Funding woes, sadly, but inevitably, have a negative impact on IGF

The Internet Governance Forum’s lack of resources is leading to a vicious circle where lack of funding means less ability to organize events that are interesting to a wide range of stakeholders, meaning less stakeholders are willing to invest resources in the IGF, meaning that the IGF becomes less of a robust forum for discussion and debate.

From my perspective, these are some of the key reasons IGF has ongoing funding woes:

  1. The IGF is part of an ever-expanding universe of Internet events and initiatives that are vying for a finite set of resources
  2. There is an ongoing lack of a high level advocate for the IGF
  3. There is an increasing imbalance amongst stakeholder groups actively participating in the IGF
  4. The intersessional program of work seems to be suffering from community burnout and an inability of the short-staffed IGF Secretariat to fully support it this year

There is an ongoing lack of a high level advocate for the IGF

Since the end of 2010, IGF has lacked high profile champions at a level that all governments respect and will listen to. Since Markus Kummer resigned as Executive Coordinator of the Secretariat at the end of 2010 due to reaching the UN mandatory retirement age, nobody has replaced him. Why? Because UN rules mean you can’t appoint someone to a position unless there’s at least a year’s salary for that role in the bank. Nitin Desai, Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General for Internet Governance, also stepped down from his role at the end of 2010, again, because of retirement. The Special Adviser role retired with him.

Without weighty advocates for the weird Frankenstein creation that is the IGF, it’s no wonder that the WSIS Forum, with the full weight of the ITU behind it [1], has attracted the funding and attention of many of the governments that, back in the WSIS days, had argued so vociferously for the need for a forum/agency for Internet policy issues.

For a while, the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) Chair role might have functioned as a suitable replacement for that advocacy role, but the UN DESA’s decision to rotate the Chair position amongst stakeholder groups means that any non-government occupant of that seat will lack full credibility in intergovernmental circles.

The current MAG Chair is a representative of civil society: Lynn St Amour.[2] The reality is that majority of governments, even many of those who are pro-multistakeholder, are never going to view a civil society representative with the same degree of respect as they would a senior diplomat or other government representative. Therefore, the MAG Chair role could only play the advocacy role when it is occupied by a representative of government or of an intergovernmental organization.

There is an increasing imbalance amongst stakeholder groups actively participating in the IGF

The IGF is beloved of civil society. Civil society is the IGF’s staunchest defender. Unfortunately, most of civil society is not flushed with enough cash to even attend the IGF without assistance from other sources, let alone help fund the IGF to the levels it needs. Enthusiasm and volunteerism from civil society is helping keep IGF on life support, but long-term, this is not a viable strategy. Volunteers can burn out. I have already observed a number of initially very optimistic IGF supporters gradually fall away as they’ve become disillusioned with their ability to move IGF out of the ICU ward and back into peak fitness.

As noted in the previous section, the lack of a respected champion of the IGF means the IGF has not been able to sustain, let alone expand upon, governments’ interest in the IGF. Governments do not participate in IGF these days at the same level as they do in competing forums such as the WSIS Forum or the Global Conference on Cyber Space. Those forums attract dozens of government ministers and ambassadors. IGF struggles to get a handful.

Not only has the IGF been unable to keep up the interest of government stakeholders, it’s also losing the private sector. The following are paraphrased complaints that I’ve heard privately from business stakeholders:

  • “Why would we keep funding the IGF, and going to the IGF, if all we get is criticism and attacks on the private sector as a whole when we’re there?”
  • “Why should we keep going if our workshop proposals are constantly rejected? IGF complains about lack of diversity, but then selects workshops from the same small set of proposers, year after year.” (Workshop selection is an endless topic of debate amongst the IGF MAG and there is constantly a tension between trying to ensure quality and trying to increase diversity).
  • “Why do so many in civil society and developing country governments lump all businesses into the category of global economic cannibals and pillory us as an entire stakeholder group? The vast majority of the private sector are not US-based global giants. Don’t they realize that the private sector also includes all the SMEs that developing countries hope will take advantage of the Internet to improve their countries’ living standards?”
  • “Why does the IGF only care about businesses that sell Internet-related products and services? Why doesn’t IGF care about the many more businesses that rely on the Internet? To be honest, as a business that relies on the Internet, at the IGF, I have more in common with civil society, as end users of the Internet, than I do with the members of the Internet services-based business community that the IGF courts.”

