What is the state of the information society?
  WSIS-Stocktaking process launched in Geneva
 
 
  11 September 2004. The first phase of the world summit on the information society focused on the underlying values and principles. Though by far not perfect and therefore criticised by civil society groups, the summit declaration and action plan set a number of goals. Some of them even got deadlines, like connecting every school in the world with ICTs by 2015. But how can these objectives be met? And what is the current state of the information society? And what is already going on everywhere that might help or hinder going in the agreed directions? An informal WSIS meeting in Geneva last week tried to provide some answers. The WSIS secretariat is seeking further input until 14 September.

Nobody really thought about the concrete implementation while the tough negotiations over values and principles were still going on in Geneva last year. It will not be for free, that was clear. That was also the reason why there was no agreement on a specific financing mechanism, and instead the task force that will soon be set up by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan will have to deal with this. But even if there was money available, it would be still unclear where it could be spent best in order to move towards an inclusive, human-centred information society. The worst would be to duplicate efforts in the same areas that are easy to sell to the media (think of schools again!), while forgetting about the more problematic (read: political) issues that require more that just some hardware and maybe bandwidth. But again, first there has to be an overview of what is already going on out there in the real world.

Current Activities on Stocktaking

At least the general process of stock-taking has started now. The UN agencies that deal with statistics have already met on this in March, and ITU, OECD, UNCTAD and others are currently planning joint activities on measurement indicators that include a thematic WSIS-meeting in February 2005. Other useful global surveys are regularly produced by NGOs and watchdogs like Privacy International or Reporters without Borders. Some countries (Bangladesh, Lithuania, Nigeria and Tanzania) have already submitted official WSIS inputs on the national implementation processes and strategies.

The first preparatory meeting in June decided that "stocktaking of implementation at national, regional & international levels" will be one of the three major areas of work for the Tunis phase of the summit, the others being internet governance and financing.

The WSIS executive secretariat now is trying to connect all this and shape it into a more coordinated and transparent multi-stakeholder process. On 31 August, there was an informal meeting in Geneva to discuss ideas and next steps.

The WSIS secretariat explained that the the stocktaking exercise should be participatory, dynamic and serve several objectives:
. Provide material for a substantive report for the Tunis summit,
. Contribute to moving the Plan of Action forward ,
. Assess progress on commitments,
. Provide a mechanism for sharing information and learning from various experiences.

According to ITU secretary general Utsumi the information has to be classified following the 11 themes of the Summit. In his view, the Secretariat is not in a position to reach all relevant information systematically, and it is impossible to have a centralized data collection point. The Secretariat had prepared a draft questionnaire that in its final version will be officially sent to all WSIS accredited entities by October.

Stocktaking: Just inventory or a dynamic process?

The UNESCO representative said that it was important to think beyond Tunis and look for coordination mechanisms which could make a difference on implementation. From their perspective, the stocktaking should not be just a static inventory but aim at finding out what is being done by whom. It then could offer an opportunity for stakeholders identify partners, to connect, learn from each other and share know-how. UNESCO proposed these basic principles as guidance:

. Use stocktaking exercise for monitoring progress and tracking changes
. Develop a dynamic Solution that facilitates identifying and building relationships
. Maintain clear links to the structure of the WSIS Action Plan
. Encourage and record input from all stakeholders (governments, international organization, civil society, private sector)
. Create synergies with other initiatives (e.g. the UN Development Gateway, http://www.wsis-online.net/, and others)
. Facilitate the development of online communities committed to implementing the WSIS Action Plan
. Take decision on passive, unqualified versus "validated" (criteria based) content contribution
. Use a single online platform of interoperable systems to create a primary repository of information on implementation activities
. Ensure editorial independence and transparency of the stocktaking process.

UNESCO has already established its "WSIS Action Directory" as an online tool for taking stock of its own contribution to the implementation of the WSIS Action Plan. The WSIS secretariat is now thinking about using this database for its own overall WSIS stocktaking, as the technology is based on free software and highly scalable.

Output: A massive database, a partnership fair, or a summit document?

The WSIS secretariat also plans to draft a 30-40 pages written report on the stocktaking outcomes that will be delivered to the summit in 2005. Over this document, some debate was sparked on the use and focus of it. Canada noted that it may be a challenging task synthesize the various inputs and for some countries to provide their input in time, given the short deadline. The USA suggested that the document should be even shorter and in bullet form which might attract more readers. Canada suggested that rather than providing an extensive list of activities, its national stocktaking report could highlight only those programs which support international development assistance.

Though this could lead towards more awareness of development assistance in the information society field, it also can develop into one of the usual Northern approaches: You only look at the shortcomings in developing countries while neglecting the inequalities and structural imbalances the information society contains in the developed capitalist world.

There is also a plan to produce a "best practices and success stories" website and booklet until 2005. At the Geneva meeting, some delegates questioned the possibility of reconciling different national criteria as to what constitutes a success. While some countries and regions surely have different needs than others, this debate is also tricky. It has to be made sure that there is still agreement on the common goals set out by the summit principles and plan of action. Otherwise, some countries might declare their electronic Freedom of Information Acts as successes, while others proudly present their implementation of automatic internet content filtering. Of course it is a challenge to agree on sets of criteria, who would assess the contributions etc., as the Canadian delegate stated. But still, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other core documents have to be the most important pole stars for any implementation measuring and benchmarking.

Civil society representative Steve Buckley therefore stressed the importance of linking the reported activities to important WSIS objectives such as Human Rights and pursuance of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), gender equality, education and others. He suggested that action lines and tick boxes reflecting MDGs be added. 

After some discussion, an alternative format, which would consist in a short description of a given project, followed by relevant WSIS action lines and/or objectives and with tick boxes reflecting relevant MDGs and a list of contacts/links was proposed in order to take those concerns into account.

Accountability or Showcase?

Civil Society representatives Steve Buckley and Karen Banks of the "Content&Themes" group criticised that there is no use in talking about implantation and benchmarking of the Action Plan if it is inconsistent with principles as expressed in the WSIS Declaration. In general, they raised concerns that the 'approach' to the stocktaking exercise did not go any where near far enough (in the way it is currently presented), to build on the momentum, networking and national level dynamic/capacity that WSIS phase one provided a platform for. Nor does it provide stakeholders with tools to assess whether initiatives which are being implemented are consistent with the Declaration of principles. It also does not address questions of participation, or provide tools that help civil society to hold governments accountable to the declaration in relation to national level policies and programmes.

Civil Society groups will need more discussion on how to position themselves in this stocktaking and implementation process. The "Benchmarks Document" adopted by the Civil Society plenary at the end of PrepCom3A in November 2003 can provide a good basis for this. In a number of countries, where the governments are not too keen on doing a national benchmarking process, civil society groups can be in a position to kick-start this process on a national level and even influence its direction. Anything in this regard will definitively be better than another showcase of cheap, easy and media-useable "best practices" projects that will flood the summit venue next year.

Links

  • The WSIS secretariat has now published the revised questionnaire on the WSIS website. Comments can be submitted by 14 September.
  • The WSIS executive secretariat's proposed approach for stocktaking: pdf | doc 
  • Civil Society Benchmarking Document, refined version December 2003:  english | espanol | franšais 

 


 
 
 
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