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 Thursday, 4 July 2002

Developing the themes

After three days of general statements, rules and procedures meeting, and presentations about ICT development initiatives around the world, the assembly began addressing issues of content and themes on Thursday. Given the important role that ICTs play in virtually every sector of the global economy, the first preparatory committee for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) faces a daunting task of creating content and themes that will address the various segments and of the information society.

With little more than four and a half hours to develop a report relating to themes and content for WSIS, the delegates were pressed for time. However, the assembly had a framework to work from, thus helping to ensure the success of the deliberations. UN General Assembly Resolution 56/183 established three key concerns regarding themes: vision, access and applications. During day four of the preparatory committee meetings the international community focused on these key themes.

Despite a general agreement on the proposed themes for WSIS, virtually every delegation offered ways in which the structure and themes could be improved. From adding new themes to expanding and rewording exiting themes, the member states emphasized the need to remain focused on how ICTs can be used for economic and social development and avoid getting into the politics surrounding modernization. While there were a variety of new proposals introduced throughout the day, some key themes emerged.

Casting a broader net

Sudan opened the proceedings by suggesting more emphasis be placed on better definitions of some of the core concepts outlined in the theme document prepared by the Executive Secretariat. That delegation's sentiments set the tone for the morning session. From Latvia's request to provide a clearer definition of 'e-government' to Costa Rica's plea to allocate more time and resources toward addressing the quality of information accompanying ICT diffusion and Columbia's appeal to outline some of the obstacles impeding ICT development in less developed countries, it was clear that there was still much work to do.

Some member states even suggested totally revamping the proposed themes. For instance, China suggested six broad themes that it felt would provide a greater understanding of the objectives of WSIS. Of particular mention was that delegation's request for language concerning ICT security issues and a clearer definition of international corporations in ICT-focused development. Pakistan's spokesperson, Ms. Zahra Mumtaz Baloch, summed it up, saying, "We believe there are substantive issues in the documents prepared by the Executive Secretariat, but they need to be further discussed by and with developing countries."

India also argued for broadening the themes for WSIS, suggesting that themes, in their current form, do not necessarily reflect the objectives the summit is striving to achieve. Instead of "opening the gates" and "the needs of users," the Indian delegation proposed using "ICT and poverty alleviation and development or ICT and governance", arguing that these themes better represent the task at hand. Brazil concurred, indicating that the themes as the stand do not capture the essence of a development approach. Brazil's spokesperson went on to note that the lack of language relating to the social and cultural issues detracts from the Summit's purpose.

Preserving cultural diversity

Of the many issues that were brought up during the morning session, the notion of protecting the cultural heritage throughout the developing world was one of the key topics stressed by many of the member states. The widespread diffusion of ICTs and the accompanying access to the global information pool, coupled with the forces of globalization, pose a threat to preserving their cultures. This was a concern shared and expressed by many member states. Stating that "knowledge-based societies thrive when there are not impediments to access to content and digital information," the Australian representative stressed the importance of local content development for preserving the cultural heritage in the developing world. The representative from Iran also mentioned the need to digitize local content to ensure that the unique features of developing world cultures are around for future generations.

The Brazilian delegation, which offered one of the most insightful dialogues of the morning session, also advocated the need to protect against cultural imperialism as the global information society evolves. Noting that the proposed themes don't directly address the cultural implications of ICT development initiatives, the Tunisia representative said, "These [ICTs] are extraordinary instruments/tools, and we need to find a balance" between cultural preservation and modernization. The Tanzanian representative noted that the assembly should focus on ways that ICTs can be used to facilitate a multicultural dialogue between all stakeholders. Furthermore, India also urged the assembly incorporate language to protect the cultural heritage of developing countries. The Indian representative noted, that human beings must be the center focus, and cultures and contexts need to be respected.

Focus on development

Although most member states lauded the Executive Secretariat's efforts to provide the delegations with a good working document to develop themes, some countries feared that it did not focus enough on development. Brazil's representative, urging the assembly to move forward on substantive matters, said, "We would not like to see a summit dedicated to technical aspects, or one that deals with ICTs in a prescriptive fashion…we believe the issue at hand is how to use ICTs for development." The Brazilian representative also urged the assembly to avoid the political banter and stay focused on how to use ICTs for closing the digital divide.

South Africa and the Group of 77-China concurred with Brazil, and stressed the need to remain focused on the development objectives rather than trying to define the many politically charged concepts associated with the digital divide (i.e. good governance). The South African representative said, "We think there should be a strong development bias that should accompany the Summit." Ms. Baloch of Pakistan also stated that WSIS should stay away from getting into political issues, urging the assembly to remain objective and focused on building a global information society.

ICTs as an enabler

Beginning with the Australian delegation, many member states rallied around the idea that ICTs should be seen as an enabler rather than an end. The Australian representative stated that there is a need to find a balanced focus between equipment and skill development, stressing that skills and knowledge transfers are a critical component to narrowing the digital divide. Concurring with its Australian counterpart, the Egyptian representative said, "ICT as an enabler should appear in the text of the revised themes. Switzerland and Peru also expressed support for ensuring that ICTs are viewed as an enabler for social and economic development rather than an end. During its afternoon comments, the international consulting firm, Accenture, shared the view that ICTs are a means for development and not an end itself.

Building human capacities

Although e-learning and e-training have already been incorporated into the objectives of WSIS, many member states today stressed the need to pay greater attention to cultivating the human capacities throughout the developing world. From Denmark to China and Egypt, it was apparent that the majority of member states could agree that tapping into existing human resources in marginalized societies is an important component for creating a global information society. By creating public access points in rural communities and transferring new technologies and skills to developing countries, ICTs an be used to develop and strengthen local capacities.

The Chilean representative said, "We must emphasize technological means, and the human resources for using those means." This comment underscores the balance that the Australian delegation referenced earlier in the proceedings. Chile went on to point out that countries' ability to cultivate human capacities is largely dependent upon institutional and social reform, specifically democracy and freedom in the information society. The International Chamber of Commerce reinforced Chile's contention that institutional and social reform must precede ICT deployments, noting that bureaucratic "boulders" have stifled business growth in many developing countries. The youth, as the United States pointed out, should be a key focus for capacity building in the developing world. The United States representative said, "We are all united to bring ICTs to all the world's citizens, specifically our youth."

Bringing it all together

Hitting at the heart of the digital divide issue, the Benin delegation used the example of some Kenyans who just recently found out about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Immediately following Benin's statement, the German representative said, "access is a fundamental component of the information society." Denmark, speaking on behalf of the EU, said, "The success or failure of the Summit will be judged by the tangible benefits it delivers, and that depends on the actions of all stakeholders." A point Russia reinforced during the afternoon session. In its statement, Niger's delegation best wrapped up the day's proceedings, saying, "WSIS is an occasion to show international solidarity."

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