Introducing ICT to Global Civil Society:
the Association for Progressive Communications and the UN Summits 1992-1995


Rory O’Brien

Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto

140 St. George Street, Toronto, Canada M5S 3G6




Much of the current literature on the emergent role of civil society organizations (CSOs) in global policymaking emphasizes the growing links among transnational social movement organizations and intergovernmental organizations such as the UN.  The role played by the new information and communication technologies is also frequently mentioned as one of the main factors contributing to the empowerment of global civil society.  Very few sources, however, address the historical relationship between these two topics.  This paper fills this gap by describing in detail the activities undertaken by a set of computer networks collectively known as the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) in supporting civil society participation in a series of five UN-sponsored global policy summits held in the 1990s.  The APC's provision of a global technical and informational networking infrastructure, the services it provided to the CSO community prior to, during, and after each summit, and its advocacy for access to communications technology, is argued to be a major contributing factor to the adoption of ICT by organizations seeking to influence international policy.




In the early 1990s, the United Nations held five world summits on matters of social and environmental concern.  In a break with tradition, the UN encouraged the active involvement of large numbers of civil society organizations (CSOs) in these events[1].  The scale of CSO participation was unprecedented – each summit gathering drawing many thousands of civil society groups from all parts of the world. 


These activities took place at a time when computer communications technology was beginning to be deployed internationally.  Many of the CSOs attending the summits used the computer networks established by members of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) to keep themselves informed on summit-related issues and logistics[2].  The APC was the primary provider of online services in support of all five UN summits[3].




The Association for Progressive Communications (APC), as it stands today, is an international nonprofit umbrella organization for 24 national or regional computer networks serving the needs of the social change sector[4].  Seven founding member networks established the APC in 1990 as a means of facilitating cooperation, information-sharing, and technical interoperability among themselves (O'Brien 1992; Frederick 1993).  Its mission statement reads


"The Association for Progressive Communications is a global network of non-governmental organisations whose mission is to empower and support organisations, social movements and individuals in and through the use of information and communication technologies to build strategic communities and initiatives for the purpose of making meaningful contributions to equitable human development, social justice, participatory political processes and environmental sustainability." (APC Secretariat, 1997)


Three member networks, IGC (U.S.), Web (Canada), and GreenNet (Britain) all had their beginnings in the mid-1980s, which meant that at time of its formation the APC was already serving several thousand CSOs.  This was by far the largest concentration of CSOs using computerized communication, which positioned APC well to facilitate involvement in UN summits.


The APC networks are decentralized, autonomous, and cooperative, with the APC Secretariat functioning as a coordinating body.  Throughout most of the past eleven years, the majority of APC host systems have operated on the same hardware and software platforms, collectively sharing maintenance and development work.  Besides member networks, there have been many smaller APC “partner” networks, mostly in developing nations, which link to APC hosts to transfer e-mail.


Collectively, APC networks support tens of thousands of social change organizations and activists, making it the largest integrated, online system for CSO usage in the world.  Though individual network’s offerings vary, most APC networks provide a range of services, including Internet access, e-mail, computer conferencing, mail lists, online databases, website development and hosting. 


APC's role in the UN summits


In 1990, APC began working with the UN as the main provider of online communications for CSOs at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit).  APC succeeded in promoting the use of computer networking as an effective mechanism for involving CSOs in that summit, establishing a pattern of activities for the summits that followed.  APC has now supported communications at almost every major UN conference[5], including:


1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), Rio de Janeiro

1993 United Nations Conference on Human Rights (UNCHR), Vienna

1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), Cairo

1995 World Summit for Social Development (WSSD), Copenhagen

1995 Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW), Beijing


Since 1995, APC has had General Consultative Status to the United Nations, which is the highest category for a CSO within the UN system.


APC grew rapidly during early 1990s.  In 1991, shortly after its formation, the 7 APC members connected over 8,000 activists in 60 countries.  At the end of 1993, 17,000 users in 94 countries were online with 16 member networks.  By October 1995, there were approximately 37,000 users of 18 APC member networks; this included 7350 users in developing nations, 4700 in ex-Soviet bloc countries, and 24,950 in the developed nations.  Added to these 1995 totals were the users of 41 partner networks for which no figures are available, most of whom were in the South. 


