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Manuel Acevedo, Tensions at WSIS


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During a small side meeting at PrepCom III of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a member of the Canadian delegation summed up very well the unique nature and challenges of the Summit, when he remarked that "WSIS appears to deal with the universe and its surroundings."

A few weeks have elapsed since the closing of the Geneva event, and I have had time to reflect on the Summit process. In these paragraphs I would like to note a number of key tensions that have characterized it, and also share some personal observations about what has transcended thus far.

In order to contextualize what follows, let me say that I was involved as the representative of the UN Volunteers programme (UNV) in the 18-month+ official preparatory process of the first phase of WSIS. UNV's objectives at the Summit was to impress on the deliberations and results that (1) Volunteering makes significant contributions to the Information Society (IS), and that (2) the IS is changing and shaping volunteer action around the world. During the process, I interacted with a broad spectrum of participants, including government delegations, civil society organizations, other UN and development organizations, and to some extent with private sector entities. My particular WSIS cocktail was made up of hopes, frustrations, a myriad contacts and attention to minute details (particularly on the language of the official documents).

The key tensions which I perceived during the process can be synthesized as:

A. One of the tensions was that of politically progressive entities focused on inclusion and social equity vs. economically liberal ones favoring the market, economic growth and minimum government intrusion. This conventional type of tension dawned with the first discussions about the official documents of the Summit - Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action. The organizing UN agency, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), reflects in itself well this tension since it includes in its membership private sector entities. In this respect ITU is not a club of governments, as most UN agencies are, and places ITU closer to the real world in terms of the battle of interests related to information and communications technology (ICT).

B. A second tension existed within the UN member states, 191 at this time. Some of them advocated for letting the market dictate the norms and rules of the Internet as well as the standards on which the Information Society would/should be based. Other countries want the State to play a more involved role, for example over Internet governance (and a few over the information that circulates on the Internet). There were also widely differing views on financing development cooperation and what to do about the digital divide.

The important thing to note here is that this second set of tensions are not bi-dimensional but rather multi-dimensional in character, with countries conforming various groups depending on the issue and at times changing groups during the negotiation process. At times, I was surprised by governments with generally progressive positions which would refrend stern conservative measures in certain issues. This amounted to a game of 'technological diplomacy'.

C. A third tension, evidenced from the very start, was between the 'marriage of convenience' of civil society and private sector vs. governments in relation to representation and the role of the three actors at the Summit. While realizing that WSIS is a UN event (thus government-mandated and managed), I could not help being mildly shocked that at this point in history the representatives of civil society, private sector and even multilateral organizations (like UN agencies) had merely an 'Observers' status, thus not being included formally in decision-making. Particularly when discussing a topic like the Information Society, shaped by all and where arguably governments have not been among the most dynamic or knowledgeable actors.

The week of PrepComI (July 2002) dealt almost exclusively with rules and procedures, particularly over the roles of civil society and the private sector. The 'Observers' would sit way back in the upper level of a two-tiered auditorium (practically out of sight, particularly from the lower level where the table and most government delegations were). Much was made of the tripartite nature of the Summit by the organizers. But the reality is that the possible influence of the 'Observers' came more from physical proximity (e.g., by personal lobbying, meetings in corridors and at the cafeteria) and not through official channels. It would be surprising to most people to realize how arduously fought were the token five minutes that each 'Observer' sector got per day to present its observations to the plenary meeting.

D. A fourth tension existed within the ranks of civil society. Initially, it was between those that wanted to form part of the WSIS process (within the limitations defined at PrepComI) and those that thought it was not worth the effort. Later on, there were arguments among the involved organizations over(1) how those present would purport to represent 'Civil Society' and (2) to what degree they would integrate in the Summit's structured mechanisms (eg. the Civil Society Bureau established during PrepCom II, February 2003). After PrepCom III (September 2003) it was clear that Civil Society would present separate documents, frustrated over the resistance from governments to include a minimum of their proposals and suggestions into the Summit's Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action - particularly in reference to Human Rights, the role of women, intellectual property, or communication rights.

E. A fifth tension, perhaps the most important but less obvious one, existed between those who saw WSIS as a social summit vs. those that viewed it as a technology summit. A precise scope and definition of WSIS was lacking, at least in working terms, or in how it was guided by ITU. Other UN Summits have had well-defined topics which could be broadly understood : Children, Environment, Women, Human Settlements, Food. I have tried to explain to friends and relatives about the Information Society, with little success most of the time. The Summit was poorly attended at the highest political level, perhaps because leaders around the world were generally not impressed about the importance of this concept to their countries development and their citizen's well-being.

I have come to hold a generally positive view about the process and possible outcomes of the Summit. If nothing else, because I invested significant efforts in it during almost two years and because in my opinion it can have truly important effects around the world. From this perspective, my preliminary conclusions about the Summit are as follows:

- In relation to other UN Summits, there have been significant advances in respect to the 'real' participation of Civil Society

- Midway into the preparatory process I stopped expecting important results from this phase of the Summit, like an 'Agenda 21' of the Information Society. I declared myself content if many decision-makers could be informed and sensitized about the complex issues regarding the Information Society, particularly in high-levels of government. I donīt think the verdict is out on this yet.

- An important outcome already has been that important alliances and partnerships (formal and informal) have been established. This is a significant element of 'social capital' for the second phase of WSIS, and will lead to concrete actions on the ground.

- At the same time, the nets have to be thrown much wider. I suspect that only a small fraction of civil society organizations that work on the social and inclusive use of ICT actually got involved. Moreover, many notable civil society organizations like the Red Cross, Amnesty International or Greenpeace, to name but a few, were absent from the process.

- Civil Society has conquered a significant challenge: to organize itself coherently, moving beyond the traditional "I do not speak on behalf of others but only of myself" limitation. This is fundamental in order to reach certain broad agreements and to be able to discuss/negotiate on a political level.

- The limited gains of WSIS do not provide evidence of a fracture of the UN, as some have claimed. They have simply resulted from the tensions that I referred to above. On the one hand, we cannot confound one agency (ITU) with the entire UN System. On the other, I do not know what would be a better central stage on which to discuss these global issues than the UN.

- The structure of the process for phase II should be re-engineered, in particular towards moving beyond the 'Observer' syndrome into the partner/stakeholder basis.

Lastly, is it worth all the effort and money invested? For all the frustration which I personally felt at different points, I do believe it is a worthwhile enterprise. The preparatory process has served to enhance dialogue, generate better knowledge on the issues and improve relationships. The financial costs of the Summit process cannot be that high, and they have been provided by the rich countries which are still far short of their previously committed development cooperation targets. Besides, on relative terms the overall costs (which I venture to say were between US$10-20 million for the first phase) amount to those of a single large development project - and in WSIS we are talking about issues affecting most of the worldīs population.

In looking ahead at the second phase, my main suggestion is for key players to work together in the early months to set in motion the most truly tripartite process possible. This would result in more meaningful accords, better results that make a difference for human development, and a wider distribution of actions and responsibilities among all stakeholders. In my view, such a turn in the nature of the process would optimize the outcome from the sunny lands of Tunisia in November 2005, in harmony with what should be the basic goals of the Summit: the emergence of a fair and equitable Information Society where the benefits of ICT extend to everyone.