Civil Society and the Multi-Stakeholderism
  Discussion emerging about opportunities and strange bedfellows
 
 
  29 March 2005. Civil Society involved in WSIS has finally started to discuss the strategic and political implications of multi-stakeholder processes like the World Summit on the Information Society. Besides the usual "we have to be involved if we have the chance", there is a lot of scepticism, but not yet a full understanding of how to use these new structures in global governance.

Contested Civil Society - Private Sector Statement

The discussion was sparked after a joint civil society - private sector event during PrepCom2 in February. Bill Drake of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and Ayesha Hasan of the Coordinating Committee of Business Interlocutors (CCBI, set up by the International Chamber of Commerce for the WSIS process) had organized an open meeting to discuss matters of joint interest. The meeting touched on some areas of potential cooperation, like sharing speaking time and coordinating on how the Tunis summit is organized. There was even a proposal to organize a more fixed process for civil society and business involved in the WSIS to continue to communicate and discuss relevant common issues, mostly on process.

A small group around Bertrand de la Chapelle (WSIS-online.org) afterwards drafted a document that was read by Ayesha Hasan on behalf of the Civil Society Plenary and the Coordination Committee of Business Interlocutors in the governmental plenary on 25 February. It called for further and more support for the multi-stakeholder approach in the WSIS, especially in the follow-up and implementation stage and on the national levels.

A number of activists strongly critizised this statement, as they felt it had not properly been discussed in both the civil society plenary in Geneva and the plenary mailing list. They instead asked for individual endorsements by organisations and groups. As Meryem Marzouki from the Human Rights Caucus stated:

A CS-PS joint statement is different from a statement on a specific issue signed by some CS organizations together with some private sector organizations, in that the former implies a kind of coalition and, moreover, a fair and balanced joined coalition of forces sharing a vision (is that the current situation?!), not simply agreeing on a specific issue or matter.

Others insisted that though there are huge differences on substantive matters with the private sector, "we need not take an attitude of un-touchabilty with any legitimate group". Milton Mueller from the Internet Governance Project referred to the need to work together in past ICT policy issues:

In communication-information policy, there is a very clear pattern over the years. When most activists in civil society and private sector can agree (for example, on opposing the Clinton Administration's Clipper chip or the Communications Decency Act) they win. When most activists in civil society are aligned against government(s) and the private sector, they lose.

Multi-Stakeholderism in WSIS: Successes or not?

The discussion among civil society groups again became more vivid after a civil society press release on the PrepCom outcomes that was published a few days later. It had been drafted by people from the Conference of NGOs (CONGO) and the UN NGO Liaison Service (NGLS) after the final Content & Themes meeting of Civil Society. Unfortunately, it was published without taking into account major points of the previous discussion, and instead mainly applauded the improvements in the multi-stakeholder-approach during the PrepCom. But: Were there really any?

The latest PrepCom

At PrepCom2 in February, Civil Society had its usual 15 minutes a day of speaking time like it had two years ago. On the last day it did not even get these. The improvement was only on the substance side: The government delegations listened to the activists and independent experts much closer now, because they needed their input and ideas, especially on Internet governance. Empirical research done on WSIS phase one also suggests that CS impact is bigger in the early stages and gets smaller and smaller towards the end, when all that counts is the governments' agreement.

Working Group on Internet Governance

The Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) is a different example. Here, civil society has had by far the biggest impact, and the group to many serves as a role-model for global governance processes. The group is comprised of each one third government, private sector and civil society members, and the discussions take place very openly. On the other hand, the WGIG has nothing to decide in the end, which makes interaction of all stakeholders on an equal level much easier.

UN ICT Task Force / Global Alliance

An already existing ICT governance mechanism on the UN level is the United Nation's ICT Task Force. Its mandate will end later this year, and discussions have started about a succeeding mechanism - the so-called "ICT Global Alliance". Civil Society has also started to debate the opportunities and challenges here. A number of groups are pushing for a more active involvement of civil society before the future structure is decided. As Rik Panganiban (CONGO) stated:

Our job at this point is to conceive of what we would see as the most acceptable and functional and democratic Global Alliance structure that we would endorse. Write that down; send it in to the UN ICT Task Force. We can always choose to reject or opt out of what emerges later. But we don't know enough to accept or reject anything yet.

