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Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Brief Review of The World Summit on the Information Society

This post reviews the information society development initiative of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), known by the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The post reviews the history of the WSIS and recent its development efforts. An analysis is offered as a short explication of the issues and debates regarding the efforts of richer nations helping “developing countries and countries with economies in transition, to become fully-fledged members of the Information Society” (WSIS 2005). It concludes with a recommendation for change.

The World Summit on the Information Society was launched by UN resolution Resolution 56/183 in 2002. The intent was to answer the “urgent need to harness the potential of knowledge and technology for promoting the goals of the United Nations Millennium Declaration” (UN Res 56/183). In general, the WSIS was to be a part of meeting MDG Goal 8, that being to Develop a global partnership for development. This MDG has a measurement target 8F stating “(i)n co-operation with the private sector, make available the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications.” (MDG Indicators). These indicators are “Fixed and Mobile Telephone Subscribers, Internet Users, and PC’s per 100 population”.

Even with the WSIS and other parallel, sometimes competing, initiatives from other bodies (the G8, the World Bank, the US, various NGOs, and Chinese commercial investments) the UN maintains that the so-called digital divide still exists. What this digital divide seems to generally mean is a lack of access to high speed and reliable telecommunications infrastructure and connectivity to the global information grid. There is also a pervasive assumption in such advanced economies as the US that information communications technologies should naturally enable poorer countries leapfrog over an industrial stage of development and into a digital, high-tech economy (Mansell 2011).

By any terminology, or measure, the ITU’s development policy, in light of this MDG, ties the WSIS initiative to basically addressing the physical connectivity to communications infrastructures.

The Roots of the WSIS: NWICO

Prior to the ITU’s WSIS initiative, from the late 70’s through the 80’s and up until the 90’s, UNESCO was the international forum for information technology issues for developing countries. The so-called New World Information and Communications Order (NWICO) was in large part agitated by the Non Aligned Movement of UN nations in the late 70’s (it was also the time of the New International Economic Order debates). UNESCO evolved into a champion for these concerns, becoming the key forum. The early debates were apparently fueled primarily by NAM nations and their concerns over cultural identity and sovereignty in light of the imperialist challenges from the US and Soviet Union.

The primary impetus for the NWICO, observed by Victor Pickard, a scholar who writes about global media politics, was that “(a)s new countries were integrated into the global media flow, they were undercut by structural inequities such as unequal media flow, foreign owned infrastructure, and prohibitively priced rates” (Pickard 2007). This probably marked the first practical policy issue foreshadowing the WSIS. It addressed such controversies as communications satellite control, controlled in large part by US and US companies. More heated debates were characterized by NAM unease over the ubiquity and power of Western media, content and the domination of Western technologies for the delivery of information flow: It all seemed very one-sided and unfair to many people. This imbalance put NAM nations, especially newer ones, at a great disadvantage over controlling media content (mostly from the west) and communications infrastructure (expensive to develop). Early policy debates over such matters were facilitated on the world stage by UNESCO and their funding of the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems in 1977. Irish politician, and former member of the IRA, Sean MacBride, led this commission. His commission’s final report, issued in 1980 and presented that same year during UNESCO’s bi-annual conference, led to UNESCO’s NWICO forums in proceeding years. By 1980, the tag of New World Information and Communication Order was introduced by Mustapha Masmoudi, then minister of Tanzania and the moniker stuck. (ICSCP 1978).

It might be said that these debates over information and media flow to poorer countries from a Western dominated media, the MacBride Commission report, and the NWICO forums, were in part responsible for the US and UK withdrawing from UNESCO altogether in 1985 and 1986 respectively (Karns & Mingst 2010). Indeed, in a State Department publication from that period, there exists is a clear statement of US dissatisfaction with UNESCO whose “programs and personnel are heavily freighted with an irresponsible political content and answer to an agenda that is consistently inimical to U.S. interests” with “endemic hostility toward the…institutions of a free society…free market…” and, it can be assumed, free speech (US State 1985). Media interests (including journalists) (NYT 1980). Bodies like the World Press Freedom Committee also attacked the legitimacy of UNESCO’s NWICO initiative.

