Progress for NGOs at ITU-D Meeting?

Study Group meetings of the International Telecommunication Union are not usually lively events.   They bring together ITU members (governments and private sector) in Geneva to discuss progress in the numerous topics they are continually examining and attempting to reach agreement on.  They range from new standards for digital audio broadcasting, to the accounting rate system of telecommunication operators, to spectrum use and management, to best to use telecommunication for rural development in poorer countries.

However, the ITU Development Sector (ITU-D) Study Group 2 meeting last September did produce a few lively moments as it debated the results of a Report produced by a Focus Group (a sub-set of a Study Group) that was set up specifically to see how NGOs could use telecommunication better, and how the ITU and NGOs could establish more useful and open relations.  At one point, when a delegate raised the hoary old question of ‘what is an NGO anyway’, the ITU-D Director, Hamadoun Touré, announced he was afraid ‘someone would suggest we set up a Focus Group to study the question’.

The issue of development NGO relations with the ITU goes back some time.  Currently, unlike most UN agencies, the ITU has no specific mandate to include civil society or NGOs in its activities.  ITU members in theory comprise governments only, but in the last decade or two it has gone to great lengths to ensure that the private sector can also have a full say in all but its formal internal structures.  However, development NGOs remain officially ignored and are simply not recognised as having anything to contribute in the area of international telecommunications.

The Platform for Cooperation on Communication and Democratisation decided at its founding meeting in London in October 1996 to do something about this.  After numerous meetings with the highest level officials and a report delivered to the Secretary General, the ITU-D World Meeting in Malta in March 1998 finally agreed to set up a Focus Group to look into it.  The Focus Group was duly convened, and members (comprising a dozen NGOs, three government delegates, and a private satellite company) set to work with Seán Ó Siochrú as Rapporteur.  In addition to the research programme undertaken, an open call for submissions resulted in about a dozen responses, all of them useful and some going into considerable detail.

It was the Final Report of this group that was presented in Geneva in September 1999.  Basically, it had three major recommendations.

  • First, NGOs are poorly informed on international telecommunication issues that can ultimately impact on their activities.  They should therefore launch an initiative to gather, analyse and disseminate information, in a form that civil society and NGOs can understand, on issues relating to telecommunication, information technology and media.
  • Second, the Focus Group recommended that governments should develop a policy and operational framework for the incorporation of the electronic communication needs and interests of development NGOs.  This would include community radio, internet use and even television, as well as more conventional telecommunication requirements.  Its scope would encompass, for instance, drafting of legislation that impacts on electronic communication, spectrum management and consultation process for NGOs.
  • Third, the ITU Development sector should set up a Task Force, perhaps modelled on the pathbreaking ITU Task Force on Gender (constituted at Malta 1998), to move the issue of NGO relations with the ITU forward.
So apart from the lively debate, what was the outcome?  The report itself was praised (“…this excellent and timely document…”) though maybe for having got that far at all!  The decisions taken, specifically on second and third points above (the first was relevant only to NGOs themselves) were more ambivalent.

Regarding a national framework to incorporate NGO needs, the Study Group 2 meeting decided that “certain important policy and regulatory issues were raised in this report that were outside the Study Group’s mandate.  The meeting decided to forward this report to ITU-D Study Group 1 for its consideration.”  The buck was passed, although, in fairness, policy and regulatory issues are, in fact, outside the Study Group 2 mandate.  (At the same time, however, recommendations concerning spectrum management and standards were judged to be outside the mandate of the ITU-D altogether, and were, in effect, dropped.)

On moving NGO and ITU relations forward, it was again decided that it was outside the Study Group mandate.  Here, the buck went in a different direction, with an entire itinerary mapped out for it:  The Report was to be forwarded the Report to the Director of BDT, who “at his discretion” could consider forwarding the Report to the Telecommunication Development Advisory Group (TDAG), with the intention of forwarding it to the ITU Reform Group for its consideration.

Sound like being given the run around?  Not necessarily, since the Director himself, Hamadoun Touré, expressed strong support for the Report and committed himself at the meeting to sending relevant parts of it his advisory group (TDAG), and to taking further action after that.   The Reform Group’s terms of reference include ITU collaboration with other entities or organisations, so if it ends up their, some progress could in principle be forthcoming.

In the end, whether anything comes of all this depends on whether NGOs want to continue to push it.  ITU-D Study Group 1 (charged now with looking at national policy and operational framework for the incorporation of NGOs needs) has its own agenda and schedule, and is unlikely to do much about a unless NGOs constantly remind them to act.

Similarly, even with the support of Touré, as the question of an NGO official status winds its way through ITU procedures, it may get diluted or waylaid altogether.  If Touré can point to NGO support for the idea, and NGOs can be seen knocking at the window of the various meetings, then it is more likely to get somewhere useful.

Once again, it is up to NGOs themselves.  Is the issue important enough to act on?  Decide for yourself: All the documents are available at

Seán Ó Siochrú, [email protected], October 1999.