To celebrate the 15-year anniversary of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), we are highlighting a Q&A with His Excellency Adama Samassékou who served as the President of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) of the World Summit on the Information Society for the Geneva phase (WSIS/2002-2003).
Why was the first WSIS Forum so unique and important and what were you aiming to achieve?
We came to Geneva to attend the WSIS process in 2002 with several expectations. The most important one was to discuss how, with the use of ICTs, we could bridge the divide between rich and poor, and how we can help developing countries leapfrog the process of development.
It was a great moment of enthusiasm, but also one of difficulties, because before this moment, the different stakeholders were of different opinions.
I will quote my speech from opening ceremony of the WSIS in Geneva, on the tenth of December 2003. It shows what we did and how we did it.
“Here we are halfway through the long journey that must take us from the information society to the society of shared knowledge. For this trip we came from all over the world, from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia Pacific, Eastern Europe and Western Europe and others. We, governments, international organizations, private sector, civil society. Everyone came with his dreams. Throughout our long march to the Summit, faced with the complexity of the situation, we looked to the left, to the right, and we saw the precipices, the ditches, the fractures; we have seen the nightmare of our world today, a world increasingly beset by unheard-of violence that intrudes into our homes, a world increasingly divided between the rich and the poor, between those who are educated and those who cannot read or write, between those who hold the information and those who are deprived of it, between those who know and those who do not know, between those who govern and those who are administered …
And we have understood that these divides will be even greater, if urgent measures are not taken, if we remain at the conclusion of Johannesburg where the highest authorities of the most powerful countries in the world have agreed to say that from Rio to Johannesburg, ten years after very strong commitments, poor countries continue to become poorer and rich countries richer …
So, we tried to dream together and we learned to work together, to know ourselves better, to respect our identities and we were able to build together a shared vision that allows us today to present to your high appreciation the fruit of this long gestation:
• a Declaration of Principles that outlines the principles and principles of this new society under construction that will ensure the inclusion of each and everyone, through its language and culture, in this new world of virtual communication;
• and a concrete Plan of Action that illustrates the political will to implement this vision and to achieve the changes long awaited by our peoples.”
“But one of the big achievements of the Summit from my humble point of view is that we created what I call ‘the Geneva spirit’, i.e. the Multi-Stakeholder Partnership (MSP), which is a real partnership between the government, civil society and the private sector in order to tackle the global digital divide.”
Indeed, if we don’t manage the use of ICTs, they could in fact reinforce the divide, and for this, dialogue between the different stakeholders is key.
So for the first time in the history of UN Summits, a civil society Bureau at the international level was created and brought to meetings with governments. This was unique. Governments accepted to have civil society and the private sector in their Bureau meetings, and this was excellent, because it helped us to listen to the civil society and to the private sector, and to build something achievable together.
Was it a successful ambition, and what has been accomplished in the past 15 years?
I have observed that the multi-stakeholder approach is a good and innovative method for consultation, which WSIS should keep promoting.
But we need to be aware not to confuse consultative practice with governance. What is at stake in governance is democracy, and the requirements for that go far beyond putting different stakeholders around the same table as it shall evolve full transparency (including on funding of the stakeholders), equal representation and leverage and other characteristics which are the foundation of democracy.
This means that we need to go beyond what is going on now. I know, from what I was told from people attending regularly the WSIS Forum, that the largest part of civil society is not really involved in the Forum as an entity. If you cannot fund yourself, you cannot go, which is for me a pity because we should involve civil society at all times.
But also, of course, one of the key issues today is that we failed to maintain our success with regard to civil society. There was a Bureau for civil society. After the Geneva Summit in 2003, we told the UN Secretary General that we failed by not creating this body formally because it could have helped to continue the intelligent implementation of the Geneva outcomes and the Geneva Plan of Action.
What is still required to make sure ICTs leave no one behind so that everyone can benefit from the information society?
This is a good question that deserves a long response.
ICT for development is not yet a solved problem. It seems ICT for development has fallen off the global policy agenda and the funding has gone away.
Do you remember the Digital Solidarity Fund? It was an innovation proposed by President Wade from Senegal at WSIS at the time. It started to work, but then it failed, and we need to thoroughly analyze why it failed. And from a thorough analysis of that failure and of the current situation, we need to launch a new effort to have an inclusive information and shared-knowledge society, to help people, countries, and communities who do not yet have access to ICTs, to really master this unique instrument which could help humanity.
The second issue is about linguistic diversity. You probably know that my interest is specially directed to the theme of linguistic diversity; in that matter some progresses are being made but they are too slow to make a visible difference and I consider that the best way to promote it to the level it deserves is to schedule a World Summit on Linguistic Diversity and Multilingualism. I am convinced that the failure we have seen with the Millennium Development Goals will be the same as the one we will see for the Sustainable Development Goals. Because there is one important thing that still has not been taken into account: multilingualism in the world. To achieve an inclusive Information Society we need to use the languages of the people. This was well stressed in the Declaration of Principles. All languages of the world should be put on the internet. Our cultural and linguistic diversity is to society what biodiversity is to nature, the breath that fuels vitality. Therefore, you cannot exclude languages in new digital era and indeed the content divide is much higher than the access divide.
Finally, in order to really build an inclusive shared knowledge society, I would like to stress some recommendations I made the last time I was involved in a reflection on WSIS, in November 2014.
What is your hope for the WSIS process to take your recommendations forward? Are you optimistic that we’ll still make progress in this area?
I am confident, but there is a right moment and a right place and the right place is at the regional level. WSIS is a big achievement, but after 15 years we are still only discussing at the international level while there have been many achievements at the national and regional levels. I feel I have the moral duty to go to regional bodies like the African Union to discuss with concerned Commissioners to see how we can come back to fundamentals.