By Charlotte Dany
23 November 2005. Now that the World Summit on the Information Society has come to an end in Tunis, civil society organisations evaluate their involvement in the process to learn from the experiences made. Several side events of WSIS addressed examples of best practices of civil society participation. In sharing good experiences, while not neglecting challenges, civil society organisations may improve their performance in the future. WSIS is not the end, but the starting point for the implementation process in which civil society is supposed to play a crucial role as partner to governments and the private sector. Putting for once aside debates on the lack of influence and experiences of repression, some positive vibes seem to be appropriate, to shape this future process in an effective and fruitful way.
CONGO, the Conference of NGOs in Consultative Status with the UN, assembled representatives of civil society organisations from all over the world on 16 November to share their experiences on projects related to the WSIS process. The civil society actors shared best practice examples of projects in Asia, Latin America, Africa, the United States and Europe. However, diversity had not only been secured by inviting projects from the different regions of the world but also by focusing on different levels of influence: local, regional, and international. So grassroots organisations from Bangladesh were represented as well as the World Bank and Regional Women's initiatives from Africa. Despite the diversity of the projects, similarities crystallized on the successes and challenges they faced. This common ground can be used as a starting point for improving the effectiveness and quality of civil society action, both from the side of civil society itself as well as from the international community, namely the United Nations and governments.
The connections to other NGOs and governments were seen as a major success. Cooperation and collaboration, within civil society and between civil society and governments, were mentioned by many speakers as a positive experience. During another side event of WSIS, held on 15 November, civil society representatives from Uganda, Denmark and Canada praised the consulting process with their own or foreign governments and the UNESCO respectively. Denmark was the first and most progressive country in including civil society representatives in their national delegation. The Ugandan experience is an example of collaboration with the Danish government, which supported the UN Association of Uganda financially and personally for organising workshops and seminars about the WSIS. Francois-Pierre Le Scouarnec of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO favoured civil society participation and believed that civil society involvement actually leads to policy change.
Tracey Naughton from the Civil Society Bureau, who runs a media project in Mongolia, posited that change happens at a slow pace. Therefore, change and impact of civil society action is often hard to assess, but nevertheless, involvement is valuable. Speakers from the Youth Caucus and African women's organisations underlined the necessity of peer-to-peer learning. Addressees of civil society campaigns should become trainers and spread the message - advocacy should be combined with action. Bruno Lanvin from the World Bank told the audience about how he has learned that instead of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), the underlying problems such as health and education issues, should be the focus of the projects. ICTs were merely a tool to achieve development goals - or, to put it another way: ICT can not be the answer when you forget the questions.
So, where do we go from here? After WSIS civil society need to focus on the implementation of the regional and national level. In doing so, cooperation should not only be strengthened with governments, but also with the private sector. As well, it will be important that those involved in the projects need to know the context they works in. They need to know the local culture and share a common language with the people they address. Therefore, basic and small scale projects may fulfil valuable functions. Many speakers referred to several "Cs" as principles that should guide civil society action. In the hope that they do not only fulfil alliterative functions, these are: Coordination, Cooperation and Collaboration with other actors. The focus should be on Content, Communication, Capacity building, Care and management and Connectivity.