Fig. 1 - APC members (red) and partners (yellow) in 1995


Users, who were mainly CSO organizations or affiliated individuals, operated in many different social change sectors – environment, peace, human rights, social justice, international development, and women’s issues.  Included were such groups as the Third World Network, World Resources Institute, World Wildlife Fund, Centre for Our Common Future, Kenya Energy and Environmental Organizations (KENGO), Centro Nicaraguense de Derechos Humanos, Canadian Council for International Cooperation, Amnesty International, and the International Women's Tribune Centre.


General Services Provided by APC


The degree of participation at the major UN summits by civil society organizations was enormous, with the summits acting as focal points for mobilizing large numbers of concerned individuals and groups seeking to influence international policy.  Though the events varied in scale, most could be categorized as among the largest gatherings of people ever to attend an international forum, with up to 40,000 people meeting over a one to two week period.  The APC provided services to both UN and CSO users before, during and after the summits.




Prior to each UN conference, often a year or more in advance, APC staff worked with the UN and the CSO community for optimal participation on the issues[6].  The strategy ascribed to by the main players was to view the summits not as ends in themselves, but rather as major steps in a multi-threaded networking movement that would continue long afterwards.  To accomplish this, a number of facilitative measures were highlighted, including access to the technology, the widespread dissemination of information, and other services such as promotion and much-needed training and support.  It must be stressed that the UN efforts were overlaid on the concurrent independent efforts of the APC to electronically network civil society both locally and globally.


Access to the technology


In addition to the thousands of CSOs that were already online, there were many more that obtained accounts with an APC member or partner network in order to participate in the online community centering around each Summit.  There is no question that the UN summits prompted many groups to get online for the first time.  In providing dial-up connections and online accounts for e-mail and computer conferencing, otherwise disadvantaged groups were able to get the UN information and keep up to date with their peers on the issues of concern to them.  


The United Nations chose to make use of the services of APC because it offered the most cost-effective venue for distributing official documentation to the many CSOs around the world.  This was especially true for those CSOs operating in developing countries, in which the poor mail and telephone infrastructure often made information dissemination both very slow and unreliable, as well as prohibitively expensive.  While APC and partner nodes did make use of this telephone infrastructure as well, appropriate software technology had been developed by APC to overcome the limitations of poor telephone connections, making their system of interlinked networks a very reliable and cost-effective means of distributing official UN documents related to the Summits[7].


Prior to the growth of the World Wide Web in the latter half of the 1990s, information was shared among APC’s users via e-mail and computer conferences.  Even before the Internet became available outside of North America and Western Europe, APC had one of the most interconnected e-mail systems in the world, with messages passing seamlessly to the many other networks then in existence.  Messages typically were transferred between APC nodes via dial-up connections that were scheduled every few hours, or once a day for partner nodes.  The rapidity of sending and receiving large text documents was a vast improvement over the days, and sometimes weeks, it took to send them by regular mail.



Information infrastructure


In the main, online communications was accomplished mostly via e-mail and computer conferences[8].  The conferences were mostly in English, reflecting the preponderance of users from the English-speaking countries of the North, and in Spanish, which was the language of most of the networks in Central and South America.  Each APC node decided which conferences it would link to other nodes, with the smaller ones mainly importing only those that were requested by users or those that were in their language.  The Institute for Global Communications (IGC) in the US[9], the largest APC network, maintained over 1200 online conferences on a variety of activist-oriented topics, though smaller nodes generally carried much fewer.  The conferences were proprietary to APC and one had to have an account with an APC network to access them, though several were linked with outside mail-lists. 


