Let’s create a new world of decolonized and empowering digital-enabled standards – Ursula Owusu-Ekuful

Mrs Ursula Owusu-Ekuful
Communications Minister, Ursula Owusu-Ekuful

Global Standards Symposium (GSS) is a high-level forum for discussion and coordination that is open to both members and non-members.

This year’s event, taking place in the International Conference Centre Geneva (CICG) in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday 28th February 2022, is organized by the Telecommunication Standardization Sector of the International Telecommunication Union, and dubbed, “International standards to enable the digital transformation and achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs)”.

Hon. Ursula Owusu-Ekuful (MP), Ghana’s Minister for Communications and Digitalisation, in her keynote address at the fourth GSS-20, underscored the need to unlock the full potential of digital transformation towards the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The Minister stressed on how pivotal digital tools have become in the new world that is unfolding and said without digital technology, none of the SDGs can be attained effectively.

For her, we are moving towards the realization that the digital world is indispensable and just as important as the physical world is.

Emphasizing that, “As technology continues to advance at a faster pace than policy and regulation and given that, 2030 accomplishment timeline for the SDGs is near in-sight, it is clear that the standards development community does not have the luxury of time.

The ITU and other SDOs gathered here may be doing their best, however, the timely production of standards to meet evolving needs of policy makers, regulators and the ICT market is one area that has been a bit elusive.

It is therefore suggested that a standards development roadmap specifically for the SDGs be outlined by a consortium of SDOs, and timelines clearly set in response to anticipated growth of policy and technology.”

Mrs. Owusu-Ekuful, further said, given that digitalisation affects all facets of the economy and society, and requires governments to reach across traditional policy silos and across different levels and industry verticals, an “all-inclusive” approach to policy making becomes indispensable to unlocking the full potential of digital transformation.

According to her, the differences in economic growth, socio-cultural beliefs and developmental philosophies have played a key role in the way countries and regions of the world have mapped out strategies to achieve their digital transformation however, in the interconnected world, there’s the need to develop all the aforementioned initiatives in an interoperable manner and that is why GSS-20 meeting is so crucial.

“Uncoordinated or deliberately skewed development of any kind can have dire consequences for whole regions of the world and by extension humanity generally and one example which comes to mind, and one that some in this room may be familiar with, is the famous story of the stubbornness of technical barriers: the railway gauge fiasco,” She stressed.

The Minister also disclosed that, for decades, inherited colonial standards and systems have prevented coordinated investment to drive railway interconnectivity across Africa, to the point where only 16% of total African trade is among African neighbouring countries compared to over 60% within the European Union and over 50% in Asia.

Saying, “The Trans-African Highway would still not be on the drawing board, and logistical connectivity across the continent would not be the most expensive in the world had railway connectivity not been hampered by borrowed standards, or what Manu Karuka calls ‘railroad colonialism’.”

She indicated Ghana is intensifying her digital transformation drive with the ultimate goal of improving lives pursuant to the Sustainable Development Goals and also ensuring that the required frameworks are in place.

“The Government of Ghana through the Ministry of Communications and Digitalisation, is playing a pivotal role in the development of a robust framework to support the digitalisation of the economy in a manner that benefits every citizen.

But we are mindful of the fact that we cannot do it alone and have to build systems that are capable of being linked up to those developed by our neighbors. We are building fibre to our borders and are active in continental initiatives such as the Smart Africa Alliance. We are also determined to make the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) work, clear in our minds that digital technology holds the key to uniting our fragmented and uncoordinated trade infrastructure and systems on the continent.
I keep referring to the pandemic and for good reason too.

It helped focus our minds and created the opportunity to rapidly introduce digital responses to critical issues. One such initiative was the Trusted Travel Initiative powered by the PanaBIOS system which was developed by the Africa CDC to digitally certify covid tests and vaccines to enable us travel and safely reopen our economies.

We didn’t wait for an imported solution, but developed our own for the entire continent but which was also designed to be compatible and interoperable with analogous systems developed for other parts of the world. It’s notoriously difficult to roll out continent wide systems, but this was done in record time. I’ll come back to this later in my presentation, for we have a few more digital initiatives up our sleeve,” Mrs. Owusu-Ekuful, pointed out.

