Multi-stakeholder participation and ICT policy processes

By Anriette Esterhuysen GENEVA, Switzerland,

The complexity of the WSIS process has been discussed extensively. A recent article by Ralf Bendrath specifically addresses ‘multi-stakeholderism’ in the WSIS.

But is the WSIS uniquely complex? Any public policy process worth its salt is bound to be complex, multi-stakeholder, involve contestation and compromises. Policies affect different communities and interest groups in different ways and it is the responsibility of the convenors of the process to give them all fair hearing.

The relative inclusiveness of the process is usually the outcome of a mix of factors, including the convenors’ experience and capacity, their political and institutional agendas (public and hidden), the nature and degree of their political will, dynamics that emerge from who is resourcing the process, the personalities, interests and commitment of individuals directly involved in driving the process and the degree of organization, capacity and resistance among the stakeholder groups affected by the policy.

Sadly, in real life, few policy processes reach this kind of complexity and few provide the space and time for the ‘policy development chain’ described by Wolfgang Kleinwachter (message to WSIS-CS-Plenary, Wed, 30 Mar 2005) to be set into motion; particularly in developing countries where there are simply not enough people and institutions who have the capacity to monitor public policy processes on an ongoing basis. (An exception to this, and with notable success, has been in the case of regulation that enables the manufacturing and distribution of generic drugs in developing countries. HIV/AIDS activists in countries like Brazil, South African and India have won several victories simply because they have been proactive, and, when reversals on these victories loom as is currently the case in India they have the information and arguments needed to be able to challenge government decisions effectively).

Often ICT policy that can have significant impact – such as national legislation on data retention and ISP liability, or decisions on awarding licenses to national operators of fixed or mobile telephony- slips through the cracks without public scrutiny. In developing countries even government sometimes can have a rather tenuous grasp on policy development.

Frequently, draft policies are simply produced by consultants who, even if they are technically competent, work within the brief provided by their employers.

In other cases policy is drafted by bureaucrats trying to address one particular aspect of regulation, and without any malicious intent, end up introducing restrictions that impact on other areas. For example, e-commerce regulation intended to provide secure transactions for vendors could easily introduce violations of individual’s rights to privacy. How often is developing country e-commerce regulation scrutinized by privacy and human rights activists?

As pointed out by Parminder Jeet Singh from IT For Change in a post to WSIS-CS-Plenary (Wed, 30 Mar 2005) the relationships between government and civil society actors in developing countries are complex and nuanced in that they often have “agreements on development issues, and disagreements on rights-based issues”.

Unlike many developed countries, we do not have the resources and expertise provided by organizations and activists that specialize in issue areas. Yes, there are human rights, women’s rights, public health etc. organisations in our countries, but not many of them engage information and communications technology for development (ICD) policy.

This leaves many of us working in ICT for social change having to tackle multiple issue areas and maintain relationships with our governments in which conflict and consensus has to be managed very carefully. These relationships are not only institutional, they are often quite personal. In countries that have been through recent political transitions leaders in government, private sector and civil society institutions were often co-activists in the near past which adds further nuance, risks and opportunities.

Having to tackle multiple issues and manage these complex relationships leaves us battling to find the time, and to build the knowledge needed to impact effectively on policy, which is why working with others, be they from the academic community, international human rights organizations, or the private sector, is so important.

Consensus and conflict in the WSIS civil society space: how can we move forward?

During the second phase of WSIS the ‘consensus’ model of developing civil society positions and statements has simply not worked. It has strained the atmosphere and relationships within the space. It has made it very difficult to deal with conflict and disruption (e.g. the disruption caused by the entry of large numbers of Tunisian delegates who do not engage the process beyond face-to-face encounters).

Our consensus orientation has also made it difficult to deal with issues of representation, race, and language.

In the online civil society spaces, English is the dominant language. In a sense English has also become the language of ‘consensus’ and those who cannot speak and write it easily often end up on the periphery of mainstream ‘WSIS CS positions’.

Most importantly, the consensus model has made it very difficult for participants in the civil society space to produce content that can inform, influence and critique the official WSIS discourse in a substantial way.

We should not deny these tensions. They are part of political processes and working through them can build relationships which increases understanding and enriches perspectives.

But, becoming emerged in process debates to the point where mass energy is diverted from substance is counter-productive.

Why not use our common civil society spaces to reflect diversity rather than to build consensus?

Let diverse actors, informal or formal coalitions, issue specific caucuses use the common spaces to state their positions on the WSIS agenda. Participants should be free, provided they have a mandate from the organizations they represent, to align themselves with such statements before they are submitted. It is much easier to build agreement with concrete proposals as a basis than on assumptions about either difference or commonality.

As for speaking slots at PrepComs, why not have potential speakers submit their statements in advance and then agree on a speaking roster based on a show of hands at content and themes meetings?

