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The Virtual Colombo Plan: bridging the digital divide. Speech at the launch of the Virtual Colombo Plan, Sydney.

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02 Aug 2001


Speech by the Hon Alexander Downer, MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the launch of the Virtual Colombo Plan, Sydney, 2 August 2001.


Thank you Senator Patterson; distinguished guests (including the President of the World Bank, Mr James Wolfensohn); ladies and gentlemen.

It's a great pleasure to be here today for the launch of the Virtual Colombo Plan.

Bridging the 'digital divide'

As Australia's Foreign Minister, I often have to talk about globalisation. And in doing so, I seek to emphasise that globalisation is a process in which fundamental forces are at work, affecting our societies in ways that we struggle to comprehend completely. I encourage people to be brave in facing up to the challenges that globalisation brings, to recognise that we must all go forward, and not retreat backwards behind the walls of a narrow, xenophobic nationalism or self-defeating protectionism.

I've had these views for many years - since I was university student. But, it is clear that, in recent years, the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) revolution that is sweeping the world has intensified the process of globalisation and sharpened its effects for many people. Dazzling new developments - like digital cameras, e-mail, the Internet, and a range of incredible new computers - have brought great benefits, through falling costs and rising productivity, across many sectors of the world economy.

It has been increasingly recognised that there is a danger that many benefits of

these new technologies could simply pass by many developing countries. This phenomenon has been called the 'digital divide', which refers to the gap that has opened up, as globalisation has developed, between those countries and people who are information-rich and technology-rich, and those who are information-poor and technology-poor.

ICT issues are often raised with me personally when I visit developing countries in the course of my work as Foreign Minister. Nevertheless, Internet usage is growing dramatically in many developing countries - between 1998 and 2000, the number of Internet users grew from 1.7 million to 9.8 million in Brazil, from 3.8 million to 16.9 million in China, and from 2,500 to 25,000 in Uganda.

Overall, while much progress has been made in terms of access and achievements in education in developing countries, the pressures on education systems are still enormous, especially at the level of basic education. Over 100 million children still have no access to primary schooling, and many others do not progress beyond the very basic grades. Efforts in the education sector must be increased significantly if international development goals of universal global primary enrolments set for 2015 are to be met.

I've long recognised that, while the benefits of globalisation are very substantial, there are also costs involved in the process that make it incumbent upon governments - and business too - to assist individuals and communities to adjust to the dramatic changes that are involved. In particular, we need to focus on how the new technology can be used to help tackle world poverty.

The Internet creates new possibilities for developing linkages between people and between the developed and developing world. But nearly all the new technology was designed in developed countries, so it is not surprising that most of it reflects the ideas, skills, and needs of those countries. For the developing world to bridge the 'digital divide', new technology must be harnessed and adapted in order to be a useful and an effective tool and help combat poverty.

The Virtual Colombo Plan

Jim Wolfensohn and I have discussed these issues on a number of occasions. And we have now agreed that Australia and the World Bank should together launch a major new international program promoting access to education and information in developing countries across the world through use of the new technology.

We believe that the new program should be called the Virtual Colombo Plan. The program builds on the concepts of the original Colombo Plan, which began just 50 years ago this year. Australia was one of the seven founding members of the original Colombo Plan, and one of my predecessors as Foreign Minister, Percy Spender, took a leading role in its establishment.

The original Colombo Plan emphasised education, by bringing people from developing countries to study in Australia. The Virtual Colombo Plan will work in the other direction, by taking education to people in developing countries via the Internet.


Australia's commitment

I am announcing today that Australia intends to spend A$200 million over a five-year period to support Australia's participation with the World Bank in the Virtual Colombo Plan. This commitment will be realised through a carefully-designed package of activities in the Australian aid program.

At this point, I would like to express our appreciation for the strong financial commitment also being made to the Virtual Colombo Plan by the World Bank. This is a good example of a donor partnership that will be a catalyst for further funding from other countries. By establishing these foundations we are providing a exciting program for others to join.

There will be several stages in the Australian package. In the first stage, there will be an emphasis on basic education and on infrastructure. In the second and third stages, there will be an increasing emphasis on information dissemination and higher education.

Beginning next year, Australia will provide up to 200 new Virtual Colombo Plan scholarships annually to be used by primary school teachers and teachers of basic education activities. These scholarships will cover distance education studies, and will be available to teachers who wish to enrol in courses provided through the Internet from Australian education institutions. They will, in effect, be electronic scholarships that enable teachers to study while remaining in their home countries. They will hopefully be especially useful for primary school teachers with family responsibilities at home that make it difficult for them to undertake studies overseas.

In 12 countries across Asia, the Pacific and Africa, we will support distance education programs for the upgrading of teachers' skills. As a first step, we will establish 8 multi-purpose teacher education learning centres, each well equipped with computers and communication equipment, in Primary Teachers Colleges in Papua New Guinea.

Australia will fund Australian education specialists to develop appropriate education content for delivery through the African Virtual University. Australia will assist developing countries to develop policies and strategies which will enable them to maximise the benefits that information technologies can provide. This is integral to the success of the Plan.

Australia will also help to extend the World Bank's information technology network into developing countries in the region. This innovative network makes significant expertise and information available to key decision-makers and community organisations across the world.

I am also pleased to announce that Australia will become a founding member of the World Bank initiated Gateway Foundation which will fund and manage the Development Gateway - an electronic librarian which swiftly directs people to the types of information they are looking for on development issues.

As Foreign Minister, I have visited many Australian aid projects in many countries during the last five years. The most satisfying projects to see have been those which have had a genuine impact on the lives of poor people, especially children. I am therefore determined that Australian activities funded through the Virtual Colombo Plan will be designed to bring real benefits to children, and to community groups, in developing countries.

Australia's expertise

Australia has the right kind of expertise to make a significant international contribution through the Virtual Colombo Plan. We have a wide range of institutions that provide world-class services across the entire education sector, and we are already experts in the field of distance education. Our involvement in the Plan will enable that expertise to be employed on a bigger scale than ever before. By playing an important niche role in this area, we can make a real difference.

The Government's Innovation Action Plan, 'Backing Australia's Ability', launched earlier this year recognised that Australians are resourceful and innovative people. The commitments contained in that Action Plan will strengthen our ability to undertake research and generate ideas that are internationally competitive, and accelerate their commercial application.

Our involvement in the Virtual Colombo Plan will provide a useful adjunct to our Innovation Action Plan. We have in Australia many superb research institutions like the CSIRO (the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, the Macfarlane Burnet Centre for Medical Research, and many others.

Our aim is to ensure that, through the Virtual Colombo Plan, the published research results of such institutions will be made increasingly accessible to people across the developing world. Published Australian information will be made available on key health, agriculture and development issues on specially created websites.

I encourage you to register your interest in further involvement in the Virtual Colombo Plan initiative that I have outlined today through the AusAID website.


Australia's support for the Virtual Colombo Plan adds another dimension to our commitment towards the reduction of world poverty. For the first time, a coherent set of measures, that will mainstream the use of the new technologies into the Australian aid program, has been brought together into one overall program.

I have no doubt that, over time, the new technologies will increasingly become part of global development assistance efforts. Australia is firmly committed to the objective of bridging the 'digital divide', and the Virtual Colombo Plan marks an important milestone in the process of achieving it.

The Plan is clearly an exciting initiative, and one that should make a big

difference over time to the quality of life of many people in developing countries. I'm delighted to be involved in the inception of the Virtual Colombo Plan, and will continue my personal interest in its progress in the future.


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