The announcement by the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan of the establishment of the process leading to the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) was amidst joy and interest. This is because it was supposed to be a mass participatory process where all the stakeholders can sit at the table from the national to the international forums. The WSIS sounded like a new and real way of achieving democracy – a more participatory process. Most people thought this was unusual within the UN system because for once the Private Sector, Civil Society, Academia and Research were going to engage with governments on a UN platform. WSIS was ignited by the growth and agitation of the Second Superpower. In essence the WSIS is an attempt to strengthen and formalize the Second Superpower.
Jim Moore in “The Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head ” clearly gives us the picture of an emerging global community of highly democratic participation by grassroot actors of the mind. This is a collection of individual minds, expressing and sharing ideas, in a “bottom-up” process and supporting international law and institutions, such as the UN whose existence is threatened by the first Superpower. These minds have mediums of expression that hitherto were not available and so cannot be shut – freedom of expression is the key.
Kofi Annan and his UN allies envisioned a process of global participation that would give the world a common agenda. Under a declaration and with a plan of action he wanted to create a world of freedom and peace. They also wanted to create a world free from poverty using Information Communication Technologies (ICT’s) as the driver. The establishment of the World Summit on Information Society is the framework within which the larger Information Society would be mastered with the marginalized as active participants. Consequently, there are numerous initiatives to use ICT to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MGDs) giving rise to the debates and processes of ICTs for Development (ICT4D).
The sensitization and development of ICT led accelerated socio-economic development policies, plans, and implementation of programs in developing countries is a precursor for the ultimate objectives, which are being fed into the WSIS process. All over the world civil actors are advocating for more inclusion not only in the WSIS processes, but also in the UN system as a whole.
The WSIS started with an attempt to engage all stakeholders: government, civil society, academia and research, and the private sector. However, two years down the line with a month until phase 1 of the Summit, it is clear that not all the stakeholders have been active. Governments have been at the forefront pushing their own agenda in the name of constituents in their countries. They have not engaged actively enough with the other stakeholders. Even if they have, why should a government present the views of other active stakeholders in a process that is supposed to be multi-participatory?
The process of participation is only clear to the governments who know the UN System, but not to the other stakeholders like civil society, academia and research, and the private sector that all have various mechanisms they use to engage. However, the UN was too sure of its system not failing thus ignored the cautions which are now becoming a reality. The UN acted like the first Superpower Whom Jim Moore describes - “with a formal deliberation mechanism dictated by the US constitution and years of legislation, adjudication and precedence”.
For many countries, not only in Africa, there are local WSIS committees. These committees are not widely publicized, and meet often without all the stakeholders. However, these committees attend all the preparatory meetings of the WSIS to make representations on behalf of all the stakeholders. This is undemocratic and a capture - not the true spirit in which the committees were formed. Democratic processes and engagements are the pillars to a successful WSIS. If that process cannot be felt at national, regional, and global level then there is a real challenge which must be addressed by the UN.
There have been deliberate efforts to kick Open Source submissions by Africa out of the declaration, because it is seen as a threat to the proprietary power players who are supposed to be sponsoring these activities. The WSIS process is somehow based on the Open Source philosophy of more inclusion and freedom. We can only give Open Source an opportunity to become successful by creating a level playing field for it to compete with proprietary software.
One of the biggest failures of phase 1 of WSIS is its inability to accept and assimilate other positions that are presented, and to work through those different points of view. It is important that a process like WSIS be able to accept all positions and develop channels for massive engagement. In doing so, consensus should be used to reach conclusions to which all parties may be amenable. Some points of view are currently being ignored and that is not a healthy thing to do for what could, and should be a global participatory partnership.
Civil Society has been pushing very hard to be involved with WSIS, but they are continuously ignored, and have literally been escorted out of some of the preparatory meetings where they had at other times been allowed to engage as observers. Civil Society’s attempts to be the most active in engaging WSIS is a signal that the Second Superpower is very real and lives to make an impact which cannot be ignored. Research and Academia is pretending it does not know what is going on with WSIS, because intellectuals are self-sufficient and may not be dictated to because their knowledge is their power and they are the brains of society.
