Development in the Digital Age

Catherine A. Novelli
Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment 
United Nations
New York City
September 27, 2015

I appreciate the opportunity to speak with everybody this morning. I bring greetings from Secretary Kerry who, unfortunately, could not be here. In his absence, I have the good fortune of addressing you on an issue that the Secretary, I and all of you care deeply about –digital inclusion.

I would like to commend President Ilves of Estonia for his vision in convening today’s discussion and for understanding the power that digital technologies have as force for development.

I also want to recognize President Kikwete of Tanzania, for his strong commitment to the development of internet infrastructure and technology in his country.

I would also like to acknowledge World Bank President Dr. Jim Kim. Under his leadership, this year’s World Development Report—“Digital Dividends for All,” unequivocally shows that digital technologies can significantly and sustainably boost economies and societies across a range of sectors such as financial, health, education, energy, transportation.

The Sustainable Development Goals that were just agreed by all members of the United Nations this week charge us to accelerate progress towards affordable Internet access in the least developed countries within the next five years.

Today, on behalf of Secretary Kerry, I am officially launching a new United States initiative led by the Department of State, called “Global Connect.” Global Connect aims to bring 1.5 billion people online by 2020. This is an ambitious goal, but one that is entirely attainable, if we all work together.

The Internet has become a key driver of sustainable economic development. According to the World Bank, for every ten percent increase in a country’s Internet penetration, its GDP expands by one to two percent. One recent European study states that tripling mobile broadband penetration levels across the developing world would provide a return of as much as $17 for every $1 spent—that is a 1700% rate of return!

However, today, 60 percent of the world’s population – or about 4.4 billion people – lack Internet access. In the least developed countries only five percent of people – at most – are connected to the Internet.

Although progress has been made, the Internet can only be an engine for inclusive growth if it is available, accessible, and affordable for everyone.

This is where “Global Connect” comes in. Through this initiative, we will work with every stakeholder group that touches development—from national governments, development agencies, NGOs and the private sector, to mainstream the view that Internet connectivity is as fundamental to economic development as roads, ports, electricity and other traditional infrastructure. The goal is that: (1) all countries integrate Internet connectivity as a key part of their own national development strategies; (2) international development institutions, such as multilateral development banks and development agencies, prioritize digital access; and (3) innovative industry-driven solutions to extend connectivity are catalyzed and supported.

Last spring, Secretary Kerry spoke about Internet openness and security in Korea where he outlined Global Connect’s broad objectives.

I am pleased to report that in the intervening months, without waiting for the official launch of Global Connect, several U.S. development organizations have already announced significant initiatives to expand broadband access.

  • The Overseas Private Investment Corporation, OPIC recently announced it will provide up to $250 million in financing for the development of a network of 2,500 telecommunications towers across Burma, which was one of the last places in the world without widespread ICT infrastructure. In 2011, only three percent of Burma’s 50 million residents had access to mobile phones. With OPIC’s financial support, a local company named Apollo Towers expects to create the infrastructure to enable 75% of Burma’s people to have mobile access by 2016.
  • OPIC is making similar efforts in Kenya. It is financing a local provider of solar-powered wireless Internet so millions of rural Kenyans will have digital connectivity for the first time.
  • USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, in conjunction with today’s event, are also affirming their commitments to extend connectivity through development assistance.

Early next year, we will bring together governments, development agencies, industry, NGOs and other stakeholders to focus our efforts to bridge the digital divide. In doing this, we recognize that building internet infrastructure is only one step in digital inclusion. Creating a policy environment that sustains a healthy internet is critical for long-term success.

We intend to partner with interested countries to develop tailor-made strategies to create the right enabling environments. These policies will not only spur connectivity, but also entrepreneurship, cross-border information flows and open and competitive marketplaces.

Technology is advancing even as we are standing her speaking here today. Going forward, our job is to ensure this transformative technology is more widely accessible to everyone on earth. We look forward to working with all of you to connect the next 1.5 billion.

Thank you.