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By: Brian Martin Murphy

This paper tells in detail a little known story from the annals of computer networking history. In the early 1980s a small group of international non–governmental aid giving organizations developed their own network using available technologies to empower groups that worked for social and economic justice. Interdoc had member institutions from four continents… The network was used to inform and empower worker organizations, link grassroots activists, facilitate community–based research and education, bridge international political fault lines, collect and circulate human rights data, and disseminate information on sustainable development. Interdoc and its members were a precursor to, and helped facilitate the founding of the Association for Progressive Communications which grew to be the world’s largest computer networking institution serving non–governmental organizations dedicated to human rights, social, economic and environmental justice, and political change during the 1990s. Published by: First Monday, volume 10, number 5 (May 2005),


The Valletri Agreement turned twenty in 2004. In 1984 a few international non–governmental organizations from four continents agreed to make a computer network. Their aim was to exchange information for social justice activism. It was a first of its kind. It set the stage for future networking institutions that would assist activists. It has yet to be explored in the chronicles of Internet history.

There is now a rich literature on Internet history. It ranges from broad chronologies (Moschovitis, et al., 1999) to detailed case studies (Hauben and Hauben, 1997). There is also a sub–literature on computer networking by, and for, non–governmental organizations and social justice groups pursuing international activism (Murphy, 1994, 2000, 2002; Ford and Gil, 2001; Warkentin, 2001; Smith, 2001; Martinez–Torres, 2001; Ribeiro, 1998; Castells, 1997; Frederick 1992, 1993). Interdoc does not figure in most of these accounts, even though it pre–dated and contributed to almost all the histories told in the sub–literature.

This paper tells the story of Interdoc: why it was created, its aims and structure, and how it contributed to computer networking for international social justice activism.

Why: International non–governmental organizations and the Valletri Agreement

The Organization for Economic Co–operation and Development (OECD) defines an international non–governmental organization (INGO) as, “an organisation established and governed by a group of private citizens for a stated philanthropic purpose, and supported by voluntary individual contributions” [1].

The INGO sphere spreads across many political, economic and social perspectives. The history of the sector stretches as far back as the 1500s (Ghils, 1992). The focus of this paper is on the sub–sector of small INGOs that arose after the 1940s.

They were created mostly in the northern hemisphere. They raised money from private citizens and delivered aid to the poor, mostly in the southern hemisphere. During the 1970s they experienced a change of perspective.

They saw that the poor were not any better off. The small INGOs took another approach: empower grassroots groups in “the south” and act as their partners and advocates in the struggle to reform the global social and economic system (Poulton and Harris, 1988). The new approach made developing information and communication capacities essential (Broadhead and Herbert–Copley, 1988).

As part of their new strategy the small INGOs created an institution to build up NGOs in the south and campaign on an international level. It was called the International Coalition for Development Action (ICDA), and was based in Belgium.

The chairperson position at ICDA rotated between nation member organizations. In 1980–1981 the chair position was held by Canada and its representative from the Canadian Council for International Cooperation. That person was Chris Pinney.

Pinney conducted an informal survey of member groups. He found that the NGOs from “the south” were intent on getting better information and communication resources. In 1982 he linked up with a United Nations–sponsored data management NGO, called IDOC. They sponsored a conference for ICDA members on the possibilities of international computer networking.

The conference was held at a town outside Rome, Italy: Valletri. The representatives came from just ten NGOs but they featured a cross–section of information activists from North America (Canada), Scandinavia, Latin America, Western Europe, Africa and Asia. Pinney transcribed the deliberations on a Tandy 100 portable computer. The result was an international NGO undertaking to spend two years sharing experiments in the use of databases and computer communications between north and south.

The Ottawa–based International Development Research Centre (IDRC) provided funds for the experiment. By October 1984 Pinney and his cohorts were back in Valletri evaluating the results of the project. The southern NGOs had managed to install, use and experiment with computer communications, demonstrating that it might be possible to share databases, e–mail, and conferences using international telecommunications in ways that did not compromise any of their critical/advocacy agendas (Pinney, 1997).

During a week of meetings, between 2–7 October, the attendees agreed to set up a global network for INGO computer communications. They named the new initiative “Interdoc.” The document itself has hitherto been in a private archive. For the public record, the complete text has been attached as Appendix I.

