Thinking about the WSIS Prepcom II, the issues of inter-civil society negotiations and civil society-governmental negotiations can be seen as a two-stage game, to take a concept from political Game Theory. That is, among civil society organizations there is a jockeying for resources and attention that must be negotiated while at the same time CSOs are engaging governments in their own policy negotiations. What is interesting is that the “winners” in the game are not always those who come into it with the most resources, staff or money. And the outcomes of one game do not necessarily predict the “winners” of the other game.
It was at Prepcom II in the first phase of the WSIS so long ago that we started really wrestling with these issues of inter-civil society policy coordination and negotiation. It was there that we realized that there were too many of us to work completely independently of each other, all trying to achieve our own individual policy objectives. It was a recipe for chaos and conflict.
So we invented these structures that exist to this day, the CS Bureau for coordinating our work on procedural matters and the “Content and Themes Group” for our work on “content” issues of policy and advocacy. Above it all was the concept of the “plenary” of civil society bringing together all of the CSOs active in the process, both physically at our morning meetings and virtually on the plenary email list.
Much of our work together was done through consensus and discussion. And we were a small enough group that we could incorporate pretty much everyone’s views into a single consensus “civil society text,” which would be given to governments as the “civil society position.”
Some people call this period, from Prepcom II to the Geneva Summit, the “good old days.” Even then though I knew that this was not going to last, nor was it all that good.
Our existing structures, with ill-defined mandates and processes, were enough to get us through the Geneva Summit in December 2003. Then at the first Prepcom of the Tunis Phase of the WSIS in Hammamet, the fragility of what we had built was revealled. A large population of organizations, mostly from Tunisia, demanded to be included into all of our processes, from the Bureau to Content and Themes to many of our caucuses and working groups. The criticism of Tunisia’s human rights record became a dominant debate that overrode much of our other work in the process.
Meanwhile many more organizations from all over were getting active in the process for the first time and questioning what the heck was the Bureau and Content and Themes and how to do they get in?
Hammamet for much of civil society was a disaster.
By contrast, at Prepcom II in Geneva civil society for the most part worked together peacefully and effectively. There were some initial bumps in the road surrounding chairing of Plenary and Content and Themes, which were fairly quickly overcome. Reports critical of Tunisia from Rapporteurs Sans Frontieres and a group of several press freedom groups created some heat and tension. But for the most part our caucuses, working groups and individual organizations participated effectively in the Prepcom.
Documents were drafted, interventions were delivered, press conferences were held, side events were organized, and many different voices were heard. When the civil society working group on financing experienced internal debates and difficulties, a smaller coalition of 4-6 organizations drafted their own texts and submitted them directly to governments and the sub-committee on ICT financing.
There was a protracted debate, that is still continuing online, surrounding Ms. YJ Park’s position that the civil society internet governance caucus has purposely rejected her positions on ICANN and its dominance by the US government. YJ felt so strongly about her position that she held up for 30-40 minutes a Content and Themes meeting that was to receive the statement of the internet governance caucus before it was delivered to governments the next morning. Instead it became a very personal debate between YJ and others in the Content and Themes meeting who wished to move forward and accept the IG caucus text as coming from the entire body of Content and Themes.
This incident, which is still being played out, reveals a couple of things to me.
Firstly, the role of the individual in the process is very important. As much as we carry the mandates of our various organizations, its the idiosyncratic personalities and characters of individuals that drive the process, for better or for worse. That is to say, one passionate person can make things happen in the WSIS that would have not been possible without that person. And conversely, one passionate person can hold up a lot of progress if that person wishes.
Secondly, back to my Game Theory model, civil society active in the WSIS have two-levels they have to operate on. On the one level, they have to work with each other within a somewhat limited policy space. So to avoid a cacophony of voices, we have to organize ourselves into discrete bodies of civil society groups around themes, causes, regions, even linguistic groups.
And we have to have shared positions and documents and statements that are delivered to governments. This involves a certain amount of negotiation and jockeying for position among each other. Often this results in a listing of issues brought by various groups, which other groups might not 100% support, but don’t have a strong desire to oppose since it might mean that their own issues are not included in the listing. Those with more powers of persuasion or bullying or clout can get their positions reflected more than those without these abilities.
Once civil society positions are developed and presented, they interact with the official inter-governmental process in unpredictable ways. They may support certain government positions, or inject new positions that no governments’ maintain. They may call into question the entire exercise. Often they are heard, recorded, and then ignored.
It is at both levels of the Game — inter-civil society and CS-governmental — that we have to be carefully attuned and organized. What is important to note is that what may enable us to achieve “success” at one level might not translate to a successful outcome at the another level. That is, we might have overwhelming endorsement and buy-in to a shared civil society position among ourselves that is totally disregarded by governments. Conversely, we might have less unity and agreement among our positions, but still achieve significant policy objectives in the governmental negotiations if some sub-groups of civil society are able to develop effective texts and lobbying strategies.
At the end of the day, we have to have as much common agreement and consensus as possible, with as wide a participation and consultation as we can muster, without so diluting and difusing our diverse voices that we have no effect on the official process at all. It’s a tall tall order.