She went on that, “Africa and other less developed parts of the world cannot be treated as bystanders. Every effort has to be made to bridge the standardisation gaps between the rich and poor parts of our world but it must be done in a manner that does not stifle creativity or innovation, and provides access to appropriate technologies and funding to ensure the holistic development of our world.

In this 4th industrial revolution (industry 4.0), marked by developments in the areas of Artificial Intelligence, Smart Cities & IoT, Digital Financial Services (DFS), Digital Identities, Machine Learning & Big Data, to mention a few, a lot of collaboration is expected of digital product manufacturers, technology solution providers, telecom operators, standards development organizations, and governments to guarantee maximum protection for consumers as we encourage the use and adoption of digital technologies.

It is imperative that all Standards Development Organisations work together in this area of digital transformation to ensure that ‘railroad colonialism’ does not happen again.

We in Africa, and certainly in Ghana, are concerned about the level of inputs those of us in the Global South make in the standards that enable the emergence of massive global digital networks as a result of interoperability.”

According to the Hon. Minister, Ghana, has decided not to be naive about the political economy of all these powerful shifts. Reemphasizing that, “Whilst we acknowledge the power of digital-enabled ESG standards to create a fairer, more prosperous, world, we also know that in the past we have, as a country and a continent, been marginalized in the creation of similar systems, such as the internet.

We believe that our best bet is to partner with our continental neighbours to establish our own digital ESG platforms and networks. We are building systems that speak to our unique reality in the quest to build a fairer, more prosperous, continent.

Ghana is a pioneer in the adoption of the AfCFTA Caravan platform, and its supply chain digitization derivative known as ProPer, the Proof of Origin and Product Electronic Registries. We are also championing the rollout of the Digital Green Corridor to unlock climate finance resources to green supply chains in the region. These initiatives, just like PanaBIOS, are fully endorsed by the African Union and we are determined to make them work.

Caravan and its derivatives are powerful instruments for harmonizing the standards regimes in the various AfCFTA member states with a very clear view to boosting trade, cultural interchange, cooperation, collaborative ventures and policy integration.

Through the Caravan platform, Ghana seeks to foster regional alliances in the creation of value chains where production activities can observe the highest ESG standards within frameworks that respond to our unique challenges.

For many years, countries like Ghana have complained about unfair phytosanitary standards that have shut many of our competitive products out of world markets. We have expressed deep concern over the fact that when ESG standards such as the Living Income Differential emerge to serve our interest, transnational networks attempt to undermine them. We have complained about the role that western and eastern intermediaries play in the siphoning away of vast wealth from our continent through clever manipulation of standards.

The time for complaining is over. We have now taken it upon ourselves as a country and a continent to develop our own mega-platforms to track the enforcement of standards across multiple, interlocking, supply chains in our continent. Through the enhanced visibility and vigilance provided by the likes of Caravan and others, we hope that the situation where 90% of fish harvested in the Gulf of Guinea, far above sustainability limits, are practically stolen by foreign trawlers, will cease.

Whether it is marine resources off the coast of Ghana or rare earth metal concessions in the Congo, standards are critical to ensuring their sustainable, fair, and equitable use to benefit the population. To the extent that tracking, enforcement and monitoring of standards has proven so difficult in highly constrained institutional environments, digitization is vital to ensuring that new capacity is made available in a decentralized manner across Africa to turn things around.

But we cannot approach the digitization opportunity without a clear understanding of the political economy context.

Our deployment of digital technology in tracking, enforcing and monitoring ESG standards in vital supply chains like marine, agricultural, mining and telecom shall thus be guided by a clear-eyed pragmatism and a deep sense of cultural awareness.

It shall be based on a strong decolonization agenda. We invite all like-minded parties to come partner, and let’s create a new world of decolonized and empowering digital-enabled standards.”

Ghana’s Minister for Communications and Digitalisation, Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, commended the Standardization sector of the ITU for making the GSS-20 possible despite the pandemic, to share knowledge and experiences on a range of topics around the subject of digital transformation and the role of international standards in realizing its full potential.

She therefore, expressed Ghana government’s commitment to continue to make available the necessary wherewithal to support the standardization work of the ITU and its allied bodies.

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