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IGF 2014: Small Island States Bring Big Issues to the Table

Is the Internet more important than clean water supply or transport infrastructure? These and other specific concerns were raised at the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) roundtable, where stakeholders from Pacific and Carribean countries gathered to discuss barriers to connectivity in countries with very limited resources.

One fundamental challenge is prioritisation. As island nations confront the looming perils of climate change while still trying to overcome longstanding problems–lack of safe drinking water, electricity, proper sewage treatment–Internet connectivity may inevitably get sidelined in favour of what states deem as the broader and more pressing needs of basic development. It has been argued that ICTs may just alleviate the bigger socio-economic concerns faced by developing countries, but in the global drive to create knowledge economies, delegates at the rountable could not help but ask whether the information society can indeed fulfill its promise to make a significant impact on social and environmental ills.

Sustainability is another dilemma. Groups which work on ICT development, such as Council of Regional Organisations in the Pacific members, tend to rely on donor funding. Grants and loans may last only for two to three years, from which time projects could be stalled or discontinued due to lack of financial, technical and even human resources. These limitations are aggravated by what participants from the Carribean called a ‘lack of elbow room’.  With a number of governments tied to the conditionalities of multilateral funding agencies, the policy space to more readily address Internet-related issues is further restricted. Delegates for instance recognised immense progress in broadband infrastructure rollouts in the Pacific but there are, they lamented, very few efforts to ensure that the Internet becomes affordable, especially for those whom connectivity would be an important enabler.

But it is not all gloom and doom for small island nations. States can look to countries like Fiji and Vanuatu, which have both made great strides in developing universal access policies that seek to bring more marginalised communities online. Governments could make further improvements by revising their telecommunications–specifically spectrum–policies to encourage the set-up of community-based wireless networks and interconnection among service providers. Meanwhile, inter-sectoral dialogues could help policymakers better understand the concrete ways by which ICT tools and infrastructure can bring developmental benefits. These can be further underlined by initially focusing on areas that, as one participant noted, get the ‘maximum bang for the buck’–initiatives which can demonstrate even small successes and show governments that they work.

What small island states need and what they are calling for, most of all, are more partnerships—more groups, businesses and individuals who they can collaborate with for solutions which suit unique contexts—and greater inquisitiveness from the wider Internet community to also consider the diverse issues which are affecting the world’s peripheries.