First official interview with Dr Hamadoun I. Tour?, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union
Telecommunications, Mali, Internet gouvernance, spectrum, development, modern technologies
© Action Press
In Antalya, Turkey, November 2006, during the seventeenth ITU Plenipotentiary Conference, Dr Hamadoun I. Tour?, a native of Mali, was elected Secretary-General of the world’s oldest international organization, the International Telecommunication Union. Dr Tour? is not a newcomer to ITU, where he has already served eight years as Director of the Telecommunication Development Bureau.
Not only is he hard working, but Dr Tour? is also a man of honour. "If I get elected," he told us one dark autumn day last year, "I will grant my first official interview to DIVA". In this world where some people promise you the moon, it’s a pleasure to meet men of Dr Tour?’s calibre — someone who does not forget his promises. So, in the very first week of taking office as the Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union, we were granted our interview.
Q: First of all, congratulations on your election. How does it feel to head the oldest international organization in the world?
It’s a great feeling for someone like me coming from a developing country at a time when information and communication technologies (ICTs) have become the most important tools for industry, government and civil society. Being at the forefront of the ICT field and being in this position at ITU is to me very rewarding. I’m grateful for having been given this opportunity, which is also an opportunity for many developing countries. I hope that the young people of Africa and of the developing world will see me as a role model and feel that they can also make the grade if they work hard and honestly.
The organization has also been well received at two summits — the two World Summits on the Information Society (WSIS) — giving us a clear mandate and an opportunity to show the rest of the world what we can do.
Q: Are you talking about more visibility for ITU’s work?
I would say more visibility, more opportunities for ITU, and more challenges of
course, because visibility comes with challenges.
The philosophy of ITU itself has been one of openness. In fact, by including the term, "Union" by its founding fathers in 1865, ITU was given the vision from its very inception to achieve consensus in everything we do: making sure that all parties talk to each other. I would say that the idea behind the World Summit on the Information Society was to try and bridge the digital gap by calling on all constituencies. This was the first time a UN summit has been held without demonstrations by civil society outside the building — because they had the opportunity of talking inside. It was an inclusive process, and that is the spirit of ITU. There are a number of key topics under discussion worldwide that need this spirit: Internet governance; security in cyberspace; bridging the digital divide. These need the involvement of all constituencies. Nobody can achieve all this on their own.
It’s a huge task and that’s the reason why it has to be shared by everyone. I think the conductor of an orchestra is important, but all the players with their different instruments need to play in harmony.
Q: If I understand you right, you want to put ITU in the forefront, to mobilize the international community and to involve everybody?
Actually, as WSIS demonstrated, we are already doing this. We do not want to be the only ones doing everything, but we do want to be part of everything. So we need to talk to each other. WSIS has given us an opportunity to know each other and to find out about each other’s strengths and weaknesses. So our task now is to accumulate those strengths and to reduce those weaknesses.
Q: I presume this will imply a lot of work?
Yes, ITU has very competent staff and a very good constituency: 191 Member States. But there are also some 650 private companies that are members, who have been contributing to the organization for many decades and who have a role to play. It is unique in the United Nations System to have private companies as sector members and working together.
Q: For some time now you have already been carrying out what the United Nations calls the UN Compact. Have you been at the forefront here too?
Absolutely! In order to achieve our goal, which is to bridge the digital divide, we must ask: who is going to do this work in the field? Is it private citizens, the private sector, private companies? Yes, they are the ones doing it! Therefore, both governments and private companies have a role to play. International standards have been the core of our business from the outset. ITU was created when the means of communication was the telegraph; you needed an international standard for the Morse Code so that every
body spoke the same language. The same thing has happened with telephones, universal country codes and all those frequencies used by satellites. Today, we are doing the same thing on Internet standards so that all partners are able to talk to each other — so that the manufacturers in China are compatible with those in the United States, or vice versa.
Q: Technology is advancing very quickly, but quite a lot of the work you are doing is not well known. Do you think that the general public should be informed about technical issues?
The general public is not informed about technical issues and may not need to know very much, but they do need to know about the policy implications because any technical issue has such implications. That is why all partners need to talk to each other — policy-makers, regulators, governments, ministries, manufacturers, operators, service providers — each of them has a role to play. Governments and regulators have the role of referees on a level playing field, injecting the necessary ingredients to stimulate the market, to create an environment for competition. That is why you have seen tremendous growth in some of the new services recently, such as the mobile telephone industry. Ten years ago we only had about fifteen countries with an independent regulatory authority. Today, there are some 145 countries with such services. This is a catalyst creating the rules of engagement in terms of fair competition that are so attractive for foreign investment. They also look at aspects of new technologies as they appear and their application for wireless communication, mobile telephones, wireless Internet and, of course, all their implications in terms of crime, spam, etc. The World Summit on the Information Society came with — as far as I’m concerned — two major tasks for ITU, which I intend to pursue. One is building the infrastructure necessary for bridging the digital divide, and the second is security in cyberspace.
