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Monday, May 05, 2008

Sleepless & Wireless in Accra (UNCTAD XII)

Sleepless & Wireless in Accra (UNCTAD XII)

By E.K.Bensah II


I had the privilege of being a participant at the just-ended UNCTAD XII conference. In my view, it brought into very sharp relief not just how sophisticated international conferences have become, but how far the information society has come of age.


When I first started writing about the information society, I could almost imagine how high eyebrows might be raised at the prospect of such a society, where everyone is connected 24/7. Glitches notwithstanding, throughout the UNCTAD conference proper, that is exactly *how* connected we were. This is not some kind of digital exuberance; this is the reality of the twenty-first century, where ubiquitous internet connectivity is instrumental in our homes, work and private lives.


 Take the case of a colleague from a sister organisation in Geneva. Throughout the gathering, he was behind his laptop—either at the makeshift secretariat that had been set up for NGOs at the NGO centre – or in the official plenaries and roundtables making notes that he needed to collate and send back to Switzerland for publication. He was far from the only one. Back in the eighties when I would hit my pubescent period – before wireless and when I was even too young to know what international conferences were about – I re-call seeing on television people carrying huge notebooks and pens all over the place.


Today, the laptop is *de rigueur*. In other words, it has become a necessity not just by dint of its portability, but its utility, for if a laptop were useful only for playing DVDs and games, they would find precious space in people's luggage for meetings and conferences. That these portable devices have come to represent the (portable) version of what you would get on a desktop – in the manner in which it offers word processing and picture-upload capability and transfer (multimedia) among many other things – is one of main reasons why they have been recognised as important communication tools.


Battery woes

This is not to say that the pen and paper are dead—far from it—for one challenge about laptops is their battery. Very few are able to offer more than two hours battery life; when they do, it means you are paying rather steeply for a second battery. At UNCTAD XII, the pen and paper were great complements, for they enabled one to jot down ideas and prepare questions in a way that the laptop would not.


Then there is, of course, the A/C cord; the colleague in question had an issue of his cord being broken. It necessitated a change to a two-pin one for his trip back to Geneva. For the two days that that cord was not fixed, he could only use his laptop for some twenty-odd minutes, ensuring that he save every vestige of power he could. At the very worst, he worked on the desktop computers that the UNCTAD secretariat had provided the centre, so that the laptop could be spared. He did say one interesting thing that precipitated a lot of food for thought. When it was suggested him that he use my chord to beef up the power in his laptop, he decried how "that would force me to work even more." At one point he even lamented having broken from his work for dinner, when his laptop was waiting for him (to do some work)!


Creating 24/7 work?

While these may serve as funny anecdotes, in my view, it is also symptomatic of what I consider to be a worrying trend on how laptops and portable devices have legitimised the need to work *anytime*, which is not such a bad thing if you are a workaholic. For those of us that are not, that time for a break is critical for the soul in more ways than you can imagine, plus the fact that you get to take a break from staring or blinking incessantly at a screen that is bound to cause headache-inducing issues for the UN itself. I am not quite sure that the UN's International Labour Organisation would be very happy to see conference delegates working into the night to deliver reports on a conference of a sister organisation!


In all seriousness, at UNCTAD XII, the information society was well and truly alive—and very palpable. At the meetings, the laptops came in all shapes and sizes, and were, shall-we-say, well-ensconced on thighs (of all shapes and sizes) probably burning them against the very cold air conditioning flowing from the gargantuan systems that had been set up. Some of those who had their laptops on them were producing semi-transcriptions; others were writing draft reports; many others were simply writing notes from the meeting by capturing the essence of the discussions, with a view to sending them off to their organisations.


Some of these reports would turn into news items—and even blog posts—as exemplified by the Minneapolis-based Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) that produced no less than three rather detailed posts of the Civil society output as blog posts from 17-19 April and the main conference. The posts were produced by two of the staff that were here in Accra from Geneva and the US.


Africa (Bloggers) Disunited?

The blogging that was done by a few Western NGOs that were present at UNCTAD XII were so good that they put into shame the quasi non-existent blog entries by African civil society. Regrettably, parts of the African contingent spent quite a bit of time complaining *not* about the wireless so much as the mostly -English output of the civil society aspect of the conference. This was expressed in list-serves that were purposefully set up to facilitate communication among us, and face-to-face encounters. It was clearly a challenge that needs to be confronted.


Even more challenging however, was the extent of blogging by Africans. After the end of the conference, I surfed the blogosphere for inputs by Africans on UNCTAD XII. The owner of, a popular social networking-cum-blogging site, emailed me to say that he was there at UNCTAD XII, and hinted that he would write a more comprehensive post after the conference. I only got his mail when I sent him two posts for upload, while simultaneously decrying the state of non-blogging by those who wrote about the African Union summit in June last year – also right here in Accra. Why were these same bloggers—even if they were unable to make it to Accra—not blogging about the issues discussed? Or was it a case of conference-fatigue by African bloggers?


I daresay my European and Western counterparts might have also suffered from conference-fatigue, hence their departure even before the closing of the conference—but still they stayed to write reports, send emails, and blog.


It seems to me that there remains a lot of work that needs to be done insofar as blogging about conferences are concerned. In 2001, when I also had the privilege of attending the UN Conference on Least Developed Countries in Brussels, Belgium, I knew nothing about blogging—even if it was not so hot in Europe at the time – but I regret not having captured much of the conference electronically. In 2005 at the World Summit on Information Society, I produced almost a tome of sometimes-useless banter about Tunis and its people, as well as on the conference itself on my blog about Ghana.


It has almost been three years, and the information society has progressed and advanced to degrees we never thought possible. With wireless, people can even send emails and write quick reports from the washroom! That is how ridiculously advantageous the society has become.


All that said, there remain serious challenges, which include the extent to which apathy of bloggers contribute—or not—to the development of a more pluralistic information society. The West can afford to be apathetic, because of the many advances they have undergone; we in the developing world have less to be complacent about. To date, blogging remains one of the most democratising practices around for the Global South. If we as developing countries fail to maximise how it can help us foster a better society, then we might have gone wireless alright, but forever-sleepless in the search to make not just the information society, but society in general better for us all. /


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