The Association for Progressive Communications and

the UN Summits 1991-1996

 

by

Rory OíBrien

 

 

Course: LIS3725Y
Professor: Andrew Clement
Date: November 10, 1999


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Abstract

 

Though online activities for social change purposes are becoming more commonplace, it was not that long ago that computer communications was practically unknown among civil society organizations. This paper provides a case study of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), a pioneer in assisting civil society to make use of the new communications technologies. In the ten years of its existence, the APC has followed a strategy of facilitation as a means of inducing its targeted social change groups to improve their performance online. The case study looks at the APC's role in supporting the involvement of civil society organizations in a series of United Nations world summits from 1990 to 1996, a period which saw unprecedented interactions between governmental and non-governmental organizations in the arena of global policy making. This paper will detail the types of activities undertaken and discuss their strategic implications.


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Table of Contents

 

Introduction *

APC and the UN *

General Services Provided by APC *

Pre-Event *

Access to the online technology *

Information dissemination *

Online communications (public / private, individual / group) *

User support and training *

Example activities *

During Event *

Technical *

Support and Training *

Information Facilitation *

Post-Event *

Maintenance of online conferences *

Creation of new conferences *

Local APC capacity-building *

APC organizational use of electronic communications *

Internal conferences *

Fundraising *

Communication with clients and users *

Implementation logistics *

Technical coordination *

Discussion of strategic uses of the technology *

Persuasive *

Re-educative *

Facilitative *

Conclusion *

Works Cited *

Bibliography *

 

Introduction

There are many writers (Toffler, 1980; Masuda, 1981; Pool, 1983; Negroponte, 1995) who believe that the new communications technologies will eventually prove to be of great benefit to society. Others, who point to how the technologies are being developed and used by corporations and government, are less certain of this (Roszak, 1986; Stoll, 1995; Schiller, 1996). Several commentators focus on the use of the technology as an enhanced public sphere, allowing citizen input into social governance (Hill, 1995; Agre, 1998). Such citizen-based discourse lies at the heart of 'cyberdemocracy', a theme that is becoming increasingly common (Poster, 1995; Hagen, 1997; Winner, 1997; Hill & Hughes, 1998). According to some, the Internet will promote new forms of community (Graham, 1996; Schuler & Stone, 1996; Reingold, 1998) and an empowerment of civil society (Frederick, 1993; Splichal, Calabrese & Sparks, 1994; London, 1995). There are also those who are less general in their writings and more concerned with actual practices for effecting social change, describing how the Internet is being used for 'cyber-activism' (Schwartz, 1996; Krause, Stein & Clark, 1998; O'Brien, 1999).

This paper is designed to complement these writings, particularly since it provides some insight into the range of activities that went into supporting one of the largest organized uses of the new communications tools by civil society. It also delves into the particular strategies chosen to implement these activities, revealing a complementarity of actions designed to empower a community of users dealing with social and environmental policy issues at a global level.

This author was one of the founding members of Web Networks, a nonprofit organization providing online services to other nonprofits in Canada since 1986. Web Networks was itself a founding member network of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), an international body created to facilitate cooperation among the various national and regional networks supporting the same types of users. For eight years, in my capacity as Coordinator and Program Manager of Web Networks, I and my colleagues worked closely with other APC personnel in provision of services in support of non-governmental organization (NGO) participation in the UN World Conferences. I and other Web Networks' staff were primarily involved in the Earth Summit in 1992, the World Summit on Social Development in 1995, and the World Conference on Women, also in 1995. We provided assistance to NGOs in Canada, and some of us went to the events themselves as part of an APC support team. Many of the assertions regarding the details of the APC activities and processes, including their rationale and significance, are informed by this first-hand involvement, as well as by a review of the available related documentation.

The literature is scanty regarding the APC's involvement in the UN Summits. Aside from a few press articles from reporters covering the events and incidental mention in other papers (Sallin, 1994; Preston, 1994), the only detailed summaries of activities that exist are the reports to funders written by the co-ordinators of the APC summit projects. (Afonso, 1992; Bjerregaard, 1995; Farwell, 1996) These primary sources of information were supplemented by documentary research into the thousands of messages, shared among the staff and other individuals, that are maintained in the many public and private computer conferences set up for group communication during those years.