Q: You said that you wish to build up the infrastructure. Is it not more expensive to install traditional telephone lines than to encourage people to use mobile networks?
Mobiles are part of an evolving telecommunications issue. Mobile users often have fixed telephones as well, to which you may connect new devices. Whenever a new technology comes along, it does not mean that the old one is completely useless. There is still room for the traditional telephone. Why? You are limited in terms of spectrum on the wireless side, while there are other opportunities if you have both applications. When satellites first came in, there was a question whether micro-waves would stay — they are still being used. All technologies are complementary.
Q: So you would encourage the developing world to install more telephone lines?
No, that is not the case. The clear example of what is happening in the developing world was Cambodia in 2000, where the number of mobile subscribers surpassed the number of fixed telephone lines for the first time in any country of the world. That was because of the regulatory environment that had been created. Nowadays, there are more countries like this. In fact, there are 2.5 billion telephone users in the world today, of whom 1.5 billion are mobile subscribers. If you analyse this, there are many interesting aspects. This is the first time that you have new services within a neutral environment based on global competition. At the same time, the technology in itself was appropriate because the private sector came up with an innovatory solution — such as "prepaid". One of the biggest problems for fixed telephone lines is that to be able to subscribe you need an address and a bank account. This is no longer the case.
It may only be possible to supply a wider or larger band-wave for a specific environment through optic fibres or fixed lines, which give you broadband access. Of course, wireless is advancing as well, and the comparison of services now is amazing: you can no longer separate telephone from television, from video, from electricity. An electricity company can be a telecommunication provider today because you can transmit electro-magnetic signals through electric wires. This is changing the whole economy.
Q: Is it true that with the Internet the world has become a global village?
The global village is a good feeling but also a challenge. The challenge is providing access to people everywhere and, at the same time, creating an environment of security in cyberspace. National and international laws need to be harmonized and coordinated in order to ensure that we are all tackling this phenomenon together.
Q: What are you hoping to achieve during your four years at the head of ITU?
The ITU Plenipotentiary conference in Antalya, Turkey, where I was elected in November, has given us a very clear mandate. By 2009 we are supposed to organize a policy forum to ensure that the world is a better and safer place. Between now and then, I am working to ensure that we tackle the problem of Internet security together. ITU is well placed to do this as we are the only place in the world where all parties talk to each other about these issues — even those holding different points of view.
Q: Internet security seems a very complicated task.
When we are talking about cybersecurity, it includes the Internet, telephones — everything! If not, criminals from one country will soon invade other countries. Child pornography is one thing that we have to tackle to ensure that our children are protected. Third-Generation technology (3G), where telephones can receive anything by video, is a problem if you do not have good protection. Viruses are another problem. Spam has large cost and other implications. Farmers who invest in hardware and software for computers to sell their products may receive viruses that destroy that investment if they are not protected — the equivalent of many months of work.
This is where you come to e-commerce, e-governance, e-education, etc. We are very dependent on cyberspace and we must avoid a situation where one country can knock out the network of another country. Everybody has to be protected. The fact that our lives are so dependent on ICTs makes such protection very important. We could be faced with a situation like that of the tsunami that devastated parts of Asia at the end of 2004 — a worldwide catastrophe. Everything could break down if we do not protect ourselves. Do you remember the fear that we had back in 1999 about the "millennium bug"? One country cannot to do it alone; it has to be done on a global scale. ITU has been working on cyber-security for many years. In the Development Sector, we brought out a number of publications on behalf of partners who normally would not have had any contact with each other. That’s what makes ITU so important.
You need a worldwide agreement so as not to re-invent the wheel each time. For the first time, the private sector will be on an equal footing with governments. The private sector needs to be part of the agreement because who is going to do the work? Security depends upon software sold by big companies. Therefore, one has to use a different philo- sophy. Since ITU has governments and private companies as members and associates, it’s a good place to broker a deal.
Q: Can we expect something major happening in the next couple of years?
Developing countries see ICTs as important for their own development. You do not need to convince the Head of State of any country that ICTs are important tools, and WSIS has shown that political support is there. Now, it’s a matter of adopting the right policy and building the right strategies, infra- structures, financing, capacity-building and competition. These are the key areas where we need to work with countries — individually and on a global scale.