The private sector could be a great source of funding for the IGF, but until the private sector can be convinced that the IGF really matters to businesses, whether they be providers of Internet services or users of Internet services, global businesses or SMEs, the private sector is not going to commit funds to a forum that they are attending less and less.

The core organizations of the Internet technical community, which have the most to lose if things move away from the multistakeholder model of Internet governance and towards a more intergovernmental approach, has long shelled out big bucks to keep the IGF going. But there are limits to how much longer these organizations can prop up the IGF’s funding. Members of the ICANN community, for example, have questioned why ICANN is spending so much money on wider Internet governance activities that have little to do with ICANN’s core DNS mandate. Even worse, too many IGF workshops and open forums by the Internet technical community organizations have ossified over the years into “look what great things we do” sessions that, while possibly of interest to IGF newcomers, provide no new insights to the majority of the participants who attend them (usually, supporters of the organizations that have organized the session).

The intersessional program of work seems to be suffering from community burnout and an inability of the short-staffed IGF Secretariat to fully support it this year

As a result of lack of funding at the IGF Secretariat and increasingly stretched resources amongst IGF stakeholder groups, the IGF’s flagship Connecting and Enabling the Next Billion(s) intersessional process, as well as the three Best Practice Forum processes have not received the attention or support that previous years’ intersessional activities received, despite the best efforts of their most committed champions. The intersessional work programme of the IGF has been seen as one of the best ways to make the IGF more solid and attractive to potential participants. But this year’s efforts to continue the previous two years’ level of intersessional activities seems to have overstretched resources to the point that the final outputs (yet to be published) run the risk of not being truly representative of different perspectives and not of the same quality as previous years. In IGF’s favour here is the fact that the community behind these intersessional efforts like to promote the outcome documents as “works in progress” or “snapshots” that will need iterative updating rather than as canonical, static outputs. But even the “work in progress” angle cannot fully hide the fact that this year’s intersessional program has not lived up to the standard of the previous two years’ efforts.

An 11th hour bid to save the IGF

In an effort to improve IGF more long-term, this year, UN DESA took the extraordinary step of paying the MAG Chair to oversee work to address the ongoing funding shortfall for the IGF as well as “set up the 2nd decade to meet the potential of the IGF”.[3] But funding remains a serious issue, and with the MAG’s Working Group on Multi-year Strategic Work Programme (WG-MWP), established in April this year still very much undecided about the best way forward, the vision of a robust, dynamic and “can’t miss” IGF is still a couple of years away, at best.

Notes

[1] Although, as the ITU Secretariat is increasingly at pains to emphasize, the WSIS Forum not just an ITU event, but an event organized by many UN agencies.

[2] Lynn St Amour used to be CEO of the Internet Society, but because the technical Internet community isn’t a recognized stakeholder group at the UN, she occupies the MAG Chair as civil society.

[3] The decision to pay the MAG Chair raises an important issue for the multistakeholder IGF: while governments and the large businesses can afford to fund the activities of their staff performing the role of MAG Chair, civil society, least developed country governments and SMEs generally do not have such resources. Paying or reimbursing MAG Chairs might be the only way to diversify representation at that level, but also risks creating the sort of Internet governance gravy train already seen in some ICANN constituencies.


This is part of a 4-part series on the IGF. The other 3 parts are:

Why I still hold out hope for the IGF

While I’m not attending IGF this year, I still believe IGF has much value, and very much hope that IGF can be rescued from its funding woes and reclaim its place as a vital and indispensable centre of coordination, exchange and facilitation in a dynamic system of Internet governance events and processes.

