Interview with Ayesha Hassan, leader of the business sector at WSIS
By Maud Hand
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND, 01 April 2005
When Ayesha Hassan contributed to the Open Consultations on Internet Governance in the run up to WSIS, it was clear that the business sector’s concerns were in competent hands. This stylishly suited lawyer, a Senior Policy Manager on ICT for the International Chamber of Commerce, leads the CCBI – the Co-ordinating Committee of Business Interlocutors at the conference. Maud Hand hears how this business interlocutor stays in command of her committee during PrepCom 2.
Describing herself as a mixed up global woman, Ayesha Hassan, a first generation American, born to an Indian mother and Pakistani father living in Paris, feels suitably placed in her position:
My world-wide links enable me to connect with our members which is made up of businesses of all sizes and sectors from over 120 countries. ICC has a special relationship with the UN, having previously co-ordinated several summits including Johannesburg and Monterrey. So it was apt that we’d manage the business group’s involvement both at a substantive level as well as being present at preparatory meetings right up to the Tunis summit.
How do you organise this very diverse group?
In preparing our written contributions we worked online via an email list co-ordinated by me and the ICC secretariat. We have a monthly teleconference and whenever relevant, we include WSIS on the agenda of other over-lapping meetings where substantive issues are discussed.
During PrepCom 2 we run a daily morning meeting to co-ordinate our views and interventions. As our actual group is small on the ground, we do a lot of work informally during the breaks.
What drew you to WSIS in first instance?
It’s part of my responsibilities at ICC generally but personally it’s been interesting. It’s finally taking key ICT policies and initiatives to a global level for consideration by all the actors who need to be together to accomplish our objectives at national, regional and international level.
And what’s really exciting is that this process, to which I’ve devoted the last three years of my life, has enabled me to network with government and civil society for the first time.
So who are the actors on the business stage?
We’re engaging businesses from IT associations to lawyers who have clients at regional and national level, large telecommunications and IT-oriented companies as well as major users in to this process.
Our biggest challenge is that the cost benefit analysis doesn’t justify our member businesses investing the time and personnel to be physically present for two weeks. Instead there’s lots of engagement online to build our propositions and a great reliance from enterprises on their association membership. From Argentina to India, CCBI ensures our associates’ business priorities are well represented.
It must be tricky balancing the agendas of the different players within your group – isn’t there a conflict of interest between those smaller companies for instance who favour the freedom of open source software and bigger businesses profiting from servicing or selling proprietary software applications? How do you deal with this?
There’s not really a conflict of interest. The position agreed by CCBI regarding free and open source software and proprietary software is that the policy regulatory and legal environments at national level must not favour one or the other. Rather the international business community wants to ensure that the option is left at a national level for consumers of all kinds to make the choice.
ICC’s mission and mandate obliges us to balance the interest of developing and developed countries across all sectors. CCBI is an expanded version of that network. There are certain substantive issues where we simply can’t reach consensus at a high level.
The controversial issues over intellectual property protections are a good example. Positions are very different for a broad range of businesses and it’s just not possible for CCBI to take a stand. The reality is that sometimes we’re tied and have to take a diluted position. You can see it as the glass half empty or the glass half full but we leave it to sector specific communities to articulate their concerns and let the process unfold that way.
What are your personal aspirations for the summit?
Tunis shouldn’t be an end in itself. WSIS has set up an environment that we need to build on beyond November. We must continue to promote an information society at national, regional and international level, so that more and more people and countries can fully utilise information technologies to promote social growth and economic development.
Were you disappointed that the last phase of the WSIS process failed thus far to come to an agreement on finance mechanisms and internet governance?
Having been through this process for the past three years, I think it’s a fairly normal outcome when you’re bringing the diverse actors together. Naturally certain things will rise to the surface as being points of special dynamics which requires special attention. But that’s the point of this process – to bring out the issues that need clarifying. What would be really productive is that all stakeholders would gain a better understanding of the key issues from their perspectives.
How important is the WSIS process for you?
Ah, (uproarious laughter) – that’s a difficult question: Importance has a relative component! How can you say if ‘x’ is more important than ‘y’! The objectives that led to the desire to have a WSIS are very important and the process has provided an opportunity for dialogue between stake holders at an international level. There are many important issues and components.
To what extent will the business world listen to the outcomes of WSIS?
That depends. They’re cautiously optimistic at this point and hopeful of outcomes of WGIG, the Internet Governance Working Group. A lot will be determined in the next 6 months as to how the substantive issues on financing and IG are resolved.
Business is engaged in what they do. And one of the components of what they do is how they evolve their partnerships on important ICT initiatives which is the objective of this whole process. Will they listen? I think that depends upon what they’re being asked. They’re already doing what they feel they ought to be doing.
A major component is the enabling environment. Business would like to see that there are evolutions in legal, regulatory and policy frameworks at national level that allow them to build business, innovation and entrepreneurship that nurture those actions that business entities do.
But will they do it on a level playing field?
Part of the commitment made in the Geneva phase by all governments who’ve signed up is to create an enabling environment which promotes investment, innovation and entrepreneurship. If there are positive developments in the economies of the North and the South, then business will come.
What have you learned personally to date?
It’s been a very rich experience for me on a number of levels. I’ve had the opportunity to gain a better understanding of the varying perspectives from different countries and the participants from civil society groups and international organisations not to mention appreciating more fully the views from the business people I represent.
Most of all it’s deepened my appreciation for the need for dialogue which underscores how critical it is to have all the different players together.
I’ve also a better understanding of the divergences, differences, conflicts and passionately held views by everyone which has enabled me to learn about how those relations and resources can be maximised. It’s been a real privilege.
Do you have faith in diplomatic processes?
That’s a loaded question! I’m cautiously optimistic. The diplomatic process has a role and I hope that it will continue to evolve. The world has changed and if we’re to do what we’ve got to do in this area of ICT, it’s going to take diplomats, politicians, business entities, civil society groups, international organisations, donors and banks. My hope is that we’ll see a diplomatic world that is inclusive of all the players that matter to make what we’re working towards a reality.
Can business be inclusive in that way? If its ultimate purpose is to facilitate economic growth, won’t that exclude the interests of those groups who are not motivated in that way. Where does it leave an developing economy that hasn’t the business sophistication or infrastructures of a developed country?
There’s room for everybody. It’s the push and pull of all of the players that brings balance and is ultimately productive. It’s not necessary to agree on everything or even approach dilemmas and projects from the same view point.
What we need is the willingness to allow the different opinions to be heard and build on what each party brings to the table. I can’t speak about the personal reactions of every business around the world on this point but what I see in this process is a willingness and desire to sit respectfully at the table and address all the issues.