The popularity of online conferences was not only a result of CSOs being able to share information with a potentially global audience, it was also due to the quality of postings - messages that were succinct, timely and relevant.  The fact that the APC was a linkage of private networks composed almost entirely of social change activists meant that there was a high degree of understanding of issues as well as a common experience with operational realities.  Collaboration was made much easier because there seemed to be a large measure of trust exhibited, with relatively few disagreements on principles. 


The conferences were not used much as a means of discussing issues, plans or policies in a public, highly-interactive, discursive manner.  Most of the public conferences were used for posting public documents, such as policy statements, news stories, newsletters, events postings, and announcements.  Interactive discussions mainly took place in private conferences, as used especially by the activist coalitions established both nationally and internationally for formulating policy and strategy around each summit.


UN documents were mostly posted to non-interactive, 'read-only' conferences that were carried by all APC member nodes, and which were also linked to e-mail lists for transmission to partner nodes in poorer countries.  Documents posted to these conferences included UN newsletters, issue backgrounders, PrepCom (preparatory committee) reports, policy statements by national governments and UN-accredited CSOs, and updates on summit agendas and attendance logistics.  Most of the official UN information was posted in separate conferences in English, Spanish, and French. 


While official documents were made available online by the UN, unofficial communications were shared among the CSOs themselves.  These ranged from press releases, to reports, to more interactive discussions around issues.  These conferences were open to all users, although there was only a small percentage of active posters compared to the readership base, as is generally the case with computer conferences.  Many CSOs involved in issues of global significance were thus able to keep up with the situations and activities in other parts of the world. 


The CSOs themselves were instrumental in realizing new ways to use the medium.  The Development GAP, a Washington-based organization, made use of the conference on APC networks to post a 'sign-up' letter to solicit endorsements from other CSOs for their critique of the official UN position paper on the World Summit on Social Development. (The Development GAP, 1995)  In another case, daily summaries of the proceedings of the four-day Lobby Training Seminar for Asian Women's CSOs, hosted in Jakarta in June 1994 by the Asian Women's Human Rights Council, were posted to the online conference women.unwcw, an active forum for CSOs interested in the UN World Conference on Women.  This was done in order to give women's rights advocates the necessary knowledge of the issues and procedures for successfully lobbying their governments (Banks 1994a).


Another important feature available to APC users was a directory database that listed all the users of most APC networks, including their interests as well as contact information.  This was quite useful in identifying other groups at home or abroad that were working on similar concerns.




An important aspect of facilitating access to the technology was making people aware of the potentials of computer communications and how they might use the APC services.  Outreach efforts generally relied on networks of contacts and word-of-mouth.  While this is partially due to a strong bias toward collaborative efforts, it is also true that the social change community was neither homogenous nor concentrated enough for traditional mass-media marketing techniques to be cost-effective.  The APC’s efforts to promote and facilitate the summits were highly successful because they had local networking operations, operating in local languages, that concentrated on ‘networking the networkers’, i.e., targeting the ‘umbrella groups’ and news services serving grass-roots CSOs.


User support and training


The use of the new technology not only made interaction easier and more rewarding in terms of information flow, the need for technical support also created a common focus for interaction.  The APC's goal was to make activists comfortable with using online services, and providing training and user support were an important part of the APC’s services.  Since their inception, APC networks have provided user support services, generally both within the online environment (conferences and e-mail) as well as via telephone.  APC member services also included training sessions on the use of the network.  It was often given as an optional part of many conferences and workshops of interest to activists, with an emphasis on usability from the perspective of their particular needs.  Wherever possible, the training focused on real-life situations and was predicated on a learning-while-doing approach.


Even those users who are individually adept at accessing their accounts and using e-mail can sometimes be at a loss when attempting to conduct group interactions online.  Some APC nodes developed consultative seminars and documentation on how to achieve success in electronic group work (James and Rykert 1997).


Pre-summit meetings


Each summit was preceded by several meetings of the UN's Preparatory Committee.  Taking place in the year prior to the main event, these “PrepComs” set the summit agenda and ensured that all participants (primarily national governments but including some invited CSOs) were prepared to reach agreement on matters of importance.  The APC was often invited to provide an electronic communications facility at these meetings.  This meant a technical setup that was a scaled down version of the larger ones established at the summits.  It not only allowed APC staff to gain valuable logistical experience, but it also gave UN organizers and other attendees an opportunity to see what the new technologies could do.