The APC's involvement in the UN world conferences offers an excellent example of how computer communications provides a stronger public sphere, thereby enhancing the ability of civil society to contribute to governmental policy discussions at a global level. At a time when the technology was beginning to be deployed internationally, the scope of pan-governmental debate on social and environmental problems required input from the many non-governmental organizations (NGOs), who were recognized as being necessary for policy implementation at the local level. The scale of the UN and NGO initiatives was unprecedented, with events frequently drawing tens of thousands of participants from all corners of the planet, and covering a period of several years including preparation and post-event analysis. The rest of this paper will describe the ways in which the APC went about providing the necessary services in support of the UN Summits, and how these actions followed differing, but complementary strategies.

APC and the UN

The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) is an international nonprofit umbrella organization for 26 national or regional computer networks serving the needs of the social change sector. It was established in 1990 as a means of facilitating cooperation, information-sharing, and technical interoperability among the member networks. (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)

Collectively, the 26 APC member networks support over 50,000 users in 133 countries and is the largest integrated, private online system for non-profit usage in the world. In addition to providing information and networking resources to its members, it has worked closely with the United Nations to provide communications support services for several UN-sponsored World Conferences and Summits. Such services have primarily been directed toward enhancing the participation of representatives of civil society organizations at these gatherings.

In 1991, APC began working with the UN on what became its first large scale international project. Serving as the primary provider of online telecommunications for NGOs at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in Brazil, APC established the use of computer networking as a successful mechanism for better integrating NGOs into the preparations, duration, and follow-up of a large-scale United Nations-sponsored conference.

APC services have been used by several United Nations agencies to help make their documentation more accessible to NGOs. APC has supported communications at almost every major UN conference, including:

Over the years, APC has worked closely with several United Nations agencies to make them and their information more accessible to NGOs. In 1995, APC was granted Consultative Status, Category 1, to the United Nations Economic and Social Council - ECOSOC, which is the highest category for an NGO within the UN system.

An overview of the role APC played in the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio will serve as a illustrative example of the general format of assistance given at each major event. Preparations for the Earth Summit began well in advance of the actual conference. Two years prior, the UN began working with member networks of the APC to disseminate official information related to the Summit to the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that had been granted official status to attend the event for the first time in UN history. (Information Habitat, 1990) Backgrounders to the issues, draft policies, country briefings, and logistical information was posted to a set of online computer conferences that was shared internationally on all APC networks. This allowed several thousand civil society groups around the world to be kept informed and participate at very little cost to the UN.

During the 10 days of the Summit, an APC contingent of technical and support staff set up a communications centre, equipped with computers, modems, and printers, at the NGO gathering place in Rio. It allowed groups to be in daily contact with their colleagues back home and around the world, making it much easier to evaluate the official governmental declarations and to create and air alternative views. Promotion, training and information facilitation were also part of the APC's mandate. All services were made available at no charge to the participants.

Shelley Preston, writing of the NGOs in attendance, states

"One of the most visible results of these transcontinental information flows was the Global Forum, a parallel NGO summit that took place simultaneously with the Rio Summit. ...The Forum was the largest gathering of nongovernmental groups in history, attracting approximately 9,000 organizations. More than 500 conferences, meetings and panels took place at the Forum, including a twelve-day session called the International NGO Forum (INGOF), which produced thirty-nine "Alternative Treaties". ...The treaties were finalized by NGO participants, but were developed by citizens unable to attend the Summit through an electronic conference on EcoNet [a sub-set of APC]. Thus, not only could non-attendees access news of the Forum, they could contribute directly to its activities despite their physical absence." (Preston, 1994)

In the post-Summit phase, all official UN documents and their NGO counterparts were placed online for public dissemination. The APC networks were also very useful in facilitating on-going communication and collaboration among newly-formed ad-hoc coalitions of NGOs focussing on single issues arising from the Summit.

This sequence of events was repeated several times over the next three years, and only a lack of resources prevented APC from playing a major role in one of the last major UN sponsored summits, the 1996 Habitat II conference in Istanbul.

The following sections present a detailed summary of the various ways in which the technology was deployed by the APC to facilitate both the participation of the NGO community in these UN Summits as well as the APC's own operations related to the events. This will be followed by a discussion of the use of various strategies used by the APC to effect the adoption of computer-based communication by its targeted groups.

