[governance] A Report on the Santa Clara Meeting of the Global Alliance for ICT4D

Michael Gurstein gurstein at gmail.com
Sat Mar 3 21:58:29 EST 2007


I'm just now back from a meeting of the UN's Global Alliance for ICT for
Development (GAID) www.un-gaid.org/ in Santa Clara California (Silicon
Valley) http://www.un-gaid.org/santaclara . The meeting was billed as
the "UN meets Silicon Valley" and was hosted (and chaired) by Intel and
specifically by Craig Barrett the Chairman of the Board of Intel.

I attended the meeting as a member of the GAID's "High-level Panel of
Advisers" where I continue (despite several attempts at correction), to
be identified as representing the Global Telecentre Alliance. 

The meeting was divided into two parts, a "business meeting" primarily
for the GAID Strategy Council (the organization has a very top down
decision making structure with a Steering Committee (who make the
on-going business decisions) appointed by the UN Secretary General and
in turn selecting a Strategy Council (who are responsible for the GAID's
Business Plan/strategy)).  The specific role for the Panel of Advisers
is to "advise" the Steering Committee, while the Champion's Network is
meant to be "a group of activists, experts and practitioners promoting
development through the use of ICT. They echo and amplify at local,
national and regional levels, the lessons learned and best practices
identified through the work of the Alliance".

Overall the GAID suffers from the same malady as its predecessors the
DOTForce and the UN ICT Task Force which is, a more or less complete
absence of any participation from those actually "doing" ICT4D on the
ground in communities. My feeling is that the absence of such
participation in a real and transparent governance structure by ICT4D
practitioners and grassroots users is a very significant hindrance to
the success of the GAID (as it was to the success of the DOTForce and
the UN ICT Task Force) and I might add that it is not sufficient to have
representation from those whose primary experience of such work is
through funding, sponsoring or otherwise enabling these activities.
There has been a significant reform in the approach to "development" in
other sectors (as for example health or economic development) where
there is a clear recognition that unless those most immediately and
directly involved on the ground acquire "ownership" of the process and
thus commitment to its success, then developmental processes however
well planned, funded or implemented are almost certain to fail.  That
such a recognition has not as yet penetrated into the area of ICT4D at
least in official circles remains a significant mystery to me.

However, the re-formed GAID differs from the UN ICT Task Force in now
having substantive participation from the private sector in the form of
a significant commitment of time and talent from Intel and the evident
intention (as per the Silicon Valley meeting) to attempt to tap the
private sector and particularly it seems the Silicon Valley private
sector even further as a source of resources and energy to propel the
creation of an Alliance for ICT4D.

The first day presented several initiatives with which the GAID is
associated (they were for the most part initiatives which had a
significant level of development in advance of the GAID), such as
Telecentres 2.0 of Telecentres.org and which perhaps were looking to the
GAID for increasing the breadth of their activities through UN branding
and accessing a UN based network. A second (in GAID parlance "Flagship
Partnership Initiative") is the World Bank's Broadband to Africa
initiative, which equally has had a significant level of development
outside of the GAID.  The third as presented was what appeared to be a
"new" development, that of a Cyber Development Corps which seems to be
an extension of the Canadian Netcorps approach.   Others appeared
equally to be extensions of existing efforts in the area of e-Education
(the GeCSI initiative of the UN ICT Task Force) and IBM's sponsored
G3ICT access (for the disabled) undertaking.

Perhaps more novel but even less clearly defined at this stage are a
variety of initiatives for creating what are being called Communities of
Expertise (CoE's), which to this stage are a variety of virtual networks
(most still only in the development phase) in areas such as e-Learning,
ICT enabled agriculture, gender and ICT and so on. How these will
operate, what they will accomplish, how they will be funded (if at all)
remains to be determined.

