At this WSIS conference in St Petersburg it seems clear to me that “multi-stakeholder partnerships” are very much a foreign notion still. Various Russian participants explained how difficult was to gain entry into the policy-making processes of their own government, whether they be businessmen, activists or ICT experts. Indeed, the Soviet legacy appears to be quite strong. Meanwhile the message that “content is key” was re-affirmed by various participants, which in the end may be UNESCO’s principle responsibility in the post-WSIS process.
The message that “content is just as important as infrastructure in the development of knowledge societies” was an overriding meme of the UNESCO conference “Between the Two Summits” that just finished in St Petersburg. It is a simple but important idea.
The two working groups of the official WSIS process are focusing on internet governance and ICT financing issues, both of which are directed toward the technical and practical aspects of the development of the internet and other ICTs. The Digital Divide is addressed as mostly a matter of getting cell phones and computers into the hands and homes of people everywhere, and getting those devices connected to the larger world.
So much about the pipes, what about the water? In St Petersburg I was surprised to find that the water quality was for poor. In my hotel not only was the water not potable, it was brown and rusty.
What is flowing through the plumbing of the internet? That is really the question that UNESCO should be geared up to address.
The conference divided its work into several important issue areas, including Freedom of Expression, the Preservation of Cultural Knowledge, education, cultural diversity, multi-lingualism, e-business, and multi-stakeholder partnerships. My participation at the conference was mostly focused on the last subject. I was quite torn since all of the other areas were quite interesting to me.
There were about 400 participants from all over the world, with a large participation by Russians and other Russian-speaking countries. The linguistic divide was handled well with simultaneous translation in all of the sessions.
My section on multi-stakeholder partnerships brought together a rich exchange of ideas, information and opinions on the challenges of developing these new kinds of partnerships. As Andrei Mikheyev of the Internet Policy Center of Moscow commented, multi-stakeholder partnerships is a “poorly defined and contentious concept.”
The state-centric nature of Russian society was noted frequently by Russian participants, who observed that the views of business, NGOs and alternative media were often ignored or surpressed by the government. There were clearly many layers of meaning that I was missing, not privy to the cultural, political and historical contexts that many participants were steeped in, not to mention the vagaries of simultaneous interpretation.
Igor Tavgen of UNDP Belarus noted that in their experience ICT projects take time to develop, particularly because of the need to include many stakeholders and to get the design phase right. Their project had a nine year project cycle, which is quite long for a development project. He said that it was necessary for the various partners to commit for a long time if the initiative is to be a success.
Rinalia Abdul Rahim, director of Global Knowledge Partnership, noted that in order for a new partnership to be a success you need a “champion” — an organization willing to make sure that the project is a success and bring aboard all the relevant actors who need to be involved.
Francis Muguet, a scientist / activist from France, presented his proposal for a new UN agency to promote partnerships, which has far-reaching implications for the evolution of the United Nations system and the place of the nation-state in international policy-making.
Ljupco Gjorgjinski, Center for Dialogue and Democracy in Macedonia, presented some creative analogies for the development of multi-stakeholder partnerships, drawing from ideas in physics, cybernetics and communications theory. I confess that most of his ideas went above my head.
Lesley Berezovets of Ukraine explained how the ICT sector and citizens have come together to work with their government on developing ICT policy. Andrey Chuganov described similar projects in Northwest Russia bringing together business, NGOs, scientists, and government authorities on ICT policy there. Veronica Cretu of Moldova presented the results of their efforts at various partnership initiatives related to e-education, noting that the need to get the balance right between business, government, civil society and everyday citizens as a difficult but necessary task.
Wallace Taylor of Australia explained the efforts that Australians have gone through to bring together various sectors around information society issues. He noted that civil society was still a vague concept that lacked a cohesive structure.
Divina Frau-Meigs and myself discussed some of the major challanges facing civil society as it approaches the final phase of the WSIS. I focused on the challenge of developing trust among civil society groups in various ICT partnerships, while Divina presented the broader picture of representation and inclusion of civil society voices in the official process.
The conference closed with a summary of the various recommendations coming out of the 11 sections of the conference. Most were not particularly new ideas, re-affirming basic principles of freedom of expression and media, local languages and content preservation, etc. One noteworthy intervention was from David Bearman of Toronto on the preservation of the world’s cultural knowledge. He noted the importance of the principle “Make Lots of Copies of Stuff Everywhere,” which refers to the strategy of making sure that there are many duplicate archives of material maintained in many countries to ensure their survival, as well as enabling public access to these important works around the world. Another simple but important principle.
The participants in our section on NGO participation were able to agree on a set of concrete recommendations to UNESCO for the Tunis Phase of the WSIS, which were as follows:
RECOMMENDATIONS: NGO Roundtable Session
19 May 2005
The participants in the Roundtable on NGO Role in the Information Society,
Express deep concern about emerging societal threats such as privatization of public goods (i.e education and research), new forms of surveillance, modification of private information, socially-impacting “spam,” and government efforts to threaten NGO independence through legislation and controlled representation.
Reaffirm the need to balance commercial intellectual property rights with rights to access information and the public domain, particularly public information, education and archival material.
Note that civil society and especially NGOs play an important role in balancing the interest of government and the private sector, humanizing the Information Society, serving several functions from watchdog to protester, advocate, policy expert and implementer.
Civil society considers that UNESCO is an enabler and integrator of co-structures between governments and non-government parties. In order for civil society to fully support UNESCO, the organization should:
1. model effective ICT partnerships with civil society and the private sector for other institutions, by demonstrating clear rules of conduct, transparency, human social capital, balanced representation, equal participation, and focused workplans and evaluations.
2. encourage other stakeholders to engage with civil society by initiating partnerships, facilitating support and funding for civil society partication, capacity-building, reaching beyond traditional UNESCO and UN NGO communities.
3. Promote the idea that ICT content issues that matter, including freedom of expression and of the media (online and offline), cultural diversity, capacity-building, and universal access to information, emphasizing the principle of openness, including open source, open standards and open content.
4. Facilitate the sharing of information, analysis and best-practices among civil society networks at the local, regional and national levels.
5. Support a post-WSIS evaluation process through an international independent body to monitor policy development and fund people-centered research. This body would provide an evaluation mechanism that corresponds to criteria established by civil society, particularly the research community, so that civil society is brought into ICT policy from the design phase to implementation.
This UNESCO meeting comes quite late in the WSIS calendar. The St Petersburg conference, and the five or so others that UNESCO has sponsored in the last couple of months, seems to be a somewhat panicked effort to hold meetings on various issues on the WSIS agenda in order to be able to secure some kind of political hold on those areas in the agreement on the WSIS follow-up process.
Civil society groups will have to decide if they endorse UNESCO having some policy oversight over the “content layer” of the Information Society agenda. Coming back from a stimulating gathering in a beautiful city with fascinating individuals from around the world, all made possible by UNESCO, I can only say that right now it seems like a pretty good idea.