There are still very good reasons that IGF exists and should be supported:

  1. Internet policy is so politicized these days, we need a place where people can express their views openly and honestly without fear that it will be used against them in a “final text”
  2. IGF keeps the other bastards honest
  3. If you’re only able to attend one or two meetings per year, IGF is the best place to meet the widest range of contacts in one location

1. Internet policy is so politicized these days, we need a place where people can express their views openly and honestly without fear that it will be used against them in a “final text”

The recent ITU World Telecommunication Development Conference in Buenos Aires reminded me why we need something like the IGF. As soon as you have an event that has concrete outcomes (resolutions, compacts, declarations), you also create a nightmare of negotiations that go through to the small hours of each morning, where people stop focusing on finding solutions to the real issues that make everyone happy and instead focus on fiercely arguing about individual words of no real consequence in outcome texts.

In those environments, governments rule the day because they have decades of experience at tough multilateral negotiations. Other stakeholder groups, however, are relative babes in the woods, with limited political experience of how such negotiated recommendations and resolutions can be used to advance positions that most of the participants of the negotiations never even considered to be a possibility.[1]

2. IGF keeps the other bastards honest

A now-deregistered Australian political party, the Australian Democrats, had the slogan “keep the bastards honest”. The Democrats were only ever a minority party, but as the largest of minority parties, their few votes could help influence the behavior of whatever party was governing the country or state at the time.

The IGF has a similar effect on other Internet-related forums. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the WSIS Forum duplicates the IGF format. The World Internet Conference is another attempt to coopt the format, albeit in a way that is more in line with the particular political sensibilities of the government of China.

Multiple organizations now hold open consultations on Internet-related issues:

The IGF as viewed by many stakeholders as the new standard of what a multistakeholder Internet governance process should be. Basically, any process today that discusses Internet-related issues tends to be compared to the IGF, even if the process has no aspirations to be multistakeholder.

3. If you’re only able to attend one or two meetings per year, IGF is the best place to meet the widest range of contacts in one location

For the last couple of years, my reason for recommending that people attend IGF hasn’t been the formal sessions or workshops. Instead it’s been, “You can hold an amazing range of side meetings with everyone you could possibly want to discuss issues with”. The IGF Secretariat makes this possible by making sure there are is a range of small meeting spaces that can be booked on a first-come-first-served basis.

Even if you don’t organize formal side meetings, it’s possible to have amazing conversations in the corridors. Last year at the IGF in Jalisco, I spent almost an equal time in such corridor meetings as I did in actual workshops and sessions.

There are lots of online mapping and observatory initiatives that aim to provide paths of entry into the world of Internet governance, but in reality, attending the IGF is still the best way to get a crash course in the often-confusing world of Internet issues.

The WSIS Tunis Agenda gave the IGF a number of mandates, five of which are about coordination and facilitation:

  • Facilitate discourse between bodies dealing with different cross-cutting international public policies regarding the Internet and discuss issues that do not fall within the scope of any existing body.
  • Interface with appropriate intergovernmental organizations and other institutions on matters under their purview.
  • Facilitate the exchange of information and best practices, and in this regard make full use of the expertise of the academic, scientific and technical communities.
  • Strengthen and enhance the engagement of stakeholders in existing and/or future Internet governance mechanisms, particularly those from developing countries.
  • Identify emerging issues, bring them to the attention of the relevant bodies and the general public, and, where appropriate, make recommendations.

Notes

[1] I have witnessed this naivety firsthand at the CWG-Internet physical open consultations, where non-government stakeholders in the room are basically silent during the negotiations on the summary report of the day’s discussions, but governments are highly proactive, because non-government stakeholders have no understanding how the summary report can be used in the closed CWG-Internet meeting later in the week.


This is part of a 4-part series on the IGF. The other 3 parts are: