Civil Society

Civil Society innovates for influence at WSIS

GENEVA -- As has been the case at every recent United Nations global conference, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and representatives of civil society played an active and influential role in the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

Indeed, some observers said civil society had its largest impact yet at a major UN conference, thanks to several major innovations in the procedures for interaction with governments at the WSIS. By one count, some 60 percent of the language and/or ideas in the final documents originated with civil society.

"This was the beginning of a new process," said Renate D. Bloem, president of the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Status with the United Nations (CONGO). "We had a consistent influence and we can see the handwriting of our contributions in the final documents."

Ms. Bloem and others said among the most important innovations was the establishment of a Civil Society Bureau, which is designed to serve as an organizing agency for ideas and proposals from civil society and a conduit for transmitting them to governments.

Indeed, for the first time at a United Nations conference, civil society representatives were allowed into government negotiating sessions at preparatory committee meetings and given a chance to address items under discussion on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis.

"This has never occurred before at any other UN conference on the global level," said Ms. Bloem, who also served as president of the Civil Society Bureau during the WSIS.

Louise Lassonde, coordinator of the Civil Society Division of the WSIS Secretariat said governments were willing to allow civil society representatives into their negotiating sessions because of a de facto compromise, underlying the Bureau's creation, that defined civil society as collaborators instead of critics in the Summit's process.

"What we tried to do is invent a new rule of the game, which moved from conflictual relationships with governments and the other stakeholders to a common understanding of the specific role and responsibility of each," said Ms. Lassonde. "Governments accepted that civil society has expertise and knowledge and a hands-on approach [that can help solve problems]. And civil society acknowledged that governments were going to make the final decisions about issues before the Summit."

Further, said Ms. Lassonde, the mechanics of the Bureau forced civil society to refine its comments and present them as an operational consensus. Among the new mechanisms was the creation of a "content and themes" group that coordinated input from the civil society caucuses into the government negotiating sessions.

"For governments, instead of 3,000 interlocutors, they had one," said Ms. Lassonde. "And so the governments were more willing to say to civil society that we recognize you as a partner, that we recognize that you have good advice, and so we accept that you can sit in the governmental meeting."

Ms. Lassonde noted, however, that the arrangement was a "de facto" one, and that official conference rules of procedures were not actually changed. "That would have set a precedent for other UN conferences," she said, and governments were not willing to go that far.

Ms. Bloem said civil society interactions with governments were the key to changing the Summit from its initial focus on the technical issues related to information and communications technologies to a focus on how such technologies can be used to advance social and economic development.

"We completely turned the Summit around from a technology basis to putting the human being at the center of the whole thing," said Ms. Bloem. "The information society is not just about creating markets for software companies, but it is about the well-being of human beings."

Guillaume Chenevière, president of the World Radio and Television Council (WRTVC), agreed that civil society had a huge impact on changing the Summit's perspective from technical to social.

"At the end of the day," said Mr. Chenevière, "the fact that the United Nations is now tackling the issue of the 'information society' in the broad definition that has been agreed in Geneva -- 'information' meaning information and knowledge, not only wires and bytes -- can usefully contribute to the necessary redefinition of the UN mission in a globalized world."

Another innovation at the WSIS was the absence of a separate non-governmental forum. Instead, NGO and civil society delegates focused all their energies on lobbying and interaction at the Summit venue itself. At previous UN conferences, there has nearly always been a separate NGO forum; at the same time, such forums have usually been physically separated from the main governmental conference, thus limiting access in many respects.

"Such forums were often a fantastic playground for civil society to come together and bring great ideas forward, but not always in a way that made a real impact," said Ms. Bloem.

Ms. Bloem also stressed that the interactions between civil society and governments were not perfect at the WSIS. "There were and remain a lot of questions," she said. "But I would take this as a process that can be developed and applied at any upcoming UN summit."