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WORLD: NGOs Tell World Bank "Don't Hijack the Internet"

by Gumisai MutumeInter Press Service
September 21st, 2000

The World Bank and civil society are not only fighting over structural adjustment programmes and big dam projects, they have also fallen out over a 60 million dollar Internet initiative by the Bank.

Non-governmental organisations and academics are alarmed over the Global Gateway, a portal website project which the Bank says will be the "the premier web entry point for information about poverty and sustainable development" but which the NGOs say is flawed and non-participatory.

The concern of the NGOs is an open letter to World Bank president James Wolfensohn, to be delivered at the Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) Annual Meetings being held in the Czech capital, Prague Sept 19-28.

The Bank says the project is to be completed in three years, and has been the subject of consultation with NGOs, governments, the private sector and donor agencies from around the world. Users will be able to access information and resources on more than 50 participating countries.

However, NGOs involved in the initiative charge that ''many of the major issues we have raised have not been addressed''.

They say the running of the project is not sufficiently independent, it does not adequately protect civil society interests and alternative website design options, to allow participation and input from marginalised communities have been rejected.

The memorandum notes that many important groups working in the field of development still know nothing about the Gateway, and many who do, have tabled questions that have not been answered.

Signatories to the letter include the Bretton Woods Project which monitors IMF and World Bank policies, Oneworld International, which runs a website portal aggregating material for global justice and Uruguay's Third World Institute.

''The Gateway, whilst based on good intentions to increase co- ordination of web activity, is too ambitious and cannot meet all of its goals,'' notes the NGO letter.

In its project proposal the Bank envisions a website providing assistance, for example, to a mayor in a small Mexican town who wants to attract international investors to his community. He would use the Gateway as an advertising platform and as a source of information.

''We know that we have not reached everyone who should be consulted on the Gateway, but we have done our best to reach as many groups as possible around the world in a relatively short time,'' says Michael Potashnik, Director of the Global Development Gateway.

He says contrary to perceptions, his team has not rejected any design options. ''The main methodology we have been using for the last couple of months is the one of learning by doing''. He says they develop a preliminary model, test it and obtain feedback.

Part of the functions of the website would be to give NGOs wider reach, Potashnik says. For instance when an NGO has accumulated strategies for local development and wants to share this with others in the development community it would upload the information to the site.

Citing another potential use, he says a minister of planning and development in a country such as Tanzania, who has to weigh alternative donor-supported rural highway projects, could be provided worldwide, state of the art information through the Gateway.

Potashnik says the Bank remains flexible in its approach, and is willing to modify the concept and design of the project as it goes along.

But there are fears among some sections of the development community that the massive Bank project will eclipse their own independent Internet initiatives, some under-funded and under-resourced, yet serving the needs of rural communities in the most marginalised parts of the globe.

Some NGOs even claim that the Bank is not really interested in their input but wants to be seen to be working with civil society to stave off growing protests against its policies and apparent lack of accountability. The World Bank merely needs NGO endorsement and legitimisation, they charge.

An estimated 20,000 demonstrators are expected to descend on the streets of Prague during the annual meetings, protesting against the policies of the World Bank and IMF, which they say have increased global poverty.

The letter says the board of governors of the Bank may have been misinformed about the nature and extent of civil society concern over the Global Gateway.

The views expressed in the memorandum are not only held by ''opponents of the World Bank or groups based in Europe,'' the letter notes. ''In fact a wide range of NGOs, academics and also officials are extremely sceptical about the initiative.''

An independent body has been set up to run the project, but there are questions about how or who the Bank would appoint to work on that panel. It is also not clear how governments would apply their role of leading so-called Country Gateways.

Private companies could also obtain unfair leverage by 'buying' board membership through annual subscriptions, the NGOs say.

Lisa Castagnozzi of Inter-Action says only one or two of the group's members have been approached by the Bank for input. Inter-Action is a US, NGO coalition of more than 165 organisations working in the areas of emergency relief, sustainable development and refugee assistance in more than 100 countries.

Inter Action's member agencies have combined budgets totalling more than 3 billion dollars -- a substantial share of US voluntary and charitable assistance to developing countries.

Concerns have also been raised about editorial independence, seeing that the project is primarily funded by the Bank. They claim that the current design gives too much power to individual editors and has rejected the use of the latest 'spidering' software which would allow groups across the world to post and group information according to their needs.

Warren Feek director of the non-governmental organisation, Communication Initiative, proposes NGOs should not be focused on the agenda of the Bank but rather on strengthening many of their own excellent online projects.

''It strikes me that the Bank is going to do what it wants to do'', Feek wrote in a recent contribution to an online discussion on the issue. ''That will continue whether the Bank develops the Gateway or not.''

''From an action and investment of time perspective, I am much more interested in discussing and actioning ways that we can work together, from our perspectives and cultures, to maximise the use the new technologies in support of international development,'' he wrote.





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