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Last Updated: Friday, 12 December, 2003, 19:14 GMT
UN summit pledges net for all

By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor in Geneva

A UN summit designed to shrink the technology gap between rich and poor nations has ended with agreement on lofty principles, but no commitments to practical measures.

Piles of documents
The UN made declarations, but did not come up with cash to back them
Delegates from some 175 governments meeting in Geneva agreed on the need to take the net to the millions of people currently offline.

But there were no pledges for cash to bankroll technology-related projects, as some African countries had demanded.

Delegates said the summit did succeed in alerting world leaders to the importance of new technology as a tool for development.

"The summit has placed a new subject on the international agenda: the information society," said Swiss President Pascal Couchepin, who hosted the event.

"An innovatory political process has been set in motion," he said in his closing address to delegates.

Net expansion

The World Summit on the Information Society was the first UN summit which looked at the impact of technologies like the internet and mobile phones.

It brought together more than 10,000 politicians, business representatives, development workers and technology experts for three days in Geneva.

Much of the event consisted of bland statements by world leaders about the great potential of the internet and the need to extend its benefits to all.

Technological decisions should meet the needs of people, not enrich companies or enable control by governments
Civil Society
The final declaration of principles enshrined the ideals of the conference. The associated action plan set the goal of connecting 50% of the world's population by 2015, without going into the specifics of how to achieve it.

It is hoped that the agreement and action plan will bring about greater use of the net and the adoption of technology in education, health and other projects.

"The Geneva Declaration points the way to an information society which is accessible to all and based on shared knowledge," President Couchepin said.

Money troubles

The consensus was only reached because controversial, divisive issues were put on the backburner, to be resolved when nations meet again in Tunisia in 2005.

A controversial attempt to place a UN agency in charge of the running of the internet was also deflected and placed in the hands of a working group under UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

And African nations failed in their push for a UN "digital solidarity fund" to help them pay for hardware and software.

Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade
Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade: We need digital solidarity
European, Japanese and the US Governments had resisted the idea.

Instead they only agreed to study the creation of a fund to help poor countries benefit from new technology.

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who had been leading the African efforts, put a positive spin on the outcome.

"We have succeeded in reaching our goal as the general declaration has adopted the principle of a digital solidarity fund," he told a news conference.

World issue

But some delegates were left unimpressed by the outcome.

They said the failure to agree on core issues like funding and internet governance meant the documents lacked any real bite.

"Technological decisions should meet the needs of people, not enrich companies or enable control by governments," said a statement by Civil Society, an alliance representing development groups at the summit.

But for some, the summit had been successful in drawing attention to the role that technology could play in helping developing nations out of poverty.

Away from the worthy speeches in the main hall, thousands of community activists, development workers and business representatives discussed and shared ideas.

One delegate said the informal meetings between development organisations and the business sector was of greater importance than the political rhetoric that had filled the air for the past three days.


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