New ITU Secretary General: "I believe in multi-stakeholder cooperation"

Blog 23-11-2022

Doreen Bogdan-Martin is the first woman at the head of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The US American easily won the race against the only other candidate in the October election of the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference (PP22), former Deputy Minister of Telecom and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation, Rashid Ismailov (139 against 25 of 172 Member States). Russia at the same time lost its seat on the ITU Council. Together with her newly elected Deputy Tomas Lamanauskas of Lithuania, Bogdan-Martin gives the ITU a more western face. Elected as the ITU Director of the Development Bureau four years ago, she could turn the page in the history of the UN body founded in 1865 to lean more into its development oriented mandate. While Western countries and internet technical bodies welcomed decisions at the Plenipotentiary to leave the internet related mandate of the ITU pretty much unchanged, Bogdan-Martin, who starts her term on 1 January 2023, has to deal with the growing geopolitical tensions following Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

bogdan martin


This interview was first published in the Background Cybersecurity Section of Der Tagesspiegel (in German).

You were the Director of the ITU Development Office for four years before, will you bring a development focus to the Secretary General’s (SG) office?

Bogdan-Martin: In my new role, I’ll be prioritizing the issues that our membership identifies at this Plenipotentiary Conference (PP22) in Bucharest as most important to them, and making sure we deliver on those issues as an organization, to the best of our ability.

I will put a strong emphasis on ensuring that the ITU provides thought leadership to enable universal and meaningful connectivity, and also on advancing digital transformation in the ITU by reinforcing results-based management and accountability, as well as forging partnerships and strategic engagement.

This will be achieved through all three ITU Bureaux and the General Secretariat. The ITU has always had a strong development focus, right across our three core Bureaux – don’t forget that our institutional motto is ‘committed to connecting the world’. That means the work of both our technical Bureaux – Radiocommunications and Standardization – is still focused on promoting and facilitating connectivity.

‘Connectivity for everyone, connecting the unconnected’ is a catch-phrase. What can the ITU as an organization very practically do about it? How long do you think it will take us to connect the remaining 2.7 billion people?

Bogdan-Martin: The Covid pandemic illustrated very vividly what it really means to be unconnected in today’s increasingly digital age. I think everyone understands that those 2.7 billion still totally unconnected are now at dire risk of being left far behind.

That means that as a global community, we urgently need to find ways to speed up progress in extending access to meaningful connectivity. The ITU and the UN have set an ambitious goal of every country achieving universal connectivity by 2030.

I certainly don’t underestimate the size of the challenge. Right now, in the world’s least-connected countries less than 10% of the population is online.

The problem is not merely a question of infrastructure, so it won’t be enough to just put a network connection in place and declare the problem solved. There are a host of barriers to what we call ‘meaningful connectivity’ – that is, connectivity that is accessible, affordable and actionable by people to improve their lives.

Those barriers include the price, quality and security of the connection, as well as the cost and quality of devices. They also include awareness about what the internet could offer, and the digital skills needed to use it. We also need more home-grown apps and services that are better adapted to local needs and conditions, including basic literacy and numeracy challenges, along with a much greater presence of local languages. We need to recognize and address concerns about safety and security that may be keeping people offline. And we need to work hard to build sustainable local ecosystems with expertise in network management, maintenance and digital innovation.

Taken together, these are formidable challenges, but they are by no means insurmountable if all parties work together. That’s why we need to lift global collaboration to a whole new level, and it’s what inspired us to launch ITU’s Partner2Connect Digital Coalition at the side-lines of the UN General Assembly last year.

For many years there has been a dispute about the role of the ITU in operational aspects of Internet Governance (like IP addressing, Internationalized domains). This is reflected in some Member State proposals during PP22 as well. What is the current role of the ITU with regard to the internet? And what do you personally expect it to be in the coming years? 

Bogdan-Martin: I firmly believe that multi-stakeholder cooperation and collaboration is the cornerstone of a truly inclusive and empowering global digital space. There is a large community of stakeholders making vital contributions towards building this thriving digital ecosystem. The ITU is an important stakeholder in this ecosystem and an active voice in this community.

As you would recall, we convened the two phases of the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS)in 2003 and 2005, bringing together the entire UN system and the entire multistakeholder community for the first global conversation on the then-nascent information society. As the UN specialized agency for ICTs, the ITU provides many such opportunities for all key stakeholders to come together and develop a common understanding of the challenges facing the ICT sector and the solutions required. The current PP22 is one such venue. At ITU, all voices are heard and respected, diverse points of views are discussed in depth and, where possible, consensus-driven decisions are made for the benefit of the global ICT community.

