1 December 2005. The Heinrich Böll Foundation had organized a side-event at the summit, called "Towards a sustainable and inclusive Knowledge Society - How to get there from WSIS?". It brought together a number of key civil society actors from inside and outside the WSIS process for a lively discussion, and it closed with the launch of a new publication: Our book "Visions in Process II".
The event was based on the assumption that civil society had organized its lobbying efforts fairly well in the four years of the summit process. Along the way the groups have also built diverse networks and coalitions, and have also shaped their own vision of an information society that meets human needs. Now, the main challenge is to ascertain that this process will generate a sustainable follow-up. The more specific questions directed at the speakers included: What should a post-WSIS agenda look like in the different world regions? What conclusions can be drawn from the civil society participation in the multi-stakeholder process of WSIS? Which arenas and perspectives open up for civil society involvement after the summit? What programmatic goals can unite the different social movements and initiatives dedicated to freedom of communication, open access to knowledge, and other core goals?
Developing the post-WSIS agenda
The first panel was focused on the post-WSIS agenda, but actually started with an assessment of the past. Anita Gurumurty from IT for Change in India questioned that WSIS has in fact met the expectations. Many from the South had hoped to see commitments from the global community, while in the end the process was "hijacked" by the United States, implicating a substantial loss for the South in terms of serious follow-up. The WSIS had failed to address global capitalism and development aspects, while focusing on a neo-liberal concept of "best practices" and market access. Chantal Peyer from Bread for All in Switzerland agreed that there were two competing paradigms in this process. The dominant one was the market approach, but the development paradigm at least got its small parts even in the official outcomes. The discussion had started here and had to be continued. Sally Burch from the CRIS Campaign was even more optimistic. In her view, civil society has actually managed to "turn around the agenda". Now, for follow-up, there were two levels to consider: First, implementation of the summit outcomes, where the focus should be on monitoring governments and their commitments, and second, work on issues that were excluded from the official agenda. This has to be strategically linked to other social movements, and the main task here is: "How can we build a social agenda with other issue movements?" This leads to spreading out to other international policy spaces, e.g. the upcoming WTO meeting in Hong Kong, and the WIPO discussions on the development agenda, but also to link communication rights to the World Social Forums.
The way ahead, this was the general feeling at the end of the first part, is to monitor and ensure public policies and implementation on the national level. This is much more difficult. Someone from the audience replied correctly: "How many things are we going to monitor? We spend too much time monitoring governments, but we don't do enough ourselves!". Panelist Gbenga Sesan, who used to be the Nigerian ICT youth ambassador, also said that civil society should get more involved on the ground. "More action, less talk" was his plea, and relating to the process after the environmental summit in Rio, he recommended: "Don't do it like Rio+10! The technology is already there." Ziad Abdel-Samad from the Arab NGO Network for Development agreed, but pointed out that this includes strategic choices, especially when it comes to spending the scarce money. "Is the goal to follow the WSIS process, or is it building sustainable knowledge societies?" How these two issues are related to each other (which is not necessarily the case) is a point where more strategic discussion and also division of labour were needed. Sally Burch in turn clarified that post-WSIS involvement on the national level should not be just monitoring. It is much more maintaining and building up pressure to make sure governments kept their commitments. This again needs to be based on a broader social movement around ICTs.
Civil Society @ WSIS: What was and what's next?
The second panel focused more in detail on the role of civil society. Claudia Padovani from the University of Padova in Italy spoke about the "emerging global movement on communication rights". One should not just look at the summit's output (i.e. the documents), but also on the outcome (i.e. the social and political networks). The challenge now is to develop a common language ("framing") that all different groups and communities can relate to and thereby develop a collective identity. The core elements of communication rights were freedom, openness, inclusiveness, participation, and a view on knowledge, information and culture as common goods. The movement, in order to grow and become more coherent, then needs collective participation on political conflicts and struggles. "How do we identify the controversial issues and the sites of power where the fights have to take place?", she asked. Well, according to Padovani, the WSIS unwillingly did a great job for this! Karen Banks from APC agreed with this analysis, but said that the real challenge was to actually make it happen. WSIS was useful to bring people together, as global processes in general provide a hook that keep things moving. What then can be the next global process to get people together?
Parminder Jeet Singh from IT for Change in India focused on the role of civil society in these "multi-stakeholder processes", for which the summit process had been praised by many. He instead called WSIS "one of the most a-political policy processes ever". The dominant multi-stakeholder approach also serves as a disciplining and excluding mechanism for the more radical voices. Geert Lovink from the Incommunicado Network in Amsterdam, summarized that civil society is still working inside a critical agenda, but has not yet developed a strategic agenda. It would be important for the follow-up to find critical topics where civil society can proactively intervene and gain greater leverage, instead of only reacting. He also asked for "more aggressive" campaigning. The CRIS Campaign in his view was no real campaign, but very much a closed network, if compared to the campaign against software patents. The latter was also directed from a more or less closed core of people, but had a very broad public participation aspect. The NGOs in WSIS also were a bit dusty, compared to Wiki, blogging, or podcasting developments. Chris Kabwato from Highway Africa in South Africa nicely summarized that we have learned a lot together in terms of awareness, networks, and opportunities, but are by far not there yet. It takes a lot of patience to build a global social movement and change global politics, as Parminder Jeet Singh had said in his earlier presentation.
Book Launch by the Heinrich Böll Foundation
The event closed with a book launch of "Visions in Process II - The World Summit on the Information Society". Olga Drossou and Heike Jensen from the Heinrich Böll Foundation have produced and edited a follow-up publication to the 2003 "Visions in Process I". It again looks at the process and the issues in the WSIS, how they evolved, where civil society gained and lost etc. This time, the book is not only much thicker, but it is also one of the few publications on information society issues that only has female contributors. Most of them joined the panel for the final round and the closing applause, and they received a nice tongue-in-cheek gift from Heike Jensen: A "WSIS - Women Shaping the Information Society" merit certificate.
Download the book (pdf, 4.3 MB)