This approach holds much confidence in civil society abilities to bring forgotten or suppressed issues on the agenda, to act as experts and public interest voices, and to really have an impact by doing that.

Others prefer to look at the "partners" in these multi-stakeholder partnerships. Here, the debate on Tunisia has already showed that it is more than difficult to work with questionable governments, because any cooperation will legitimize them. It is trickier when corporations are involved. They are not parties to international treaties that might set binding objectives and rules, and the private sector has consistently fought any mandatory accountability rules.

As Lisa McLaughlin (Miami University / Ohio) stated:

CCBI has made it clear in several venues that they will comply with what they described as a "digital global compact" only if every element of engagement is entirely voluntary. "Voluntary" allows such compacts/alliances to work quite effectively as a form of public relations ("bluewashing" as some call it in the context of the UN), but there is little evidence that corporations that have signed such voluntary agreements have complied with the various principles of the compacts (in the case of the Global Compact: human rights, labour, and environment issues).

Another problem is that there are not only questionable governments, but of course also a lot of corporations most civil society activists do not like at all. In this context, the software giant from Redmond is the obvious example. But sometimes these things are less clear. Lisa McLaughlin used the example of networking leader Cisco, who publicly is perceived as a progressive router company, but also is involved in large military programmes under the wings of Lockheed Martin's military contracts, like the US Army's Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) program. Lisa McLaughlin pointed to the link between the Iraq war and the World Summit on the Information Society in order to make a general point about multi-stakeholder "partnerships":

The Army's Third Battalion in Iraq is being used as a kind of guinea pig for this project involving the "leveraging of technology" in wartime. So, if like most of the world, civil society actors are not supporting the Iraq war, is it appropriate to make alliances with Cisco Systems? That's for each organization to decide, I suppose. But it is important that we know, not that we're sleeping with strange bedfellows, but how strange are the bedfellows with which we are sleeping.

WSIS Stocktaking

The WSIS stocktaking exercise is also a tricky example. The ITU has set up an open database to monitor the implementation of the Geneva Plan of Action. Rik Panganiban (CONGO) recently suggested that the different civil society caucuses and working groups should disseminate information about this to their respective networks and partners "on the ground." Besides using the stocktaking exercise for presenting innovative projects that are more in line with civil society's values, there is also a political argument behind this:

It will be harder for us to argue for our seat at the table on the policy side if we are not seen as being involved on the other end on the implementation end.

The problem is: Civil Society did not endorse the Geneva Declaration, and even much less the Geneva Plan of Action. It was also highly critical to the idea of a fat ITU database for stocktaking. So why should civil society feed a database it does not like on a Plan of Action it does not like? In line with the recent Swiss proposal for a new stocktaking document for the summit, the meeting might turn out as just a showcase of everybody's pet project. What civil society maybe instead has to think about and ask for are benchmarking and binding agreements on priorities and next steps for all governments. Otherwise the whole exercise will end in an extremely liberal trade fair. Rikke Frank Joergensen from the Danish Human Rights Institute suggested that civil society instead should define its own stocktaking mechanisms and benchmarks, where progress can be measured according to some of the standards and documents developed by all the groups together in the first phase of WSIS.

Should activists carry government badges?

Another facet of the multi-stakeholder approach had been the practice to take NGO representatives on board as advisors to the governments' delegations. Activists from the Swiss NGO coalition, who in the first phase of WSIS had a good working relationship with the Swiss government, have now taken a more distanced approach. The Swiss used to take some civil society people on board with their official government delegation, which made it easier to follow closed-door negotiations and link up with the governments delegates. Now, according to some of the activists, the Swiss government has tried to establish a strict press strategy for members of the official delegation. Basically, it would mean that civil society members of the delegation could not freely speak to the press anymore. The activists, not willing to accept such censorship, preferred not to be on the delegation anymore.

