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Enabling civil society participation in global policy-making: The APC and the United Nations

By Rory O’Brien

Policy formulation is no longer solely a prerogative of national governments and intergovernmental organisations – the new information and communications technologies (ICTs) allow grassroots groups from around the world to contribute to the policy processes. Since its founding in 1990, the APC has worked closely with the United Nations to assist civil society organisations to participate in global policy-making through the use of ICTs.

In 1990, after the World Summit for Children in New York, the United Nations (UN) Children’s Fund created the online discussion forum carried by APC networks to solicit follow-up commentary from non governmental organisations (NGOs). That same year the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (NGLS) began to use APC networks to electronically disseminate their quarterly publication NGLS News .

1990 was also important as the start of the UN-APC collaboration leading up to the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, but more popularly known as the “Earth Summit”) to be held in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. The summit was a seminal occasion, being the first time that NGOs were invited to officially address the multinational assembly. It was also one of the largest gatherings of NGOs in history, with 20,000 people taking part in the NGO Forum, an alternative summit to the UN meeting, taking place at the same time in another part of Rio. APC’s involvement in the Earth Summit created a model of facilitation that was used enthusiastically by huge numbers of NGOs in subsequent summits.

Prior to UN summits, the UN used APC computer ‘conferences’ (a term used to refer to online APC discussion forums) to post and disseminate online official documents concerning national policies, as well as information on the logistics and agenda of the summit. NGOs used conferencing as a way to keep each other informed on related issues, and to discuss strategy for promoting their own policy platforms. Following each summit, the conferences were used as a repository of the final policy documents. APC also provided computer communications facilities and user support at several summit Preparatory Committee meetings, held in various places around the globe. The UN system uses these “PrepComs” (pre-summit meetings held on a regional basis) to enable consultative preparation for the main event.

During the Earth Summit, a great deal of work was done by Alternex, APC’s Brazilian member, to create on-site technical facilities at both the UN Summit and NGO Forum. After securing funding, Alternex set up local area networks in each locale that were connected not only to other APC systems but also to the dozens of public and private email networks then in existence, allowing seamless and low-cost transmission of messages by the summit attendees. Dozens of computers and printers were set up for purposes of document preparation as well as communications, with a large team of APC staff and volunteers providing training and support services. All of this was provided free of charge to anyone wishing to use the equipment.

“In Rio, each day two or three features in English and Spanish were sent out on APC via email and fax to 47 NGOs and media outlets in 19 countries,” recalled Patrick McCully, editor of NGOnet and co-editor at Ecologist Magazine. “The press releases and other news items posted onto the APC conferences allowed the NGOnet editorial team to keep up to date with the reaction of NGOs and the media around the world to the events taking place at UNCED. Without APC the logistics of this would have been almost impossible and the cost certainly unaffordable” . The features posted onto APC conferences were accessed to APC users around the world and were picked up and reprinted in NGO newsletters and magazines in the US, UK, Netherlands, Mexico, Uruguay, Australia and Malaysia to mention several.

In 1993, in the aftermath of the Earth Summit, APC assisted the meeting of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. At that time, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) undertook to build a number of local online systems as part of the Sustainable Development Network (SDN). With significant input from APC in the planning stages of the deployment, SDN eventually located some sites under the auspices of APC members and partners, including Colnodo in Colombia and AngoNet in Angola.

The United Nations Conference on Human Rights (UNCHR) was held in 1993 in Vienna, Austria. As with the Earth Summit, APC continued to work closely with the UN and NGO communities to ensure optimal collaboration. ComLink, Germany’s APC network, took charge of the technical service provision at the conference. Ibrahim Fall, the Secretary-General of the World Conference on Human Rights personally expressed his appreciation for the outstanding contribution the APC made towards the success of the World Conference on Human Rights. The electronic distribution of documentation during the preparatory process and the Conference itself enabled the widest possible access to information for the benefit of all participants and especially for grass-roots NGO’s, Fall said. He added that he had found the workshops and briefings organised by the APC on information technology to be extremely useful for all NGOs.

In 1994, Chasque in Uruguay assumed the responsibility for APC service provision at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt. The 1995 World Summit on Social Development (WSSD), which took place in Copenhagen, Denmark, saw the APC member in Sweden, NordNet, take the lead on this initiative, working together with local communications activists. In Denmark, for the first time, a Web browser with access to the APC’s WSSD Website was available to users. Graphical interfaces had arrived and they were well received by users.