It must be recognized that WSIS will come to an end in November 2005 in Tunis and the ‘fellowship of the ring’ will disband and hopefully pay greater attention to regional and national struggles around ICT policy. Lessons need to be drawn about multi-stakeholder participation for the post summit phase.

In doing so it may be worth looking at how the HIV/AIDS organisations worked together to engage governments and private sector around generic pharmaceuticals: were these coalitions focused on a joint single issue campaign, what were the relations between activists from developed and developing countries, what was the nature of the engagement at national level between civil society organisations and national governments, what inter-regional links were made between India, Brazil and SA?

If the post-WSIS phase draws battlelines more acutely around issues like intellectual property rights, competition and trade policy the relationship between ICD and the MDG process, then the campaign model of the HIV/AIDS organizations may be important to examine.

The basic features involve alliances at the global level between activists from developed and developing countries, an engagement with international institutions like the World Health Organisation and a confrontation with multi-national pharmaceutical companies and at the national level with alliances between single-focus civil society organizations like the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and mass-based organizations like the trade union federations.and a confrontation with national governments and multi-national pharmaceutical companies, as was the case in South Africa.

Whether there is any way that this approach may be relevant to ICTs post-WSIS needs to be thought about. The basic methodology adopted in the case of TAC was the anti-apartheid form of campaign which relied on powerful civil society alliances at the national level combined with creative solidarity campaigns that exerted pressure on institutions internationally.

Could such a model work with regard to ICTs as a way of aligning national level ICT policy campaigns with global policy campaigns around WIPO, the WTO or the World Bank.

It may also be useful to look more closely at the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG).

Does it offer a more coherent model for a post-WSIS implementation mechanism? Or an approach towards something like the proposed Global ICT Alliance? What are WGIG’s specific organisational features, e.g. with regard to leadership , mission, composition, process of selection? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Does it only work because it involves a single issue, internet governance, and has a finite lifespan? Can this model of multi-stakeholder participation be tested over the next few months, with an eye on the post-WSIS implementation mechanism? Could the WGIG model work for the implementation mechanism and offer a riposte to the ITU’s attempts to control the implementation mechanism and process?

Why has the issue of ‘multi-stakeholderism’ been so contentious in the WSIS civil society spaces?

I think the answer lies firstly in the internal diversity within the so-called civil society grouping.

Secondly, it is linked to the fact that so many discussions in the WSIS civil society space have tended to focus on process rather than substance.

And, thirdly, the fact that trends of ‘market fundamentalism’ (the market as the solution to development) in ICT policy have coincided with the establishment of several forums (global compact, DOT Force, UN ICT Task Force, etc.) which went to great pains to include business entities. This has contributed to civil society activists ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water’ and incorrectly assuming that collaboration with the private sector is mutually inclusive with endorsing the notion that the market ‘will cure all’.

Perhaps it is precisely because the WSIS touches such a wide range of policy issues in a fairly unspecific way, and because it has emerged with principles and proposed actions rather than binding rules, that it has encouraged an obsession with process – rather than outcomes – among civil society participants.

I am convinced that if the debates about collaboration between civil society, private sector and government entities were grounded on specific policy objectives rather than not-always-clearly-defined ‘principle’ it would have panned out very differently.

When dealing with specific policy issues, difference and agreement need to be pinned down concretely. Well-organized stakeholders (be they community-based, research organizations, rights advocates or industry associations) will do their utmost to influence a policy process. How they go about and who they work with will depend on what is at stake for them and the environment they work in. Degree of organization is relative, subject to constraints imposed by time, capacity, language, knowledge, geographical location.

Configurations of positions among different stakeholders are sometimes unexpected. To give an example, in South Africa, internet service providers, community telecentres, and ICT NGOs, community media organizations and small phone-shops (telecentres) all had a common interest in legalising voice over internet protocol. VoIP would create opportunities for small-scale and community-based operators, reduce cost of calls, and encourage the creation of infrastructure that could support a range of development-oriented applications.

But very few policy processes take place in a way that facilitates collaboration among ‘unlikely bedfellows’.

And assumptions that ‘civil society’ and ‘private sector’ are structurally in opposing camps do not help.

In many cases, different interest groups only discover that they had common positions ‘after the fact’, by which time it is too late for them to form an alliance that could have strengthened their chances for victory.

There are numerous instances where timely collaboration between business and communities and consumer organizations and rights organizations could have contributed to ‘better’ policy outcomes.

WSIS, and other platforms that bring together different sectors, create an opportunity for groups with different backgrounds and orientations to get to know one another. It enables like-minded individuals and entities from ‘government’, ‘civil society’ and ‘business’ to discover and lobby for common interests, and, we get to ‘understand the enemy’ better.