 

General Services Provided by APC

The degree of participation at the 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 discussions. 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 30,000 people meeting over a two-week period. The APC was the primary provider of online services prior to, during, and after the summits. This section will describe the activities undertaken by the APC to enable its NGO constituencies to be actively involved.

 

Pre-Event

Prior to each UN Conference, APC staff around the world prepared themselves and the NGO community for optimal participation on the issues. The strategy ascribed to by the main players involved was to not make the main events ends in themselves, but rather see them as major steps in a multi-threaded networking movement that would continue long afterwards, aided greatly by the use of the new communications technology. To accomplish this, a number of facilitative and educative measures were highlighted, including access to the technology, the widespread dissemination of information, provision of communication systems, and much-needed training and support services.

 

Access to the online technology

In addition to the thousands of NGOs 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. In providing dial-up connections and online accounts for e-mail and computer conferencing, groups that would otherwise have had very limited access to information, or would have had much more difficulty getting their ideas communicated, were able to keep up to date with their peers and discuss how best to have an impact at each summit. The main reasons the technology was popular included: the relatively low cost for sending messages, the speed of transmission, and the ability to have multiple party interactions within online group forums, which were far cheaper and easier to implement than either telephone conference calls or face-to-face meetings.

An important aspect of facilitating access to the technology is making people aware of the potentials of computer communications and how they might use the APC services. APC outreach efforts have generally relied on networks of contacts and word-of-mouth. This is partially due to a strong bias toward collaborative efforts, but it is also true that the social change community is neither homogenous nor concentrated enough for traditional mass-media marketing techniques to be effective. It is one of the APC's aims to develop a greater sense of community identity among activists, one that is predicated on mutual support and interaction. The use of the technology, as promoted by APC, not only helps such mutual support by making interaction easier and more rewarding in terms of information flow and utilization, it also provides a common focus for groups to interact around, namely how best to adapt their operations to the technology. The APC's goal was to make activists comfortable with using online services, and to have them see themselves as being progressive through such use.

 

Information dissemination

The United Nations chose to make use of the services of APC primarily because it offered the most effective venue for distributing official documentation to the many NGOs around the world. This was especially true for those NGOs operating in poorer countries, in which the poor mail and telephone infrastructure would have made information dissemination both very slow and unreliable, as well as prohibitively expensive. Though APC nodes did make use of this telephone infrastructure as well, appropriate technology had been designed by APC to overcome the limitations of poor telephone connections, making it a very reliable and cost-effective means of distributing official UN documents related to the Summits.

UN documents were mostly posted to 'read-only' conferences that were carried by all APC member nodes, and which were also linked to e-mail lists for transmission to technically less-sophisticated partner nodes in poorer countries.

While official documents were made available online by the UN, unofficial communiqués were shared among the NGOs themselves. These ranged from press releases, to reports, to more interactive discussions around issues. These conferences were open to all users, and proved to have a high level of participation. Many NGOs involved in issues of global significance were able to be aware of the work being done in other parts of the world. It was not uncommon, for example, to see environmental groups in the North engaged in dialogue with development organizations in the South, both developing a joint policy statement to be presented at a Summit.

 

Online communications (public / private, individual / group)

In the main, online communications was accomplished mostly via e-mail and computer conferences. Other technologies, such as the World Wide Web (WWW), searchable databases, file repositories, and online audio and video clips have since become common on the Internet, but they were not extensively used in the period 1991-1995, though websites for both the WSSD and the WCW did allow much more of the online 'public' to follow the events.

The popularity of conferences was not just a matter of being able to put information up for a global audience, it was also a matter of the high quality of postings, i.e., messages that were succinct, timely and relevant. The fact that the APC was a linkage of private networks composed primarily of social change activists meant that there was a high degree of understanding of issues as well as common experience with operational realities. Collaboration was made much easier because there seemed to be relatively few fundamental disagreements on principles.

 

User support and training

It is not enough to only provide the technology and assume people will make good use of it on their own. It is also necessary that people be given technical support such that they will soon become oblivious to the technology per se, and concentrate on what they want to do with it. 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.

