Technology and private-sector funding will drive progress towards the UN's ambitious development goals.
The United Nations summit on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) confirmed one important aspect of their viability that was probably tacitly understood. Achieving the ambitious programme within its 2015 deadline will require an increasing contribution from the private sector.
The MDG Gap Task Force revealed that overall UN funding will be $20bn short this year alone, with African nations struggling the most and falling $16bn below their original commitments. It also noted that among developed nations, only Belgium and the UK had committed to keep their payments at previously announced levels.
But when the concrete details of implementing the eight MDGs are reviewed, the UN's promoter role gives way to the action being achieved through such private-sector groups as the UN Foundation (originally set up with a $1bn grant from broadcasting mogul Ted Turner) and the Clinton Global Initiative (established by former US President Bill Clinton).
Both those organisations held major meetings in New York alongside the opening of the UN General Assembly and had sessions specifically addressing what technology can do in the context of the MDGs.
Kathy Calvin, the UN Foundation's CEO, is putting major effort into Goals Four, Five and Six through the $30m mHealth scheme set up with, among others, Vodafone. As its name suggests this addresses the use of mobile communications to improve public healthcare.
'When health workers were going out on vaccination campaigns or were tracking outbreaks of diseases or tracking stock-outs of commodities, such as condoms, they would typically write it down on a piece of paper and send it someplace. And maybe three months later, it would be noted,' she told FrontLines, in-house publication for the USAID development agency.
'Now, they're using handheld devices; in some cases, cellular phones. Even in the poorest of regions, mobile phones are prevalent. So that turned out to be a really tremendous leap for the World Health Organisation and other health workers.
'That led us to realise that there are many obstacles to wide-scale adoption of mobile technology for a broad array of health uses, whether they be diagnostic or reminders about taking drugs or data collection.'
Mobile phones represent the only form of Internet connectivity in remote villages still to receive electricity, never mind landline phones. This feeds into the wider issue of how wireless comms can advance all the MDGs by fostering economic growth (e.g., making it easier for farmers to get the right crops to the right markets), improving education (e.g., enabling distance learning) and so on.
A panel at the Clinton Global Initiative heard about this theme from figures as diverse as Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers and Ory Okolloh, one of the founders of the Ushahidi networking site being used in Haiti and Pakistan to assist crisis management.
Chambers identified the importance of public-private partnerships specifically. He said the objective needed to be 'addressing the have-nots in the world at a much faster pace,' and doing this with both wired and wireless networks that users could afford.
He also discussed how developing countries could 'skip a generation' and deploy the latest technologies more efficiently without incurring legacy costs seen in the West.
Okolloh described how open source technologies such as Ushahidi can sit on top of such infrastructure to make services and tools easier to develop and distribute.
'Centres of innovation are not just in Silicon Valley today,' she said. 'This is a technology that was born in Kenya. We don't just consume technology now; we can produce it.'
She argued for a need to move beyond handsets towards low-cost tablets. 'You want the $100 iPad,' she said, stressing that these would be more viable not only for sophisticated healthcare applications but also education.
The UN itself though really put the stamp on how the private sector could couple with the almost Moore's Law-driven approach to using technology, implicit the visions of Okolloh, Chambers and Calvin.
It did so by formally giving private-sector players a role in the MDG programme equal to that of nation states, by issuing a donor statement backed by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon.
'Rather than viewing the private sector merely as resource providers, we choose to recognise the private sector as equal partners around key development issues and will enter into partnerships with local and international companies of various sizes,' the statement says. 'We aim to collaborate with companies that focus not only on profit margin, but also on social and environmental impact, and whose work harmonises with our developmental goals.'