This question is posed in the upcoming September election for the next Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Two diametrically opposed visions – and two different personalities, one Russian, one American – are facing off.

On one side stands the current Director of the ITU’s Development Bureau, American Doreen Bogdan-Martin, the first woman ever to hold a top level ITU post. On the other is a Russian candidate Rashid Ismailov, a former deputy telecommunications minister and industry executive. Although the vote isn’t just about a candidate’s country of origin, this contest pits Bogadan-Martin’s proven UN experience versus an almost unknown candidate steeped in the Russian tradition.

While not a household name, the ITU has been called “the most important agency you’ve never heard of” because of the impact it has on our daily lives. Every time you make a phone call, look at a weather forecast, or use Wi-Fi to access an application on your smartphone, you are relying on work done at the ITU. Established in 1865 to coordinate telegraph signals, it is now part of the UN system, responsible for coordinating the global radio frequency spectrum, allocating satellite orbital slots, and developing international telecom standards.

The two candidates for the top post could not be more different. A native of New Jersey, Bogdan-Martin graduated from the American University in Washington and began her career as a telecom specialist at the US Department of Commerce. In 1994, she joined the ITU as a policy analyst.

During her 30 years of experience working on global connectivity, Bogdan-Martin has built a solid record of innovative achievements. She created the Global Symposium for Regulators, the ITU Youth and Gender Strategies, the Equals Global Partnership, the ITU Office to the UN in NY, and the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. She advances a vision for the ITU that stresses collaboration, inclusivity, and partnerships as the path to connecting the unconnected.

At the ITU’s World Telecommunications Development Conference in Kigali, Rwanda, Bogdan-Martin focused on inclusion. She brought together 1,500 in-person youth delegates from over 115 countries and another more than 5,000 online delegates. Young leaders discussed, debated, and shared, ensuring that youth voices would be included in the creation of a sustainable digital future. In Kigali, Bogdan-Martin launched the Partner2Connect Digital Coalition. Some 219 partners from 103 countries made 423 pledges to increase connectivity in the developing world with an estimated financial value of $26.05 billion.

Ismailov enjoys no similar international experience, building his career inside Russia. Born in Baku, Azerbaijan in 1965, he graduated from Moscow State University. He has worked as an executive for foreign telecom companies, including Nokia, Ericsson, and Huawei. From 2014 to 2018, he served as Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications, and Mass Media – just as Vladimir Putin was cracking down on Internet freedom. Since 2020, he has served as president of Russia’s third largest mobile operator Vimpelcom. Although Ismailov has put forward a positive-sounding campaign platform that centers around “the humanization of ICTs,” he has been part of his country’s authoritarian communications leadership.

Bogdan-Martin has proven herself to be a capable and effective leader dedicated to producing results to improve real connectivity. If elected, she would also be the first woman to lead the ITU in its 157-year history. Ismailov remains untested and unproven and carries significant baggage.

The decision should be clear. The ITU must stick to its initial mission of improving connectivity, not enforcing government control over communications.

Fiona Alexander is a Non-resident Senior Fellow with the Digital Innovation Initiative at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

Caption: Members of the Indian and Thai delegations cast votes during the June 2022 ITU World Telecommunication Development Conference in Kigali, Rwanda. Credit: International Telecommunications Union via Flickr.