President David Granger: The digital state will trigger economic transformation. It will spawn knowledge-based industries while diversifying the economy away from primary production, moving manufacturing up the value chain and building greater economic resilience. It is about applying ICT to add value to primary production and to ensure greater access to external and internal markets.
ICT, effectively deployed, can promote improved productivity and competitiveness. It is a manifestation of technological progress, fostering innovation and, consequently, economic growth. It is part of the globalisation process which brings peoples and markets closer together by unlocking new markets for goods and services. ICT is affecting our economic, social and private lives profoundly. It is increasing the volume, and the speed of market transactions.
The digital state will deliver quality public services everywhere. It will reduce the need for citizens to travel outside of their regions, in years to come, to acquire passports, to access legal services, to examine their academic and medical records, to record births and deaths, to receive social security benefits, to register businesses, to renew their drivers’ licences, to file income tax returns – those who do – and embark on trade and investment enterprises.
The digital state will revolutionise the delivery of education, including distance education, by introducing technology-based teaching in the public education system thereby improving educational attainment. The educational value of the digital state can be encapsulated in the legend – “log on, look, listen and learn”.
The ICT sector requires brainpower. The public education system is being reconfigured to place greater emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education so as to develop the human resources needed for a competitive ICT sector. Teachers are a critical element in the public education system. Guyana’s “One Laptop-per-Teacher” programme supported by the People’s Republic of China, is intended to promote teachers’ competence in information technology. Computers are no longer a luxury, they are a necessity; they are no longer an optional, they are an obligatory tool in modern education.
ICT has been recognised as an important instrument of national development. The Government of Guyana created, under its youngest minister, the Minister of Public Telecommunications (MoPT) with the mandate to develop the enabling environment that will facilitate the optimum utilisation of ICT for national growth and development. This Ministry has become the engine for the implementation of a national ICT policy that is built on five principal pillars.
First, infrastructure. It closes the digital divide by developing a national ICT architecture which provides universal access to ICT services. This process started with the establishment of over one hundred internet hubs in the coastland and hinterland regions. These hubs will be utilised by students and residents who still may not have their own computers.
In due course every court house, every hospital, every police station, every post office, every school, every government building will enjoy internet access. Not yet. We have connected over 175 primary schools and 105 secondary schools and tertiary institutions to support remote access learning and online research to help with academic assignments and homework. We have expanded coverage of the e-government network to better support the day-to-day functioning of state agencies, departments and ministries.
Integration is the second pillar of Guyana’s ICT policy. ICT can be a socially integrative force with the potential to knit communities into cohesive units. ICT, by linking peoples and their neighbourhoods, helps to overcome barriers of distance and fosters a sense of belonging. Communications in the Caribbean Community, with a total land area of over 462, 000 km², poses geographical challenges. The Caribbean states, taken together, are larger than Sweden and, if it were a single country, would be the 56th largest in the world.
Caribbean states, however, are not a single landmass. They straddle 2,800, 000 km2 of sea space which separates Nassau, in the north from Paramaribo, in the South. It is only through information and communications technology that the disadvantages of this distance could be diminished. It is for this reason that the Roadmap for a single ICT Space was drafted and approved at the 28th Inter-sessional Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community held here in Georgetown in February 2017. This ‘roadshow’ must advance that roadmap.
Guyana, suffering from inequality along the lines of geography and infrastructural development, has peculiar challenges for ICT development. Many hinterland communities are isolated owing to lack of adequate infrastructure. Residents of these communities have to travel long distances to access public services. In a few weeks’ time I’ll be going up the Mazaruni where every month, every August month residents sometimes walk three days to get to the sports venue. Walk.
Ladies and gentlemen, Guyana is the largest state in the Caribbean Community but has the second lowest population density of about 4 persons, compared to 569 persons, per square kilometre, in Barbados. Scores of sparsely populated settlements of relatively few residents are scattered over vast distances which are likely to be left by rivers, forests, grasslands or wetlands, and in the case of the Essequibo, islands.
ICT development, therefore, must be responsive to the spatial dimension of geographical development. Every village must have a centre where public services such as citizenship, public education, public health, public security and postal services, can be accessed. ICT must bring these services to the people in the islands, in the hinterland, in riverine and rural communities. The adoption of information and communications technology (ICT), therefore, is a necessity for development for the government. It is the infrastructure upon which the superstructure of the digital state will be erected.
The provision of information services is the third pillar of ICT policy. Guyana’s size and low population density, coupled with its vast hinterland, result in many communities becoming ‘silent zones’, zones without telephones, without televisions, without radios, without newspapers and, frequently, with only irregular supply of snail-mail. These communities could become isolated, in terms of communication, and from the rest of country and, sometimes, from their capital towns.
The establishment, therefore, of the Regional Public Broadcasting Service (RPBS) is a component of the architecture of regional public communication systems which link every community to its capital town, and to the rest of the country and is intended to promote inter-communication. Regional public broadcasting stations will ensure complete inter-communication to overcome the challenges of lack of connectivity in these ‘silent zones.’
Innovation is the next pillar of the ICT policy. Innovation is essential to improving efficiency in the delivery of public services. The e-government programme aims at ensuring systems which would allow for greater access, accuracy and timeliness in the delivery of public services across the ten regions of Guyana – from the Barima-Waini in the North to the Rupununi in the South. Innovation, by improving the way things are made, can boost output, reduce unit costs to businesses and add value to make their products more competitive.
Government is committed to ensuring an enabling environment for innovative information technology by providing incentives for innovation and by removing barriers to fair competition through liberalisation. Government has begun to institute a regulatory framework for the telecommunications sector – an important segment of the ICT sector.
The Telecommunications Bill will be the basis for conducting negotiations in order to further liberalise and to attract increased investment in the sector. We are modernising our intellectual property legislation, also, by developing electronic transactions and data protections legislation.
The last pillar of the ICT policy is the encouragement of knowledge-based industries. ICT can become the basis for the birth of businesses which generate employment, which stimulate enterprise and engender growth. The relatively high rate of literacy and proficiency in English in the Caribbean states offer advantages in outsourcing. ICT can also boost small- and medium-size enterprise development while diversifying the economy increasingly into services.
ICT plays a central role in this country. Guyana’s Green State Development Strategy; it does so by reducing the carbon footprint. ICT must drive the establishment of paperless agencies, departments and ministries. It must promote greater use of non-cash financial instruments. E-government must make public services more accessible; e-business must facilitate commerce, investment and trade.
ICT is a functional and practical response to the challenge of digital deficit in Caribbean states. It will promote greater inclusion and innovation and provide information services and digital industries consistent with the Green State Development Strategy.
Ladies and gentlemen, this Caribbean ICT Roadshow is far from being a ‘sideshow’. It sets the Region more firmly on the digital ‘highway’ to lead our states and our peoples towards increased connectivity. This event can generate awareness of the many opportunities which ICT can provide for our Region and stimulate interest in ICT development as we all move towards becoming digital states.
Allow me to congratulate the Caribbean Telecommunications Union and particularly, our own Ministry of Public Telecommunications for their collaboration in hosting this roadshow. I wish you every success.