LETTER FROM THE WSIS PREPCOM: CHASING RED HERRINGS IN ACCRA

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The African ICT Gravy Train passed through Accra in January last week with the hosting there of the WSIS Second Phase African Preparatory Meeting. An anonymous observor from the private sector wrote of this account of last week's chaotic proceedings.

Millions of dollars were spent and billions of air miles were clocked up as hundreds of ICT groupies descended on the decaying Accra International Conference Centre (built by the Yugoslavs in 1991) to confer on Africa’s digital future for over a week.

The organization was appalling, the air conditioning hardly worked, the food was terrible and over-priced, the programme was disjointed. But the Ghanaians kept smiling their charming smiles through it all - and we all made useful contacts with each other. No matter how much we may communicate via the Internet, there is nothing to replace personal contact – especially in Accra’s delightful night clubs. But that’s another story……

The conference itself was a waste of the brainpower gathered there.

There was utter chaos as we all tried to work out the timings and venues for the numerous multiple streams spread over two centres. The Ghanaians wanted to show off their spanking new Kofi Annan ICT Centre of Excellence funded by the Indians so some sessions were held there. At least the managers there hadn’t had time to run the air conditioning system into the ground yet, so we could cool down in those sessions. But there was no shuttle service between the two venues so you’d be soaking with perspiration by the time you walked back.

Delegates traded information as they searched for their selected sessions. “Selected” is a strong word because it implies consideration of alternatives, as in scanning a printed, visible programme. Very seldom was a complete programme for the day available in one document or even in one place at the beginning of the day.

And finding the programme for the following day to do some planning? Forget it! We were working on speculation and rumour. Hard facts, like in the conference itself, were very hard to come by.

And when we finally got to the selected sessions, they started late, speakers went off on tangents; new speakers were added just because they wanted to say their piece. The smaller sessions had no translation so much time was wasted as helpful participants did impromptu translations for the linguistically challenged. Nor did they have projectors, so we had to huddle round laptop screens. (Another opportunity to get to know fellow delegates better.)

I attended the stream on private sector input for WSIS most of Monday. We worked hard in a stuffy room with one fan and no translation. We wanted to show the others (gender, civil society, government etc) that we could keep up our end of the social contract we had all entered to find ways to make ICTs reduce poverty in Africa. We had presentations on incubators, building infrastructure, coping with corruption, accepting social responsibility, building capacity, etc. We appointed a working group to formulate a statement while the rest of us went on an extended afternoon tea break. We reassembled; the statement of truisms was read; the one Francophone delegate who had been heard speaking English during the tea break insisted on a full translation. Then he added his bits – in French. We were now all too tired to ask for a translation back into English. Whatever it was, it was passed unanimously.

Next morning a very strong rumour (about force 8 level) circulated that there was another private sector session over at the Kofi Annan Centre, where our conclusions were going to be presented to none other than Ghana’s Minister of Communications himself. Taxis were hailed and we mustered ourselves into the glorious coolness of the Kofi Annan freezer box. The Minister was not there. Some of the same presentations were given again with slight variation; our statement was read out. Would it be passed on somewhere up the WSIS chain of command?

But there was a surprise in store for us. There was a new speaker who had had not been with us foot-soldiers the previous day. He was the Privileged One who had been appointed by the UN Secretary-General to serve on the “WSIS Co-ordinating Committee of Business Interlocutors”. They had already been working on all these problems, no doubt on long trips and generous per diems, and he was able to give us a superb presentation, and even a print-out, on the priorities for the private sector. It made our pathetic attempt of the previous day pale into insignificance. There was a complete disconnect between what we had been fooling about with and what was going on in the upper echelons of WSIS.

We retired lamely for drinks and snacks, our statement soon forgotten as we planned the evening’s social programme.

Back at the main conference centre there was grumbling in the ranks over the controlling influence being exercised from on high. Statements had been appearing in session reports that bore no resemblance to the actual discussions.

Like our politicians, the conference organizers remained aloof, choosing to deal with problems behind closed doors. The lovely young girls behind the registration counter had to bear the brunt of the anger from those delegates who had to wait up to four days to secure name badges – which in the end were not much worth the trouble. Being just slightly larger than postage stamps, they were difficult to read except by getting close and intimate (good fun in some cases).

After five days of practicing these various routines and almost losing interest in the elusive programme, the big day came. The President was going to open the main conference. Traditional dancers ululated and pranced around the entrance, security police in dark glasses did their Men-in-Black impersonations, sirens wailed, outriders swept ahead of the motorcade, the police band struck up and launched into delightful colonial tunes.