In conjunction with the PrepComs, meetings of NGO Forum planners were frequently held concurrently at the same location.  The APC communications centre was used by CSO participants in these meetings as well.  In addition, regional meetings of CSOs developing policies and issue updates took place prior to the Summits, for which APC frequently provided the communications, training and networking services.  Prior to the World Conference on Women in Beijing, for example, APC facilitated regional meetings in Jakarta, Vienna, Buenos Aries, Amman, and Dakar (Banks 1994b).


During Event


Besides the official UN forum for invited delegates, each of the summits also saw an alternative conference forum taking place at the same time at another locale in the city.  This alternative forum was established solely for the gathering of thousands of CSO representatives and concerned citizens who wished to develop their own policies and plans, and provide feedback on UN statements.  Though the APC accepted the invitation by the UN to provide communication services at the official summit sites after UNCED, it was the CSO gatherings, a.k.a. NGO Forums, that APC concentrated on serving.


In order to meet the needs of the CSOs in attendance, the APC had to replicate many of the services each member network provided.  To this end, it fielded teams of APC staff and volunteers, ranging from about 20-75 individuals, that worked in the general areas of technical services, support, training, and information facilitation.




To provide the technical infrastructure for each event, APC technicians established Local Area Networks (LANs) at each site (NGO Forum and official UN meeting place) requiring it.  In each case, the NGO Forum was the larger setup, with up to 100 workstations, while the official site was generally less than 20.  These workstations were linked to printing facilities to aid hardcopy information distribution, but it was the external links to the other APC systems and to the Internet that were the primary service offerings. 


Free accounts were available for any participant, a great many of whom took advantage of this offer, as evidenced by the 1400 local accounts created at UNCED (Afonso 1992), 1107 accounts at the WSSD (Bjerregaard 1995) and 1700 accounts at the FWCW (Farwell 1996).  These accounts gave the users the opportunity to have a private e-mail account, to read and post messages to all public APC conferences (including the dozens of conferences set up particularly for the Summit), to search several pertinent online databases, access remote files and computers using gopher and telnet, and, in the later summits, visit websites using a World Wide Web browser. 


Support and Training


With many of the summit users being novices in computer communications, the APC support staff were hard-pressed to keep up with the demand for assistance.  Overall, support services were divided into both helping people with their word processing and printing needs and helping them make the best use of the online communications facilities.


The APC summit workteams were comprised of staff from Northern and Southern nodes.  This proved to be invaluable, as it allowed many users to be given support in languages they understood. 


Support staff were also helpful in getting participants to share their documents electronically.  Speakers, for example, who had just finished making last-minute changes to their presentations, were delighted to be able to immediately post them to an online conference networked around the world.


In addition to user support, APC staff also conducted training and demonstration sessions throughout the conference at the NGO Forum site.  During training, particularly on a one-to-one basis, many users were helped not only to use the technology, but also to acquire it for themselves.  Information was given on how to obtain an account with their nearest APC affiliate, and often APC software was freely given to keen individuals to get them started immediately upon return to their home country.  Several large international CSOs, who wanted to link their international operations, were advised by trainers on how to accomplish this using APC resources.


Information Facilitation


The main service of the APC was facilitating the flow of information, both among the participants of the event, and among and between those interested parties around the world who could not be in attendance.  To accomplish this, distribution venues were created, and a variety of facilitative techniques developed.


Computer conferences and mail lists


The UN provided the official documents by posting them to the appropriate conferences on the APC system on-site, from whence they were distributed to all APC member networks and partners.  To illustrate the volume of official postings - the UN posted 260 items to the un.wcw.doc.eng conference in the year and a half prior to the World Conference on Women, and 425 items during the 10 days of the Conference itself (of which most of which were final policy statements by official delegates and daily news updates on proceedings).