There are also negotiations over the inclusion or taking out of a list of internet governance/standards bodies from resolutions. Again, practically speaking, what’s the difference for the ITU’s work depending on having such a list or not having it in the internet resolutions?

Bogdan-Martin: In fact, since 2010 there has been a note in all ITU internet-related resolutions requesting and encouraging greater collaboration with other standards bodies (SDOs) on a reciprocal basis. The ITU also maintains a close collaboration with all major international SDOs – ISO, IEC, IEEE, IETF and others. We also work very closely with ICANN, the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), the Internet Society (ISOC) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) – many of whom are ITU Sector Members – on the basis of reciprocity.

This will certainly continue going forward, because we recognize that such partnerships are vital to building a thriving interoperable ICT ecosystem.

Other UN organizations have taken up the issue of connectivity and networks with the Global Digital Compact and the Common Agenda in the workings. What UN-internal cooperation do you find most important for the ITU?

Bogdan-Martin: I’m extremely encouraged that, under the leadership of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the UN family is now prioritizing connectivity as an indispensable lever in catalysing progress towards the 17 SDGs. His consultation and report on digital cooperation have been instrumental in bringing all UN agencies onboard, and we’re already partnering with many of them on digital initiatives, from the WHO on m-health projects, the ILO (International Labour Organisation) for youth empowerment, UNHCR (UN Human Rights Council) on refugees, WMO (World Meteorological Organisation) on ICTs and climate, UNEP (UN Environment Programme) on e-waste, and more.

The 2024 Summit of the Future will be a critical opportunity to push the connectivity agenda and further mobilize our collective efforts to bring meaningful connectivity to all – and I look forward to the ITU playing a central role in the consultations on the Global Digital Compact.

There has been a call to open up the ITU to civil society and a more multi-stakeholder (as opposed to stricter multi-lateral) way to work. Is this something you would like to advance as SG? 

Bogdan-Martin: For me, the more diversity we can bring into our collaboration and conversations, the better – how we do that is ultimately up to the ITU membership.

What I can do, as ITU Secretary-General, is to propose new ways to bring in new voices – as I have already done in my previous roles through our Generation Connect Youth Strategy, the EQUALS global partnership for digital gender equality, and the Partner2Connect Digital Coalition, which enabled stakeholders from right across the digital ecosystem and beyond to join in the effort to mobilize pledges to drive connectivity. And of course we also have our annual WSIS Forum, a very open multi-stakeholder event that always attracts a great deal of participation from civil society groups, academia, and of course government and industry too.

What is the role of the ITU in standards and how can the ITU avoid duplication (or a trend of stakeholders to forum-shop) and burn resources? 

Bogdan-Martin: I always like to point out that the ITU is unique as the only United Nations body with a membership that includes private sector companies, and unique as the only standards body with a membership that includes governments. 

The trusted ITU standardization process is driven by ITU members’ contributions and consensus decisions – and ITU standards development requires a sustained commitment to the task of building that consensus.

Standards development for ICTs, and their use right across all industry sectors, makes it essential to coordinate and collaborate with numerous other standards bodies to leverage synergies and minimize overlap and duplication of work – and this objective is integral to our standards development.

We’re proud that ITU standards are supporting digital transformation in areas from energy and transportation to healthcare, financial services and agriculture, as well as the drive towards smart, sustainable cities and communities, and that this work has been conducted in close collaboration with other Standards Development Organizations. And looking even further ahead, ITU standards are also helping all sectors capitalize on advances in artificial intelligence.

What is the biggest challenge for next year’s Radiocommunication Conference? Could a prolonged and aggravated situation of the war against Ukraine result in calls for a sanctioning of Russia (as we saw in other IG organizations)?

Bogdan-Martin: The World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) is mandated to update the Radio Regulations, the sole international treaty governing the global use of the radio frequency spectrum.

It’s a very important conference, and we’re sure to see a strong presence from national government authorities and telecommunication regulatory agencies, together with representatives of key radiocommunications users, service providers and equipment makers when WRC-23 convenes next year in Dubai.

But with over a year to go, it’s still too early to identify potentially difficult issues – the ITU’s preparatory process for World Radiocommunication Conferences is a very thorough and inclusive one, involving a great deal of consultation, extensive technical and regulatory studies, and ongoing discussions with all stakeholders at national, regional, and global level.

In line with the ITU’s history and culture, we put a great deal of effort into the consensus-building process ahead of and during major conferences, in an effort to find common ground and agree on mutually acceptable outcomes.

Published By Monika Ermert
Monika has been working as an IT journalist for over 20 years. She has covered the evolving internet governance landscape, EU and worldwide attempts to regulate and the risks and fun of technology. She holds an M.A. in Chinese/Media Studies from the University of Tuebingen and lives and works in Munich, Germany.