Critics hit out at 'black box' UN internet body

Who exactly decides who sits on the Internet Governance Forum's main body?

Understanding the culture

"New York is very, very big on diversity," one UN veteran who has worked in a number of different arms of the vast organization told us.

It is an ingrained process that all civil servants who work at the UN understand: you must make sure that every group contains a good mix of people both in geographic and gender terms.

People who work in the UN will often complain that the end result of this process is that sometimes the best people do not make it onto committees they should be on because there is someone else who is also white or black, or Asian, or North American, or a woman or a man, and so they are effectively surplus to requirements.

But the broad consensus is that, as a whole, across all the activities that the UN carries out, the upsides of diversity outweigh the downsides of not having all the best people all the time.

There is a further reality: no civil servant has ever been fired for making decisions based on ensuring diversity. And if there are questions over selection, if the process can be explained as a result of diversity, the UN protects that decision.

Another UN old-hand who has experience in both New York and Geneva told us a further factor is the significant difference in culture between the two cities. In Geneva, UN civil servants are more attuned to the business and technical communities – where diversity sometimes needs to take a backseat to expertise.

In Geneva, there is the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). In New York, it is all politics.

The result is that when the different constituent groups of the IGF put forward their selection of names for the available slots on the MAG, they each put forward the same number of people as slots available (rather obviously). But what New York sees is a group of people who did not meet all their diversity requirements. And so they tap the pool of people who have also put themselves forward through an open nomination process (again, pretty much a UN standard approach in order to prevent capture).

While the IGF secretariat provides New York with an initial set of recommendations of who the MAG members should be, civil servants in UN DESA – who do not know the individuals concerned and who place less weight on the individuals' abilities than their characteristics – make the final decisions.

In the UN world, it's an accepted though imperfect system and they feel under no obligation to explain it. To the IGF constituents however, it is an insulting rejection of the processes and a top-down imposition.

Solution

On this specific issue of MAG member selection, those familiar with the system have a simple solution: the different IGF stakeholder groups should simply provide a longer list of candidates.

That is what the world's governments do whenever such a selection process is required. It's a longer list of people, any of whom they would be happy to see on the committee. The rest is left to the civil servants to decide.

While the IGF stakeholder groups claim to largely account for diversity issues within their own selections, the reality is that across the whole IGF, there are unfilled pockets. And once civil servants start moving the pieces around, they do not go back and check that as many as possible of the "official" candidates are chosen.

The different IGF stakeholder groups also need to come to terms with the fact – in the medium term at least – that their sense of autonomy was largely an illusion created by expert diplomats at a time when the IGF was being granted special treatment. UN DESA in New York will decide the makeup of the MAG and, without clear and persuasive guidance, will make decisions based on its criteria – top of which is diversity.

This very issue was in fact foreseen a number of years ago by the IGF secretariat. One former MAG member recalled that the MAG was asked to come up with its own proposal for selection and send it for consideration to New York. But the MAG was unable to decide on the details and the process never went anywhere.

Another former MAG member also critiques the stakeholder groups' own processes. "It is a little rich for them to complain about a 'black box' in New York when they don't publish their own criteria or processes or list of candidates for who they decide to put forward," they told us.

"In that respect, [the different groups] are just complaining that someone has greater authority than them."

That does not of course excuse the fact that in failing to explain its reasoning, UN DESA is creating tensions within the very group it is selecting and which it expects to carry out the day-to-day work of the IGF.

It also does not address the many other issues that the IGF is faced with. But on the issue of MAG member selection at least, the ball rests firmly in the advisory group's court. ®

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