Even those users who are individually adept at accessing their accounts, and sending and receiving information, can frequently be at a loss when attempting to conduct group interactions online. Some APC nodes, such as Web Networks in Canada, have developed consultative seminars and documentation on how to achieve success in electronic group work. (James & Rykert, 1997)

APC member services also include training sessions on the use of the network. Such training is frequently offered on-site in the users' offices and customized to their needs. It is 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 focuses on real-life situations and is predicated on a learning-while-doing approach.

 

Example activities

Provision of the technical infrastructure and support for its use led to many useful applications on the part of the NGOs, in the months leading up to the UN conference.

Each Summit was preceded by several meetings of the UN's Preparatory Committee. These meetings, known as PrepComs, took place in the year prior to the main event. The main purpose of these two to three PrepComs was to set the agenda of the conference, and ensure that all participants, including NGOs but primarily national governments, were prepared to reach agreement on matters of global importance.

The APC was invited to provide an electronic communications facility for the participants at many of these PrepComs. 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 an opportunity to see what the new technologies could do.

In conjunction with the PrepComs, meetings of NGO Forum Facilitating Committee were often held concurrently at the same location. The APC communications centre was used by NGO participants in these meetings as well. In addition, regional meetings of NGOs 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, 1994)

The NGOs themselves were instrumental in realizing new ways to use the medium. The Development GAP, a Washington-based organization, made use of the ngo95dk.info conference on APC networks to post a 'sign-up' letter to solicit endorsements from other NGOs 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 NGOs, 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 NGOs 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, particularly in preparation for the upcoming World Conference. (Banks, 1994)

 

During Event

Besides the conference forum for officially invited UN 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 NGO representatives and concerned citizens who wished to develop their own policies and plans, and provide feedback to those attending the official conference. Though the APC accepted the invitation by the UN to provide communication services at the official sites for conferences after UNCED, it was the NGO forums that APC concentrated on serving.

In order to meet the needs of the NGOs in attendance, the APC had to replicate many of the services it provided at each member network. To this end, it fielded teams of APC staff and volunteers, ranging from about 20-75 individuals, that worked in 4 distinct areas: Technical, Information and Outreach, Support, and Training.

 

Technical

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 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 1107 accounts created at the WSSD (Bjerregaard, 1995) and 1700 accounts created at the WCW. (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

As in any situation involving new communications technologies, it is not enough to merely provide the infrastructure, it is also necessary to provide support to its users. With many of these users being novices, the APC support staff were hard-pressed to keep up with the demand for assistance. Overall, support services were divided into helping people with their word processing and printing needs and helping them make the best use of the online communications facilities.

The workteams that APC sent to the Summits were comprised of staff from nodes in many parts of the world, both from Northern and Southern countries. 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 frequently delighted to be able to immediately post them to an online conference networked around the world.

Much of the support was given to the users by APC staff who also conducted training sessions throughout the conference at the NGO Forum site. Even though there were schedules for types of training, including one-to-one personalized sessions, sessions on various hardware/software configurations (people from poorer countries were using more robust and less sophisticated Fidonet software, for example), and sessions for larger organizational groups (booked in advance), most of the training was provided in a very flexible manner. In the semi-chaotic environment of the Forum, it was impossible to do otherwise.

During training, particularly on a one-to-one basis, many users were helped, not only to use the technology, but to acquire it for themselves. Information was given on how to acquire 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 NGOs, 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

Since the APC's inception in 1990 to the last Summit in 1995, the main venues for disseminating information about the event, the issues, and the organizations and people involved were computer conferencing and e-mail lists. Conferences were the venue of choice for APC member networks, which had extensive, state-of-the-art technical infrastructures. APC partner networks, however, because of their relative poverty and environmental conditions, were having to make do with computer systems that were based on e-mail messaging. For this reason, most of the online conferences were also integrated with an equivalent e-mail list.

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. At the time, it was the most efficient and cost-effective way to keep people informed. 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 [note - personal calculation from the on-line conference listing], including statements by official delegates and daily news updates on proceedings.

