POSTCARD FROM WSIS IN GENEVA - EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE

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Last week saw the World Summit on the Information Society take place in Geneva. Russell Southwood sends a postcard from the event.

The WSIS process was born in 1998 at an ITU plenipotentiary meeting where it was nodded through as the last item on the agenda. Few can have imagined that it would result in a meeting of the kind that has just taken place. It was rumoured to have cost the Swiss 18m euros. But don’t weep for the Swiss as one African participant told me:"I’ve already gone through USD200. I could live for a month on that. Every time you buy a drink or a meal it seems like another USD20 has disappeared."

WSIS in Geneva consisted of two things: a Summit of world leaders and a "trade show" of exhibition stands with a mixture of Governments, private sector ICT companies and digital divide NGOs. There was very little direct relationship between these two things.

Besides all the usual platitudes that Summits of world leaders generate, two major issues were discussed: a Digital Solidarity Fund designed to address the global digital divide and an ITU-inspired proposal for it to take over the GAC committee functions of ICANN. Neither was successfully adopted.

In several noisy and bad tempered pre-WSIS planning sessions, the African delegates held out for a commitment to the Digital Solidarity Fund. The developed nations took the view that funds were already being made available to address these issues and that additional money would need to be diverted from other programmes. The mirage of new money is one of Africa’s cruelest delusions. Senegal, Mali and Rwanda stubbornly held out for its inclusion but eventually had to agree a statement that reflected the reflected the sharp differences of opinion.

Although the African delegates voted together there were a number of governments who were privately admitting that the proposals made no sense. You cannot propose something and hope to be successful if you havn’t the money to pay for it and others won’t. Rattling the international begging bowl is no substitute for having enlightened and effective ICT leadership on the continent itself.

On the GAC and ICANN the issue was sidestepped as it was agreed to set up a committee that would look at the issue before the next WSIS meeting in 2005. Press reports always seem to conclude that the developing world is in favour of the ITU taking over these functions but those we speak to in Africa seem much more divided on the issue than this coverage would seem to suggest.

The Summit speeches were in the main awfully predictable. One participant joked that it would be possible to write a composite summit speech entirely composed of the most popular digital divide cliches:"empowering our people using ICT", "connecting to global markets" and "closing the digital divide". The speakers themselves gave some indication of the mismatch in the importance accorded the event by the developed and developing world. African presidents swept by with their entourages looking for their ten minutes of fame on the Summit stage but there were few leaders of developed nations present.

Light relief (if we might dare to call it that) was provided by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe who said that the internet was a plot by British and American imperialism. This was a back-handed endorsement of its power from a man who clearly feels threatened by e-mail, the internet (outside of his media laws) and SMS text messages. Unsurprisingly few developing countries were keen to focus on freedom of expression which by any standard must surely be one of the pillars of whatever might be imagined to be the information society.

The "trade show" alongside the main Summit hall was a large area of exhibition stands including from Africa the governments of: Egypt, Ghana, Mozambique, Mali, South Africa and Tunisia. Mali’s stand was one of the larger ones. You might ask what Mali (or indeed the other countries) hoped to get in concrete terms from its attendance. No-one we spoke to seemed to have any very clear answers.

If there’;s such a thing as a global village, this was the newly-built suburb of the digital divide tribe. It made it an "uber-networking" event where it was possible to go from meeting someone senior from Microsoft to a Minister and then on to the person you met at s conference last year all in the space of half an hour. I was almost "run down" by Kofi Annan and his security entourage who swept by at what can only really be described as a steady jog. Alongside this incessant networking, there was a steady stream of events, launches and awards ceremonies. As with the Summit itself, no-one seemed entirely clear what it all might contribute to changing anything.

Ever since the WSIS process was started, I have been asking people what it was meant to achieve. It doesn’t matter whether they came from Government, the private sector or civil society, all would privately admit that it was probably going to be something that would achieve very little. The last time I saw someone pitch it publicly the best the speaker could do was to say that the "trade show" would be an excellent event.

So onwards we go to Tunisia in 2005. Well, maybe. Thus far there is no money on the table for holding the event and the Tunisians will probably need to have a special UN appeal to find the cash to underwrite it. Whatever happens, it will probably be a smaller and less notable event. It is as the old Arab saying goes: "The dogs bark and the caravan moves on."