The CSOs also had their own computer conferences that were used to disseminate information posted during the summit.  For example, wssd.ngodocs was a repository of specific articles gleaned from the wssd.ngoforum conference, used for CSO communications on issues arising at the event.


From earlier experience, it was found that it was difficult for people to deal with the information overload of hundreds of sometimes disjointed communiqués.  It was also very expensive to transfer the large set of often lengthy postings to participants in Southern countries, who had to dial long-distance to England or Australia to download the conference files.  For these reasons, APC used a conference for 'pointing' to other online documents, allowing APC remote users to receive a "bibliographic reference" list and request that particular items be emailed to them. 


The conference wssd.canada serves as an excellent example of how an online forum can greatly enhance group interaction.  The conference was set up shortly after WSSD began at the request of the leader of the 50-person Canadian contingent as a means of keeping the Canadians in touch with one another during the conference.  It proved very successful at stimulating discussion, sharing pertinent information, and scheduling ad hoc meetings.  After a few days of use, a request was granted to network the conference to Web, the Canadian APC node, so that people 'back home' could also participate.  It became one of main reasons why the Canadian contingent played such a leadership role in gaining consensus among the CSOs present at the Summit.  They used their online conference to involve key players in the drafting and finalizing of the CSO Alternative Declaration, and then to present it to the world shortly after the UN Declaration was tabled.


Internet 'tools'


By 1995, the advent of the popular Internet brought with it a number of tools that were put to use at WSSD and FWCW.  Official UN documents were put up on the UN gopher site, while the CSO-derived documents were put on the APC gopher site.  Searchability of the information base was accomplished through the WAIS search engine, enabling the creation of on-site databases of official and unofficial documents, and news articles, among other resources.  Many of the documents were accessible from an APC 'gopher' site, as well as being in conference format. 


But it was the use of the World Wide Web that impressed so many people, allowing them for the first time to see pictures and colourful graphics along with the text.  The professional information services, operating during the events, were especially pleased to know that their logos were being seen by tens of thousands of people from around the world on the graphical user interfaces of their WWW browsers.  By the end of the FWCW, the Inter-Press Service and Terra Viva icons had been seen 33,000 times by Beijing attendees and 100,000 times by outside parties, a considerable amount of free promotion (Farwell 1996).  The drawback, of course, was that at that time the WWW graphics and other tools could only be accessed with technologies that were not available to users in the developing world.


Facilitation techniques


The facilitation and management of information flow was accomplished through a large contingent of APC staff, known as the InfoTeam.  It was their job to ensure that documents were being placed into the conferences and mail-lists on a timely basis. 


The main provider of documents, including daily updates on events, was the UN, but there were other organizations with which the APC InfoTeam formed alliances at several summits to distribute their articles via online conferences.  Inter-Press Service and Terra Viva were developing nation-based newswire services that provided extensive coverage of the Conference and NGO Forum proceedings.  Also, one of the more popular daily reportings was that of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, a service of the International Institute for Sustainable Development.  The Bulletin had its start at UNCED, and has covered all major UN events since that time, reporting on the ‘unofficial’ proceedings, i.e., the scuttlebutt on who's meeting with whom in hotel rooms and halls, and what deals are being worked out in-between the plenary sessions. 


In the months leading up to UNCED in 1992, a new organization was created solely for facilitating the networking of NGOs internationally.  NGONET was set up as a sub-unit of Instituto del Tercer Mundo, which was also the parent of Chasque, the APC node in Uruguay.  Though it concentrated on audio and video information dissemination, it also was involved in information management services, and made extensive use of the APC system.  One of NGONET's roles in WSSD was to encourage "distant-lobbying", wherein their staff would receive lobbying messages from concerned citizens not in attendance, via e-mail or conference, and personally convey them to the official delegate to whom they were addressed.  In this way, people could have an opportunity to influence particular immediate negotiations through timely interventions (NGONET 1995).