Signatories to the Valletri Agreement included IDOC alongside Instituto Brasileiro de Análises Sociais e Economicas (IBASE — Brazil), International Coalition for Development Action (ICDA — Belgium), Conseil pour le Developpement de la Recherché en Science Sociales en Afrique (CODESRIA — Senegal), Asia Monitor Research Centre (AMRC — Hong Kong), Antenna (Netherlands), SATIS (Netherlands, based NGO database development organisation servicing 100 grassroots technology groups), Human Rights Information and Documentation Systems (HURIDOCS — Norway), Instituto Latinamericano de Estudios Transnationales (ILET — Chile), Centreo des Estudios y Promotion del Desarrollo (Peru), and the International Development Education Research Agency (IDERA — Canada).

Formation and structure

The Valettri Agreement reads like a manifesto for international social justice activist communication:
“The well being of an individual and a community depends on their access to and ability to apply information. Information is thus central in the development process in all societies … Recent rapid developments in new information technology have opened up new possibilities for NGOs to communicate and share information … such a global network only has a valid role to play in development if it is created by, linked to and at the service of local activities … It must be stressed that the management of information is not a goal in itself, but is simply an essential element in action for concrete and sustainable results and improvements in people’s lives. Information management and related practices of networking must be geared to the mobilisation of information, not its immobilisation.”

Five years after its inception, in 1989, Interdoc had a technical advisory committee and a secretariat. The online centerpiece of Interdoc was an e–mail and bulletin board conferencing facility.

For example, the Dutch member (Antenna) made arrangements with GeoNet, a commercial electronic mail service based in Germany, to act as a server for conferencing and document exchange. The network started with 75 institutional members using the system. By 1985 the “for–profit” GeoNet system had expanded, providing access points in most Western European countries and the U.S.

A group of NGO volunteers formed Poptel in London under the aegis of GeoNet to serve non–for–profit entities. By the end of the decade, Poptel/GeoNet was handling 600 NGO institutional users from 45 countries. Users received electronic mail services and access to online databases in Europe and North America. Documentation centers and alternative journalism/publishing entities also used the Poptel.

The network was structured in three linked “circles.” The core or first circle of communication was the Poptel/GeoNet network, based in the U.K., with more than 600 individuals and institutional users. The second or middle circle was made up by 25 critical/advocacy NGOs around the world connecting their networks or bulletin board services to Poptel/GeoNet. These institutions also experimented with Fidonet and other communication options. The third circle was made up of the local and regional institutional partners, individual clients and community groups served by the second/middle circle.

The middle circle NGOs trained the third circle in electronic systems use. Many in the middle circle also specialized in strategic information research for third circle entities.

Although the technical “hub” of this loose three–circle Interdoc network was Poptel/GeoNet, the system was held together by the middle or second circle groups that serviced third circle users while maintaining international communication links to Poptel/GeoNet. The total number of users was between four and five thousand. Most were in North America and Western Europe. The 25 middle circle NGOs were distributed as follows:

  • Western Europe: 8 (based in Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden, U.K.);
  • North America: 4 (U.S. 3, Canada, 1);
  • Central/South America: 6 (Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Nicaragua, Peru, Uruguay);
  • Africa: 3 (Kenya, Republic of South Africa, Zimbabwe);
  • Australia–Asia: 4 (Australia, Hong Kong, Philippines, Thailand). (Lane, 1990).


During 1989 computer enthusiast and activist Graham Lane prepared a guide and users’ manual for the network. The research was subsequently published by the London–based Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR). The monograph was titled Communication for progress: A guide to international e–mail. It was part manifesto, part manual, and part catalogue of activism.

Portions of the document offer a window on the state of international non–governmental computer networking at the end of the 1980s. It shows that there was a self–aware institutional force around the concept of using computer networks for international social justice action that would soon funnel into the Internet.

More than half the document is taken up with technical matters. More interesting is the section where the ideals and self–criticism for networking were summarized.

The summary was made in a forward to the manual written by Michael Polman, the Director of Antenna (Netherlands) and the Interdoc facilitator. Polman provided the technical and organizing services for Interdoc during the late 1980s. He operated an online bulletin board service for Dutch NGOs. He also travelled throughout Africa, Latin America and Asia conducting seminars teaching critical/advocacy NGOs how to get online.

