Information & communications technologies key to sustainable development in Africa: UNU

11/16/05

UNU, Tunisia to build online academy for sustainable Africa development

Innovative use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) will help Africa to quickly achieve decades of progress in the transition to sustainable development and bridge a widening gap between its prosperity and that of other regions, United Nations University experts say.

By facilitating training, information sharing, decision making and environmental monitoring, the Internet and other high-tech tools hold the promise of improving African international competitiveness and lifting its productivity and the incomes of millions without sacrificing the environment, says UN Under Secretary-General Hans van Ginkel, Rector of UNU.

"It cannot be stressed too strongly how important it is for Africa to be equipped with the advantages of modern ICTs, especially for training people throughout the continent," he says. "The health and food security of tens of millions of Africans today and of billions more in generations to come depend on this outcome being achieved as rapidly as possible. If Africa is ever to fully meet its potential in a sustainable way, these technologies must be a central part of its strategies."

He made the comment as UNU announced at the World Summit on the Information Society, (Tunis, Nov. 16-18, 2005) a joint initiative with the Borj-Cedria Science and Technology Park to build a virtual academy to bolster the sustainable development of Africa.

The academy's primary focus will be online training in the fields of water, the environment, renewable energy and biotechnology. It will exploit new technologies to share information and expertise throughout Africa and offer electronic technical assistance.

The initiative includes a media centre, a digital library and a computing centre to foster cooperation between African universities and research institutions and to network with other online initiatives worldwide, including the UNU-affiliated Global Virtual University, UNU's Water Virtual Learning Centre, and the African Virtual University, based in Nairobi, Kenya with over 57 Learning Centers in 27 African countries.

The project also builds on Tunisia's existing national Digital Library (http://www.cnudst.rnrt.tn/) under the Ministry of Scientific Research (http://www.mrstdc.gov.tn/accueil.htm) and a Virtual University (http://www.uvt.rnu.tn) under the Ministry of Higher Education.

"United Nations University (UNU) now has extensive experience in online and distance learning and is well positioned to extend this know-how to promote Africa's sustainable economic development," says Prof. van Ginkel. "Tunisia's Borj-Cedria Science and Technology Park, with its environmental focus, is an ideal partner."

Prof. Manef Aderrabba, General Director of the Borj-Cedria Technopark, says Tunisia is strategically placed – at the geographical intersection of Africa and Europe.

"African researchers are missing out on tremendous opportunities in research and business because they are either too isolated or unaware of the tremendous commercial potentials of sustainable development efforts," he says. "We hope this academy will help Africa create a brighter economic and environmental future."

The large-scale platform to be built for the academy over five years will help:

  • Create self-reliant and sustainable development-oriented experts to research and develop web-based training materials for African scholars and academic institutions, and recommendations for policy makers.
  • Form new partnerships for development of Information and Communication Technologies by improving dialogue amongst African development stakeholders and creating opportunities for faster, easier, more reliable, and less expensive development solutions in Africa.
  • Implement a range of educational projects across Africa and set up a network to showcase success stories from African partners who share similar values and objectives.
  • Upgrade the technological capabilities of African countries and use/create knowledge-intensive high value-added industries that would be able to contribute to sustainable environment and economic development of the African continent.
  • Establish a platform to efficiently allow matching potential research topics between African, Asian and other international research institutions.
  • Acquire Japanese assistance for the administrative and research management of the proposed center through triangular cooperation with Japanese agencies such as the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

UNU at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)

UNU is a global university – a network of networks. With the emergence of the Internet, technology has caught up with the vision behind the founding of the UNU 30 years ago and the institution is entering a new phase.

In meeting its mandate in various thematic areas, such as environment and sustainable development, UNU aims to create "global learning spaces" constituted mainly by academics drawn from universities around the world.

The first steps towards this objective were launched in 2002 at the World Summit for Sustainable Development through projects such as the UNU Global Virtual University and the Asia Pacific Initiative (a collaborative initiative of universities in that region to support distance education). The primary objective is joint content development particularly designed to help developing country institutions. The UNU is actively supporting the Open Educational Resources movement – open courseware, open content.

The key notion is "open systems" to support knowledge sharing – be it open standards, open software, open educational resources.

The sharing of content also requires infrastructure to ensure better connectivity to the Internet for academic institutions – especially in Africa. For that reason UNU is a key supporter of the African University Network (AFUNET), opening up existing networks and connecting them.

Launched by UNU, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and CERN, AFUNET is working to enhance Internet connectivity at African universities and support its research and education networks. AFUNET proposes and entity headquartered in Africa (preferably under the auspices of the African Association of Universities) with branches in five African regions, providing support for Internet services similar to those at universities in the industrialized world.

At WSIS, UNU is seeking funds to support the further development of AFUNET in collaboration with the Association of American Universities, the ITU and CERN.

With respect to content development in Africa, the UNU Innovative Capacity Development initiative has already facilitated action. At WSIS, UNU is seeking financial support for online environment-related course development and joint-educational programmes.

"These 'open' initiatives will bring significant benefits for the developing world," says Mike Reed, Director of UNU's International Institute for Software Technology in Macau. "These include open source software, open standards, open content and open courseware.

"There is enormous potential in such efforts to alleviate poverty and close the information gap between rich and poor countries. Support for these initiatives is urgently required from the international community."

UNU's work includes initiative to aid software development, promote e-governance, technological innovation policy, open source software, online learning, information technology and the environment. Six of UNU's 12 research and training centres and programmes have research directly relevant to the WSIS process.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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