Members of the information team also helped individuals 'get their word out' by requesting that documents on diskettes brought in for printing also be posted online.  In other cases, for documents available only in hardcopy, a scanner was used to create a postable digital copy.  A major effort was made to encourage postings in several languages.  Document translation was greatly aided by the myriad linguistic backgrounds of the APC staff - those that went to Beijing collectively spoke eighteen languages, for example (van der Velden 1995).


In some cases there was a need for immediate mobilization of public pressure, as the following quote illustrates.


“The APC's efforts at the UN World Conference on Human Rights were successful in helping the Dalai Lama attend the conference. The Tibetan delegation used the APC networks to rush messages, appeals, and press releases around the world on behalf of the Dalai Lama.  Their efforts paid off and the Dalai Lama did attend the conference, and through this process, many Tibetans have recognized the efficiency and importance of electronic communications, and continue to use computer networks.” (Sallin 1994)


The need to condense and manage the vast amounts of information led to a number of techniques being developed.  The aforementioned 'pointers' conference was one such method.  Another was the establishment of a set of criteria for prioritizing types of information to be distributed.  Non-English items were given the highest priority at the FWCW, for example, in order to address the online disparity among the world's languages.  An Information Facilitator was hired at the FWCW, whose role it was to identify key documents, place them in appropriate online venues, and write summaries of them for inclusion in a daily on-line update bulletin.  In these ways, a more even and balanced flow of information was achieved.


The APC's contribution to the participation by CSOs in the summits was very important to the UN.  The following quote is indicative of the UN's responses to each summit effort:


"I would like to express my appreciation for the outstanding contribution by the APC towards the success of the World Conference on Human Rights. The electronic distribution of documentation during the preparatory process and the Conference itself enabled the widest possible access to information for the benefit of all participants and especially for grass-roots NGO's.  Furthermore, the workshops and briefings organized by the APC on information technology proved to be extremely useful for all NGOs.


                Ibrahim Fall, Secretary-General of the World Conference on Human Rights" (Farwell 1994)




After the summits concluded, the APC conferences were maintained for follow-up postings, and new ones created for research and bridging to the next summit. 

Maintenance and creation of online conferences


The networking strategy of the APC and the CSOs was not to see the Summits as ends in themselves, but as opportunities to encourage collaborative efforts and re-vitalize their connections, and so many of the summit-specific conferences remained active for a year or more afterwards.  In the immediate aftermath, there were a number of standard items placed online: official UN reports and statements, CSO statements, reports on projects related to the event, and notification of follow-up activities and meetings.  In particular, many of these forums were used to keep people informed about the progress (or lack thereof) in implementing the policy reforms agreed to by the governments involved.


There were also new conferences created to build on the networking momentum of the Summits.  Women's organizations that had been active online, raising awareness of women's issues at all previous summits, requested that an online venue be established for a campaign of action to take place between the WSSD and the FWCW.  The conference women.180days and a corresponding mail list were created to support the 180 Days/180 Ways Women's Action Campaign, which started on International Women's Day (March 8th, during WSSD) and culminated in Beijing on September 6th, the International Day of Action for Women's Equality.  Women from around the world shared their plans online for local activities related to the cause (WEDO 1995).


In some cases, there were computer conferences that originated in the post-summit environment to be repositories of resulting documents.  The conference ingof.treaties, for example, is a collection, in several languages, of the official set of Alternative Treaties created by the CSOs at UNCED.  In others, in light of expressed needs coming out of a summit, a conference was created for follow-up activities.  The APC Women's Programme’s research team set up an internal conference to develop a survey on the utility of the new information and communication technologies requested by FWCW participants.  The questionnaire was e-mailed to respondents, with completed returns being stored online for analysis by the researchers, who each lived in different parts of the globe.


