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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Taking Stock of WSIS: "Can do Better"--C+

So, it’s over. For a summit that went into the hundred thousands of euros, it was pretty disappointing. Did not attend ONE single workshop today. Most had been cancelled, or the people were too few to continue. Looked like many people needed to get out of Tunis the fastest way possible:-)

Couldn’t get out of bed AT ALL today. Terrible. I know I am rather lazy already, but this was taking the biscuit, as it were. Each time I tried to get up, sleep just overcame me. I was beginning very fast and furiously to get fed up with what the French call “la foule”, or the crowd at WSIS.

Since I am such a baby, I sleep with the tv on at the hotel. Snoring through "Hardtalk with Stephen Sackur" has just got to be laughable, no? He’s asking those tough questions to a former UN ambassador, or the Palestinian authority representative, and I’m just overshadowing his questions with snore…and more snore…

Behind the levity of these words lies, or sits as the case may be, a deeply disappointed young man. I wanted to watch the proceedings, as it were in situ. Instead, we were confined to watching it from the so-called Civil Society Bureau, et al, on erected large screens. The Swiss President, I hear, was rather impressive from the outset. He looked very charismatic, I have to say.

A female Nigerian acquaintance, of the good-looking kind, told me that there was a party tonite organised by the South Africans, and she was looking out to see whether I was there. Duh, you didn’t have my number. You could have called me, lady!! I am SO green. Yet again, it seems. At this rate, by the time I get back on Tuesday evening, I would have turned into a vegetable.

But enough about my brain.

Disappointment was written on many many many people’s faces. Especially given the fact that the Citizen’s summit was cancelled by the Tunisian authorities, made for an even mire lugubrious atmosphere: the sense of malaise about qou vadis with this expensive gathering was palpable. I personally was disappointed by the International Telecommunication’s Union's decision–one of the UN’s oldest UN agencies, est.1870s—that it was decided by the UN as a whole to have the summit in TWO phases.

A third one would have probably been more realistic, because at this stage, where does the role of ICTs for development go from here? Lost in a maelstrom of rhetoric or what?

The last UN summit I attended was in May 2001, when I attended the UN conference on Least Developed Countries. It was my first-ever proper UN conference. Held in Brussels, hosted by the European Parliament, I didn’t have to stay in any fancy hotel to observe one basic thing about the nature of these UN conferences—the amount of hot air around it. The difference, though, between that one and this is that, primo, it was agreed that there would be a review of the UNLDC3 in 2006. Will there be a review for this one? With the LDC one, it was also the third, with the first two being held respectively in Paris…and Paris:-)

There were a host of semantics there as there was here, with "deliverables" and whatnot. The difference with that one though, on the positive side, was that journalists and other civil society organisations obtained the opportunity to have their voice heard, and offer constructive solutions to the outcome. There was also a sense of closure about it all. I felt no closure around this.

What I saw was many people networking, some with fancier gadgets than others. Of course, the 100$-a-child laptop rocks, (even if the dollar sign was supposed to come before the "100", but come on, sue me!). It is a fantastic idea, but like another acquaintance said, $100 is rather expensive in many developing countries. Not using electricity, though, but a wind-up operation is even cooler. I REALLY like that. I actually saw it tested yesterday by the MIT people near the UN stand at the exhibition area.

I have to put it on record that I found the UN stand the most relevant and comprehensive. It at least tried to connect the ICTs, whereas most of those there—bar some of the governments—were just there to puff themselves up, especially the private sector. SO you have good gizmos, but how PRECISELY will that contribute to being used as tools for development. Didn’t quite click with me.

Anyway, many people went to the exhibition to get freebies, too. I thought I was the only cheap-skate! Even Senegal was giving free zip-drives, can you imagine!! With their flags all emblazoned over the drives, as it were. I got a free t-shirt from the African Development Bank stand. Others got luckier…

Seriously, though, let’s face it. It was great being here, and some concrete things, though small, went through, but it could have been a whole lot better. Consider this. Both the ITU and Japanese government disbursed circa 777000 odd euros – yes, you read right! – towards this UN summit. The UN Conference on LDCs in 2001 cost a vertiginous, or staggering, sum of 12 million dollars. I understand it was more than the GDP, or so, of a Caribbean country.

For the results that have come out, sobering indeed. Very very sobering.

All that said, I still think the world without the UN would be a far worse place than it already is, and so if expectations and hopes were dashed, people might just reflect that WSIS is a process and not an outcome.

Still, can do better.

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