The second day saw an attempt to link the activities of the GAID (to
this point a more or less traditionally structured UN initiated body)
with the energy and skills to be found in Silicon Valley.  To achieve
this a broad range of individuals and institutions were invited to "meet
with the UN" and see what if any common ground could be found and
whether there were areas of interest for collaboration and joint

I think it is fair to say that this is still somewhat of a work in
progress.  Certainly there is interest and commitment on the part of
Intel and the continuation of interest and involvement from those such
as Microsoft and Cisco who have been involved in these areas for some
time.  I met several individuals (a female serial entrepreneur, a female
College Dean, various Silicon Valley consultants) who were learning
about these issues for the first time and seemed interested in learning
more. How to move that interest forward into more practical activities
and engagements was the subject of the closing workshops and plenary and
while lacking in specifics there seemed to be an opening for some future

A few more general comments:
	There was a clear interest and recognition on the part of the
participants--both UN and non-UN--of the requirement for ICT use at the
grassroots as the basis for enabling effective economic and social
development. This interest was focused on the role of telecentres as the
means for accessing (and providing access to) the grassroots. However,
there were virtually no ICT practitioners either from LDC's or domestic
(to the US) in attendance.  The issue of travel funding for "civil
society" (and specifically for ICT practitioners) has been an issue
which has been brought forward repeatedly in the context of the GAID
with little or no response.  A handful of "civil society"
representatives from LDC's were evidently funded to participate but
there was little apparent linkage between these participants and the
larger practitioner ICT4D community. 

	The governance structure of the GAID itself is closed and opaque
and there was even mention by Sarbuland Khan, Executive Director that a
minimum contribution of $50 K US would be required from all members of
the Strategy Council (which notably includes almost no representation
from ICT4D practitioners.

	It was mentioned several times in the course of the meeting that
the GAID had no budget and no permanent (non-seconded) staff and didn't
intend to get either.  Such an approach will be interesting to observe.
Certainly, if the hoped for participation from Silicon Valley
materializes, there would be the means from this source for a
contribution of $1 a year staffing and so on (for how long of course,
would remain to be seen), but whether NGO's or even the UN itself will
be able to participate for any period of time through voluntary
contributions of time and resources is certainly a very large question
mark. As well, what if anything could be accomplished in this way
remains to be seen. Money isn't necessarily the answer to all
development problems but the absence of money certainly means that a lot
of possibly significant questions and actions (and substantive and
valuable players) are going necessarily to stay off the table and out of
that particular game. 

	Those presenting also foreclosed one of the more suitable
options for activity given the GAID's self-imposed constraints that is,
it was several times mentioned that the GAID would NOT be concerned with
"policy' but rather be "action" and "results" oriented.  How this will
be accomplished without staff or budget remains an open question.

	One very interesting (to my mind) development was the general
acknowledgement by the GAID leadership of the absolute necessity of
"civil society" participation for the GAID to achieve any meaningful
results. The contradiction between this sentiment and the more or less
complete exclusion of civil society from any meaningful participation in
the governance structure of the GAID and the almost mandatory exclusion
of active involvement by those from civil society doing real work on the
ground given the above noted self-imposed constraints remains something
which will, I think, become strikingly obvious in the fairly near
future.  That it hasn't as yet been pointed out is a symptom of the
overall passivity with which civil society seems to have accepted the
formulation and formation of the GAID structure and operations to date.

It needs also, I think to be pointed out, that it is extremely easy for
those from civil society (and elsewhere) without actual working
experience or on-going involvement with ICT4D on the ground to be drawn
into the soothing "talk talk" UN environment (such as was prevalent in
Santa Clara) where lofty words substitute for effective action and where
at the end of the day little is accomplished other than the production
of yet another set of unreadable and unread reports. 

Steve Cisler in his report describes at some length the side tables in
the meeting room groaning with heaping piles of (presumably remaindered)
volumes produced by the UN ICT Task Force--many of which it might be
observed include contributions by civil society notables. That the UN
ICT Task Force accomplished little if anything over its five years is of
course unmentioned and swept aside in the novelty of the GAID.  It is a
pity that no assessment of the Task Force has been undertaken, but on
casual glance the stacks of multi-coloured documents beckoning another
cohort of like-minded contributors is perhaps assessment enough.

(As a closing note, it should also be observed that it is hard to see
the rather more practical and results oriented folks from Silicon Valley
staying around very long if, at the end of the day (or year), there
isn't something more practical to show for their efforts than seemed to
be emerging out of this meeting.)

With best wishes to all,


Michael Gurstein, Ph.D.
gurstein at gmail.com
Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training
Vancouver, BC CANADA v6z 2s1
tel: +1-604-602-0624
fax: +1-604-602-0624

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