Influence on communication policy


APC was not only a facilitator of advocacy groups, it was an advocacy group in its own right when it came to communication policy.  Through the promotion of position papers and interventions at key gatherings, it succeeded in having the use of the new communications technologies specifically addressed in the final summit statements.  The Agenda 21 implementation document for the Rio UNCED Declaration was quite explicit:


"Countries, international organizations, including organs and organizations of the United Nations system, and non-governmental organizations should exploit various initiatives for electronic links to support information sharing, to provide access to databases and other information sources, to facilitate communication for meeting broader objectives, such as the implementation of Agenda 21, to facilitate intergovernmental negotiations, to monitor conventions and efforts for sustainable development to transmit environmental alerts, and to transfer technical data." (United Nations 1992)


Though ICT was not explicitly mentioned in either the Vienna UNCHR or Cairo ICPD statements, the Copenhagen WSSD Declaration stated among its principles and goals, that governments should


"(r)ecognize that the new information technologies and new approaches to access to and use of technologies by people living in poverty can help in fulfilling social development goals; and therefore recognize the need to facilitate access to such technologies". (United Nations 1995b)


By the time of the FWCW in Beijing, the Women's Networking Support Programme of the APC, working closely with several other major women's networking organizations, had produced a widely-disseminated  "NGO Communications Strategy Proposal", in which electronic networking figures as a key element.  This proposal was echoed in the Platform for Action section of the Beijing FWCW Declaration which stated that


"(w)omen should be empowered by enhancing their skills, knowledge and access to information technology". 


Governments were to


"(e)ncourage and recognize women's media networks, including electronic networks and other new technologies of communication, as a means for the dissemination of information and the exchange of views, including at the international level, and support women's groups active in all media work and systems of communications to that end"




"(e)ncourage the use of communication systems, including new technologies, as a means of strengthening women's participation in democratic processes",


while NGOs were to


"(t)rain women to make greater use of information technology for communication and the media, including at the international level"




"(c)reate networks among and develop information programmes for non-governmental organizations, women's organizations and professional media organizations in order to recognize the specific needs of women in the media, and facilitate the increased participation of women in communication, in particular at the international level, in support of South- South and North-South dialogue among and between these organizations, inter alia, to promote the human rights of women and equality between women and men". (United Nations 1995a)





The Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 marked a watershed in the relationship between the UN and civil society, when, for the first time, non-governmental organizations were allowed official status at a UN conference.  Most observers considered the event a great success, drawing tens of thousands of people and setting the stage for subsequent summits.  The use of computer communications to prepare the global CSO community for participation was shown to be both practical and cost-effective.


The APC system of globally-linked national and regional computer networks proved to be a key factor in disseminating information on policies, issues, and activities among UN agencies, CSOs and the news media, by providing the necessary infrastructure and services prior to, during, and following the events.  It was not just a matter of making the technology available, but also of ensuring that participants were well supported in using it.  Though the APC’s main role was to facilitate information flow, it also successfully advocated for policy changes to ensure the new information and communications technologies were more accessible to the public and used to further democratic purposes.


Since 1995, the Internet, fueled in the main by commercial interests, has greatly expanded its reach to most of the urban areas of the world.  The APC’s role as a provider of access to the networking infrastructure has necessarily evolved into one of facilitator of information flows and use of online applications for civil society campaigns.  As the systems of ICT usage continue to develop, APC’s role as policy advocate continues to expand.  


The use of computer networking has since become an important part of the operations of global civil society.  It seems reasonable to conclude that the UN-sponsored world summits, coupled with APC’s efforts to network social change organizations, were a good introduction to the utility of ICT, helping to convince activists that the new technology can be a very useful tool in promoting change at the global level.



Works Cited


Afonso, C. ( (1992, 6/9) ISP/Rio-- A Final Report, Topic 34. en.unced.general (Web Networks/APC). 7/9/1999.


Banks, K. ( (1994a, 24/06) Lobby Training Seminar: Asian Wom. apc.wcw ( 19/07/1999.


Banks, K. ( (1994b, 22/07) Regional Meetings. apc.wcw ( 19/07/1999.


Bjerregaard, J. ( (1995, 18/06) Report: APC at WSSD in Copenhagen. ( 18/07/1999.


Farwell, E. ( (1994, 5/1) Re: APC and the United Nations, Topic 71. apc.documents (Web Networks/APC). 7/9/2000.