With the US and UK often at odds with the spirit of the initiative as well as the MacBride Commission and its conclusions, the NWICO was always more controversial than being all that effective for developing nations. Among the complaints the US had were that NWICO was heavily influenced by the Soviet Union and thus a plot to undermine freedom of the press; it also purportedly favored a state-controlled over a commercially controlled media environment, yet another attack on the free press and free enterprise. However much this may have seemed at the time, it is clear that the motivation for the NWICO was for the most part an attempt to support the interests of poorer countries, recently de-colonized countries, and other NAM nations. After the US and UK quit their support of UNESCO, the MacBride report and the NWICO died an ignoble if not quiet death, found only in the graveyards of academic writing and internet archives.

The ITU and the WSIS

UN Resolution 56/183 also directed the ITU to facilitated the WSIS in two phases, which were embodied in two summits. The first occurred in 2003 in Geneva and the most recent in 2005 in Tunis. The policy output of these summits consisted of the Geneva Declaration of Principles and Geneva Plan of Action in 2003, and the 2005 Tunis Commitment and Tunis Agenda for the Information Society (among several other supporting documents). Other types of meetings and events of one kind or another have been on-going annually including one in 2010 that led to the publication of Measuring the WSIS Targets - A statistical framework this year. According to one of their recent websites, the agency claims that by 2005 there were about 19,000 representatives from 174 countries from an initial membership of 175 (WSIS 2011a).

The stated intent of the visionaries of the WSIS was “to build a people-centric, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information” (WSIS 2003). The Principles document consists of sixty-seven policy areas ranging from capacity building (that of poorer countries lacking what is seen as adequate infrastructure for fully-fledged members of the information society); relevant IT technical standards (issues more-or-less the purview of standards bodies such as ICANN, WC3, IEEE); IT security (an even more interesting area now that the Pentagon declared its Cyberspace “operational domain” [Alexander 2011]) ; and IT applications (accessibility issues such as cost-prohibitive or predatory licensing schemes), Mass Media (an historical sticking point leading to the demise of the NWICO); and other items including the ‘Ethical dimensions of the Information Society’. Generally, these policy areas were segmented into “Action Lines” in an appendix table in the 2005 Tunis Agenda document.

Table 1. Action Lines table (as-is) from the 2005 Tunis Agenda documentation (WSIS .

Action Lines
Possible moderators/ facilitators
The role of public governance authorities and all stakeholders in the promotion of ICTs for development
ECOSOC / UN Regional Commissions / ITU
Information and communication infrastructure
Access to information and knowledge
Capacity building
Building confidence and security in the use of ICTs
Enabling environment
ITU / UNDP / UN Regional Commissions / UNCTAD
ICT Applications • E-government • E-business • E-learning • E-health • E-employment • E-environment • E-agriculture • E-science
Cultural diversity and identity, linguistic diversity and local content
Ethical dimensions of the Information Society
International and regional cooperation
UN Regional Commissions / UNDP /ITU / UNESCO / ECOSOC

The 2003 Geneva summit also established WSIS Targets. These goals were meant to provide a “references for improving connectivity and access in the use of ICTs in promoting the objectives of the Plan of Action, to be achieved by 2015” (WSIS 2003). It can be observed that the character of these targets seem to apply to the Action Lines C1 through C6 and partially to C7. These measures were the subject of the most recent (2011) major WSIS document, Measuring the WSIS Targets: A Statistical Framework. They have been subject to a slight degree of revisions since their inception (notably the word “all” in Targets 1 to 4, leading to their following state:

• Target 1. Connect all villages with ICTs and establish community access points;
• Target 2. Connect all secondary schools and primary schools with ICTs;
• Target 3. Connect all scientific and research centres with ICTs;
• Target 4. Connect all public libraries, museums, post offices and national archives with ICTs;
• Target 5. Connect all health centres and hospitals with ICTs;
• Target 6. Connect all central government departments and establish websites ;
• Target 7. Adapt all primary and secondary school curricula to meet the challenges of the information society, taking into account national circumstances;
• Target 8. Ensure that all of the world’s population has access to television and radio services;
• Target 9. Encourage the development of content and put in place technical conditions in order to facilitate the presence and use of all world languages on the Internet;
• Target 10. Ensure that more than half the world’s inhabitants have access to ICTs within their reach and make use of them (emphasis added).

