Robert Pollard, On The Line
Budapest, September, 1991
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) to be held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 is expected to be a landmark event in defining new international policies in a broad range of areas relating to environment and development.
UNCED is unique in UN conferences in the extent to which there are opportunities for the participation of non-government organizations (NGOs). Largely as a result of this, the process of preparations for UNCED has served as an important catalyst for the development and strengthening of national, regional and international networks of NGOs.
However, it is becoming clear that a lack of access to information and communication concerning UNCED is presenting severe handicaps to the effective participation of non-government organizations from Eastern Europe as well as from many developing countries.
Given that the issue of equity between developed and developing countries is an important underlying issue of the UNCED agenda, and given the recognition of the invaluable role that NGOs can play in the overall UNCED process, the limitations in access to information and communications by NGOs in Eastern Europe and developing countries could significantly undermine the extent to which UNCED is able to find effective and equitable resolutions of the critical environment and evelopment problems it has been designed to address.
The UNCED Agenda and Eastern Europe: The issues that are on the agenda for UNCED are of critical importance for Eastern Europe, however, to date there has been little public awareness of UNCED in Eastern Europe, and the particular environment and development concerns of Eastern Europeans have not been adequately addressed during the UNCED preparations.
However, international policies on environment and development issues that will be decided on as a result of the UNCED process are likely to have a lasting impact on the prospects for environmentally sound, sustainable development in the entire Eastern European region.
UNCED Information: A very substantial and rapidly growing body of information has already been developed in preparation for UNCED, and access to this information is critical for organizations to participate effectivley in the UNCED preparations. The UNCED-related information includes: official UNCED documents; background papers, reports, plans, statements and interventions prepared by NGOs, governments, and inter-governmental agencies; a growing body of UNCED-related newsletters; and information on numerous conferences and events related to UNCED.
Global Electronic Network: At the organizing meeting of the UNCED Preparatory Committee was held in March 1990, the UNCED Secretariat announced its intention to make the official UNCED documents available through a "Global Electronic Network". Through such a network, UNCED information could be retrieved from any personal computer equipped with a modem and with access to a phone line. The Secretariat's plans for the use of a Global Electronic Network have been matched by an active effort by NGOs to make use of electronic communications for parallel dissemination of NGO information related to UNCED.
As a result of the combined efforts of the UNCED Secretariat and NGOs, the Global Electronic Network has been developed using existing electronic networks including EcoNet, GreenNet, Alternex, GeoNet and the Telecommunications Cooperative Network.
Effectiveness of Electronic Communications: The growing evidence of the effectiveness of electronic communications for UNCED information has led to a steadily increasing recognition among NGOs that electronic communications offer a uniquely powerful means for keeping up with UNCED information. This has resulted in a steady increase in the use of electronic communications as a principal means of obtaining UNCED- related information. It has also meant that the value of electronic communications as a means for NGOs to communicate among themselves has been gaining recognition.
Access to the UNCED-related information in electronic form also has significant advantages beyond the savings in time that can be realized in gaining access to, and disseminating, the information. For the volume of information has grown to such an extent that it is becoming increasingly difficult to organize the information, and to search through it to find information on particular subjects. The latter aspect is particularly significant given the interrelationships that exist between the many different issues on the UNCED agenda.
When the information is in electronic format, it becomes a relatively simple task to search through all the key documents for particular references or themes. In addition, the sheer volume of information makes it difficult to manage when it is printed form, whereas in electronic form it is feasible to store all the information on a laptop computer with a high capacity hard disk drive.
Limitations in Access: However, while the power of electronic communications and the advantages it offers to those who are able to make use of the technology has become increasingly evident, it has also become clear that NGOs in developing countries and in Eastern Europe, as well as most small grassroots NGOs, have been severely handicapped -- both by the relative lack of availability of personal computers, and by the difficulties in getting affordable and reliable telephone access to the Global Electronic Network.
Technology Transfer -- Access to Electronic Communications: There are three key elements that are contributing to the difficulties that NGOs are experiencing in gaining effective access to UNCED-related information through electronic communications: lack of computer equipment; lack of computer-related skills; and problems with reliable and affordable telephone access.
In addition, even when an NGO is able to gain effective electronic access to the needed information, it is still necessary to have the resources to translate that into a format that is accessible to the organizations and individuals affiliated with the NGO. In practice this means there is a need to generate the information in a printed form, and to disseminate that among NGOs and to the news media. In order to reach beyond the English-speaking members of the NGO community, it is also necessary to make provisions for translating information into the local language, and to make use of other media, including radio and television, so that the information about the UNCED issues can reach a broader audience.
Access to Computer Equipment: Despite the relatively high price of computer equipment in Eastern Europe compared to prices in the developed countries, the steady downward trend in the cost of microcomputers, and the corresponding increase in their power and capacity is resulting in a steady increase in the use of computers by NGOs. However, computers are still a scarce resource, and additional resources for the purchase of computers and related equipment, e.g. modems, will be a very important ingredient in strengthening access to electronic communications.
Access to Computer-Related Skills: While the level of skills -- over and above that required for conventional computer use -- required to make use of effective electronic communications does not require intensive training, there are sufficient problems that are typically encountered when using electronic communications that it is essential that there be provision for some training and for ongoing support. Furthermore, the value of additional support in the use of computers, for example in the effective use of databases, can not be underestimated.
Access to Affordable, Dependable Telephone Communications: In much of Eastern Europe, it is access to dependable, affordable telephone connections to the Global Electronic Network that poses the greatest barrier, both in availability and in cost. The existence of national Packet Switching Networks in a number of Eastern European countries does provide the opportunity of realizing significant savings compared to the cost of international telephone calls, however, even with a Packet Switching Network account, the cost of a moderate amount of on-line time still remains a significant addition to the operating expenses of organizations that are operating on very limited budgets.
Electronic Communications Infrastructure & Sustainable Development: The vital role of electronic communications in the UNCED process has helped to draw attention to the critical role that the development of a dependable, affordable and accessible electronic communications infrastructure can play in building the foundations for environmentally sound, sustainable development. For such an infrastructure does not only serve the needs of NGOs and the public for effective access to information, it is also an essential component of the communications infrastructure needed by business, government and the scientific community to function effectively in a global environment.
Transition to Era of Information Technology: Meanwhile, the rapid advances in the recent past -- and especially during the past ten years -- in electronics, and in information and communication technology show no signs of slowing down. Rather, it is clear that these advances are central to a transition from an industrial era into one in which information technology plays the central role, and in which the compilation and exchange of information and knowledge gradually takes precedence over the production and exchange of material goods.
Environmental Impact of Information Technology: And while there remain some environmental problems associated with the production of electronic equipment, there are some profound ways in which the appropriate use of electronic information technology can have a substantially smaller impact on the environment and on the available natural resources, including energy resources, than do many of the material-based means of production for which they can substitute.
Integration of Electronic Communications with Print & Other Media: In developing a plan for the effective dissemination of UNCED-related information, it is essential that adequate provision be made for production, copying, and dissemination of printed copies of material that is received electronically, as well as resources for translating some of the materials into the native language.
Cost Effective Supplements to On-line Communications: Since the difficulty of gaining access to affordable and reliable telephone access to the Global Electronic Network is even more of a limiting factor than lack of access to computers, there has been increasing attention paid to alternative means of disseminating information electronically. In particular, the development of a system for dissemination of diskettes by mail appears to offer a cost-effective alternative to direct on-line access for relatively large sets of documents.