I just noticed on my dresser that my United Nations access cards have expired. It’s been nearly a year since I was last working for an NGO at the UN. I get a bit nostalgic for those times, rushing off to a General Assembly debate on the Digital Divide in Africa or an NGO strategy session on Guantanamo Bay prisoners. I’m reminded of how much in activism physical access still matters.
I’ve long advocated for creating better channels for engaging a broader population of stakeholders and experts in the deliberations of the UN. Much of the booklet I wrote on e-Democracy and the UN is devoted to the subject. I’ve helped create all sorts of online UN participation and advocacy mechanisms, from email petition campaigns to discussion boards to web-enabled video meetings. And I believe this is the only practical way forward in an ICT-enabled, globalized policy environment.
But the reality is that for an activist there is nothing like physically being in the beige halls of power where the debates and decisions on public policy are taking place.
I remember a few years ago in Geneva having to deal with a particularly annoying French scientist who was a zealous advocate for open access journals. I mean, he would just not shut up about it. Somehow he got a UN pass from some NGO and at every opportunity I would see him shoving his proposals for open access journals into the hands and briefcases of every government delegate that he could find. He was little more than one man with a mission, and yet much of the credit for the language in the Declaration of the World Summit on the Information Society on open access to scientific information is due to his untiring efforts. (I suspect that delegates put in the draft language to get the pesky scientist to stop bothering them.)
So lobbying for specific language in the drafting phase of legislation is something best done head-to-head, and there are those who are consummate negotiators and cajolers that I have met over the years. On a larger level, I believe there is an important watchdog function served by observers from civil society simply being in the room. This is particularly true when there are groups from the home countries of particularly important delegations, since the actions of the government are being directly observed by people who could potentially make hell for them when they return home.
Beyond the adversarial role, there are many arguments for letting into the negotiating room NGO experts on particular issues, who often have better on-the-ground knowledge of a situation than the official diplomats do. The negotiations on the new Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, for example, benefited enormously from having actual people with disabilities from various groups from around the world in the room during the drafting and negotiations. Similarly, when the UN General Assembly chose to have a "Special Session" devoted to the fight against HIV/AIDS, several advocates for HIV/AIDS patients and those with the virus were on hand to give first hand testimony for what action is needed in their communities. You just can’t do that over Instant Message or web-meeting.
I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunities over the years to witness first hand some of the historic debates and decisions taken by the United Nations on human rights, information technology, development and more. Someday, in a more technology-mediated future, this kind of person-to-person lobbying and negotiating might seem arcane and inefficient. But I think that day is still far, far away.