            The WSIS collects and publishes success stories of their initiative. This year’s WSIS Stocktaking: Success Stories 2011 Case Studies describes achievements lining up with the 2003 Action Lines and Targets. For Africa, an example is the Rural Internet Kiosk (RIK). This technology is solar-powered, provides satellite connection to access education and youth employment ICT training classes (WSIS 2011b). In a region of West Africa another project is underway to “empower small farmers, stockbreeders and fishermen through the use of ICTs to be more informed and sell their products better” (ibid). In Mali a project aimed at “reducing gender gap regarding ICTs” dispense ICT training for 20 women entrepreneurs who “created their own blog and e-mail address” (ibid).  In Bangladesh a project aimed to create telecenters from which farmers could access general agricultural information through a web portal and answers to specific requests delivered by an agriculturist; this project started in 2008 with 20 locations and by 2010 had 100. Other projects in this years report was one to improve WI-FI access in the Republic of Macedonia and some headline-sounding projects in Qatar, one of which is an Assistive Technology Center.

A sampling of the WSIS Stocktaking database for projects related to Africa (WSIS 2011c) retrieves a fairly narrow range of project topic areas given the ambitious and broad range of the Action Lines: a project for an Inter-regional Trade Information Platform; Electronic Commerce for Developing Countries; Empowering African Women to Manage 100 Multipurpose Community Telecentres in 20 African Countries; Building an Investor Environment for ICT Development in Africa; a partnership with Cisco “to help train students in the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs) for jobs in the Internet economy”; a partnership with a British company in developing and “building ICT’s in developing and emerging markets”;  and a very interesting idea in “helping others create public intelligence (decision-support) in the public interest” known as the Earth Intelligence Network (“linking the one billion rich to the five billion poor through a Global Range of Needs table online, and a plan for educating the poor ‘one cell call at a time’ by using ICT…”).  The emerging picture of the WSIS since its inception, based upon these projects it has funded most recently, seems to be directed toward technology infrastructure building and enhancements or towards the enhancement of eGovernment and eCommerce capacity.

Analysis: Whose Information Society?

The vision and goals of the WSIS is impressive. Consider the following statement from their 2003 Geneva Declaration as an embodiment of their intention:

“The attainment of our shared aspirations, in particular for developing countries and countries with economies in transition, to become fully-fledged members of the Information Society, and their positive integration into the knowledge economy, depends largely on increased capacity building in the areas of education, technology know-how and access to information, which are major factors in determining development and competitiveness.” (WSIS 2005).

But whose information society is the WSIS endeavoring to bring developing countries into? Ignoring the fact any definition of the term information society is hardly concrete, having nearly as many definitions as there are stakeholders, it is telling that the emphasis in the above principle is on the and not an information society. In other words, the principle is subtly paternalistic, assumes that here is yet another level of social organization into which a developing nation must be matured into, and that the means with which to do that is through information technology. Thus, it seems very difficult to deny that it is the West’s information society being referred to in the above WSIS principle.

If the above interpretation of the information society promoted by the WSIS is valid then some interesting implications follow. The first obvious one is that the promotion of ICTs as an essential component for contemporary economic growth is a Liberal/neo-Liberal/Market driven assumption. Information technology investments, especially in infrastructure, are made primarily for commercial development. The internet itself is a domain in which companies, countries, organizations, and individuals may share ideas with each other to some degree but it is in the monetization of those technologies (through either eCommerce or through enabling productivity gains in existing businesses) which enable ICTs to contribute any difference in economies. In other words, ICTs improve the productivity of in-country and global trade and commerce easier (or, at least, it is assumed that they do to a great degree).