The NGOs also had their own computer conferences which facilitated the dissemination of information posted during the Summit. Some were 'read-only', such as wssd.ngodocs, which was a repository of specific articles gleaned from the interactive 'read/write' wssd.ngoforum conference, which itself was used for NGO 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 introductory message in wssd.pointers, for instance, stated

"The purpose of this conference is to provide pointers to articles in all

APC conferences containing key documents, statements, news and

information produced during the NGO Forum and World Summit on Social

Development in Copenhagen, Denmark (March 4-12, 1995)

Every pointer will consist of title and author of the article, a set of

key words, the language and, if possible, the length of the article. If

you would like to receive the posting mentioned in the pointer, please

forward or send the relevant pointer by email to: pointers@wssd.apc.org

and the article will be sent to you by email." (Bjerregaard, 1995)

The conference wssd.canada is 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 NGOs present at the Summit. They used their online conference to involve key players in the drafting and finalizing of the NGO Alternative Declaration, and presenting it to the world prior to the Summit's end.

Internet 'tools'

The advent of the popular Internet brought with it a number of tools that were put to use at WSSD and WCW. Official UN documents were put up on the UN gopher site, while the NGO-derived documents were put on the APC gopher site. Searchability of the information base was accomplished through the WAIS search engine. 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 particularly pleased to see 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 WCW, 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 colourful WWW graphics and other tools could only be accessed with technologies that were not available to users in the developing world, precluding their involvement. This is still often the case today.

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. Inter-Press Service and Terra Viva were Third World-based newswire services that provided extensive coverage of the Conference and NGO Forum proceedings. 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' official 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 plenaries. It was to prove invaluable information for would-be NGO lobbyists around the world.

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. Several members were given the opportunity to attend a number of NGO Forum seminars on certain issues of interest. Notes taken by them were later put up online. Finally, a major effort was made, especially at WCW, to encourage postings in several languages. Document translation was greatly aided by the myriad linguistic backgrounds of the APC staff - the forty that went to Beijing collectively spoke eighteen languages. (van der Velden, 1995)

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 WCW, for example, in order to address the online disparity among the world's languages. An Information Facilitator was hired at the WCW, 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.

 

Post-Event

 

Maintenance of online conferences

The networking strategy of the APC and the NGOs was not to see the Summits as ends in themselves, but as opportunities to encourage collaborative efforts and re-vitalize their connections in a more personal forum. And so many of the 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, NGO statements, reports on projects related to the event, and notification of follow-up activities and meetings.

 

Creation of new conferences

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 WCW. 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 NGOs participating in the NGO Forum held in conjunction with UNCED in Rio. In others, in light of expressed needs coming out of a summit, a conference was created to follow up. APC staff set up an internal conference apc.git.40+ as the place where the APC Women's Programme Gender and Information Technology research team developed a survey requested by participants in Beijing to get feedback on the utility of the new information and communication technologies. Later, apc.wcw.survey was created to store over 100 lengthy completed survey questionnaires, allowing the researchers in several countries to have access to the data.

 

Local APC capacity-building

One of the functions of the APC is to help nascent local networks sharing APC's mission in their development. To this end, technical and administrative assistance is donated, sometimes in conjunction with the Summit projects themselves. Alternex, the Brazilian APC node, for example, received an advanced computer with a technical upgrade of APC software when it was the main hosting network for UNCED and the NGO Forum. The system used for the WSSD in Copenhagen was another 'road-node', a complete hosting package replicating existing APC member sites, previously configured by APC for quick set-up at the Summit. It was donated to the local Danish networking group that worked with APC at the event, and later became the platform of the Danish network, Inform, which joined APC soon afterward.

 

APC organizational use of electronic communications

As early adopters of the technologies of digital communications, staff of the networks comprising the APC were using their own computer networks in their daily operations ever since their inception. This not only proved advantageous for managing the internal growth and development of the APC itself, but also in positioning the APC networks as teachers of the use of these new technologies to their users within the NGO community.

While the World Wide Web was not sufficiently developed enough to be used much during the years of the summits, the older technology of electronic mail was well used, although mostly for one-to-one communication. The primary online tool for group communications was the computer conferences shared among APC staff and users of APC networks. Mail lists were generally regarded as conference adjuncts since they were fully integrated with the conferences and were set up for extending communication to those who were not users of APC networks, who therefore couldn't participate in the proprietary APC conferencing system.

