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 Civil society at WSIS, seen through the lens of the Conference of NGOs (CONGO)

From General Assembly resolution 56/183, officially endorsing the holding of the World Summit on the Information Society, until the adoption of the Phase II outcome document on 18 November 2005 in Tunis, the WSIS process raised many expectations and hopes. It also brought significant successes and accomplishments in terms of civil society participation. Looking back at my experiences as President of the Conference of NGOs (CONGO), I now see the WSIS as an extremely promising step in terms of UN – civil society relationships since civil society actors had never before been so closely associated in the preparation and the holding of a UN summit. But I also consider with great satisfaction the way civil society actors self-organised and built the interaction with the official process in a spirit of collective effort and responsiveness.

When briefly considering the world conferences of the nineties, it appears that NGOs had indeed started to get organized and speak with a common voice at NGO Fora. But the involvement of NGOs had remained side-lined and "parallel" to the official events sometimes even distant, both physically (see Beijing) and in the spirit (see Johannesburg) from the intergovernmental negotiations. Despite the undeniable impact of the NGO lobbying and advocacy activity on the intergovernmental deliberations, one could not speak yet of a true partnership between the United Nations and the emerging "global civil society".

In that regard the substantial and procedural nature of WSIS have been a major step forward in building a new model for global governance and a constructive way of engaging civil society into the process. WSIS was a successful test of the capacity of the multilateral system to find alternative and innovative ways to integrate a wider range of actors, including NGOs, academic institutions and local authorities, in a long-standing political process. WSIS represented a major breakthrough and finally implemented the multi-stakeholder approach long called for by civil society itself and by UN agencies organs and most strongly advocated by the Cardoso Panel on UN – Civil Society Relations. The stronger involvement of civil society was therefore a very relevant factor in dealing more adequately with the specific challenges raised by the Information Society.

Inclusion into the WSIS

Nevertheless, when looking back at the four past years, it appears that the full inclusion of civil society was definitely not taken for granted. WSIS was also a process of drawbacks and steps forwards. Indeed, when civil society/NGO representatives were already excluded from the discussion on rules and procedures – including on arrangements for accreditation of NGOs and other actors – during the First Preparatory Committee meeting (PrepCom-1) of the Geneva Phase, we as civil society became very angry and frustrated: real possibilities of interaction with governments were very limited and civil society felt that it was de facto excluded from the preparatory process. Even after the inter-sessional meeting in Paris (July 2003) and at the end of PrepCom-3 (September 2003) of the Geneva Phase, feelings among representatives of civil society organizations were mixed: Even though everybody welcomed the creation of new mechanisms of participation, their effectiveness still needed to be improved to channel successfully our input. There was a real danger that they were seen as a simple cosmetic operation that concretely didn’t help channelling our aspirations.

However, at the end of Phase II, the assessment looks much brighter: civil society was able to speak at official Plenary- and Sub-committees meetings and to observe and contribute to some drafting groups, as well as in the unique structure of the Working Group on Internet Governance. Institutional arrangements in terms of speaking rights and formal and informal interactions characterized this breakthrough in the political recognition of civil society as a meaningful partner for reflection, policy making, and implementation. The repeated reference to the multi-stakeholder nature of this Summit, as well as the development among civil society representatives of a critical awareness of their role, has therefore represented one of the most important precedents within the WSIS.


In addition, throughout the process, civil society demonstrated its capacity to organise itself. In spite of its substantial diversity within the WSIS, civil society has navigated in the institutional structure of the summit. Civil society representatives with their various origins, backgrounds and opinions, found their specificity vis-Ó-vis the other non-state stakeholders, in particular the private sector, and set up its role among the various categories of actors.

Concretely, civil society organized itself into innovative structures: a Civil Society Bureau (CSB, with a secretariat hosted by CONGO) as counterpart to the Inter-governmental Bureau; a Content and Themes Group - which coordinated the substantive input from the 36 regional or thematic Caucuses and Working Groups - and a CS Plenary which facilitated information exchange and gave legitimacy to the overall activities. This allowed maximum participation and diversity of opinion and created the possibility, both on-line and off-line, to shape common positions for input into the ongoing negotiations of the outcome document. Civil society demonstrated its capacity to develop an innovative approach in dealing with new ICTs for networking and producing collective views and common documents. The CSB proved to be a very efficient communication and institutional channel. It received major recognition for being the first experiment of this sort to facilitate multi-actor dialogue in UN summits and CONGO played a crucial role in that dynamics at all stages. WSIS also showed that civil society can function democratically in the framework of representative structures, which developed a more participative approach and facilitated a wider debate and dialogue among its members.

The existence of a Secretariat Support team highly contributed to this trend by making the involvement of the CSB more permanent and transparent, by facilitating its institutional relations through a full time, neutral and professional support and by making easier the interaction and information-sharing among CSB members and with other CS structures.

A four year experience of working together

Expectations were high among civil society activists about the effectiveness of these institutional arrangements we created. We all hoped that these mechanisms would lead us "from input to impact". Such self-organized structures were established on a voluntary basis and came from civil society itself. They had, during the four years of work we committed, no other legitimacy than our enduring willingness to work together, either to channel sometimes our frustration or to continue to go forward.

As President of the Conference of NGOs, my main concern was to improve the NGO/CS access to the UN system, but also to facilitate a more collaborative approach within civil society entities. I think that the WSIS process offered such an opportunity and this experience of working together now represents a confirmation that it can work and lead to significant achievements. I must therefore be grateful towards those who committed time and made efforts for inclusiveness and openness towards this constructive end.

Among the many lessons we experienced, I would mention the transparency in decision-making, accountability to one’s constituency and the legitimacy of the various structures. Although the majority of Civil Society actors came with extensive technical and other substantive knowledge but from the outside of so called mainstream UN NGOs, they needed and learned "the UN rules of the game".

The way ahead

Throughout the WSIS process, civil society was recognised as a valuable and meaningful partner by other stakeholders, including the UN, the WSIS ES and governments. The discourse related to civil society involvement has very positively progressed from consultation to partnership.

Two major questions remain unanswered though:

Will this experience be considered as a model in terms of inclusiveness and self-organisation of civil society that could be exported to other areas of the work of the United Nations?

How will the heritage of the WSIS process be preserved in the implementation and follow-up mechanisms?

This is what we have to look at now. The conclusion I would like to draw from my valuable experience within the WSIS is that it constituted a meaningful and very relevant laboratory for its participation in further intergovernmental processes. The continued deepening of self-coordination of civil society actors is also one of the main conditions to guarantee the long-term achievements of the WSIS goals. The up-coming steps will also be crucial for civil society participation in the various WSIS follow-up mechanisms, and CONGO is ready and willing to continue to perform such an essential task.


Geneva, September 2006 Renate Bloem
  President of CONGO





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Updated : 2006-12-12