At the same time, it is essential to acknowledge that such platforms have tended to be constituted in very problematic ways. In some instances, such as the WSIS, ‘equal’ space has been assigned to civil society and the private sector. In reality ‘civil society’ contains such a multiplicity of interests and voices that it is bound to fail in speaking with one voice. Academics, researchers, educational institutions, commercial media, community media, rights organizations, software developers, policy analysts, libraries, faith-based groups, linguists… the lists is endless. It is neither fair, nor effective, to lump so many diverse stakeholders into one category. The private sector is also not homogenous, but does not have to contain the extent of diversity that exists among so-called civil society participants in the WSIS.

The UN ICT Task Force, also established as a multi-stakeholder body, has not, in spite of very good intentions, succeeded in effectively providing adequate space to civil society, developing country governments and private sector, the research sector, young people, artists, the media… and more. The Global Knowledge Partnership, who first introduced the idea of multi-stakeholder collaboration in ICT for development at international level, have also struggled to achieve balance between different sectors. As the number of members from civil society has grown; government, donor and large-scale corporate member numbers have declined.

Reflecting diversity will always be imperfect. But the efforts to achieve a fair reflection matter a great deal. If the ‘global alliance’ currently under discussion (refer to the UN ICT Task Force website) is to build on the lessons learnt from other multi-stakeholder processes, it needs to find innovative and more fluid ways of being inclusive. It also needs to embrace disagreement as an indicator of success that has as much value as consensus.

Working from the inside vs. working from the outside: is there still a clear division?

For those active in the civil society space in the WSIS the dividing line between working from the inside vs. the outside is blurry. Ralf Bendrath describes brilliantly how this blurriness is enacted when individuals from civil society are members of official government delegations.

There are risks attached to engaging ‘from the inside’.

Engaging as active civil society participants contributes to the perceived (and claimed by the organizers) legitimacy of a process. In reality those on the inside are fully aware of how difficult effective participation has been, and we frequently do not necessarily agree with the outcomes of the process.

But staying outside also has risks.

Global governance processes are real, and make decisions (or fail to make decisions) that impact on people’s lives. And they influence national processes.

In the course of a WSIS CS-Plenary discussion on the limitations of civil society participation and representation in the WSIS Carlos Afonso made the following powerful statement:

“I agree civil society presence is very small in relation to the absolute numbers and broad diversity of civil society organizations worldwide. I do not agree it is self-selected. I do not agree it represents nothing and that it would be useless regarding the overall goals of a "better and more just society".

“A scenario: drop all current civil society participants from the discussion rooms and tables, let us see what happens. What alternatives would we have? Anyone who has tried to mobilize cohorts to get more involved know how difficult this is. There is no spontaneous generation of massive participation — sparks are needed.” (Message posted on 7 March 2005)

There needs to be a conscious complementarity between insider strategies and external advocacy alliances. If Swiss ICT activists who distanced themselves from their government delegation because they were unable to sustain their objections to not being able to speak freely to the press, that’s one thing. But if it works elsewhere there’s no reason for civil society actors to abandon working on government delegations as a matter of principle. The role of feminist activists on government delegations was absolutely critical to the success of the reproductive rights campaign in Beijing in 1995.

When it comes to co-operation between the private sector and civil society, this is also fluid and can not be made a matter of principle. As the focus shifts back to regional and national levels post-WSIS, taking a position against PS-CS relationships per se is absurd. At national level, that would mean private ISPs could not combine with community organizations to demand VoIP from their governments.

The issue is under what conditions relationships with governments and the private sector should be forged, for what purposes and anticipated outcomes. The extent of risks or other factors needs to be weighed on a case by case basis. At the global level, there may be tactical advantage to working with the private sector on matters of process, and, where there is agreement, on substance. If something of value can be gained through such co-operation without fundamentally undermining the values and goals of civil society organizations then that can only be to the good. To once again quote Parminder Jeet Singh: “instead of developing grand hold-all theories and conceptions of what CS is, and what governments are, and (I hesitantly add) what the private sector is…… CS needs to achieve gains for the constituencies it represents by working strategically and tactically”. (message to WSISCS-Plenary Wed, 30 Mar)


Ralf Bendrath on ‘Civil society and the multi-stakeholderism’

UN ICT Task Force – ‘Global Alliance’ discussion and resources

Global Knowledge Partnership

Ralf Bendrath on ‘Civil society and the multi-stakeholderism’
UN ICT Task Force links to ‘Global Alliance’ discussion and resources

Resources on multi-stakeholder participation in UN processes (collected by APC)

Messages to WSIS CS-Plenary from Carlos Afonso, Wolgang Kleinwachter and Parminder Jeet Singh posted on 7 and 30 March 2005

Author: Anriette Esterhuysen
Source: APC News
Date: 04/01/2005
Location: GENEVA, Switzerland
Category: Democratising Communication

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