By Kat Walraven for APCNews JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, 12 September 2007
The UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was the largest and longest international gathering on information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the past decade. Unusual for international summits, it dealt with an opportunity rather than a problem, and created high expectations of what it would achieve – especially in terms of overcoming the digital divide.
Organised in two stages, and lasting four years, it certainly consumed a great deal of time and resources – both financial and human. But was it worth it? What did WSIS actually achieve? What did developing countries and civil society organisations (CSOs) gain from it? And, perhaps more importantly, did these gains outweigh the costs associated with participation?
These are just some of the questions addressed in “Whose Summit? Whose Information Society?” APC commissioned this study from David Souter, former chief executive of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation, who worked on it with APC’s ICT policy research officer for Africa, Abiodun Jagun.
The study analyses developing country and civil society participation and influence in WSIS by drawing on participants’ observations, questionnaires and interviews with individual participants, detailed interviews with forty key actors, case studies of experiences rooted in five developing countries, and desk research.
The study concludes that WSIS had only limited success and “is not the best starting point for new action on ICTs or ICD [information and communications for development] today.” WSIS had many flaws. Organised by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a technical agency, rather than the UN centrally, WSIS was dominated by the ICT sector, with limited participation of development practitioners. This explains why some interviewees believe “that WSIS was more a meeting of ICT specialists than a meeting of minds between such specialists and the wider development community.”
Its agenda was even narrower than its participation, with a limited number of issues addressed despite the breadth and depth of what is encompassed by something so broad as the “information society”. What is more, its outcome documents were not only vague, but reflected very few real commitments – least of all to correct the digital divide.
So, with the WSIS experience behind us, why is it important to look at how developing country delegations and CSOs fared at the summit? Because, says David, “it is always important to learn from experience – particularly where it did not deliver up to expectations.” WSIS holds many lessons for developing countries and CSOs aiming to exert greater influence in international ICT decision-making fora. Some lessons demonstrate what worked well – such as the highly successful, multi-stakeholder Internet Governance Forum (IGF). The majority illustrate what did not work so well – not least, holding a four-year long meeting on such a fast-changing topic.
While focusing on developing country and civil society experiences in WSIS, the report provides a detailed overview of the summit as a whole – explaining its unconventional organisation, discussing the major issues addressed, identifying contentious issues, and outlining efforts to promote the summit’s objectives after its official close in 2005. ‘Whose Summit?’ is essential reading both for those already familiar with WSIS and those with a limited understanding of the summit.
APCNews recently interviewed David to discuss the study’s findings, as well as what lessons can be gathered from the WSIS experience – for developing countries, civil society, and in general.