The United Nations established its Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Task Force (TF) to accelerate growth, eradicate poverty and promote national action to overcome regional disempowerment. The TF established Regional Networks to implement its Plan of Action. Through the Asian Regional Network, the UN aims to promote the use of ICT as a tool for the region's development. The network will function as a think-tank and consulting body for policy-making and assist in the evaluation and dissemination of ICT.
In March 2001, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) requested the Secretary General, Kofi Annan, to establish an Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Task Force, an initiative intended to lend a global dimension to the multitude of efforts to bridge the digital divide and to give the United Nations a pivotal role by providing support, a wide-ranging vision and viable strategies. This new UN mechanism is an innovative instrument, with a balanced representation of governments, UN agencies, civil society and private sector. A number of relevant elements are behind the conception of the ICT Task Force: the fact that in a fast-changing economic environment, as the one we are living in, the international community has to respond with an all-inclusive approach able to give fast and flexible answers to the developing world; the need for the mobilization of adequate resources and for a long-term, sustained effort; the recognition that ICT is not an end but rather a tool to attain broader development, an instrument to accelerate growth and eradicate poverty; and the necessity to promote and develop national-level actions in order to overcome regional, historical, disabilities and disempowerment. The " regional component" maintained a central relevance in Task Force discussions and led to the establishment of a number of Regional Networks that were meant to help locally in the advancement of the internationally agreed development goals and were open for full participation by both members and non-members of the Task Force. In fact, at the inaugural meeting of the United Nations ICT Task Force, in November 2001, members agreed to establish Regional Networks to serve as a mechanism for implementation of action points of the Plan of Action. The approach outlined reflected the basic principles of the Task Force modus operandi and encompassed decentralization of activities, an open and inclusive approach, and reliance, as much as possible, on existing mechanisms. Five networks (Africa, Arab States, Asia, Europe and Central Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean) have already been launched in consultations with all parties concerned in these regions. The Asian Regional Network The Asia and Pacific region has been the fastest growing ICT market in the past few years, but the rapid spread of ICT capacities and applications did not reach the whole of the Asian populations and "knowledge disparities" deepened and amplified the social and economic gaps already existing in those societies. As in other regions of the developing world, in Asia the "digital marginalization" has become alarming. An important and urgent task for the UN ICT Task Force is to create public understanding and awareness of the crucial role that the new information technologies will play in the economic development of the region. In this light, the Asian Regional Network established three nodes in order to implement its works in the region: 1) The Government of China will lead the intergovernmental work with the City Government of Shanghai, taking the responsibility for hosting the node; 2) The Government of India, together with MIT Media Lab Asia, will deal with private sector and academic institution related issues; 3) The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) will coordinate the activities of the multilateral institutions and development banks in the region. Within this framework, a Preparatory Meeting of the Shanghai Node of the Asian Regional Network has been sponsored and organized by the UN ICT Task Force secretariat and the Ministry of Science and Technology of China. The meeting, , was held in March, 2002 in Shanghai, China. Representatives from Bangladesh, China, India, Malaysia, Mongolia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, representatives of the Arab Regional Network of the UN ICT Task Force, as well as representatives of the UN ICT Task Force secretariat and ESCAP attended the meeting. The private sector and academic institutions, such as Legend Group, Sun Wah Group, Pacific Century CyberWorks, Inventec Group, Institute of Automation of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and M.I.T. Media Lab Asia were also present at the meeting. The meeting was held in response to the UN ICT Task Force mandate create an Asian Regional Network. The meeting aimed to establish a Preparatory Committee for the inauguration, and further development, of the Asian Regional Network. Follow-up action by the Preparatory Committee was discussed, including the work methods proposed for use by the Regional Network for Asia and the Pacific Islands, implementation of the UN ICT Task Force's Plan of Action in the region, the objectives of the Regional Network, its follow-up proposals and communications with other regional networks. Dr. MA Songde, Vice Minister of Science and Technology (MOST) of China, chaired the conference which the created the Regional Committee, to be located in Shanghai, and charged with monitoring forthcoming developments of the Regional Network and Task Force. The Committee, composed of 3 co-chairs, China, India, and ESCAP, and members from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Mongolia, Singapore, and Vietnam, will draft specific proposals for the establishment of a Regional Network for Asia and the Pacific Islands. It will also draft an Implementation Plan that will cover the various organizational, structural, geographical, and financial aspects. The recommendations of the committee will be presented to a Regional meeting to be convened by China in Shanghai in June 2002. The Shanghai meeting was an important occasion for sharing with the region a number of initiatives, ideas and proposals. It gave participants the opportunity to start responding to the many needs and challenges the region is facing. It gave a forceful stimulus to regional cooperation and demonstrated how regional cooperation can complement national efforts. Without wishing to anticipate on the work of the Asian Regional Network, it is important to delineate some points that are worthy of note and that are keys to the competitiveness of the region. It is imperative: - to bring to the countries in the region mass education programs targeted at schools, enterprises and workers and with local, national and regional content; - to help them build adequate infrastructure for enhanced connectivity; - to promote and encourage improved regulatory systems - to call attention to the least developed economies in the region (such as some of the Pacific Islands), so that they can also benefit from the regional cooperation. - Conclusion - Through the work of the Asian Regional Network the United Nations aims to implement a well coordinated, forward-looking, strategic programme for the use of ICT as a tool for regional development. The asian Regional Network will make sure that strategic ICT investments are made, are conducted transparently with the participation of all regional stakeholders, and that opportunities for growth are given serious financial support. - In pursuit of its mission, the Regional Network shall seek to develop an information clearinghouse on ICT for Development for the Asian Region. This will include the development of indicators to support benchmarking, planning and management. The network should function as a think-tank and a consulting body for policy-making, propose and assist in the incubation, evaluation and dissemination of ICT projects and best practices. - We expect the Asian Regional Network to be a source of support, assistance and improvement, and we look forward to assisting the region in devising suitable policies, building services, and moving forward in the path towards development.