15 December 2004

At a Global Forum on Information Technology, hosted by the German government in Berlin 19-20 November, one key person was missing: the President of the United Nations High Level Advisory Group on Information and Communications Technology, Jose Maria Figueres. The former Costa Rican president had been appointed with ceremonial fanfare on 13 November 2000. Acclaimed as "a leader for advancing digital technology for development," he was to lead "a who's who of pioneers in advancing information technology and promoting its uses for economic and social development." It was claimed that serving under his inspiring leadership would be top brass like Vinton Cerf, widely regarded as the founder of the Internet; sociologist Manuel Castells, a top analyst of the social implications of the information technology revolution; Jiang Mian-heng, vice-president of the Academy of Science, China; and Muhammed Yunus who, as chief executive officer of the Grameen Bank, is bringing cell phone technology to farmers and villagers in rural Asia. Among the advisers drawn from the public sector are Jay Naidoo, former Minister of Communications of South Africa, and Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Ilves, "who both have been instrumental in making their countries regional leaders in information and communication technology and e-commerce." The private sector was supposed to be represented by, among others, Cisco Systems chief executive John Chambers, Pacific Century Group's chairman and chief executive Richard Li (China), Nokia chief executive Jorma Ollila, Hewlett Packard chief executive Carleton Fiorina and Sam Pitroda, chief executive of WorldTel, based in India. With such an impressive task force, President Figueres was counted upon to "advise the Secretary General in consultation with governments, the private sector, foundations and multilateral development institutions on building a strategic partnership with the private sector to bridge the global digital divide."

Alas. Four years later, none of the above appeared at the Berlin "Global Forum" -- though some sent representatives. But the one who truly disappeared was the most touted "leader," Senior Figueres. He reportedly was forced to resign. There was a matter of $906,000 in "consultancy fees" which needed clearer disclosure.

Thus, a new chairman was elected: new U.N. Under Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs, Jose Antonio Ocampo. His department serves as the Group's secretariat. His predecessor Nittin Desai will serve in some capacity; hi is also the Secretary General's Representative to the World Summit on the Information Society. It's all in the family; one cozy bubble which has yet to connect with the real electronic world. And one yet unclear question about those $906,000.