Reflection – NWICO to WSIS

The MacBride Commission’s 1980 report to UNESCO, which formulated the basis for the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO), and eventually for the WSIS, concentrated on global issues of media and communication. Among the many themes investigated in the report that resonate today, the role of international governance bodies for both fostering and regulating media and communications stands at the fore. In particular, a lingering dissonance between institutions’ stated purposes and their effective practices highlights the longest-standing struggles incumbent upon global IT governance.

The MacBride report discussed a broad variety of ICT issues that affected the developing world. Problems and open questions of media creation, distribution, and consumption took a high proirity. This included the failure of international news coverage to reflect the developing world’s realities, instead bearing out the sensationalism of American and European outlets. Observing the flow of media from those outlets towards that developing world, unbalanced by any substantial flow of media in the opposite direction, enjoined analysis of the stakes of representation. Who is empowered to communicate, and on behalf of whom, became a matter of international policy.

The patterns of control over technologies that enable communication also grounded NWICO. International radio broadcast spectrum and satellite positions were allocated by very a few actors, especially military interests. Effects of this imbalance included included broadcasting satellite signals into sovereign nations without their consent, against which the UN voted in the 1970s, and the collection of data about those countries without their having the computing capacity to manage that data. So NWICO addressed claims to justice in this light, even going so far as to propose protections for journalists. This last point became more contentious than might have been expected, since it also incorporated certain restrictions on the legitimacy of journalistic activities that were cast as threats to free speech by the United States, among other UN member nations, who subsequently left UNESCO for two decades.

Historically, the grounds of international governance bodies’ claims to legitimacy rested on moral principles, and on the cooperation of their member states, where military force did not exist. However, the viccissitudes of politics and policies allowed WSIS to change its financial infrastructure, granting its international governance a fiscal justification for its actions as well. In this shift, from member states’ dues towards service and patent fees, WSIS transmuted the scope of its oversight. Moreover, it moved away from the emphasis, in the MacBride report and NWICO, on an innate and universal “right to communicate,” instead concentrating on a right to “participate” in global media. And the change was not merely rhetorical.

The slight shift in verbiage indicates where the burdens and responsibilities that accompany rights continue to fall in contemporary IT governance. Whereas a right to communicate suggests access to AND control over the means of communication, such as technologies and media, the right to participate does not indicate control over those means – whether via national sovereignty or capital accumulation – but only access itself. This leads to institutional environments that lack incentives to reduce inequity in representations of developing nations from within them, or in the direction or valence of media flows. The real impact over time of global governance institutions on their objects of regulation and incubation risks an epistemological erosion. Such slippage manifests itself most subtly in the fungibility between two key terms for the study of ICTs for development: “information society” compared to “knowledge society.” In the former, the rough mix of progress, regression, regulation, deregulation, and discussion that underpins global governance institutions can be directly tied to the many layers of technical and mediated conditions for a social environment, from utilities and basic security charters through computing and mobility. In a “knowledge society,” on the other hand, a prerequisite for social inclusion is the manufacture of knowledge, rather than the immersion in information as such. This distinction, essentially one of structure prioritized in context, leads to problematic social assumptions. For example, it invites an implicit – sometimes explicit – disjuncture between “global” and “indigenous” knowledge, especially in terms of politics and economics. For these reasons, the week’s readings remind me to remain aware of the discursive as well as the structural elements of ICT4D as we continue into specific, geographically bounded case studies.


J.P. Singh. “Toward Knowledge Societies in UNESCO and Beyond.”

ManyVoices, One World (Mac Bride Report). UNESCO. Paris, 1975.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *