WSIS take three: making what you are doing look important?

As ITU Telecom Africa wraps up in Egypt, the ITU segues seamlessly through World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD) on 17 May into 10 days of WSIS events, taking place in Geneva.

This will be the third time WSIS representatives have gathered post Tunis. We ask if anything has been achieved through the WSIS process which has really made a difference to ICT service levels in emerging markets.

In fact it looks like Telecom Africa was little more than a prequel to WTISD and the WSIS cluster of events in the minds of senior ITU officials. Which indicates an interesting and questionable set of priorities. Telecom Africa seemed distinctly underwhelming; I'm still struggling to find newsworthy events to report on from the show. The forum's program under the banner of ICTs in Africa - A Continent on the Move looked stale, with all the usual suspects of ‘Challenges and Opportunities', ‘Regulation' and ‘Investment Frameworks' well represented over the four days. The event seemed more like a rallying point for analysts and journalists who look at what is happening in Africa every couple of years and produce the same cliché ridden pieces about events which took place more than six months ago and present this as news (Kigali, if you are interested). 

And while the closing theme of improving access to ICTs for disabled people is as important in Africa as elsewhere, it is not the most pressing ICT issue in Africa by a long measure.  

The problem for ITU is that the massive increase in ICT use in Africa and other developing areas around the world that has taken place in the last five years has happened almost exclusively using wireless technology. It is a private sector driven mobile phone revolution we are witnessing. This has lead to the creation of an entirely new set of powerful but nimble companies who are driving service development forward faster than anyone could have imagined. The ITU, on the other hand, seems stuck in the fixed wire, public sector, big project, over regulated rut. 

This is very similar to the problem faced by WSIS. WSIS aimed to bring together civil society with government and commercial interests to seek out, fund and implement new projects. The current cluster of WSIS related events are intended to take stock of and advance the implementation of the WSIS outcomes. Meetings will cover internet governance and... well I'm not quite sure what, as it is all tied up in so many ‘facilitators' and ‘commissions' as to obscure any real understanding of what they hope to achieve other than to have a jolly nice few days in Geneva at someone else's expense. 

Indeed it is hard to escape the impression when you look at WSIS's action lines that very few projects which could have resulted in an actual increase in ICT services in developing countries have actually got off the ground. What you have in their place is a series of best practice recommendations, policies and expressions of hope, wrapped up in the best politically correct, gender and everything else neutral language. It all looks like making what you are doing look important, rather than doing what is important. And all at someone else's expense again. 

Of course WSIS defenders, including the ITU will rightly say that the WSIS program was never resourced to undertake projects and was always intended to be a facilitator. But on that measure it is fair to ask what has been facilitated? How many of the introductions that were made in Tunis have lead to an implementation of service. Very few that we know of. And how many of the ones which were publicised at the time would have happened anyway or, as we were frequently told at the time, were stage managed to make it look as if they were WSIS projects. 

And how many disappointed communities are there who were lead to expect much and ended up with very little? Over the last two years we have heard from quite a few here at Developing Telecoms

It is not appropriate for Developing Telecoms to carp unduly about WSIS - after all we launched our website at Tunis and were grateful for the platform and the opportunity it afforded. But that was 2005. Now we are in 2008 and in the intervening period a few hundred million individuals and hundreds of thousands of communities in some of the poorest and most disadvantaged areas of the world have gained access to a functioning mobile phone and all the benefits that brings. Even the Taliban of Afghanistan had to back down last week and accept this most representative icon of the 21st Century forms a part of contemporary society. 

This is the greatest increase in ICT services in developing countries ever to have taken place. And WSIS has had not the slightest impact on or involvement in the process.

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