Each week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog post asks about how far developing countries are represented in international decisions about information and communications technologies (ICTs).
“International decisions about information and communications technologies (ICTs) have far-reaching implications for developing countries. Yet developing countries are poorly represented when agendas are set and decisions made.”
The opening words, those, of the Louder Voices report aimed at ‘strengthening developing country participation in international ICT decision-making’, published in 2002. Are things very different today?
Some history, and disclosure. The Louder Voices report was commissioned by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) after the G8’s Digital Opportunity Task Force
(the ‘DOT Force’, for readers with long memories) called for ideas
‘to promote more effective universal participation in international ICT
decision-making.’ I was one of its four authors.
The DOT Force and DFID were concerned about a ‘missing link’ between ICT and development policy and the limited participation of developing countries in decision-making fora. Louder Voices mapped the challenges and interviewed participants, looked in detail at the ITU, ICANN and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and recommended some ways forward.
What did it conclude?
First, not surprisingly, that developing countries had far fewer resources to deal with ICT decision-making than developed countries. They therefore prioritised decision-making spaces where it was easier for their voices to be heard – particularly intergovernmental fora like the ITU. And that they had very little presence in private and non-governmental fora concerned with standards and Internet governance, where it was much harder for them to gain traction.
Second, that, if developing countries were to gain more traction, they needed to build a deeper evidence-based understanding of local communications realities and needs; to develop technical and policy capacity; to prioritise decision-making spaces that would have most impact on their national development; and to coordinate effectively.
The report made six main recommendations, which are worth reviewing still.
Building ICT policy capacity
Three were concerned with building policy awareness, capacity and processes:
- building awareness of the impact of ICTs on national development, and of the significance of decisions being made in international fora on that impact;
- improving data gathering, research and analysis in countries and developmental regions;
- addressing weaknesses in national policy development by, for instance, improving information flows and knowledge management in government, and including all relevant stakeholders in policy processes.
Levelling the international playing field
Three were concerned with making international decision-making processes more inclusive:
- making information about ICT policy issues more readily available, as and when it’s needed, in ways that would make it easier for resource-constrained developing country governments and stakeholders to play a part;
- redesigning policy-making fora in ways that would facilitate participation by developing countries, including multistakeholder involvement and stronger links between ICTs and sustainable development;
- making effective use of financial resources to support developing country participation (which means much more than ‘fellowships’ to attend important meetings).
What has happened since?
There’ve been some quite big changes in international ICT decision-making since Louder Voices came out in 2002. Some resulted from the dramatic increase in attention paid to ICTs and development following the World Summit on the Information Society (2003/2005). Others from the growth in access to mobile communications and the Internet which has followed – and which was not expected to be so rapid or extensive then.
One of the biggest changes has been the spread of multistakeholder participation, which I looked at in three recent posts. Louder Voices recommended more diverse participation in decision-making. Since WSIS, and largely thanks to it, multistakeholder participation’s become the norm, though not without its problems.
But WSIS marked another change in international policy debates round ICTs. Since 2005, much of the discussion about ICTs/Internet within the UN system (and elsewhere) has been geopolitical rather than technical. It’s divided along lines familiar from other areas of international policy: North v South; proponents of free markets against countries concerned about the risk of foreign interests dominating their economies.
A third important change has been proliferation of international fora. As ICTs have become more important, the number of issues requiring international coordination and the number of relevant policymaking spaces have both increased enormously. The international ICT calendar’s demanding, now, for developed countries with large resources. Much more so for developing countries that have few.
So are developing country voices louder now?
In some respects, they are, but in others Louder Voices still feels more than relevant.
Developing country voices are more loudly heard in UN debates around ICTs than in 2002, in the General Assembly, not least, through the G77 group of countries. There’s much more activity on ICT policy in UN Regional Commissions and other regional multilateral agencies than there used to be. That’s added value and coordination to a degree.
The structure of multilateral agencies like ITU makes it easier for developing countries to participate on an equal footing with developed countries. Many developing countries are now also members of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, though that doesn’t mean they’re prominent in its debates. Some developing countries have built strong profiles in international ICT – Brazil, for example, which sponsored the NetMundial event; China; Kenya; others.
But there are also many weaknesses. Each year, concern’s expressed at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) about the need to increase developing country participation, especially from governments. Policy fora in critical areas of cyberspace, such as cybersecurity, are led by Northern voices, Northern governments and Northern interests. Developing countries play very little part in deciding where the Internet is headed technically, in the services and applications designed/deployed by global businesses, in the next waves of innovation.
Why does this matter?
This is not just an abstract ‘fairness’ issue. It cuts to the heart of WSIS’ goal to achieve a ‘people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented’ Information Society.
ICT policy fora pay a lot of attention to extending access and to the role of ICTs in facilitating developmental outcomes. But their focus often comes from the supply side – the potential of technologies that are implemented by developed country businesses – rather than the challenges faced by countries in which access is constrained and development is challenging.
Stronger developing country participation in decision-making fora, involving governments and other stakeholders, is needed to address this – but it’s also not sufficient. Willingness to listen to developing country interests and priorities, on the part of other governments and stakeholders, is needed too.
Are there lessons to be learnt from Louder Voices?
Fifteen years ago, the Louder Voices report had three main messages:
- Stronger developing country participation in international ICT decision-making is needed to make it more effective from their point of view (which in turn should be of value to everyone). This requires two things:
- First, the strengthening of national ICT policy capacity. The capacity that it said was needed was multiple, including understanding of national ICT markets and requirements, technical capacity, policy capacity, coordination with government between ICT ministries and those concerned with developmental outcomes, engagement with other stakeholders, and coordination with other countries within regions.
- Second, changes in international decision-making fora to make it easier for under-resourced developing countries to play a part and ensure that outcomes didn’t just serve developed country interests.
The importance of national policy capacity is now widely understood. Many developing countries have stronger policymaking infrastructures than they did in 2002. But this is far from universal. Limited resources are still powerful constraints on the capacity of smaller countries, in particular, to engage effectively with more powerful governments and businesses. More needs to be done on policy capacity in many countries, regions and sub-regions.
The international decision-making environment, though, is much more complex and demanding now than it was fifteen years ago. Developed countries and international businesses which have the resources to engage effectively in their own interests should reflect on this. Discussions about issues like cybersecurity and the Internet of Things need to address their impact on developing countries too. Without their participation, the decisions made will be neither inclusive nor secure.
Next week, I’ll look at the importance of multilateral decision-making for ICTs.
Image: Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation and Panos London, 2002.