 

Internal conferences

Internally, the APC staff made extensive use of computer conferencing in their project preparations and implementations related to the UN Summits. These private, internal forums are conferences carried on all APC systems to which only APC staff and trusted associates have access. In some instances, communication among the dozens of staff working on each project made use of existing conferences that have been used since APC's inception to facilitate daily international networking operations among its members. One of these is apc.forum, in which all member network staff post notices, ideas, announcements and alerts that may be of interest to APC as a whole. It was here that first notification of an upcoming Summit was usually posted, and here where interested staff discussed the potential role that APC could play. If it was thought feasible to follow up, someone would draft a proposal giving details of the project. After receiving online feedback, a final version would be submitted to APC's governing body, the APC Council. This generally occurred a year or more prior to the event.

The Council, comprised of one representative from each member network, has its own conference, which is readable by all staff but writable only by Council members. The proposals would be discussed and a decision made on whether to proceed, and under what circumstances.

To concentrate interactions and maintain good organization of information, a conference would be set up for ongoing management of each summit project, e.g., apc.unced, apc.wssd, etc. It was in these conferences that information was shared that allowed for the clarification of finances, schedules, tasks, and personnel. Typically, the people most involved with the work would collectively figure out what was needed to be done at any particular point in time and take responsibility for carrying out the task. The main tasks included fundraising, activist networking and liaison, and implementation logistics.

One of the more important advantages of using online conferences was their function as an organizational memory. The unfolding of all aspects of a summit project was captured in the messages that accrued in the conferences, enabling new staff to orient themselves to what was going on. As 'filing cabinets' of documents, such as proposals and reports, they helped provide material that could be used as models for subsequent submission to funders or media. And as a repositories of daily interactions on projects of international impact, they continue to act as a treasure trove of data for historical researchers and other analysts.

 

Fundraising

Fundraising was a very important aspect to the Summit projects. Though they provided free space for APC equipment at the official sites, the United Nations was not willing to pay for any on-site services APC provided, thus APC was obliged to raise all the funds itself. To accomplish this, APC personnel began making their own contacts with funding agencies that had programs for assisting global civil society organizations. Besides sharing individual knowledge of key individuals working for funders that may be sympathetic to APC, the group developed strategies for contacting several parties over a short period to let them know that they need not fund the whole operation, but rather particular aspects to it. Then basic proposal templates were used to customize each funding proposal submitted. This proved to be a very successful formula, allowing the APC to raise money from several sources. The funds raised were sufficient only to cover costs but, aside from the temporary hiring of a few APC staff in coordinating roles, the vast majority of APC technicians, trainers, and facilitators were donated by the APC itself, a situation replicated at each major event. For the WCW, for example, $118,000 was raised from 7 different funders, but APC contributed $300,000 in staff time and network resources. (Farwell, 1996) And after the project's ending, staff collaborated on producing final evaluation reports for themselves and funders.

 

Communication with clients and users

Updates on the networking activities between APC staff and outside organizations were also shared online, keeping everyone 'in the loop'. By being in close communication with outside groups active in conference-related issue areas, much intelligence could be gathered on the online needs of those groups. This helped APC staff in deciding which conferences or mail lists should be created, for what purposes, and with which posting 'permissions'. The UN, for example, required single read-only conferences for its official documents, one for each language supported, while general public read-write conferences were set up to elicit postings from interested NGOs throughout the world.

 

Implementation logistics

The conference was especially valuable in dealing with the logistics of the implementation of services at both the summits and their preceding events, e.g. the PrepComs. Periodic reports on activities, and news items related to the event were common postings. Ensuring that the several dozen staff were all provided with visas and official authorization permits, scheduling and booking flights and accommodations, providing detailed instructions on roles and responsibilities, deciding on which promotional materials were available, and organizing meetings and recreational activities would have been much more difficult without an online forum for the participants. Finally, it provided an online space for maintaining team communication on-site at the summit, making it relatively easy to notify people of problems or changes as they happened.

 

Technical coordination

Separate internal conferences relating to technical preparation and troubleshooting were created as well, e.g., apc.wssd.tech and apc.wcw.tech. How to configure the systems to match the circumstances particular to each event and which tools should be loaded onto the 'road-node' were common items of discussion. During the events themselves, these conferences enabled remote APC technicians to provide advice to their local colleagues on problems that manifested themselves in the course of providing service.

 

Discussion of strategic uses of the technology

The founding members of the APC all began operating their networks with a mandate to assist progressive social change by using computer communications technologies in the service of civil society. To this end, they targeted progressive, non-profit organizations doing public education, policy development, and advocacy work, both locally and globally. In order to overcome barriers of access, lack of funds, and mistrust of the technology, they concentrated on three of four change strategies described by Gerald Zaltman and Robert Duncan in their Strategies for Planned Change (1977).