Polman’s forward first explains the “fit” between NGOs doing social justice and networking:

“Most NGOs trade in information for social change. Some focus on collecting information, some on analysing it and others on its dissemination. NGOs have become independent intelligence centres specialising either in a region or a specific topic…”

Networking fits the nature of NGOs like a glove. It supports the informal non–hierarchical exchange of information, it helps lateral communications and decentralised cooperation … The introduction of cheap and immediate international communication based on linking microcomputers with the global; data communications network has therefore greatly encouraged the development of NGO networks …

Functioning more and more as well–informed platforms and interest groups, NGOs can now overcome the rivalry amongst them that marked the early 1980s … The technology of computer networking has given grassroots organisations access to virtually all sources of information. It has enabled NGOs to monitor the inevitable internationalisation of their economies and decision–making. Gradually the international NGO community is creating its own global ideologies, responding to the activities of intergovernmental institutions and transnational corporations in the fields of the environment, employment, food, health and education …

Electronic networking is enabling the grassroots to participate in the solving of global problems and, in the process, the cultural and ideological divides between North and South, East and West, are slowly being bridged.” [2]

Polman also stated Interdoc’s worries about the structure and content of the technologies, the forms of institutionalisation, and the race and gender gap:

1. Symbols replace emotional statements and the elaboration of any issue … is avoided to save money and time … Having no mailbox becomes as insolating as having no postal address. A divide is created within and between some NGOs where networking was once seen as bringing people together.
2. Another danger for NGOs participating in international networks is that of maintaining contact with their constituencies: the grassroots organisation.
3. Traditional relationships between partner organisations are changing in many respects. Funding agencies are being overwhelmed by requests from NGOs and are finding it difficult to cope with so much new information and its internal distribution. Their allocation of funds benefits those NGOs that are ‘on–line’, as the process of accepting projects for funding can now be dealt with in days or weeks rather than months.
4. In some cases implementation of electronic networking seems to have created very ‘pale and male’ dominated networks, be it in the North or the South. There is a distinct lack of participation by women and Third World indigenous communities. [3]

Interdoc and international social justice activism

The catalogue offered profiles of some social justice NGOs from around the world who had been using Interdoc in the 1980s. Their self–descriptions are important. They confirm that using computer networks for social change was running in parallel to the more well–known histories of public and commercial applications of the technology during the same period.

Asia Monitor Resources Centre (AMRC), based in Hong Kong, focused on labor issues in South, East and Southeast Asia. Its aim was to provide strategically useful information to workers’ organizations within the target region. Of particular interest was linking grassroots worker groups between regions in terms of shared adversaries. AMRC reported using the conferences and e–mail established on Poptel/GeoNet for Interdoc to facilitate linkages to participate in bulletin boards and message exchange, and requests for information from activists.

The Instituto Brasileiro de Análises Soscias e Economicas (IBASE), of Sao Paulo, Brazil, had been created in 1981 as an NGO collecting together journalists and information scientists providing research services to NGOs. It ran the Alternex e–mail system and provided studies, consultancy, data processing, data communications and other services to rural and urban workers’ unions, community organizations, popular education and documentation centers, students and others.

From the Philippines “People’s Access” reported that it had formed an online bulletin board service for NGOs since 1987. The initiative was a formalization of ad hoc experiments stimulated by research into computer communications for Philippines NGOs started during 1985. People’s Access operated as a bulletin board service and had a membership of 22 local NGOs. It produced a newsletter and offered computer communications training. The bulletin board, called ACCESS–BBS, maintained a daily gateway to Poptel/GeoNet’s system.

From France, the Global Dialog Association (GDA) was using the network to foster information exchange between NGOs in the former Soviet Union, Western Europe and the U.S. In Norway a group called HURIDOCS (Human Rights Information and Documentation System) was using the network to link up human rights monitors around the world.

Satis, a Netherlands based organization, provided information on sustainable development technologies 100 member groups in 50 countries. “The aim of this work is to help local community enterprises to raise living standards, raise issues, raise funds, raise income — and meet — expectations.” [4]

Interdoc as precursor

In 1990 international NGOs and social justice groups created a new global computer network called the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) (Murphy, 2000). The organization’s network ran on unix to unix control protocol (UUCP). It had immediate impact. INGOs used the system to organize their campaigns and forums at a range of United Nations conferences (Frederick, 1993). By the mid–1990s it was being credited with literally re–making global civil society — putting NGOs on an equal diplomatic footing with states and multilateral organizations (Warkentin, 2001).

In fact, the first informal agreement to create APC was reached at an Interdoc–sponsored conference during May of 1990 in Amsterdam. At the meeting seven existing bulletin boards agreed to amend their hardware and software creating a seamless transparent network based upon the UUCP protocol.

Other NGO bulletin boards around the world, particularly the developing world, would receive grants so that they could connect with the network. Two were a central part of Interdoc: IBASE (with a bulletin board service called Alternex) and Poptel, renamed as GreenNet.

