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Each week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog post sets out aspirations for this week’s Internet Governance Forum.

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is happening this week in Guadalajara, Mexico. Today, a brief preview; next week, some thoughts on what took place.

The IGF, for those who’re unfamiliar, is an annual discussion space on Internet governance and public policy. It was set up following the World Summit on the Information Society and has been held each year since 2006. It’s seen by many Internet insiders as a model for multistakeholder dialogue. And its mandate was renewed by the UN General Assembly last December, for the next ten years.

I’ve been to every IGF. They can be fascinating and enlightening, but they can also be frustrating. Ahead of this week’s Forum, I’ll propose two aspirations.

Reflection on the IGF itself

The first is that the IGF should take a closer look at what it does and how it can improve itself. Its renewed mandate should not make it complacent.

No decisions are taken at the IGF, but it’s undoubtedly improved the quality of decision-making where they are. I’d like, though, to see more stakeholder diversity – more voices from developing country governments, from businesses that use (rather than provide) the Internet, from a wider range of civil society, from critics of the Internet as it’s evolving.

And I’d like to see more attention paid to the challenges the Internet is posing. Too often discussions in the Forum feel like they’re in a comfort zone of Internet insiders. If it’s to be truly multistakeholder it must address concerns and anxieties about the coming digital age which are widespread and becoming more so. This is not a good year for experts to ignore those who feel their fears are being ignored.

Earlier in the year, I blogged about a retreat the UN organised to help it reflect on how the IGF might be improved, become more representative, play a more dynamic role in engaging with other public policy communities and institutions. A lot of tensions were explored at the retreat, and a lot of good ideas emerged, but they’ve not made waves in the run-up to the actual event.

Those tensions need exploring and those waves need making if the IGF’s not to retreat into complacency. I’m hoping that there’ll be some real questioning about its future role this week. If not, the need for this will grow.

The Forum’s theme: ‘enabling inclusive and sustainable growth’

My second aspiration is that, this time, the IGF should pay more attention to its underlying theme, which is ‘enabling inclusive and sustainable growth.’ ‘Inclusive’ refers back to WSIS goals; ‘sustainable’ to the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (though ‘growth’ and ‘development’ are not synonymous).

What is sustainable development? To some extent, it’s become a cliché, but the basic concept is that three things must come together to achieve development – economic prosperity, social equity and environmental sustainability. Development is not ‘sustainable’ unless all three occur. That’s what was agreed at the first Earth Summit in 1992 and reaffirmed at the third Earth Summit in 2012.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which the UN agreed last year, turns that holistic view of development into an international programme of work. It has 17 Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets, which include economic, social and environmental aspects of development. Many of the targets are ambitious; many are imprecise. The Agenda has its critics but it’s the international community’s avowed objective.
What’s the role of ICTs here?
First, we have to recognise that ICTs and Internet are not well represented in the Agenda or the SDGs. There’s no Goal concerned specifically with them, though there is one target that calls for the international community to ‘significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020.’
The Agenda acknowledges that ‘the spread of information and communications technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide and to develop knowledge societies.’ But there’s quite a gap between that limited recognition of ICTs’ cross-cutting nature and the much more ambitious view of the Internet’s potential for development that is held by many in the ICT community.

Three main roles for ICTs
There are three main ways in which ICTs and the Internet have an impact on sustainable development. I’ll summarise these from the background paper from a UN Expert Group meeting held last year (for which – full disclosure – I was lead consultant).
The first concerns the underlying changes which are happening in economies, societies and cultures as a result of the Internet – systemic changes in the ways that things are done by governments, by businesses, by citizens. These systemic changes are underestimated by the development community, but they’re growing and are likely to be more important than the other impacts put together.
The second concerns projects and programmes which explicitly use the Internet to deliver developmental goals. A lot of emphasis is put on these by the ICT community, and a lot of hopes are placed on them. Experience in mainstream development communities is mixed. There are successes and there are failures. The evidence suggests it’s projects and programmes that build on established development experience that are most likely to succeed; those that try to displace it are much likelier to fail.
The third concerns the monitoring and measurement of developmental outcomes. A lot of hope is placed on big data analysis to improve the evidence base and enable better policy-making. There’s obvious potential there, but there are also risks. Big data aren’t necessarily better, and they may overemphasise impacts on those who generate most data – likely to be those with more income and resources – rather than focusing on those that are living on the margins.
Relinking the IGF with sustainable development

This is the fourth time the IGF’s included sustainability in some form in its theme. Past discussions haven’t been especially enlightening. What would make a difference this time (or next)? I’ll make three suggestions.
The first is to recognise that human development challenges are highly complex. They can’t be solved by technology alone. They’re rooted in geography and demography, in poverty and inequality, in economics and politics, in past, present and future resources and capabilities.

The Internet can contribute towards sustainable development, but it can’t overcome the structural inequalities that underlie it. It needs to be integrated with the long-term development approaches by national governments and by the international community if it is to help to overcome those inequalities.
The second is not to assume that digital is best, or (for that matter) that it is inherently egalitarian. We need to look at evidence on this. Old ways of doing things aren’t wrong because they are undigital. They’re rooted in experience, in local contexts, in the choices made by people faced with different challenges and problems from those in digitally-rich environments. Which is why digital ‘solutions’ often aren’t ‘solutions’.

Those who have money, resources and capabilities are better placed to gain from ICTs than those who don’t. That’s why the World Bank has pointed out that, ‘in many countries the internet has [so far] disproportionately benefited political elites,’ and achieved fewer developmental gains than had been hoped. We need to understand why this is better than we do.
The third is that the best way the Internet community (and the IGF) can set about this is to listen. Future panels on sustainable development at the IGF should be made up of experts in sustainable development – in poverty and inequality, in health and education, in agriculture and enterprise development. We in the Internet community should listen to what they think about their needs, rather than telling them what we think about our tech.

Next week I’ll comment on the outcomes of the IGF.

David Souter is a longstanding associate of APC, and has worked for more than twenty years on the relationship between ICTs and public policy, particularly development, environment, governance (including Internet governance) and rights. David writes a weekly blog for APC, looking at different aspects of the Information Society, development and rights. David’s blog takes a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. It comments on current topics and international meetings, draws attention to new reports and publications, critiques assumptions and suggests alternative perspectives. The views are his own, not APC’s. We hope that they will stimulate discussion, and that others will contribute their ideas in complementary blogs in future. More about David Souter. Follow him on Twitter .