Farwell, E. ( (1996, 8/05) Women's Program Report: 1993-1995. apc.wcw ( 19/07/1999.


Frederick, H. H. (1993) Computer networks and the emergence of global civil society: the case of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), in: L. Harasim & J. Walls (Eds) Global Networks: Computers and International Communication, pp. 283-295 (Cambridge, MIT Press).


James, M. & Rykert, L. (1997) Working Together Online (Toronto, Web Networks).


NGONET ( (1995, 27/02) Distant Lobbying during WSSD. un.socsummit ( 24/07/1999.


O'Brien, R. (1992, July) The APC computer networks: global networking for change, Canadian Journal of Information Science, 17(2), 16-24.


Sallin, S. ( (1994, 14/2) The Association for Progressive Communications: A Cooperative Effort to Meet the Information Needs of Non-Governmental Organizations, (/kiosk/publications/94-0010.txt). 5/7/1999.


United Nations (1992, 14/8) Report on the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Chapter 40: Information For Decision-making, gopher://, in: Agenda 21. 5/5/2001.


United Nations (1995a, 17/10) Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women, gopher:// 5/5/2001.


United Nations (1995b, 19/4) Report of the World Summit on Social Development, gopher:// 5/5/2001.


van der Velden, M. ( (1995, 30/08) APC Press Releases from China. unwcw.women ( 22/07/1999.


WEDO ( (1995, 22/02) 180 Days/180 Ways Campaign Flyer. un.socsummit ( 24/07/1995.



[1] Though the term ‘non-governmental organization (NGO)’ is the more commonly used, there is a growing reluctance to define these organizations by what they are not, i.e., not government. The term ‘civil society organization (CSO)’ is an increasingly popular replacement.

[2] Since there is little literature reporting on this pivotal period in the emergence of global CSO networking, this account draws primarily upon both the first-hand experiences of the author who was a founder of Web, the Canadian APC network, as well as an ongoing study of the thousands of messages shared among APC staff and other individuals that are still maintained in the many archived public and private computer conferences set up for group communication during the period discussed.

[3] There were other notable online initiatives used in conjunction with various summits – Telecommunications Cooperative Network (TCN), GeoNet/PopTel, TogetherNet, Education Development Center (EDC), and later, various mail-lists and websites of the UNDP, but none matching the duration or scale of the APC’s involvement.

[4] APC has recently opened up membership to any organization that promotes the use of networking technologies within the social change sector, not just those providing local technical services.

[5] Though not to as great an extent, APC’s services were also used for other UN conferences  – World Summit for Children (1990), International Conference on Water and the Environment (1992), Commission on Sustainable Development (1993), International Sustainable Agriculture Conference (1993), World Conference on Small Island Developing States (1994), UN Climate Change Convention (1995), and the UN Conference on Human Settlements (1996).  Recently, the Beijing +5 Review 2000 process has had extensive support from APC.

[6] The term 'staff' here refers to the co-operating staff of all APC member networks - the APC Secretariat itself had only 2 employees during the period 1990-96.  The degree of collaboration required for provision of global services meant that APC networks frequently functioned as a single organization.  Primary responsibility for coordinating APC efforts was assumed by different APC networks – Alternex (Brazil) for UNCED, Comlink (Germany) for UNCHR, Chasque (Uruguay) for ICPD, NordNet (Sweden) for WSSD, and Ecuanex (Ecuador) for FWCW, in conjunction with the APC Executive Director at that time, Edie Farwell.

[7] The APC technicians customized FidoNet software, which was able to pick up a dropped file transmission from where it left off, rather than resending it in its entirety.

[8] The World Wide Web (WWW) has since become common, but it was not extensively used in the period 1991-1995.  However, websites were set up for both the WSSD and the FWCW which did allow much more of the Internet 'public' to passively follow the events. 

[9] Recognition must be given to IGC as the guiding light behind the APC.  With its two original networks of Peacenet and EcoNet, it pioneered the system software used by APC nodes and was instrumental in helping many APC member and partner networks get established.