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WSIS: Gadgets Win the Debate

Hilmi Toros* - TerraViva/IPS

TUNIS, Nov 17 2005 (IPS) - Heads of state issue eloquent policy statements at the gold-domed compound of the 176- nation summit. Vocal civil society groups and the best of academia are engaged in debates. They have the words, but the real action lies at a glittering pavilion where the latest gadgets and systems are exhibited by the likes of Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and Nokia.

“Business is the driving force behind the creation of an information society,” says Guy Sebban, secretary-general of the International Chamber of Commerce, and chairman of a network of business organisations. The groups formed part of a successful campaign that kept control of the Internet for a U.S.-registered company, dooming moves by civil society and developing nations to entrust management to a multilateral unit.

Nothing is officially on sale, but “there is a lot of marketing going on,” Murali Shanmvgavelan of Panos, a civil society group on media and communications told IPS. Another complaint by some members of civil society is that multinationals are pressing for privatisation that will attract foreign investment, but to the detriment of local business growth.

Amid concern whether the summit is also a ‘trade fair’, most private sector stands are staffed by ‘community affairs’ or ‘public sector’ managers. They speak mainly of the role of the private sector as a stakeholder, and its growing involvement in projects to help the developing world in the area of communications.

“I am selling success stories,” says Alain Clo of Sun Microsystems. He mainly deals with government representatives on e-government to help administrations improve public services such as declaration of births and tax payments. He says partnerships involve special consideration for the income of governments, and may also draw assistance from the International Telecommunication Union and the World Bank.

Microsoft has an elaborate stand under the slogan ‘Digital Inclusion’. “We don’t sell (at the summit),” says Juan Bossicard, Microsoft coordinator for community affairs for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “We make contact that may eventually lead to business.”

Bossicard says Microsoft is involved in extensive talks with non-governmental organisations on partnerships to bridge the ‘digital divide’ – the difference between the developed and the developing world in accessing information and communication technology (ICT). Its programmes aimed directly at the developing world include, he said, an operating system with an embedded training component and a local language programme.

Nokia is not selling either, although its latest is on display – clicking pictures of visitors and turning them into a badge. The local Nokia dealer, present at the stand, could arrange purchase, however.

There is a big display of mobile telephones and communication systems. The number of users reached 2 billion earlier this year with expectations that it will be 3 billion within five years, most of the new growth coming in the developing world.

Olivier Saint, managing director for Africa for Hewlett-Packard says business and development are two sides of the same coin. “Investors are not doing business only for charity,” he told IPS. “Business must be sustainable. And funds could be cycled to local communities.”

He expects strong growth in Africa, where ICT is expanding at 25 percent a year.

“Business has been involved in the work of the summit because it makes good business sense to be involved,” says the Global Information Infrastructure Commission, a confederation of chief executives and other managers from leading businesses. It says both the private sector and the society at large are in a “win-win” situation.

Some private sector representatives are now keen to become full participants in summit proceedings, including active involvement in drafting reports.

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