Sustainable networks

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
7 March, 2017
Editorial: 77
Fecha de publicación original: 24 junio, 1997

Date of publication 24/06/1997. Editorial 77.

He who gives fair words feeds you with an empty spoon

Five years ago, around this time, I was on my way back from Rio de Janeiro where I had been attending the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, better known as the Earth Summit. Although this meeting did not live up to the expectations of even the most cautious at the time, there was at least a general consensus that an irreversible process had been put into motion to come to grips with the serious problems confronting our planet so closely related to the way that industrial society had been organised. Rio ’92 established the basis for important debate on climate change, biodiversity, forest management policy, desertification and the criteria for including the concept of sustainable development in the public and private budget of every country so that it would be accurately reflected in the Gross National Product. Five years on, that shining balloon has slowly lost air to the point where it has been reduced to almost nothing. Despite the fact that each one of these items was sealed with treaties and commissions, we are now further away than ever from the Summit’s objectives, even the very least important of them. In fact, these objectives have literally regressed due to the overwhelming weight of the much-acclaimed process of economic globalisation and the liberalisation of world markets. The only thing that remains is a rather vague notion of sustainable development, which has been successful among, above all, industry and public administration. Nevertheless, in the debates which led up to the Summit as well as those which took place during the meeting, telecommunications were not viewed as possibly playing a major role in sustainable development, a fact which is very surprising now considering what has happened in the few years since. Today, it would be unthinkable not to view telecommunications as one of the key factors in improving standards of living. Unthinkable is not equivalent, however, to impossible.

During the Rio Summit, a parallel meeting of NGOs, the ’92 Global Forum, was held in Flamingo Park, overlooking Gaunabara Bay in the centre of the city. It was there that the Association for Progressive Communications set  up workshops to explain the advantages of e-mail. Some NGOs, especially those from the Third World, began to use it via the APC‘s own networks and other low cost systems such as FidoNet, enabling them to maintain a rich network of contacts, share information about systems similar to their own already active in other parts of the world, explain their own initiatives in a multitude of forums and get funding from a wide variety of sources. All of which would have been unthinkable via the telephone and normal postal services. The APC workshops taught many NGOs the value of telecommunications and this was undoubtedly, in many cases, the most important thing that they took back with them from Rio, as it has allowed them to work within a cooperative environment of global dimensions ever since.

Nevertheless, five years is a long time and changes in the field since then have also been enormous. The advent of the Web and the explosion of Internet in the last two years have imposed systems rich in the use of bits which have had a detrimental effect on low cost systems. At the same time, the tendency of the world market towards free trade — one of the main reasons for the fact that Rio ’92 has practically disappeared off the political and economic agenda — is putting enormous pressure on developing countries to accept foreign investment in the field of telecommunications. Where these processes have begun, there are already “two speeds” networks, the new ones that are able to negotiate the information flowing through the Web, and the older ones, which are much slower and more costly and depend fundamentally on e-mail.

Right now, an international meeting of NGOs and official delegations, Rio+5  at UN Headquarters, aimed at reviewing what has become of agreements reached at the Earth Summit in 1992, is drawing to a close. It has been possible to follow events at the meeting on the Internet, which is, in itself, an interesting change with respect to Rio 92. Nevertheless, despite this fact, the question of telecommunications is still not on the agenda as a fundamental part of sustainable development and improvement of living standards in developing countries. Only a few NGOs and governments in the South give credence to what Nelson Mandela said in a speech which he made at the last Telecom meeting in Geneva:” If telecommunications are not developed to suit the needs of our countries, the gap between industrialised countries and the rest of the world will never be closed. Perhaps operators are not particularly interested in this fact as long as their programmes are financially viable, but they should not forget, at the same time, that they are sowing the seeds of social conflict which will, in the end, affect them and their countries of origin”.

​Translation: ​Bridget King