Virtually all the INGOs that experimented with computer communication moved to the APC system at the beginning of the 1990s. APC also inherited from Interdoc the same social activist commitment (APC, 1997).


Throughout the 1980s, INGOs from around the world had been learning to use a computer network for social justice action. Interdoc had been created because some small aid INGOs turned themselves into education and advocacy agents. Information and communication was of strategic importance to them.

They wrote concepts of social justice into their incorporation document, the Velletri Agreement. They aimed at creating a different kind of computer network — fostering social justice ideals. Interdoc was critically self–aware of the issues of democracy and equality that computer networking raised.

Member organizations used the network for a wide range of social justice activities. Interdoc provided a “test bed” for international non–governmental organization computer networking that was conceived in 1990 as the Association for Progressive Communications. End of article

About the author

Brian Martin Murphy is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Niagara University in Lewiston N.Y. He has been writing about new media and society since his first book, The world wired up: Understanding the new communications puzzle (London: Comedia, 1983). He has most recently published “A critical history of the Internet,” in Greg Elmer (editor), Critical perspectives on the Internet (Lanham, Md.: Roman & Littlefield, 2002) and “Propagating alternative journalism through social justice cyberspace: The appropriation of computer networks for alternative media development in the 1990s,” in Ron Eglash, et al. (editors), Appropriating technology: Vernacular science and social power (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).


The Velletri Agreement

1. Statement of Purpose

1.1 A wide range of NGOs met in Velletri, Italy, from 2 to 7 October 1984 to discuss specific follow–up activity to the Documentation for Change meeting held in Lisbon Portugal in January 1982. The Velletri meeting focused on the recommendation “to establish a network of groups exploring the use of new information technologies for the exchange of feasibility studies, and experiences and findings.”

1.2 The Velletri group was composed of representatives of grass–roots development action related information and documentation centers working at national and international level throughout the world.

2. Preamble

2.1 The well–being of an individual and a community depends on their access to and ability to apply information. Information is thus central in the development process of all societies. It is natural, therefore, that groups involved in grass–roots development have for long been engaged in the systematic collection, analysis and dissemination of information between people.

2.2 Recent rapid developments in new information technology have opened up new possibilities for NG0s to communicate and share information. Possibilities have also grown dramatically for access to larger databases. One aspect of these rapid developments has been the use of more recently developed information technologies in countries of the South, than are often installed in many organisations in the North.

2.3 These developments have advanced greatly even since the time of the Lisbon meeting, where initial proposals were drawn up for a global network of NGO documentation centers to be linked together by modern telecommunications technology. However, the Velletri meeting felt that the establishment of a global network must be based upon the real needs of centers working for grass–roots development together with popular organisations. It was emphasised that such a global network only has a valid role to play in development if it is, created by, linked to and at the service of local activities. Furthermore, at all stages of discussion and action in the field of information for development, it must be stressed that the management of information is not a goal in itself, but is simply an essential element in action for concrete and sustainable results and improvements in peoples’ lives. Information management and the related practices of networking must be geared to the mobilisation of information, and not to its immobilisation.

3. The Needs

3.1 The needs expressed by the groups In the field of information are as follows:

  • To know each other: groups from some regions expressed their lack of knowledge of the existence and activities of other centers.
  • To share knowledge: there is an urgent need for a sharing of knowledge and experience on the selection and use of computers and telecommunication technologies in the handling and dissemination of information. This includes better exchange of skills and tools for information handling. There is a common need to provide more opportunities for training on documentation techniques, data base organisation and electronic communications.
  • To improve access to each other’s data bases: it was felt that the groups could substantively support each other by providing a means to channel information requests to the most appropriate sources.
  • The need for faster, more efficient and cheaper means of communication among NG0s for the exchange of messages and information, particularly in the area of urgent campaign issues.

4. The Resources and the Response

4.1 The groups at Velletri have the capacity and resources within themselves to respond broadly to these needs, if they act cooperatively. It is therefore proposed that a network of NGO documentation centers and development action groups be formed. This cooperative network will provide the channels for the mutual sharing of skills and knowledge on information handling. This network is to be known as Interdoc.