It was obviously a very special day because we were actually handed a printed version of the day’s full programme as we walked in; there would be no hunting and begging for programmes today. Hallaluya! This was the real thing.

We were all galvanized into a frenzy of expectation and optimism. Perhaps there was some meaning to all this after all. We listened attentively, with due deference to the line-up of local and international policy-makers. But by lunch over ten politicians had stood up to mouth virtually all the same platitudes about how ICT was going to solve Africa’s problems of economic stagnation and poverty. We were all pretty much back into our regular state of catatonic despondency.

But the organizers had an ace up their sleeves. There was a VIP lunch for the lucky selected hundred or so to attend, with an invitation from the President himself. The invitations were randomly distributed and a black market threatened to emerge as participants tried to secure their places at the high table of privilege.

But the catch was that the lunch was at a hotel on the other side of town. Why do it close by when you can create more logistical mayhem across the entire city? The traffic was terrible; we all got there late – so did the Vice-President who ended up representing the President who, luckily for him, had matters of state to attend to.

Protocol had to be observed, the sponsor had to make a welcome speech and announce that, amazingly, today of all days, they had reached one million subscribers, and we started eating at 2.30. The vital afternoon plenary session starting at 3pm across on the other side of town was soon forgotten as top South African wines and any other alcohol you wanted flowed freely. We needed it. We were all sweltering in the outdoor heat and humidity. The rapper rapped his odd mixture of sponsor commercials and ICT-cure-all messages. This was not a working lunch. We soon lost any sense of urgency that we may have salvaged from the morning.

Back at the Plenary Session the audience was down to a few dozen die-hards, but eventually the VIPs started drifting back, no doubt fully refreshed and ready to tackle Africa’s ICT challenges. Infrastructure, policy, regulation, youth, gender, solidarity funds, Internet governance……. the words were tripping off the tongue even more easily now.

But let me get back to those red herrings before I descend into too much cynicism.

Red Herring No 1: Internet Governance

A huge amount of energy has been wasted on this issue. ICANN is suspect for some activist countries like South Africa because of its origin and base in the US and the fact that its contracts are still governed by US law. The lines have been drawn; the publicity budgets committed; the lobbying goes on and on; and it adds huge amounts of grist to the WSIS mill.

But we don’t have time to waste on this. ICANN may well be as imperfect as the air conditioning system in the Accra International Conference Centre. In which case, let’s fix it. It has the technical experience. Its dedicated staff has a strong commitment to the fair management of the Internet. To take the control of upper level domains from them and hand it to some amorphous international bureaucracy - and get politicians involved - would be just about as foolhardy as organizing a boozy lunch on the other side of town when we need to focus on key policy issues.

Red Herring No 2: The Digital Solidarity Fund

President Wade of Senegal has proposed this to bridge the digital divide and now all his presidential brothers across Africa must support him in promoting it through WSIS. There is much pride at stake and more battle lines have been drawn. Strong words were exchanged on this in the Financing Session.

We were told the Fund had already been launched and was going to be headquartered in Geneva where donors could be assured of financial transparency (I thought that the raison d’etre of Swiss banking was its lack of transparency.) A house had already been given by the Swiss to accommodate the Fund. Top dogs had already been appointed. It was not clear by whom.

But the donors would have none of it. They wanted practical projects to fund – not yet another bureaucracy, no doubt on UN-type packages with nice expenses.

Fortunately, none of the major donor countries, apart from France, which is keeping its options open, are going to succumb to the Digital Solidarity Fund (aka Digital Gravy Train). Substantial funds already exist that cannot find worthy projects. Donors have made it clear they are willing to allocate millions more to ICT projects in Africa. But not through a fat-cat fund in Geneva, thank you very much.

Do you remember when African leaders cheered and applauded Robert Mugabe at the World Summit in Johannesburg in 2002? They closed ranks behind him when Tony Blair openly criticized him for his multiple transgressions against human decency.

Exactly the same syndrome is now going to bog down the WSIS process. African pride is at stake and when that happens there will be little room for compromise, rational strategizing, and effective planning to capitalize on the huge goodwill that does exist among donor countries to support ICT for development in Africa.

WSIS Tunis in November is no doubt going to be better organized; attendance will be huge; more millions will be spent. But very little will be achieved if we don’t let go of these two red herrings.

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