The UN ICT Task Force will soon be out of a job, which will be met by applause by penny counters at the UN, but with sadness by others who have participated in this innovative forum on ICT issues. In a couple of weeks there will be an open meeting on the creation of a new “Global Alliance” on ICT policy issues, arising out of the ashes of the UN Task Force. Is this a good thing?
The UN ICT Task Force was assembled at the behest of the UN Secretary General in 2001 to advise the United Nations on how to harness information communications technologies to spur development in poor countries and bridge the “Digital Divide” between the North and the South. More than other blue ribbon commissions established by the UN, the UN ICT Task Force has proven to be a more open, collaborative policy space for different actors to come together to discuss important political issues surrounding information technologies.
For civil society organizations, the Task Force has been a policy space where we have had some success in having our messages heard, with four civil society representatives being chosen to serve on the 55-member Task Force. Other CS observers have found that the Task Force public meetings have been mostly receptive fora for their ideas and perspectives. Although some from the human rights community have commented that their views are often shunted aside in favor of more economic and development concerns.
At the Berlin meeting of the UN ICT Task Force that I participated in a few months ago, everyone from civil society that I canvassed on the issue seemed to be agreement that the Task Force was a useful UN body to work with.
The mandate of the Task Force is set to expire soon, which was given an initial three-year run by ECOSOC. Already in Berlin, there were the beginnings of discussions on some body emerging from the Task Force that might have a longer shelf life. Then, reportedly a few weeks ago there was a small brainstorming meeting in New York with a few representatives of the UN, government and civil society on this question.
Out of this has come an open consultation in Geneva on 21 February on the creation of a “Global Alliance” on ICT policy issues to follow-up on the work of the Task Force once its mandate expires.
The first obvious question is would this “UN ICT Global Alliance” become the institutional banner-bearer of the WSIS once the summit is complete in November? That is, from other UN conference processes, there is usually at the end of the summit declaration some kind of follow-up and monitoring mechanism established to ensure that governments carry out the grand sounding goals in the summit document. Often these take the form of ECOSOC Commissions, i.e. the Commission on the Status of Women to follow-up on the Beijing Women’s Conference, the Commission on Social Development to follow-up on the Copenhagen conference on social development, the Commission on Sustainable Development to follow-up on the Conference on Sustainable Development, etc. What institution will be charged with making sure that the Tunis Declaration actually gets implemented by governments?
No one has called for the creation of an ECOSOC “Commission on the Information Society.” The ITU would certainly like to position itself as the institutional secretariat of any follow-up mechanism, which many NGOs and some key governments would oppose.
Meanwhile the UN ICT Task Force has succeeded largely outside of the WSIS-process, with more robust private sector involvement as well as focused government and civil society participation. The Task Force mandate already follows closely much of the key concerns coming out of the WSIS, including ICT financing and internet governance. So not much re-tooling would be necessary. Then again, if the Tunis Summit is seen as anything less than a success, which is certainly a possibility at this point, the proposed Global Alliance may not wish to tie itself to closely to the WSIS.
Regardless, some kind of open, frank discussion and partnership space between the private sector, civil society and governments on ICT policy issues is needed. Some place where a 3G developer from Nokia, a free software zealot, and an assistant to the minister of science and technology from South Africa can sit down over coffee. The Global Alliance might be the closest we get to this.