unced participation | information ecology | information habitat

Major Expansion of NGO Access to On-Line Communication
A request for seed funding - June 1991

Seed funding of $15,000 would launch an effort to mobilize up to US$10 million to: a) fund "NGO Communication and Information Centers" in developing countries and in Eastern Europe to serve as nodes for the dissemination of UNCED-related information between and during the Preparatory Committee meetings, during the UNCED conference, and for follow-up plans and activities; b) provide training and support to NGOs in the effective use of electronic communications; c) integrate electronic communications more effectively with the dissemination of printed information; d) strengthen the links between key electronic networks, especially APC, GeoNet and FidoNet; e) improve the user interface of electronic networks, as needed; and f) strengthen the management and organization of UNCED-related information, including the implementation of searchable on-line databases.

The project would be operated for two to three years, and would be administered by a secretariat to be housed in the Netherlands, with a governing body drawn from representative NGOs around the world. The secretariat would initially be housed in the offices of Both ENDS in Amsterdam.

The use of electronic communications for UNCED information has been growing steadily, and its value is becoming increasingly clear. However, to date it has mostly been NGOs from northern, developed countries who have been in a position to make good use of electronic communications. To the extent that there has been North-South communication, the flow of information has been predominantly from North to South.

The ambitious nature of the project reflects a recognition that each of the components of the project is complementary to the others, and that the implementation of each is essential for the project as a whole to succeed. Furthermore, the value of each component will be significantly increased if each of the others is implemented.

In some respects, a useful analogy can be made between the scale of this project and the extent of force that is needed to launch a missile into orbit. For the heart of the project is the launching of a new form of communication among NGOs; a substantial force is necessary to break free from reliance on conventional means of communication, but once the project is "in orbit" and has overcome a series of obstacles -- including familiarity with hardware and software, resolving technical problems of access, overcoming attitudinal barriers, the development of the necessary skills -- it will become relatively simple to keep the project going, and to build on it.

A particularly important element necessary to make the use of electronic communications viable and sustainable is the establishment of a sufficient quorum of key NGOs who make use of electronic communications on a regular basis, so that those who use it have a reasonable degree of assurance that they will receive useful mail and/or new information on conferences when they log in each day or so, and that mail they send and conference topics they post will actually be downloaded and read.

Among the specific considerations supporting the magnitude of the project are: UNCED represents an unprecedented opportunity for NGO participation in a UN Conference; the scope of the UNCED agenda, the extent of UNCED-related information and the number and geographical diversity of participating NGOs makes it an ideal candidate for the effective use of electronic communications; the substantial resources that are being used to enable NGO participation in UNCED are likely to produce disappointing results if there is not adequate provision for NGO communications and access to information; a number of previous projects for use of electronic communications have floundered because of inadequate resources, especially in the way of training and support; it is essential that the project include enough NGOs from developing countries so that it is not just a token project; it should not concentrate control over the flow of information in the hands of only one or two NGOs in each country, and should support the establishment of a "critical mass" of electronic dialogue within each country.

In addition to its role in supporting effective NGO preparations for UNCED, the project would develop a communications infrastructure among NGOs that would be invaluable as a means of supporting NGO collaboration and cooperation in the development and implementation of an NGO Agenda 21 -- whether that is an independent NGO Agenda, an NGO response to the intergovernmental Agenda 21, or both.

In assessing the significance of the project, it is important to keep in mind that the project goes well beyond simply being a means for facilitating NGO participation in UNCED, and at its heart is a technology transfer project. Information and communications technology will clearly be one of the critical technologies of the next decade and well into the 21st century. For example the power of the Intel 80786 microprocessor, with an expected release date towards the end of this decade, will dwarf today's fastest chips by a similar order of magnitude that today's processors dwarf the 8080 chip of ten years or so ago. Moreover, recent breakthroughs in the ability to use parallel processing techniques will result in a further amplification of the power of microcomputers by orders of magnitude.

In its capacity as a technology transfer project, it is clear that it will only address part of what is involved in the transfer of information technology. However, the project will focus on some very important aspects of the information revolution, namely the opportunities that it creates for providing ready access to information, and for supporting democratic participation in collective decision-making processes. The project will also shed light on some of the ways that underlying economic parameters can be qualitatively different -- favoring cooperation over competition -- in an information-based economy than in one centered in the production and exchange of material goods.

In addition, the project will help to focus the attention of governments and business on the importance of information technology, and of developing a well-planned and accessible information and communication infrastructure. Through the development of criteria for selection of NGOs to receive support from the project, and of guidelines for disseminating information and for facilitating participation, the project may provide a model for designing terms for technology transfer that take into consideration some of the social and political impacts of technology transfer.

From a standpoint of timing, it is critical to move as swiftly as possible. If the project is to have a significant impact on the UNCED process, it is essential that here be some clear indication of substantial support for the project by the time of the third UNCED Preparatory Committee meetings in Geneva.

A very prompt decision to fund the planning for the project would allow a proposal to be prepared in time to be shared with the participants at an invitational meeting of key NGOs to be held in Penang, Malaysia from July 25-31. The Penang meeting has been called by Fundacion El Taller and the Third World Network to bring together fifty NGOs, many of whom are not yet well served by access to electronic communications, to consult on NGO strategy on a broad range of environmental and development issues.

In addition to describing the substantive tasks of the project, the proposal would include a proposed governance structure and a draft set of criteria for selection of NGOs to receive equipment and technical support from the project. If it is possible to present a concrete proposal at the Penang meeting, this would generate invaluable feedback on the practical aspects of the project as well as on the governance and proposed selection criteria. Recommendations could also be adopted at that time for the membership of an interim advisory board and for the approval of an initial action plan.

The proposal, with any revisions that emerge from the Penang consultation would then be presented at previously arranged meetings with major funding sources -- including the governments of the Netherlands and Norway and corporations in the computer and communications industry -- in the beginning of August.

Presentations of the proposal would also be made during the Preparatory Committee meetings that will be held in Geneva from August 12 through September 5. These presentations would serve to elicit feedback as to specific ways the project's effectiveness could be enhanced, and to provide some orientation and preparation for NGOs with an interest in participating in the project.

The project has grown out of an extensive process of design, planning and implementation of the use of electronic communications for UNCED since the initial organizing meeting of the Preparatory Committee in March 1990. The project also incorporates ongoing consultation and discussion with the key people who have been involved in the use of electronic communications for UNCED and in leadership positions in key UNCED-related NGO networks.

    Robert Pollard
    On The Line: Interactive Preparations for the First Earth Summit


"On The Line: Interactive Preparations for the First Earth Summit" is a project of EcoNet / Institute for Global Communications funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. A principal product of "On The Line" will be the publication of a newsletter guide to UNCED-related on-line resources.

unced participation | information ecology | information habitat

Web page updated: 2002.04.28