18.07.2003 -

Towards Knowledge Societies. An Interview with Abdul Waheed Khan

In an interview published in the last issue of "A World of Science", the quarterly newsletter of UNESCO's Natural Sciences Sector, Abdul Waheed Khan, the Organization's Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information. explains how information and knowledge can contribute to development in a world where 80% of people still lack access to basic telecommunication tools.

Can information and knowledge contribute to development?


We well know the central role that learning plays in sustainable development and its contribution in particular to poverty reduction and income generation, empowerment and consolidation of democracy, disease prevention and sustainable health and to the protection of the environment. The access to information and the acquisition of knowledge and skills through education and learning have never been more central than they are today. For me, it is increasingly clear that our ability to cope with rapid changes will become the primary measure of success at both the micro and macro levels. In this sense, information and knowledge are becoming central to development and to attaining the Millennium Development Goals. We indeed observe that the revolutions brought about by the new technologies, which are increasingly resulting from breakthroughs in the fundamental sciences, are a necessary - but insufficient - condition for the establishment of knowledge societies.


But are these tools really accessible to all?


We know that 80% of the world's population lacks access to basic telecommunications facilities, which are the key infrastructure of the information society and emerging knowledge societies, and that less than 10% has access to the Internet. Access to the information highways and to content, such as development data and information, is still a major problem in many countries. The greatest challenge that all those working in the development field have to face is the digital divide. It is clear that societies are only equitable if all people, including disadvantaged and marginalized groups such as people with disabilities, indigenous peoples or those living in extreme poverty, but also women and youth, benefit equally from ICTs20. They should be enabled to use ICTs for networking, information sharing, creating knowledge resources and developing skills that can help them to live and work in the new digital environment. In our daily work, we encourage and support the use of ICTs as a means of empowering local communities and helping them combat marginalization, poverty and exclusion, especially in the least developed countries, most of which are in Africa.


You are introducing here the term of ‘knowledge societies'. How is this new concept different from that of the ‘information society'?


Actually, the two concepts are complementary. Information society is the building block for knowledge societies. Whereas I see the concept of ‘information society' as linked to the idea of ‘technological innovation', the concept of ‘knowledge societies' includes a dimension of social, cultural, economical, political and institutional transformation, and a more pluralistic and developmental perspective. In my view, the concept of ‘knowledge societies' is preferable to that of the ‘information society' because it better captures the complexity and dynamism of the changes taking place. As I said before, the knowledge in question is important not only for economic growth but also for empowering and developing all sectors of society. Thus, the role of ICTs extends to human development more generally - and, therefore, to such matters as intellectual cooperation, lifelong learning and basic human values and rights.


What is the role of education in this process?


To my mind, education - both in traditional and in new settings - is the key to creating equitable knowledge societies. I would, however, like to identify two types of linkages between ICTs and education. The first is the use of education and training, formal and informal, to create IT-literate societies. Enabling all citizens to use ICTs with confidence, in both their personal lives and working environments, is a declared policy in some countries.


The second type of linkage is the use of ICTs within education and training systems to achieve learning goals that do not necessarily have anything to do with ICT themselves. After some years of mixed results from technology-driven strategies that focused on equipping educational systems with ICTs, we now need to exchange our experiences of education-driven approaches where the educational or training goal determines the use of ICTs rather than the other way around I am certain that one conclusion of this exchange will be that age-old methods of educational delivery are unable to meet adequately the growing demand for learning. Initial signs of this incapacity have already led to several innovations: open learning, distance education, flexible learning, distributed learning and e-learning.


In many developing countries, open and distant learning is being mainstreamed as the political desire to increase the provision of learning develops and the economic need to cut the cost of education grows in tandem with participation levels. We are also observing mounting social pressure for democracy and the guarantee for equity and equality of opportunity. At the same time, there is a keenly felt need to improve the relevance and quality of the curricula and to move towards lifelong learning. Therefore, education - and I am speaking here of both traditional and modern delivery methods - is the condition sine qua non of knowledge societies.


Are sciences of a similar crucial importance in this process?


Yes, absolutely. The impact of ICTs in the production, use and dissemination of scientific knowledge is immense. I see many opportunities for them to bridge the science gap, for example by improving networking among scientists locally and internationally, and by providing scientific information and knowledge to decision-makers for better governance.


It is also evident that ICTs are excellent tools for facilitating access by scientists in developing countries to scientific journals, libraries, databases and advanced scientific facilities. Another positive aspect is their potential to improve the collection and analysis of complex scientific data.


However, despite this potential, I am concerned by the danger of a widening scientific knowledge divide. This has immediate consequences for achieving sustainable development and the Millennium Development Goals to which science, technology and innovation can so greatly contribute. This is true not only for basic and applied research, but also for education, health, agriculture, technology, economic development and government. In order to achieve this, universities and research institutions worldwide need affordable networking infrastructure, information-processing equipment and training. There is an essential role for science and scientists to play in building knowledge societies and we must facilitate equitable access to scientific knowledge.

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