A similar discussion has started in Germany recently. Jeanette Hofmann, who is co-coordinating the Internet Governance Caucus, wanted to speak on behalf of it during the PrepCom's deliberations on the WGIG's interim report, as she had done before. Surprisingly, now the WSIS executive secretariat had reservations, because she was officially registered as an advisor for the German government delegation. Jeanette Hofmann could speak in the end, but now the discussion about this has been taken to Berlin and is part of a struggle between different government departments and with other stakeholders on the inclusiveness of the process on a national level. There were signals from the government that a more silent role for the civil society members of the official delegation would make it easier to get broad support for the multi-stakeholder approach. Jeanette Hofmann had been elected as the leading civil society representative in the government delegation by the German WSIS coordination group last summer, and the government has accepted this vote so far. Now, the pretty inclusive German model seems to be under pressure again, and the activists have started to discuss how to deal with it. They will certainly not accept any attempt to be silenced, but do not want to pull out right now as their Swiss colleagues did. They are instead trying to think about how a real and full-blown multi-stakeholder process could and should look like on the national level.

Lessons learned in the UN system

The United Nations in the past few years have tried to develop these multi-stakeholder processes more strategically. Secretary general Kofi Annan at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 1999 urged the business leaders to join a "Global Compact" to bring companies together with UN agencies, labour and civil society to support a few basic principles  in the areas of human rights, labour, the environment, and anti-corruption. This initiative, which has spread around the world by now, is being controversially debated from the political science academics to the activists at the Social Fora. While some describe it as a "learning network" (Harvard researcher John G. Ruggie), others see it as a disaster for the credibility of the NGOs involved in it. No initiative taken by the Global Compact is binding, and there is no oversight mechanism to ensure the companies that subscribe to the principles actually adhere to them. The fact that the Global Compact office has recently switched to a stricter policy for the use of its logo is a small hint in the direction of corporate use of this initiative for pure marketing purposes.

The 2004 Cardoso report on better involvement of civil society within the United Nations could be read as a reaction to this. The UN diplomats seem to have understood that there is no use (or even a danger) in too much cosiness with big business. Therefore, civil society is needed as a balancing force with much more credibility. But what is its real impact?

Research on civil society participation in the wider global governance processes shows that it only has made a very small difference so far. Civil society groups are nowadays more welcome to sit on the (observer) tables, and sometimes to submit input as "experts" or "consumer interest groups". But they normally do not have a big impact on the outcomes of international negotiations. The latter still much more depends on the conflicts between governments or regional blocs.

Join forces, but stay independent

Evidence also suggests that civil society inside these processes was strong and influential if it could join forces either with important governments or with the private sector, or with a strong social movement that deliberately stayed out "on the streets" and was more radical in its opinions. One must not forget that the whole trend to include NGOs inside these UN processes started as a result of the fierce street fighting and protests around the WTO meeting in Seattle 1999. It was US President Clinton who in his famous dinner speech emphasized that the young people protesting on the streets had something to say and maybe some of them should be invited to the meeting.

As some of the more outspoken or grassroots-oriented groups have dropped out of the WSIS process since the first phase, civil society also has to discuss the reasons for this. There is nothing wrong with expanding public spaces in the former closed world of international diplomacy, and in general, every civil society speaker at an intergovernmental meeting is a good thing.

But in order to be effective and also have a longer-term impact, it is important for civil society to have a strategic discussion on where the different players stand, what their goals are, who can be an ally and who can not, and where and how to use the little pressure it can apply in order to have the biggest leverage. Just playing according to the rules that are written by UN and government diplomats will certainly not suffice. The independence of civil society groups from profit interests or power struggles over elections and other politics is one of its major strengths.

In a way, the proponents of more civil society involvement in global governance processes and the sceptics of these disciplining measures are not neccessarily taking contradictory points of view. They are rather complementary. While the latter are afraid of the evil (repressive, neoliberal, imperialist, <put your favourite derogatory political term here>) forces on the other side and are careful not to lend any legitimacy to them, the former are more confident in civil society's own strengh and its role as the world's public conscious. What is just starting is a debate on how to link the two sides of the equation. That's what strategy is about: Knowing yourself, your allies and your enemies. The debate on this will certainly be healthy. The major challenge is to get everybody relevant involved in it.

 


 
 
 
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