Returning from the UN ICT Task Force meeting in Berlin last week, I’m struck by how much the somewhat ad hoc arrangement has developed into an innovative policy and collaboration space in the United Nations.
The UN ICT Task Force Meeting in Berlin last week, only the seventh in its history, has been evolving into an interesting experiment in UN policy-coordination and collaboration among different stakeholders. For a more cheeky and funnier account of the meetings, see Vittorio Bertola’s account his “Hacking the UN” blog.
Founded by the UN Secretary General in 2001 to advise him and the UN on ICT for development issues, the UN ICT Task Forces’ initial mandate seemed quite modest, similar to other “expert panels” commissioned by SG’s that have a short life span and then file a lengthly report that never gets read. But the multi-stakeholder forum has developed into a future-oriented, collegial and efficient space for key leaders in government, the corporate world, inter-governmental organizations, and civil society to share ideas, concerns and problems and develop collaborative projects together.
The official members of the Task Force are heavily weighted toward the governmental and corporate world, with a few, hand.jpgcked civil society people, most notably Anriette Esterhysen of the Association for Progressive Communications . But the “global forums” that open each Task Force meeting are more open environments for the different actors to participate and debate some focused issue. At the Berlin meeting it was on promoting an “enabling environment” to support the development of ICT capacities around the world.
Primae facae, “enabling environment” language falls within the government-corporate nexus, referring mostly to legal and infrastructure foundations for corporate investment. But understood more broadly, “enabling environment” encompasses larger issues of citizen education, engagement, and accountability. I.e. are we “enabling” only those actors who already have the resources to get access to ICTs, or are we creating an “all enabling environment” in which marginalized communities and outside voices are also included. This was the useful distinction provided by William Drake, president of Computer Professionals for Corporate Responsibility in his speech at the Global Forum.
The reality is that the mostly useful activity at these events happens outside the plenary hall, during the coffees and meals and after-hours drinks. At the Task Force meeting in Berlin I was impressed by the level of interactions among government, UN, corporate and civil society people informally throughout the meetings. Everywhere you looked in the lobby area of the meeting hall, various actors were gathered in small groups discussing issues or just socializing. No one seemed too intent on where someone was from or who they represented. All of our name badges were the same color, except for a small green dot indicating if the person was a member of the Task Force or not.
I spent much of the late night hours meeting with civil society folks and socializing at the “Newthinking Store” in the fashionable Mitte neighborhood of Berlin. The Newthinking Store is an ultra-modern combined Linux store, consulting firm and meeting space that civil society basically took over last week. The German civil society and the Newthinking folks were kind enough to facilitate meetings, provide internet connectivity, and even stock the fridge with free beer and geeky smartdrinks the whole time we were there. (No free cigarettes, though, which my friend Ralf thinks should be provided because they facilitate NGO processes…. or at least his thought processes.)
For me the most important reason for being in Berlin, aside from the Task Force, was the opportunity to meet for the first time after Hammamet with WSIS civil society folks. We were able to have great frank discussions on what kind of civil society structures and procedures we need to establish with each other to be effective in this second phase of the WSIS. In comparison with the first Geneva Phase in 2003, the second phase is much more daunting and multi-faceted. And the range of actors has grown tremendously.
I was asked to facilitate the initial discussions in Berlin on some of these “working methods” issues, I suppose because of my long-interest in the issue and experience with other UN/civil society processes. We had a good beginning to outline what some of the key principles, questions, and objectives are with relation to civil society processes and procedures in the WSIS process. I hope we can get some momentum going on these meta-issues so we can operate more effectively, democratically and energetically in the next 12 months, and beyond.