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French Version

Fund for IT projects in developing countries seeks support at Tunis summit

Western officials have so far been reluctant to contribute

An innovative fund that poor countries have endorsed to help them harness the IT revolution is urging more wealthy public and corporate donors to join the venture at an international summit in Tunisia this week. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud is expected to attend the conference during a trip to Tunisia this week.

Organizers of the three month-old Digital Solidarity Fund, which has attracted a lukewarm reaction from rich governments, said they would present their first full project at the World Summit for the Information Society in Tunis on Wednesday.

The project will finance satellite links for medical centers in Burkina Faso and Burundi, which are aimed at assisting medical personnel in training and diagnosis especially in the treatment of HIV/AIDS.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, his counterparts from Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, and the Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernandez, are expected to press the bid to expand the fund beyond its current nine countries and 12 cities or regions.

"The fund is very young, it needs all the support it can get at all levels. The private sector is still rather timid, they have not made a strong commitment," fund official Elena Ursache said.

All except one of the states involved - France - are African.

The regional authorities are French, Italian and Spanish, while the cities include Curitiba, Brazil; Dakar, Senegal; Delemont, Geneva in Switzerland; Lille, Lyon and Paris in France, and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

"We are expecting far more from the others. Africa is not very rich but they have a sense of solidarity. Cities, too, have a lot to bring," Ursache said.

So far the Geneva-based fund, which is focusing on IT projects that bring clear social or economic benefits in poor countries, has collected just 5.5 million euros ($6.4 million).

The organizers hope their approach will overcome the reticence of Western governments that has lingered since a first summit in Geneva two years ago.

Members bring a one-off contribution of 300,000 euros when they join.

But one of the guiding, though still voluntary, principles of the fund is a 1 percent charge on information technology (IT) purchases made by members.

The levy - which echoes controversial ideas of small global levies on air fares or business transactions to finance development aid - has only been implemented by the Swiss city of Geneva so far.

Four local telecoms and IT companies which agreed to the levy received a "Digital Solidarity" label.

"The fund is counting on the principle of the 1 percent. That's what will ensure the long term subsistence of the fund," Ursache said.

Some authorities, notably in France, face legal obstacles that require legislative changes.

But Ursache said negotiations with potential corporate members were expected to bear fruit soon.

Initially the solidarity fund was foreseen as the core of the summit's attempts to bridge the digital divide between rich and poor countries.

Wealthy nations countered its creation at the first phase in Geneva in 2003, preferring the inclusion of telecoms and the Internet in existing development aid channels for poor countries.

The fund was revived during the meeting under pressure from Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, although it had no official endorsement from the summit.

Western diplomats said there was still skepticism about the standalone Digital Solidarity Fund.

It finally came into existence in August, after gaining recognition from negotiators as a purely voluntary complement to existing financial channels, according to an official draft for Tunis.

"We welcome the Digital Solidarity Fund because it allows a new alternative for funding," said Hamadoun Toure, a development official at the UN's International Telecommunications Union, which is organizing the Tunis summit.

Beirut,11 14 2005
The Daily Star
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