The Latin American and Caribbean Regional Ministerial Preparatory Conference for the World Summit on the Information Society, from the point of view of the NGOs

2 June 2010

Immediately after the World Social Forum, the Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Conference (one of the Preparatory Conferences for the World Summit on the Information Society) was held in Bávaro, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, from the 29th to the 31st of January, 2003. Organised by Indotel, CEPAL, the ITU (International Telecommunications Union- the UN agency that is organising the World Summit) and the World Bank, this conference is part of the preparatory process for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) to be held in two parts: the first in Geneva (December, 2003) and the second in Tunisia (2005).

Almost all countries in the region were represented at Bávaro, as well as UNESCO, United Nations Development Programme, the World Health Organisation, the Inter American Development Bank and other representatives of the United Nations, the European Union, the Organisation of American States, various programmes and institutes, development banks, some universities, the private sector (which ranged from mass media to telecommunications companies), and Civil Society (with the presence of a large number of networks, amongst which were the DAWN Network, the APC Women's Networking Programme, ALAI, Funredes, the international community radio association, AMARC, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) and Chasquinet). There were also delegations from the USA and Canada which, after some discussion, were finally accepted as participants in the negotiations for the Final Declaration, with speaking and voting rights .

Also present were representatives of the governments of those countries where similar regional conferences have been held prior to this one, such as Mali, Japan and Russia, as well as countries which have hosted previous events, such as Spain and France, and the host countries for the WSIS, Switzerland and Tunisia .

The main objective of the Conference was to "carry out a regional evaluation of the challenges and opportunities presented by the Information Society for Latin America and the Caribbean, and at the same time to work towards the elaboration of a regional position for the World Summit on the Information Society".

Topics dealt with at the Regional Conference

"the transition towards the Information Society

"the characteristics of the regulatory frameworks necessary for the development of the Information Society in Latin America and the Caribbean

"human capital requirements in the Information Society

"the financing necessary to obtain the benefits of the Information Society

The Conference was organised in plenary sessions and thematic debating sessions, to which non governmental organisations (NGOs) were invited to contribute as panellists. Parallel to the conference, a one-day workshop was held with the private sector, INDOTEL (the local host agency for this Regional Conference), the ITU and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), where representatives of development banks were also present. This workshop was open to all participants, although it clashed with the main plenary session.

Unfortunately, the Civil Society event, organised by the Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP), was held on February 28, making it impossible for many of the NGOs and networkswho were also at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil to attend. The results of this event, which were quite interesting, were presented to the Plenary on the last day of the Conference. GKP describes itself as a network of networks, made up of three sectors: public, private and Civil Society. This organisation has held workshops in all the other regional conferences and its objectives focus on: the Millennium Challenge as a main guideline; centring the Information Society debate on people rather than on technology; and relating the challenges to productivity with a view to overcoming poverty.

It should be mentioned that there were also parallel or informal meetings among the NGOs and networks present, with the idea of organising a regional NGO meeting. At one of these, the WSIS President, Mr Adama Samassekou and UNESCO were present.

The DAWN ( Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era) Network was represented by Magaly Pazello (Brazil) in one of the thematic sessions. Her presentation in the session on human capital ( focussed on social inequality and the digital divide and was quite general, given that each participant had only 15 minutes to speak. It mentioned that without efficient and effective public policies to overcome poverty, the Information Society could deepen inequalities instead of narrowing or eradicating them, and that this has a much greater impact on poor women, afro-descendents, indigenous peoples and the young poor. She also pointed out that the new information and communication technologies have not contributed to changing unequal gender relations, especially as regards the sexual division of labour. With the exception of DAWN, the Centre of Investigation for Women's Action (CIPAF) and the APC Women's Networking Support Programme (WNSP), there did not appear to be representation from other women's groups, and even less from feminist groups (only DAWN and CIPAF).

We observed that there is a large gap between the perspectives of those movements active in the information society and other social movements, seen in the language used in the declarations, which is often quite backwards and seems to rely on requests for hand-outs , particularly where gender is concerned. Dialogue is needed amongst these movements so that actions around the Information Society do not return to the past, or even worse, allow the language already consecrated in the United Nations to be revised and exclude language already achieved in the so-called UN Social Cycle (the cycle of conferences of the 90's). There was no consensus around contributions which went beyond a welfare-type approach to themes related to women, excluded ethnic groups, the disabled, the young, the old, and "marginalized" groups.. The contributions of the NGOs present went no further than the reductionist viewpoint which transforms so-called excluded groups into a single label, without taking into consideration their specific qualities and above all their political contributions and activities over the last 20 years. So it is extremely important that the various social movements talk to each other so that the debate around the Information Society improves in quality and visibility, and can really have an effect at the decision-making level.

Final Declaration

The negotiations around the Bávaro Final Declaration were slow and suffered from a "small issue" between the USA and Cuba: 40 years of embargo. The Cuban delegation informed NGOs who contact them that they used the access to information and communication theme, to try to gain access to the Internet cables which come out of the US and connect the rest of the continent. The USA will not tolerate this. The discussions over the paragraph related to the transparency of the governing Internet bodies were also difficult, and to manage to include three little words, "democratisation", "transparency" and "representativeness" was very hard. The NGOs present were able to propose contributions to the final text of the Declaration, preparing a short document with their contributions and suggestions for each paragraph which was distributed to some delegations.

The Conference lasted for three days and only in the early hours of the third day was agreement reached on a provisional (final) text for the Final Declaration, which contained the dissenting views of the US and Canadian delegations. The very two countries which before had been excluded from the Conference and given no chance to contribute to the document because the event had not been conceived as including all of the Americas.

Of note in this process was the ease in getting access to the national delegations, since we all shared the same space, as well as to representatives from the UN, the World Bank and the private sector. On the one hand, it is very interesting, because it suggests that NGOs can start up close and even informal dialogues, yet on the other hand it may allow these very moments of dialogue not to be any more than just that, without creating any possibility for exchange and input into the decisions taken around the negotiated document. In fact, this big opening up was just one side of the story, because the NGOs justly complained of not having any real help for their participation, such as funding for the journey to Bávaro (which is very expensive) or online discussions prior to the Conference. Really very few NGOs or networks were present.

But one has to recognise that the Regional Conference though had been planned for the same dates as the World Social Forum, after various requests there was enough political good faith on the part of the governments and ECLAC for the dates to be moved by one day, allowing the NGOs at the Forum to also attend the Conference. This was a key part of the discussion amongst NGOs in the CRIS-AL mailing list. Those of us who have followed other negotiating processes can compare and affirm that the Bávaro Regional Conference was more open than many other processes carried out by ECLAC in the region. Many of the NGOs present at Bávaro lacked expertise in working in negotiating processes with government delegations. It is not easy to move amongst governments and to take into account the range of negotiations which often occur in other political arenas but which play a key role in the WSIS also. This is a disadvantage faced by NGOs in a regional and global process, and for this reason it is extremely important to create capacity-building opportunities to learn about political lobbying and negotiation.

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