American becomes first woman to lead U.N. telecom agency

ITU Secretary-General Doreen Bogdan-Martin (center in red jacket) flanked by Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Jose Fernandez (to her right) and U.S. Senior Representative to the ITU 2022 Conferences Ambassador Erica Barks-Ruggles (to her left) stands with the U.S. Delegation to the Plenipotentiary Conference on her election day in Bucharest, Romania, Sept. 29, 2022. Photo by Caitlin Bettendorf

By Tamara L. Scott

American Doreen Bogdan-Martin made history by shattering one of the oldest glass ceilings in the United Nations when she was elected as the first woman secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Sept. 29, 2022. Bogdan-Martin’s candidacy was supported at the highest levels, including President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. The Bureaus of Cyberspace and Digital Policy (CDP) and International Organization Affairs (IO) led a whole-of-government campaign with strong support from U.S. missions around the world, American industry, and Congress. The result was a resounding 139-25 victory for Bogdan-Martin’s vision for an inclusive and pragmatic approach to international telecom issues. 

Established in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union, ITU is the oldest U.N. agency. It is the U.N. body that helps enable cell phones to work across most of the world without having to change handsets or chips; it is one of the reasons GPS works worldwide; it enables the harmonizing of radio frequencies for broadcasting, air traffic control, weather monitoring, and satellite wi-fi access on planes; while ensuring mobile providers have enough bandwidth allocated to allow customers to stream their favorite shows. 

CDP Ambassador-at-Large Nathaniel Fick, traveled to Bucharest, Romania, to advocate for Bogdan-Martin at ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference within hours of being sworn in himself. There, the United States also announced a 17% increase in its contribution to ITU to support its important work and help ensure Bogdan-Martin’s term started on strong financial footing. Bogdan-Martin plans to focus on connecting the unconnected, empowering women and youth, and using information and communication technologies (ICTs) to accelerate economic growth and innovation.   

The next major ITU event—the World Radiocommunication Conference, at the end of 2023—will address the global use of radiofrequency spectrum. The stakes are high for U.S. national and economic interests—particularly leadership in 5G and emerging wireless technologies—and promoting the development of American space and satellite systems. 

Cyberspace and digital policy is more relevant than ever before because of the profound, direct impact that ICTs have on nearly every government, every business, and every citizen of the world. The work of ITU is critical for shaping the future of international telecom and information and communications technology policy. U.S. leadership at ITU will ensure an open, transparent, and inclusive approach to digital development that allows innovation, freedom of expression, and free enterprise to flow globally.  

Tamara L. Scott is an International Telecommunication Union desk officer in the Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy.

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