One step backwards
  From Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships to Public-Private Ones
  By Heike Jensen
28 June 2005. The WSIS Thematic Meeting announced on the ITU web site as "Government of Germany - International Policy Dialogue: 'Mainstreaming ICT for Development: the Key Role of the Private Sector'," drew about 50 participants on 21 and 22 June. It departed decisively from the WSIS framework of multi-stakeholderism and focused on public-private partnerships (PPPs). Civil society participants were allowed to attend, but their interest in this two-day event seemed next to non-existent. They did not miss much, except good food and very interesting conversations during the breaks.

The meeting was held to reaffirm that ICTs need to be mainstreamed for development, to stress the importance of the private sector in this context and to identify which policy framework best serves private sector investment to this end. No new ground was broken in these respects, as the well-established formula of "supportive, transparent, stable, pro-competitive and predictable policy" was reiterated from the business side, which is already amply reflected in the Geneva documents (Declaration para. 39, Action Plan paras. C6.a and D2.di). In fact, even one of the chairpersons got so bored with this formula that he quipped how amazing it is that so much development and business, if not all of it, has taken place under conditions so far removed from this ideal situation.

In the discussions, some participants noted that there are missing links between the development community/the public side and the private sector. Unfortunately, no precise differentiation within each stakeholder group was worked out in the course of the conference. Thus, the public side encompasses everything from donor entities to ministries in donor countries as well as developing countries. And the business side encompasses transnational corporations, small and medium enterprises, and non-profit business organizations. While the business side offered many concrete insights into the problems it saw with respect to the public side of PPPs with ICT components (as opposed to other PPPs), the public side by and large did not offer a corresponding, well-developed picture of the shortcomings (or virtues, for that matter) of the business side. Interestingly, and in contrast to the framework of the formula mentioned above, there seemed to be little focus on investment from the business side and much focus on investment from the public side in the business side. This slippage might illustrate why PPPs are now jokingly running under the heading "I thought YOU were going to pay", as an inside source reported.

Problems identified by the business side with the public/donor side are the following ones:

  • Procurement should not specify any technologies because the procurement process is so long that these technologies will be outdated when a company is chosen and the project finally gets underway.
  • Similarly, business models should be allowed to shift, as the money-generating schemes might also have shifted in the course of time, e.g. from owning and licensing software to online pay-per-use.
  • Infrastructure should not only be used as was initially specified, but should also be usable for additional services or goals.
  • The need to provide risk capital was reiterated, and it was pointed out that public funds or seed money for a pilot phase would not be scalable for later developments.
  • A form of pilotism was diagnosed, where each endeavor insists on having its own unique pilot instead of identifying good examples and adopting them across endeavors and sectors.
  • Concurrently, donor agencies seem to want to constantly develop their own software instead of using software that is readily available.
  • A suspicion held by the public/donor side against the business/profit side was diagnosed.
  • The disabling requirement to engage with a large number of different ministries to have money released for sector-cross-cutting ICT initiatives was brought up.
  • Concurrently, it appears that ICT components are often not traceable in sectoral policies and hence cannot be assessed, developed further and brought together.
  • Therefore, cross-governmental leadership would be required.

One fundamental problem identified by the public side with the model of PPPs is the one of how to diagnose a "market failure" that would necessitate an outside intervention, or how putting public money into private companies can be justified as stimulating the market/development rather than distorting a market. These questions again reflect shortcomings regarding definitions and differentiation. At bottom, it remained unclear if development is more than a rise in business transactions and the meeting of demands via the market. It also remained unclear whether racist and sexist discrimination within the national and international business structures should be seen as market failures, given that they are at the very root of the worldwide and domestic division of labor and assets and hence anchor this market system. Thus it would for instance have been easy to make the case that PPPs need to address gender imbalances, which would have tied in with the very good contributions provided by Namrata Bali, Secretary General of the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in India, and Salome Ganibe, Regional Coordinator of the Asian Women in Co-operative Development Forum in the Philippines. Needless to say, this was not the main thrust of the conference.

Incidentally, it was in the contributions of the two women just mentioned that the need for civil society involvement was most clearly voiced, since the two organizations themselves go far beyond core business activities. The opportunity to take them as models and to analyze more carefully how these could point the way to new models beyond PPPs and their well-known drawbacks and shortcomings was lost, however.


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