This is one area where all the parties need to talk to each other, since growth is necessary everywhere. In order for two parties to communicate, they need the same equipment and the same standards. Everywhere, people are travelling to other countries and need to communicate with their families, friends and business relations. Therefore, the need for communication has become increasingly relevant.
Q: Do you agree that ITU is "a rapidly expanding organization"?
Yes. Even the original mandate of ITU — standardization — is growing now, because you have thousands of new patents on a daily basis. Therefore, standardization is becoming more important. Spectrum management is also increasingly important because we are living in a wireless world.
Q: What is a spectrum?
To use wireless communications you need a special frequency. Each communication needs to work on its own frequency and these frequencies must not interfere with each other. Therefore, you need to organize it on a global scale. Each radio station, each television station, each mobile operator in the world has its own frequency. The idea is to cause no harm to others — nor to one’s self. All those frequencies are coordinated by ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau. Ensuring that all the satellites around the Earth — not only their locations but the frequencies they use — are not interfering with each other is also calculated here at ITU.
The Standardization Bureau is making sure that everyone is using standards that enable them to talk to each other, from simple ones — country codes, city codes — to the more complex ones — like the coding inside the signal itself. That is the technical side. Experts from all over the world come together regularly to discuss these issues. The latest standard they are working on is interoperability between the telephone and the Internet, because today the computer can be used as a telephone. You have to convert the 20-digit codes used inside the computer into a 6- or 9-digit telephone number; but technically the user will not be aware of this.
The third part of ITU is the Development Sector, which is helping countries to bridge the digital divide, to develop their infrastructure. This is not for developing countries alone. It is a platform for developing and developed countries.
Q: Your Number Two is from China*. Robert Hessler said that Africa and China working together is a global trend. Do you have any comments?
I think South-South cooperation is a key area being looked at by many developing countries. Of course, it’s one of many partnerships coming along and China is a very good model of development today, given its size and strategies. It has enjoyed double-figure growth over many years — this is what many developing countries want. In the ICT field, cooperation with other countries is a must. I would like to see some very large-scale initiatives, such as Europe-Africa, Latin America-Africa, Asia-Africa or Europe-Americas. I want to build bridges in the ICT field and to achieve better results.
From left to right: Sami Al-Basheer, Director,Telecommunication Development Bureau; Deputy Secretary-General: Houlin Zhao; Secretary-General: Hamadoun I. Tour?; Valery Timofeev, Director, Radiocommunication Bureau; Malcolm Johnson, Director,Telecommunication Standardization Bureau.
Q: Since you and your Number Two know ITU very well — the strengths and weaknesses — what are your plans?
We are fortunate in that the Member States chose five elected officials of whom all were very experienced in ITU’s work; so the good news is that we do not have to learn anything in order to start. From day one we have the possibi- lity of making a difference.
This team has known each other for many years. I have worked with my Deputy when we were both Directors for the past eight years in a perfect working relationship, so we can build on past experience. It will be the same for the other three recently elected Directors as well — heading the Development, Standardization and Radio Communication Sectors — we are one team.
Q: You said in a press conference not long ago that you will install a dialogue with ITU personnel. Have you done so?
Yes, I started that on the day of my election. Dialogue with the staff is the responsibility of the Secretary-General and I met with the Staff Association in Antalya. I personally believe in staff morale to achieve the level of excellence that I’m looking for. I’m a perfectionist and, as in the Olympics, I feel all the players need be in good shape. I think the best way to do this is to build confidence between management and staff. Transparency is the key: "what you see is what you get". You do not need to waste time when you show the logic behind decisions and when people have confidence in you. That has been my way of working and I will continue doing so. Why change something that has worked in the past?
Q: So the ITU staff will be among the happiest in the international organizations?
On my first day in office on 8 January, I convened a staff meeting where I laid out my plan, my visions and my strategy, and I had a very positive reaction. As a result, the staff have been communicating directly with me or my Deputy in proposing improvements for ITU. If you treat the staff fairly, they will give the best of themselves — and that is exactly what has happened. I am very pleased with the way it has started. We will evaluate this matter and report to the Council in September.
Q: Do you have a message for the international community here in Geneva?
My message is that ITU is now ready to work with all partners. Our most
important goal is to assist the countries that need our support. We need to work together and to avoid what I call the credit-taking business — let’s give credit to those we are helping rather than trying to take the credit ourselves.
So, keeping that in mind, I am making a very positive call to the United Nations Family, all of the inter-national community and civil society, to work
together. There are some really good opportunities for us to do so and I think, more importantly, that there is room for us all. We all have our own platforms for positive discussion.
* Note from the Editor: Houlin ZHAO, ITU Deputy Secretary-General.