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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 December, 2003, 10:50 GMT
Viewpoint: 'Marginalised need a voice'
By Steve Buckley
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters

What has firewood got to do with the information superhighway? Three years ago the United Nations adopted an ambitious blueprint considered a defining moment for global cooperation in the 21st century.

Steve Buckley
Governments have been unable to agree even a commitment to basic human rights standards as underpinning the information society
Steve Buckley
The Millennium Declaration set out a vision for peace, security and disarmament, protecting the environment, development and poverty eradication, human rights, democracy and good governance, protecting the vulnerable and meeting the special needs of Africa. It was agreed unanimously by all 189 UN member states.

A year later the United Nations agreed to hold a World Summit on the Information Society in recognition of "the urgent need to harness the potential of knowledge and technology for promoting the goals of the United Nations Millennium Declaration."

As the summit rapidly approaches, such admirable ambitions look set to be dashed on the rocks of old style political wrangling in which vision is a scarce commodity indeed.

Early drafts for the summit declaration spoke enthusiastically of the information society as "a new and higher form of social organisation". There has been very little sign of that.

Civil society activists invited to work alongside governments and the private sector in a new and participatory "multi-stakeholder" approach have found themselves pushed into the margins, ignored and excluded from meetings, while governments tussle over issues such as media freedom, intellectual property, control of the internet and funding.

Behind the obvious conflicts are more fundamental differences that coalesce around two main areas, human rights and development. Governments have been unable to agree even a commitment to basic human rights standards as underpinning the information society, even less have they acknowledged the real challenges for development.

Remote prospects

While governments debate the "digital divide" in Geneva, hundreds of millions of people in the poorest countries and communities of the world, women and girls in particular, spend much of their waking lives gathering firewood and water in order to prepare a basic meal for the day.

Another information society is possible but any hope of achieving it will require governments at the World Summit to spend less time talking and more time listening
Steve Buckley
A third of the world's population has no access to electricity and the world's population is growing faster than the rate of electrification.

The prospects for the poorest people in the world to increase their prosperity through access to new information technologies looks remote in the face of such basic obstacles as electricity supply, access to education and the cost of equipment.

With the lack of political will of many states to allow democratic expression and to give voice to the most marginalised groups the summit is now more or less guaranteed to fail in its objectives.

Civil society groups believe another information society is possible, one in which knowledge is shared as part of the common good, communication technologies, old and new, are used to enable communities to speak for themselves, and unfettered access to the means of communication is guaranteed as an essential human right.

Another information society is possible but any hope of achieving it will require governments at the World Summit to spend less time talking and more time listening.

Steve Buckley is president of World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters and director of the UK Community Media Association.



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