"Multi-stakeholder process" as safety-belt
  Civil Society legitimation is crucial for WSIS
  Hamburg, 2 November 2003. The recent initiative by the president of the WSIS preparatory committee to solve issues of conflict between governments has once more highlighted the role of civil society organisations as legitimizing force of the summit. Even before the decisive negotiations with government delegations, Mr Samassekou approached the civil society Content&Themes group to find out which sections of his "non-paper" it would not support. So, although NGOs dont sit at the negotiating table and dont offer any quantifiable trading issues, their support is being valued higher than that of some governments.

The negotiating position of civil society is based on the "multi-stakeholder process". The latter describes a main goal of the WSIS: the participation of all concerned social forces in the summit process. Not only governments, but also business and civil society are called upon to take part in the WSIS and to support its outcomes.

During the third preparatory conference PrepCom3, it became increasingly obvious that the opportunities for civil society to participate in the summit process are by no means the result of a gracious gesture by the WSIS organisers. Rather, letting NGOs participate has served to integrate potentially critical voices. A repetition of scenes of street confrontation, as in Seattle, Genoa, or just recently during the G8 summit in Geneva itself, damaging as they would be to publicity efforts, had to be prevented. Thus the "multi-stakeholder approach" has represented a direct response both to the summit protests of the past years and to the lack of legitimacy of large government summits, which had been highlighted by those protests.

At PrepCom3, even the most cautious points of criticism by the essentially excluded and thereby frustrated NGOs led to sensitive reactions by the WSIS secretariat, the governments, and PrepCom President Samassekou. Attempts to pacify and accomodate civil society were triggered, particularly, by plans for an alternative civil society declaration as that document would have the potential to destroy the carefully nurtured impression of broad civil society support to the official WSIS declaration (also see the article Civil Society organisations will draft own declaration on this website).

At the same time, many civil society representatives present at PrepCom3 developed an increasingly critical awareness of their own role as a legitimizing force. Civil society meetings discussed the limits of lobbying, agreed on "non-negotiables" to serve as landmarks for either supporting or rejecting the WSIS declaration, and the final civil society press statement started with the words: "If governments continue to exclude our principles, we will not lend legitimacy to the final official WSIS documents".

Due to the inability of government delegations to develop a meaningful and substance-rich declaration, the multi-stakeholder character of the summit has become even more crucial since PrepCom3. The official press statement at the end of PrepCom3 does not emphasize the (poor) thematic outcomes of the WSIS but rather carries the heading: "Summit Breaks New Ground with Multi-Stakeholder Approach". As the only true innovation left from the previously high aims of the summit, the multi-stakeholder approach must now guarantee the success of the summit.

It is exactly this dilemma which offers an increased negotiating position to those civil society organisations involved in the WSIS. If the legitimization card is played strategically, and if all possible alternatives to participation are taken serious, then those organisations could move from the margins to the very centre of the WSIS process.

What could be helpful is the fact that a broad network of a variety of events is currently developing between "inside" and "outside". While some have rejected the legitimization game from the outset and have been planning alternative events outside the WSIS framework under the name "WSIS? We Seize!", others are occupying the cutting edges between participation and fundamental criticism, for example with the World Forum on Communication Rights or the Community Media Forum. The bandwith of possible interventions is large, civil society is not dependent on lobbying, and this certainty could (and should) raise the minimum level for civil society legitimation of the summit.

Arne Hintz


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