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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 November 2005, 12:40 GMT
UN net summit diary: Day one
Amit Jain
Indian journalist Amit Jain is in Tunis for the World Summit on the Information Society and is writing about his experiences for the BBC News website. Based in Singapore, he is a correspondent for The Straits Times.


It is an unlikely venue for an event that is supposed to address the issues confronting global information, communication and technology. Tunisia has a tightly managed information control regime, yet it is here that some 12,000 participants from more than 120 countries have gathered for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

I arrived here on Sunday afternoon after an arduous flight from Singapore via Bangkok and Istanbul. Most of those I have met here have undertaken similarly cumbersome routes.

Tunis, I have discovered, is not the best connected capital in the world, neither physically or virtually. Even the wi-fi network in my hotel was hurriedly installed just days before the summit and the signals keep dropping out. So much for becoming a global village.

Tunisia, a sliver of a land sandwiched between Libya and Algeria, has never hosted a global meeting of this size before and for President Ben Ali, this is as much about bringing it international recognition, as it is about information communication technologies (ICTs).

With plane-loads of delegates from all over the world descending on the capital, officials have struggled to let go of their bureaucratic instincts.

Visas were granted on arrival. We did not even have to show invitation letters. Transport was readily available and the information desks were run by pretty girls who could communicate in English, just about.

'Reassuring patriarch'

Tunis has the air of a western Mediterranean city. If it wasn't for the signposts, and absence of women on the streets, it would be hard to tell that you're in Arab Africa.

President Ben Ali at the UN summit
The Tunisian president Ben Ali addressed the opening session
There are no visible signs of poverty. Tunisia has among the most literate workforce in the Arab world. And Islamic radicalism is firmly under check.

To the outside world, President Ben Ali may appear as a dictator. But he is adored by many at home. Indeed, from the posters that adorn many of the shops, restaurants and public buildings, the image of the president is a soft one.

With his clasped hands and unassuming expression, he comes across more as a reassuring patriarch than a feared big brother.

But tourists and journalists have been warned against taking photographs of government buildings.

Security is tight. Armed police lurk outside the hotels. Delegates are ferried around strictly checked buses to and from the summit venue. And as a matter of precaution, even the street bins have been removed.

Locals taking their leisurely evening stroll down the main promenade are mostly oblivious to the goings-on at WSIS.

Last night, I asked a group of teenagers what they thought of it. None had any idea what it was about, although they said it might raise Tunisia's profile in the world.

Out of poverty

This gathering has been described as a summit of solutions. ICT is an important part of the UN's Millennium Development Goals, which aim to halve global poverty by 2015.

As it becomes clear that many countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, are likely to miss that target, governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and even businesses are pulling together, trying to work out solutions that may help equip the large numbers of people who are still outside the networked world.

Each group of stakeholders has its own, often competing agenda. For governments this is a summit about managing the flow of information; for NGOs it is more about promoting their projects; and for corporations, it's about cutting multi-million dollar deals.

But because this is also about lifting communities out of poverty, the exercise has been billed as a "multi-stakeholder partnership".

I find myself baffled by the astonishing array of agencies, research centres, and institutions represented here. Then again, this in a sense is what international collaboration is all about.

Amit Jain is attending the World Summit on the Information Society with assistance from the Panos Institute (London), a non-profit media organisation that works with journalists in the developing world. The views in this diary do not reflect those of The Straits Times

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