Interview with David Souter: Learning from the WSIS Experience
By Kat Walraven for APCNews
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA, 12 September 2007
APCNews interview with David Souter, author of ‘Whose Summit? Whose Information Society? Developing countries and civil society at the World Summit on the Information Society’
APCNews: What issues were on the agenda at WSIS, the World Summit on the Information Society?
David Souter: In one sense, everything. The concept of the "information society" is both vague and all-embracing. Different participants meant different things by it. In practice, though, WSIS only dealt with a small number of issues: ICTs and human rights (to some extent), ICTs and development (to some extent), infrastructure finance and Internet governance. Very large aspects of what might have been included in the "information society" were not really discussed.
APCNews: Why might summits not be the most appropriate forum for addressing ICT issues?
DS: Summits are meant to help governments reach a global consensus on major issues which has proved elusive in established fora. They do so through the embarrassment associated with failing to sign a summit’s final agreement. Texts are therefore diplomatic compromises. Also, summits are best at dealing with problems, where the need for action is urgent and the range of possible actions limited. They are less good at dealing with opportunities.
Kofi Annan described WSIS as the first summit to deal primarily with an opportunity. The range of issues and potential opportunities that might be included in the Information Society is enormous. Compromise texts are very poor at addressing these in any meaningful way, and many governments see little point in trying. The substantive decisions will always be taken in more technical fora, like ITU, WTO, ICANN, and so on.
APCNews: How did WSIS differ from the standard world summit model?
DS: First, it was organised in two phases – ostensibly to separate "principles" from "implementation"; in truth because the UN system failed to choose between two willing hosts – Geneva, Switzerland and Tunisia. Secondly, it was organised by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a technical agency, rather than the UN centrally. There was therefore an underlying dichotomy between technocratic approaches to which the ITU was accustomed, and development approaches more familiar to agencies like UNESCO and UNDP.
APCNews: What were the implications of the ITU being the summit’s main organiser?
DS: It set the tone for participation and therefore for discussion. The fact that the ITU played the lead role meant that invitations went to ministries responsible for telecoms, contributing to a narrowness of participation in national delegations. If other agencies had led, participation would probably have been more diverse.
APCNews: What benefits and drawbacks did the two-phase structure have on developing country and civil society engagement?
DS: I don’t think that developing countries gained from a two-stage process. A single phase summit (which is, after all, a two year process, not a three day event) would have built awareness, and would probably have led to more substantive conclusions at the end of the first summit meeting. Civil society may have gained a bit more from the networking experience, but it was less effective at networking in the second phase. The main drawback, of course, was cost. Participating effectively in WSIS was very expensive for both developing countries and (especially) civil society.
APCNews: Has developing country and civil society participation in WSIS had a lasting impact on permanent international decision-making processes?
DS: Not in general. The difficulties which developing countries face in representing their interests effectively in mainstream international decision-making bodies like the ITU and WTO remain substantial. These were detailed in the Louder Voices report of the DOT Force in 2002 and remain pretty much unchanged.
Civil society, too, has limited capacity to engage with these institutions, especially where financial resources and technical expertise are concerned. The only area where there is some change is perhaps the internet. The only real change here is the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) – really valuable and innovative as a forum for discussion, but not a decision-making body. It would be hard to say that there have been many other significant changes in internet decision-making processes resulting from WSIS.
APCNews: Your research reveals that WSIS succeeded in heightening developing country government’s interest in information and communications for development (ICD) but had little to negative impact on the interest of donors. Can you explain why WSIS seems to have contributed to a decline in bilateral, and perhaps also multilateral, donors’ ICD enthusiasm?
DS: In some developing countries, there was definitely increased interest in ICD resulting from WSIS, in the government circles that participated and (where it was engaged in the process) also in civil society. However, WSIS did not do much to advance thinking about ICD. That was happening in and through different fora.
All summits create a kind of issue weariness, and WSIS probably generated more of this because it lasted for two phases and four years (rather than one and two). Other development issues have risen up during the time that WSIS was unfolding – particularly environmental defence and climate change. Development agency interest moves towards the issues of highest apparent priority at any given time, and it was hard to maintain the same level of attention to ICD at a senior level for four years.
WSIS also missed the opportunity to bring together ICT and development in a single discourse on what might be done, so it did not move forward a consensus on ICD. As a result, while WSIS declared the fundamental importance of ICD in Geneva and Tunis, it was barely mentioned at the summit where the development community was focusing its attention – the UN’s 2005 Millennium Review Summit.
APCNews: WSIS was a one-off event, never to be repeated. Why, in the post-WSIS period, is it important to explore and analyse developing country and civil society participation and influence in the Summit?
DS: We can learn a good deal from WSIS about what is likely to make participation in summits and equivalent meetings more diverse, and where the challenges lie to this. We can learn a good deal, too, about the relative value of summits and other fora (sectoral, regional, issue-specific, etc.). Also, there were important developments in the relationships within and between stakeholder groups, which could develop further.
APCNews: What lessons can developing countries take from the WSIS experience?
DS: I think the answer is very different in different countries. It does seem to me, though, that the countries that gained most from WSIS are those that saw it as an opportunity to engage in more diverse discussion about the issues internally and to seek to raise the quality of debate (both in terms of information and understanding).
I rather feel that WSIS showed two things, if only by default. First, that it is important to develop a common understanding of the potential of ICTs in development between the development community and the ICT community. This requires that both listen to one another’s priorities and issues. Second, that it is important to develop a much better evidence base concerning experience with ICTs in development. WSIS did neither of these, but it demonstrated their importance. Effective use of ICD is unlikely to occur without them being addressed much more effectively.
APCNews: And civil society?
DS: Both of those points also apply to civil society. I think it’s really important for civil society organisations concerned with ICD to engage more with mainstream development organisations within their countries – not in an attempt to "convert" them to the merits of ICTs but in search of a common understanding that enables them to work effectively together. I think CSOs that participated in WSIS have learned a lot of valuable lessons about networking. They ought, though, to undertake a cost-benefit assessment of what their participation brought to them. Much of this will be very specific to individual organisations.
APCNews: What does the future hold for ICD? Do you think it is still a relevant concept or approach, or has it outlived its novelty value?
DS: The fact that it had "novelty value" was actually a major problem, in my view. Much that was written about ICTs in development in the late 1990s and early years of this century was very superficial – focused in particular on what ICTs might be able to achieve in ideal circumstances rather than in real development contexts. The lack of a substantial evidence base has also been a big problem. So shedding novelty value is essential to enabling ICTs to establish their place within the range of future development activity.
An example of this is the importance of relating ICTs to existing communications behaviour. People use radios, telephones and computers very differently. There has been too much focus on the unity of ICTs, and not enough on their diversity. But the key point is building a common understanding between ICT and development professionals which enables the potential of ICTs to be explored in context more effectively. It is important to look critically for where value lies and how it can be maximised, which is a development policy question at least as much as one rooted in technology.