As it stands now WSIS is more like a gathering to produce a document. It has proven to be a scheme by the UN to spend money to bring governments together on the contributions of the tax payer’s money. Not to strengthen access and create a participatory process. For example, the phase 1 to 2 of WSIS has a budget of about $12 million, not to talk of the several millions of dollars which has being spent in the preparatory meetings, regional meetings and other unexpected engagements like the Paris intercessional meeting.
The Private Sector is busy trying to survive the dot com crash which has resulted in the sudden collapse of telecoms and ICT financial markets. One CEO puts it this way, “We are supposed to be the leaders setting the pace for global development, but now everything is crashing. So we cannot legitimize a process that is so far not participatory like WSIS. As far as we are concerned WSIS is not going anywhere because we are supposed to lead in the implementation”. As a result the only output of WSIS may be more rhetoric and fancy production of documents for the shelf.
Come December airlines, hotels, and entertainment facilities in Geneva will raise prices again, and make money because the world would be coming there to have another party while in other parts of the world (like Iraq) war would be raging. Proving once again that the development of this informational society is NOT inclusive – so far not so good with phase 1 of WSIS.
On the other hand, phase 2 of WSIS has the potential to be an Information Society development process. It has the opportunity to empower people to participate in a process which they would own. The Second Superpower is about empowering people through intellectual engagements which have mass participation. The philosophy of empowering from the bottom up which would in turn give people ownership in the processes of decision-making, is key.
Tomorrow can be another day as we journey to Tunisia in Africa for the final countdown to phase 2 of WSIS in 2005. Will it be a party or a process of participation? I hope not the former. WSIS phase 2 can become the savior if the UN and other ally organizations like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) who are hosting the event do not remote control this process, but rather empower people to participate at all levels. Jim clearly argues that the first Superpower has turned into a monster, and is fighting against all efforts even to the extent of dismissing the legitimacy of the United Nations by going to war in Iraq, and choosing to create bilateral alliances within this world body.
If the UN cannot come through with WSIS which would save it through a formal process for the empowering of the Second Superpower then tomorrow spells real doom not only for the UN, but for the first Superpower also. Doom, because the Second Superpower can potentially manifest itself in another form which according to Jim we may not as yet know. What we do know is that the Second Superpower cannot be crushed because it is a self organizing, highly democratic participatory organization formed at the grassroots level. It’s roots have taken hold and reached down to a very deep level so that it cannot be rundown as it grows up.
There should be a vigorous effort from the UN system to bring in and include Civil Society, Private Sector, as well as Academia and Research. They all need to be elevated to the same level as governments at the WSIS party table. This is admittedly, an unusual task for the United Nations; however that is what it set out to do when WSIS was announced. The success of WSIS is essential to mitigating efforts by the first Superpower to illegitimize the UN System.
Participation in the WSIS process should be from the grassroots level even to the extent of including those who do not have travel resources to Tunisia. They can participate by using technology like Weblogs, discussion forums, radio, instant messaging, television, correspondence, e-mail, and listservs thus helping everyone feel ownership in the processes. These same vehicles used by the Second Superpower are the ultimate channels for more inclusion in WSIS phase 2. The UN also has the opportunity to empower the most remote parts of the world to have access and be a part of the global information society.
At the national levels where everything begins there should be chat forums, discussion lists, physical hangouts, radio and TV conversations etc to engage remote representation of Civil Society, Private Sector, Research, Academia, and Government. There should be public policy support for inclusion and engagement in the process. At the end of the day there may be divisions and standoffs, but consensus can be the outlet for a national voice – that would be a function of the people’s processes and participation. This is what was missing in phase 1 of WSIS. The regional engagements in WSIS phase 1 were not satisfactory, because of the adhoc nature and lack of transparency. If the national process is very fruitful it would feed transparency and clarity into a sub-regional engagement before the regional meetings kick off.
WSIS phase 2 would then see the presentation of a collective voice from all the regions of the world, which is a representation of the various stakeholders from the lowest level allowing them to have the mark of ownership. Ownership would be the spirit for the implementation of the Plan of Action of WSIS 2. This could be the force that would knock out the first Superpower who is trying to run down the UN system, and perhaps capture global developments. After all, tomorrow is another day.