Based upon the WSIS documentation alone it is easy to see this is an exogenous intervention model: that is, the engine of development is in “the information society” which comes from outside the constituent country (Mansell 2011). Further, success measures are framed by an emphasis on the stark output measures of per capita access with little emphasis upon outcomes. Any change in policy formation or the scope of the majority of the projects in the Stocktaking Database from an emphasis on the information society towards one that appreciates the potential of a constitentuency creating and enjoying an information society of their own (using the tools of ICT) has not occurred. This is unfortunate as such exogenous models of interventions like this are challenged by the findings of Banerjee and Duflo. These authors showed in their arguments that such status-quo models, like membership in the information society, and the judgment of the effectiveness of aid based solely upon quantitative variables are inadequate and very often tragically biased in favor of the ethnocentric values and assumptions (or delusions) of the intervening parties (Banerjee and Duflo 2011).

And the evidence that ICTs have a miraculous or leapfrog effect on and economy, even an advanced economy, is hardly conclusive. Colecchia & Schreyer found that ICTSs  added only  0.2 and 0.5 percentage points per year on average to European and Japanese growth through the 80’s and 90’s. They concluded that “ICT diffusion plays a key role and depends on the right framework conditions, not necessarily on the existence of an ICT producing sector” (Colecchia & Schreyer 2002). For evidence of big economic impacts, it seems that the focus must occur at the firm level in which IT enables productivity gains through organizational changes (Dedrick et al, 2003). This puts output measures of ICTs effects on a developing nation very difficult to verify as the Western economist’s notion of the firm may not exactly exist in the same way in such a nation (thus WSIS metrics belie meaningful and consistent measurements of economic change due to ICTs).

The diffusion of ICT in poorer countries has been inevitable as such technologies became cheaper and easier to use. A singular result of the dot-com boom was the substantial increase in the investment in global physical infrastructure for telecommunications. At this time it seems that both devices and networks have become more responsive (from the user’s perspective) and more robust (connectivity is generally more consistent and reliable). As physical carrying capacities grow so have the commercial interests which own and provide them. In recent years, global telecommunications companies have been consolidating and merging bringing together internet, telephony, and entertainment media delivered not just to businesses and households but now to individuals who use sophisticated hand-held devices. For the short term, it can be assumed that the capacities of both the amount of data and its speed of delivery will increase along with an end-user’s relative experience of quality.

Irrespective of the incremental improvements to infrastructure and end-user ICT capabilities, to expect that investment and diffusion alone naturally leads to desirable development outcomes is at best shortsighted and at worst delusional. WSIS policies should be informed by an observation made by Simon Ramo, co-founder of TRW corporation, about such faith in technology as it is quite applicable here: “Efforts to improve the breed of racehorses did not lead directly to the invention of the automobile” (Ramo 1970).  So, too, efforts to improve economies by ITCs alone will not lead to a place like Jamaica becoming a global economic success story in the same category as China, India, Brazil, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea or Taiwan.

WSIS intervention in developing countries seems limited by at least two apparent constraints. The first is the paradigmatic stagnation wrought by Liberal economic development policies (discussed above). Another is an extraordinarily limited budget (the budget information is not very transparent and difficult to verify). Funding is gained from stakeholder-member countries (The US was not one of contributors based upon the Tunis 2005 documentation) and other fundraising activities. The largest national contributor listed in the Tunis 2005 contribution was Japan (1.18 million Swiss Francs) and the largest commercial contributor was a Japanese company, NTT DotCoMo (90k Swiss Francs). The WSIS was allocated 1.2 million Swiss Francs, about 1.5 million US, in the 2004-2007 ITU Financial Plan. To “Connect all villages with ICTs and establish community access points” (Target 1) hardly seems possible under such financial means.

            Meanwhile, China’s investments in ICT in certain developing countries in reagions such as Africa far overshadow anything the WSIS has done in terms of straightforward connectivity building. Some of China’s ICT investments range from a $311 million (US) Nigerian communications satellite for the “Nigerian National Space Research Development Agency (NNSRDA)” in 2005 to $100 million to Huawei Industries to become Nigeria’s primary cellphone network provider. This same company also embarked upon a $200 million program to develop rural telephone networks also in Nigera. Such networks enable streaming media content over 3G mobile devices. This same company invested around $10 million in technology training centers in Abujua (Platforms 2011).