Later that year, the APC member in Ecuador, INTERCOM, acquired funding to support the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. The APC presence in Beijing was noteworthy for more than the unique services it provided. APC provided a forty-member team comprised of APC representatives from 25 countries, all women, many of them from the South. This was purposely done to send a powerful message to the world – there was no innate barrier to women using computer technology.

APC did not provide on-site services at the 1996 UN Conference on Human Settlements in Istanbul. However, it did provide online forums for information exchange among NGOs preparing to attend, and conducted workshops. This basic facilitation level support was also provided by APC at other less well-attended UN conferences, such as the International Conference on Water and the Environment (1992), the International Sustainable Agriculture Conference (1993), the World Conference on Small Island Developing States (1994), and the first Conference of the Parties (COP1) of the UN Climate Change Convention in 1995.

In 1997, the APC partnered with the UNDP and other international organisations to organise the Global Knowledge (GK) conference in Toronto. A Website and email lists were set up and facilitated by Web Networks in Canada, bringing together hundreds of NGOs using ICTs for international development. In 2000, APC was involved in facilitating the Access Track at GKII in Kuala Lumpur, again working with UN agencies on ICT issues.

More recently, in June 2000, the APC and its partners in the Women’s Networking Support Programme (APC WNSP) were effective in bringing the NGO perspective to the Beijing+5 forum. Beijing+5 was the first five-year review of the progress made by governments who signed the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action at the 1995 UN World Conference on Women. Out of the process emerged WomenAction 2000, a world-wide network of members, led by the APC WNSP and the International Women’s Tribune Centre. With funding from WomenWatch, a joint initiative of the UN Division for the Advancement of Women, the United Nations Development Fund for Women and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, WomenAction sent a team to the UN’s 44th Commission on the Status of Women, setting up an Internet café, posting information on a daily basis, and lobbying UN delegates and other NGOs on the Women and Media section of the Beijing Platform for Action.

WomenAction and WomenWatch jointly conducted an online consultation with the 1000 members of the Women and Media Working Group, resulting in a strongly worded NGO declaration presented at the Beijing+5 forum in New York in June 2000. Such lobbying has always been an important adjunct to APC’s service provision. In part as a result of APC advocacy, many of the official summit declarations included sections promoting ICT as a means of enhancing NGO participation in global policy-making.

Though leadership of many of the activities mentioned above has been attributed to specific APC networks, it must be stressed that in all these endeavours, APC has acted as a team, with contributions of time, energy and funding from not only APC members, but its partner networks as well. The efforts of the generally less-resourced partners, most of whom were located in poorer countries, were invaluable in connecting grassroots organisations in developing nations to the UN-driven policy process. Until the recent expansion of the commercial Internet, many of these networks provided the only means to involve local NGO communities.

In closing we might ask just how effective has the collaboration between APC and the UN been in helping NGOs to use online communications? According to Janos Pasztor, the Information Systems Coordinator at the UNCED Secretariat, “Without this communication channel [of APC networks], the involvement of non-governmental organisations in the official UNCED process, as well as in the various parallel processes simply could not have been as effective as it was.” And if we look at the global campaigns waged by civil society today on behalf of the Zapatistas in Mexico, or by the anti-globalisation opponents of the World Bank and World Trade Organisation, or by the activists spearheading the Landmine Ban Treaty, the collaboration first sparked by APC seems to have been very effective indeed.

References

1 Later NGLS would continue helping NGOs around the world get online by co-publishing the influential “@t Ease with Email”, with input from staff from APC members – GreenNet, SANGONeT, and Pegasus – and partners – Pactok, Indialink, and Email Centre in the Philippines.
2 APC Secretariat, ‘APC at the Earth Summit: Statements from the Users’, 1997. Available: http://www.sovereignty.net/p/ngo/igc/summit.html (Accessed 31/7/2001)
3 Letter archived in the newsgroup, 05 Jan 94 14:30 EST
4 APC Secretariat, ‘APC at the Earth Summit: Statements from the Users’, 1997. Available: http://www.sovereignty.net/p/ngo/igc/summit.html (Accessed 31/7/2001)

About the author

Rory O’Brien was a founding member of Web Networks, itself a founding member network of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). He and other Web Networks’ staff were primarily involved in the Earth Summit in 1992, the World Summit on Social Development in 1995, and the World Conference on Women, also in 1995. He is currently doing Ph.D. research on the relationships among key facilitators of online communications for the United Nations Summits in the early 1990s.

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