5. The Network’s Activities

5.1 Interdoc’s activities for the two year period (1985–1986) will be focused on strengthening the members’ overall capacities in information handling and encouraging local, national and regional cooperation. The specific activities are:

a. Sharing of technical knowledge on information handling through:

  • Training workshops. The existing and planned training activities of network members will be open to meeting this need in the various regions.
  • Internships and staff exchange, preferably at the regional level, for in–service training in other centers’ information systems. (The flows of information on these training activities will coordinated by IDOC and SATIS)
  • A technical advisory group composed of experts from members and non–members, to advise members and other NGOS on their possible computerisation and telecommunication needs. This group will be a focal point for gathering and disseminating information and experiences on new information technology (hardware and software). This group will be coordinated by IBASE and PRIO.

b. Sharing of information, through a referral and clearing house service. The role of this service is to channel, as quickly as possible. information requests to the right sources. Co–ordination will be by IDOC, with key inputs from CODESRIA, CENDIT, ICDA, DCC, IBASE, ILET and INIES.

c. The establishment of a task force to coordinate work on the standardisation of formats necessary for efficient information exchange, and which are applicable in both manual and electronic systems. This work will be coordinated by HURIDOCS, with key inputs from SATIS and IBASE.

d. A newsletter for the network focusing on the exchange of experiences in manual and computerised information handling, including with hardware and software; feasibility studies on computerisation; training events; research on information handling techniques and systems analysis and evaluation, as well as a ‘small–ad’ section. It will be edited by ILET and CENDIT.

e. A series of guides on specific technological issues such as telecommunication procedures, and formats. This will be coordinated by the Technical Advisory Group.

f. A mechanism for exchanging network news, such as a computer “bulletin board”, to serve as an additional and permanently updated ‘newsletter’ to the members, with network news; this, and an electronic mailbox for the exchange of members’ urgent information and requests will be coordinated by ICDA, IDOC, ILR and IPS. A Pilot project for regional and inter–regional electronic mail networking via modems and/or telex between those centers able to do so.

6. The Structure of the Network

6.1 Membership:

It is the desire and intention of all those concerned with initiating Interdoc that its membership should be as open and widespread as possible. However, it is felt that further consideration is required for establishing the decision–making procedures on membership admissions. Therefore, during the initial two–year period, membership of Interdoc will be drawn from those NGOs which participated in either or both of the Lisbon and Velletri meetings, and which indicate formally their wish to join.

6.2 Finance:

Initial financial resources will be provided by annual membership contributions of a minimum of US$ 50, and will be allocated towards the direct costs of the network newsletter and start–up activities. A funding proposal will be prepared for other activities of the first two years.

6.3 Coordination:

During the initial two–year period, Interdoc activities will be guided by a preparatory Steering Group. In addition to its coordinating role, this Group will investigate whether INTERDOC might be established as a separate legal entity and make proposals to a meeting of the membership. The Steering Group will properly reflect the specific activities, levels. styles and area of work, various communications possibilities and initiatives of the network. It will thus be composed of Abdul Aziz Ly, Charles Foubert, Chris Pinney, John Sayer and Mario Padron.

The execution of network activities relies upon the commitment of all members: On behalf of all members, IDOC is entrusted with the responsibility of encouraging the full implementation of the terms of this Velletri agreement, including the collection and administration of any monies required for INTERDOC.

7. Evaluation and Follow–up

7.1 During and at the end of this first two–year period, an evaluation will be conducted. Future decisions about possible development and consolidation of the network and its activities will be based upon the results of this evaluation. These on–going processes of evaluation within the network will be coordinated by GRESEA.


Source: Interdoc, 1984. The Valletri Agreement. Antenna, Neijmegen, The Netherlands.


1. Wheeler, 1988, p. 2.
2. Lane, 1990, pp. xii–xiii.
3. Lane, 1990, p.xiv.
4. Lane, 1990, p. 51.


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Editorial history

Paper received 13 October 2004; accepted 7 April 2005.

Copyright ©2005, Brian Martin Murphy.

Interdoc: The first international non–governmental computer network by Brian Martin Murphy
First Monday, volume 10, number 5 (May 2005),

About the Author

Brian Martin Murphy is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Niagara University in Lewiston N.Y. He has been writing about new media and society since his first book, The world wired up: Understanding the new communications puzzle (London: Comedia, 1983). He has most recently published “A critical history of the Internet,” in Greg Elmer (editor), Critical perspectives on the Internet (Lanham, Md.: Roman & Littlefield, 2002) and “Propagating alternative journalism through social justice cyberspace: The appropriation of computer networks for alternative media development in the 1990s,” in Ron Eglash, et al. (editors), Appropriating technology: Vernacular science and social power (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).