China was also involved in Uganda ICT investment in 2006 with a $120 million loan for a five-year national ICT infrastructure program. The growth in carrying capacity could have potentially increased download speeds and quality to at least that of what many US households enjoy today. Fiber cable in Kenya was contracted to three Chinese companies “creating a terrestrial network. . . connected to the planned undersea East Africa Marine System” providing Kenya's with an inexpensive alternative to expensive satellite services. Similar  infrastructure contracts the same Chinese tech companies (ZTE, Huawei) were awarded by Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation for up to $2.4 billion (Platforms 2011).

            An international player as China (or the G8 or the US) will always outdo the WSIS in infrastructure capacity investments but likely so only in those countries it has a natural-resource or beneficial economic interest to the investing party. This leaves any sort of ICT investment for people in developing nations which are resource-poor to organizations such as the WSIS. Therefore, it seems WSIS has a potentially vital role to play –but are the policies, actions, and budget appropriate to what needs to be done? Further, the most important question is not on addressing the almost meaningless abstractions of  “how do we bridge the digital divide” or how do we make poorer countries “fully-fledged members of the information society” but rather the WSIS should be crafting policies based upon what these poorer societies really need ICTs to do for them. And how can ICTs help create an information society for a poor nation’s people?

Today, in a region such as Africa, any sort of technology associated with the information society is about television, radio, and cell phones and not PC’s, laptops or even the Internet. ICT investment can positively impact poverty alleviation but in more indirect ways than is likely assumed. For example, medicine and health informatics are unquestionably improved with better connectivity and infrastructure investments. It is not an intellectual stretch to see that developing economies are not going to be transformed just by giving every poor child a netbook.

            What is needed for the WSIS and the study of ICT’s in developing countries is more research similar in vein to Banerjee & Duflo’s work. What is needed is more documentation and analysis of both the good and the harm done by such exogenous-intervention models of ICT investment espoused in WSIS policies.  Models of development intervention should take a whole system-of-systems approach in design with a careful understanding and monitor of outcomes. ICT’s dropped into poorer countries surely lead to potentially radically new situations with new complications and problems the constituents may not be ready to address. Therefore, it seems an approach like Banerjee and Duflo’s coupled with some kind of systems thinking methodology (maybe using approaches like Peter Checkland, or Gregory Bateson) should be developed by the WSIS, or by the next institution that takes up the work after 2015.
            Perhaps WSIS interventions could use such a framework embodied in the table below derived from Banerjee & Duflo’s 2011 book. For each proposed project, WSIS funders could determine as thoroughly as possible the following areas:

Table 2 Banerjee & Duflo Intervention Analysis Framework

Known Patterns

Policy Intent of Intervening Body

Ignorance, ideology, inertia exists in policy making body. This should be honestly appraised by challenging policy-maker’s assumptions.

Market Realities of the Context for the Intervention

Some markets are missing in poorer countries for situated reasons (carrying costs, capacities of infrastructure and education). Does the ICT make any difference? How?

Constituency’s Decision-making Environment

The contexts for trade-off type decision making for the poor is weighed heavily toward their own demise (is based on our expectations) is often made. By what quality or by what degree would the ICT intervention make any difference?

Constituency’s Decision-making Habits

the poor lack "critical pieces of information" (and that's why) they believe things which are not true. Would the ICT intervention affect change to this? How?

If each intervention proposal is taken as a case to be studied as much as it is anything else, output measures and outcome results are be made more situated, grounded in the uniqueness of each case, then valuable data can be created for subsequent interventions (one size does not fit all).  Such ideas are probably already being floated and worked with (and, likely, vigorously worked against by entrenched interests) but do not appear on the WSIS websites or literature. But in any event, it should be reasonably clear from this short paper that ICT interventions in developing countries, through such approaches as the WSIS currently espouse, need to change and adapt.

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