The room is full of people from various countries and age brackets, but one group stands out. They say longer hellos to each other and seem to have something in common – thousands and thousands of travel miles earned between scores of conferences that they now navigate with so much ease. They may be advocates, policy experts, country delegates or lobbyists, but they know how to work these international meetings and use them for desired interests. They stand around coffee tables and sit in groups at lunch, taking advantage of the presence of international audiences to advance national, sectorial, business or regional agenda.
My baptism into this often-fun part of many global-facing careers was in 2002. The United Nations had agreed to host series of preparatory committee meetings, described by most as PrepComs, towards a World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) that would hold in two parts – in Geneva in 2003 and Tunis in 2005. Working with a group of talented young people, many of whom have now gone on to build impressive careers in their respective countries, the WSIS Youth Caucus came to understand the workings of such large international meetings. Governments, civil society organisations and private sector institutions converged in Geneva and Tunis to discuss the future of the Information Society.
There were many agreements and useful exchanges, but the sheer size of participants brought on its own challenge – many ideas were drowned in the sea of heads that gathered in the plenary halls and side rooms. However, the group described in the opening paragraph worked the meetings to the advantage of the interests they represented. Organisations tapped beyond strict borders to get help, as seen through some interests that sponsored individuals from various companies and/or corporations to help push desired agenda. Travel, lodging and daily subsistence allowances came through fellowships that ensured that ideas had consistent support. The language of global ICT policy often rests on the dynamic relationships that exist between people who understand these meetings, interests and how much support can be packed into a “delegation.”
For a country like Nigeria, that has had a history of over-bloated government delegations that often do nothing more than increase the volume of shopping in the cities where their international meetings are hosted, there must be a deliberate strategy to engage global ICT policy by maximising the resources at the country’s disposal. Most international meetings around ICT policy discussions have many Nigerians who are sponsored by various interests and institutions, but their country hardly benefits due to no fault of the participants. Many times, when the government delegation is convinced to host a meeting of citizens at such events, they reveal their lack of preparation. And at times, outright confusion.
The unfair balance of power between the global North and South is not helped by the fire brigade strategy that many African governments adopt towards these international meetings. If you are not on the table, you are surely on the menu. And Nigeria, along with the rest of African governments, needs to understand this. If issues are not ironed out before events and country delegations only become rubber-stamp opportunities for established interests, then no wonder some of our primary issues remain unaddressed. Nigeria should be on the forefront of issues such as cybercrime at the Internet Governance Forum meetings that started based on recommendations from the World Summit of the Information Society, for example. Why, in the age of an open Internet, are African resources blacklisted by global service providers? Bringing issues to the table should be more important than estacode and how exotic the meeting locations are.
Nigeria needs to raise an army of strategic diplomats and subject experts, and not shoppers, meeting junkies or “estacode/per-diem diplomats.” The former are the professionals who can make sure that national interests – that are fair and add value to the commonwealth – are drawn from domesticating the outcomes of global policy discussions and internationalising local policies that are obvious best practices. Before these meetings, Nigeria needs to host multi-stakeholder sessions that will help discuss issues and identify opportunities. After such meetings, debriefing sessions, preferably via online channels since we are indeed in the 21st century, should help extract benefits for the country and her diverse sectors.
While it is cool to have large delegations at these international meetings, it must remain clear to Nigeria that we need to advance the country’s interests through the various global ICT policy discussions. The alternative is to allow opportune individuals to use the next set of meetings as see-the-world opportunities, and that will be costly both in terms of what we lose by not engaging properly and by the resources – in time and money – spent. In December, Nigeria will send a sizeable delegation to the World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT) where the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) will discuss the almost-controversial International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs). What will Nigeria bring to the table?