‘K-society must benefit poor’

Access to the global digital highway and information and communication technologies (ICT) are integral to the country’s social and economic transformation, the Minister added. Speaking during the official opening of the international conference on Open Access and Creating a Knowledge Society organized by the Zimbabwe Universities Libraries’ Consortium (ZULC), Muchena said nothing short of a software and technology revolution would benefit the majority of the people through access to the latest research and development, knowledge and learning materials.

“For people to participate in the knowledge economy,” she said, “They need a new set of skills, qualifications, creativity and innovation.”

And institutions of higher learning should assume a central role as centres of excellence in the creation of a technologically savvy knowledge society, characterized by a knowledge explosion.

Muchena, the country’s first Science and Technology Minister highlighted the obvious benefits of such a knowledge explosion, noting the use of ICTs has also contributed to easy access and use of knowledge to the benefit of countries’ economies.

“ICTs are being used to enhance knowledge production, processing, dissemination and utilisation,” she said, adding: “The internet and worldwide web (WWW) are some of the major tools for providing quick and easy access to that global knowledge.”

However, said Muchena, critical constraints present barriers to easy access to information on the global super highway.

She called for systems that are pro-poor as most critical.

“There is need to create practical, accessible and affordable systems for the benefit of the poor through Open Access to software and technology, and to move away from dependency on monopolistic conglomerates,” she said, without naming any, but asking: “why should we be paying billions of dollars in software fees when there is free software and operating systems like LINUX?”

Urging universities to adapt ICT software to local needs, she insisted indigenization of software languages was one such option to enable wider participation.

Muchena gave an example of an agronomic software called e-Hurudza that her ministry has developed. Operating in the three main languages ‘ English, Shona and Ndebele ‘ she said this had been a success and had proved popular among farmers.

Similar initiatives through use of the internet would help make documents more accessible to the general population thereby “reducing the digital divide” by making knowledge and education a national; process and not a preserve of an elite group.

According to the World’s Economic Forum’s annual readiness index ‘ the world’s most respected assessment of how ICT can boost the economies and the competitiveness of a country ‘ several African nations are making great strides to benefit their economies.

Leading the pack is Tunisia ‘ venue of the last World Summit on Information Sustainability ‘ ranked 31.

South Africa closely at number 34, with Mauritius, striving to attain the status of a cyber island, at 45.

Other nations on the continent enjoying a relatively high global ranking are Botswana (56) and Ghana (61).

On the global setting, the United States has regained its prime spot after being displaced last year by Singapore ‘ Denmark is on third and followed by Iceland and Finland.

The US position is due to an impressive performance in ICT infrastructure, high business and government adoption of new technologies – supported by, inter alia, excellent higher education institutions.

Gervasio Gabriel Kahiro, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) advisor for Communication and Information to Southern Africa, says there is a need for a skills strategy that is both relevant and practical for countries to benefit their economies and to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

“As Unesco marks 60 years of its existence, we have realised the pivotal role education plays in social justice delivery and empowerment,” he says, calling upon institutions along with governments, to foster scholarship in universities and to champion Open Access in order to push back the frontiers of ignorance.

August 2006
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