Zaltman and Duncan delineate four strategic approaches to effecting social change: facilitative, re-educative, persuasive, and power strategies.

Persuasive strategies attempt to create change by reasoning, urging and inducement. It is a very biased and usually low-key, unexplicit approach. These strategies are chosen when a problem isnít recognized or considered important, or to convince the target group that one particular solution is best. It is most useful when the magnitude of change is great, when change is controversial or risky, when commitment is low, or when time constraints exist.

Re-educative strategies are used to create an awareness of a problem, with solutions postulated by target groups. It is useful if immediate change is not required, if motivation or commitment is not low, and if the capacity for change is high. A program of re-education is necessary when new skills or knowledge associated with the change is required.

Facilitative strategies make change easier to implement and are used when the target group is in general agreement that a change is needed. Information dissemination and public relations are key ingredients. It is useful when the magnitude of change is great and time is not an important factor.

Power strategies involve the use of coercion to obtain the targetís compliance. It is useful when the change must be accomplished immediately, when the felt need of a change is very low, or when the reallocation of resources is resisted. It usually decreases commitment, and maintenance of the change requires further coercive measures. (Zaltman & Duncan, 1977)

The UN Summits were catalyzers of interest and involvement on the part of civil society organizations, and serve as good examples of the deployment of these strategies on the part of the APC. Of the four, only the power strategy was not employed, since not only did the APC not have the ability to coerce target groups, it was also contrary to the co-operative values enshrined in the APC constitution. Such a strategy was also not needed as the target groups were not actively resistive to the change and there was adequate time to adopt the use of the new technologies. What follows is a discussion of how the other three change strategies were utilized.

 

Persuasive

As many of the organizations that became involved in the summits had had little previous knowledge of online communications, and were wary of the technology, a persuasive strategy was required to help them in adopting it. A key factor was the familiarity of the targets needs by the APC staff. Most of the APC nodes were formed as offshoots of movements - IGC, for example, was started by peace activists, Web Networks by environmentalists, and Alternex by a social justice organization. Staff, by and large, were individual activists themselves, many having come to work at an APC node after having worked with various social change organizations, either in a professional or voluntary capacity. Their knowledge of issues and players, coupled with skills in collaboration and communication, and a focus on making things happen, made them very good at networking with outside activists. This helped create a positive synergy that laid the basis of trust for adoption of the technology by groups that were initially wary of it.

Many environmentalists, social justice advocates and women's groups had previously been reticent to make use of computers, seeing them as tools that were developed for the benefit of male-dominated wealthy corporations and the military-industrial complex. Presenting what the technology could do, as opposed to what it had been doing, enabled people to reassess their initial reluctances. What APC did was to reveal how they might be used to support a more decentralized, less hierarchical model of social interaction, one that enabled civil society to have more of a voice in social evolution.

 

Re-educative

In order to help groups get online, they had to learn how to use the new technology. APC networks had to use a re-educative strategy. They distributed well-written, detailed manuals to their users, explaining the workings of modems, communications software, and the way to use e-mail and computer conferences. In many cases, training was given - the summits all had hands-on sessions for those needing guidance on system usage. But perhaps the most important change in people's understanding was obtained through the constant reiteration of a vision of like-minded people creating a community online based on the values of concern, care, and cooperation. This vision was reaffirmed by the actual experience of getting online and seeing it in action in the sharing of information in support of the UN summits.

APC was also involved in policy development. Even prior to the Earth Summit in Rio, there was a strong recognition of the role that networking and communication play among the NGO community. It was only natural, then, that Agenda 21, the policy 'blueprint' coming out of the Summit, contain a major section on Communications, with a strong emphasis on the utilization of the new communications technology. The APC, through its online networking initiatives, coupled with a focus on interpersonal facilitation, was influential in developing that section as well as subsequent UN policy around the deployment of the technology. APC not only has affirmed the main issues of commercial vs. civil use, gender and income disparities among users, access by poorer people and in the Third World, and the preponderance of the language and culture of English-speaking countries, it continues to pioneer actions to deal with these issues.

