Human Rights, Reporters sans Frontieres and others--always excellent in their communication campaigns--was at work to lure the journalists to their cause. They seized every chance to score points and they had the field to themselves.

A French journalist was unfortunately mugged and injured in the capital. The Swiss president's speech at the opening ceremony was "cut" on local TV by an over-zealous civil servant! Eight members of the Tunisian opposition were still on a hunger strike--after a long full month--defending their democratic rights and demanding the release of political prisoners. Two new associations of advocates and judges, as well as the Tunisian League of Human Rights--the oldest in Africa and the Arab world--have been encountering great difficulties to function normally.

The media coverage was not anymore on the summit but on the Tunisian government. All this could have been avoided or better explained, and should in any case have been put into perspective.

Tunisia has now reached a stage in its development where it has no choice but to open up to continue to progress and attract international investors. It needs a real opposition with different programmes and ideas to those of the government, and also an independent and vibrant press which can play a critical role.

The US and French governments, as well as the European community, are gently pressing Tunisia to accelerate its pace towards more democracy, liberty and freedom.
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Title Annotation:Feature
Author:Awar, Mohammed
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:0DEVE
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Words:1029
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