The difference between a well-meaning effort and an objective fiasco is difficult to define. As the month of May goes by, the 2018 edition of the United Nation’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is yet to announce a country or even a general region as its host. On the surface, this may not seem significant, as the meeting is routinely carried out by year’s end, leaving ample time for the community to plan their travels during the second half of the year.
However, what is insidious about this is that the community is the driver of the Workshops that make up the core of the event. The content that ends up substantiating the multiple days of the IGF originates mainly from grass-roots proposals, and as such it is up to them to assemble sessions that meet the event’s criteria for regional, sectorial and gender diversity and generate a coherent discussion that can benefit attendants.
Only on May 2nd was a call for proposals made, with a deadline of the 27th of the same month. In 25 days, the global community involved in Internet Governance and associated subjects is expected to muster a diverse, articulate, and well-formatted set of proposals to for the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) to integrate into a coherent program. Less than a month to meet these expectations would be considered straining under a normal situation, but it gets more complicated.
The failure of the IGF to generate a meaningful participation model that allows community members to leverage change internationally has been a concern to participants and observers of the event, which culminated in the lack of a host for the 2017 event. The expensive and gentrified Geneva, home of the UN, ended up being picked as a substitute, and a middling meeting was carried out with no significant outcomes.
The MAG elected for the 2018 term seems to get it. They understand that the IGF desperately needs to find more relevance, and it is apparent that they strived to achieve this by requesting a more focused approach from Workshops after proposing a call for issues that involved the community. This is a good thing.
What is not good is that the community has been given such a limited amount of time to generate Workshop proposals without the knowledge of the event’s venue. How is it possible to carry out meaningful engagement within the event’s region if it is unknown where it will take place? How to include local actors from a place that is unidentified? How to find themes that are particularly meaningful to a region or country, and so on?
The answer is: it won’t. The tendency is only to generate more of the same, rely on the usual crowd that has easy access to international funding to integrate panels, fall back on themes that are deemed safe and won’t generate backlash, keep the IGF as innocuous as it has been for the past few years. This is not the way to inject an energy that is sorely lacking in the UN’s ambitious but ultimately ailing project.
Pieces will fall into place and the event will happen. People will attend. Workshops will take place. But the idea that even the basis of a revolution can be kickstarted by following the same old model and constraints with a new coat of paint is not realistic. The organization of 2018’s IGF is wrong from the start, and salvaging it will be tall order for both the community and the MAG.
One can only hope that sizzling panels with meaningful debate and real proposals to create impact will be submitted and accepted to make up for this vacuum, but as it stands and judging from history, this might be a pipe dream.