 

Facilitative

Above all, the facilitative strategy was the cornerstone of APC operations. Provision of the technical infrastructure was the fundamental basis for inducing target groups to change their communication channels to include computers. The linking of national and regional computer networks around the world in 1990 meant that a global system for electronic messaging was in place at a time when few other options were available. The cooperative nature of the APC member networks allowed for the sharing of resources, including the hardware, software, and ideas needed for the research and development essential for keeping abreast in a dynamic industry. That the networks chose to be fee-for-service operations maintained by paid professional staff ensured the reliability required for sustained usage by those served.

Another way of facilitating usage was by providing support services. The networks made dedicated staff available to take calls from frustrated users and give them advice and instruction on how to use the equipment. At the summits, this service was provided on a hands-on basis. As the support needs became apparent, over time the software programmers would design features into their programs that would resolve some of the major difficulties.

It was in its facilitation of the flow of communication, and its support of interpersonal networking, that the APC excelled. Acting as online facilitators in group forums, and attending preparatory meetings related to the summits, APC staff enabled participants to obtain a greater understanding of the issues and the people working on them. At the summits themselves, the APC InfoTeam members performed the valuable service of ensuring important documents were widely disseminated, and that those who were following the events from remote corners of the world were able to participate and even have an influence on the outcome.

 

Conclusion

As the new communications technologies became available, their use among the social change sector was promoted and supported by the member networks of the Association for Progressive Communications. The services provided by the APC to the civil society organizations attending the UN Summits between 1991 and 1996 exemplify how strategic deployment of these technologies resulted in highly successful outcomes. The scale of the operations was such that the level of involvement by the non-governmental organizations would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, without the communication facilitation provided by APC. The following quote was indicative of many received by the APC Secretariat in the immediate post-summit period.

"'The APC networks delivered a tremendous job during the UNCED Preparatory Process, and during the Earth Summit itself. With their full cooperation, it was possible to reach a very large, and important environment-development community worldwide with the information generated during that period in a timely, and cost- effective fashion. Without this communication channel, the involvement of non-governmental organizations in the official UNCED process, as well as in the various parallel processes simply could not have been as effective as they were. Thank you APC, and hope that your efforts will continue in other areas also!'
Janos Pasztor, Information Systems Coordinator, UNCED Secretariat." (APC Secretariat, 1997)

Why was the APC's interventions so successful? Mobilization requires an infrastructure that is more than just the technological underpinnings of hardware and software. It also requires an informational infrastructure for ensuring that ideas, facts, and opinions are elicited and shared in an organized manner. The APC provided the technical system upon which the communication took place, but it also provided the necessary supplementary services designed to ensure optimal use of the technology.

Activities were strategically chosen to achieve the desired outcomes. As movement insiders, offering real examples of the utility of computer communications, APC staff were able to persuade many social change activists to adopt the technology in their preparations for the Summits. The focussing of attention on the actual Summits themselves was a major impetus for many groups to get online. Through training and user support services, novice users were able to become proficient in using the electronic networks. Overall, the interlinked systems of APC member networks, combined with a variety of methods used to organize and facilitate information flows, meant that thousands of civil society organizations could actively participate in the policy debates whether or not they could attend the summits in person.

In the aftermath of six major conferences in five years, there has since been only one other large event supported by the APC, the 1997 Global Knowledge Forum in Toronto, funded in part by the UN Development Program. In light of the failure of the UN to fund the APC to provide services at the 1996 UN Conference on Human Settlements, and the increasing difficulty for the APC, struggling with problems of growth and competition from the commercial sector, to find the resources to do it alone, it seems unlikely that there will be many more UN Summits in which the APC will play the major role of electronic communications provider. The advent of the World Wide Web and the rapid expansion of the Internet has also meant that the APC's private network linkages, particularly for computer conferencing, is no longer as needed by those wishing to be involved in global policy discourse. While the less interactive nature of sharing information via passive websites has possibly reduced the excitement and feeling of active participation engendered by the APC's computer conferences, it seems highly likely that the range of services provided by APC between 1991 and 1996 fostered a strong sense of identity and community among the NGO representatives involved in the UN Summits. The interactive on-line collaborations of social change activists around the world resulted in well-articulated alternative policies that had a major influence on government decision-makers. The ultimate goal of APC, which it achieved, was this empowerment of civil society.

 


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