Bank response to Tower of Babel briefing

18 June 2001

This is a World Bank response to the Bretton Woods Project briefing, A Tower of Babel on the Internet. The World Bank’s Development Gateway. The Bretton Woods Project has also produced a response to this response.

May 14, 2001

Dear Friends,

We are writing to address some of the issues raised by the Bretton Woods Project in its April 2001 brief on the Development Gateway entitled “A Tower of Babel on the Internet? The World Bank’s Development Gateway” which was circulated widely in several electronic discussions and lists. First of all, it is important to state that we welcome these latest comments on the Gateway from Bretton Woods Project and other organizations, as this promotes useful and constructive debate on the Development Gateway and on the use of information and communications technology more broadly. The internet is still a largely uncharted space requiring a good deal of exchange and analysis by a wide variety of people in order to understand its pitfalls and more fully grasp its potential.

Below are comments on the most important points raised by Bretton Woods Project in their brief. For a more comprehensive discussion of the policies and features of the Development Gateway Portal and the Development Gateway Foundation, please refer to the FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) document located in the “About Us” section of the Gateway.

Ongoing contact with Bretton Woods Project

The Gateway team has had ongoing contact with the Bretton Woods Project staff, with our latest meeting in March, and we consider this exchange useful. While we don’t agree with some of the concerns and interpretations drawn by Bretton Woods Project, we do find some of the analysis concerning the difficulties of building and managing a global portal thoughtful. The issues of managing content while striving to both ensure quality and plurality or how to successfully publish in many languages simultaneously, are challenges which all portals of this nature face, including those operated by civil society organizations (CSOs). These and other challenges are certainly debated constantly within the Gateway team, and we welcome the input and lessons learned from others who are also working on IT for development. We are pleased to note that Bretton Woods Project posted their brief on the Development Gateway site itself (on the global NGO Page), and hope that it will generate some discussion there as well.

Providing Visibility to Southern Voices

The Development Gateway is not only committed to addressing the growing digital divide, but many of its innovative design features are precisely geared to providing visibility to Southern development experiences and voices. The Gateway team is actively pursuing collaboration with CSOs in developing countries to manage content, and has already established partnerships with such organizations as TARAhaat and Fondo Indígena. It is also supporting civil society ICT initiatives such as the sub-site by the NGO Working Group of the World Bank in the Eastern/Central Europe Region and the independent NGO portal in Latin America being established by ALOP. Further, its open-source and XML-based software allow users across the world to post resources, retrieve data, and participate in online discussions. Finally, the Country Gateways, which are being established in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, will promote local information sharing and ICT capacity-building in developing countries. These 32 Country Gateways are being established by consortia composed of dozens of local organizations from the academic, private sector, and civil society, and governmental sectors. (see the “Contributors” page in the “About Us” section of the Gateway for a complete list of organizations)

Dominating the Internet?

The Development Gateway does not see itself as the one “super-site” on development issues, but rather an additional platform among the numerous existing portals geared to sustainable development. What makes the Gateway unique is its commitment to bringing diverse sectors (government, civil society, private sector) together, and its network of country-based portals, which will allow for more fluid interaction between local, regional, and global levels. The notion that the Gateway could in some way dominate or control development information on the Internet – even if this were its intention, which it is not – simply does not stand up to the origins and decentralized nature of the medium. Further, the Gateway will not compete with existing development portals or siphon off funds now being destined for civil society Internet efforts. The Development Gateway Foundation, when established in the later half of 2001, will leverage new funding for the ICT field, including providing small-grant funding to civil society in collaboration with infoDev. In short, the Development Gateway will only be deemed successful if it can enhance inter-connectivity among existing Internet portals/networks and leverage greater resources for government, civil society, and donor agency ICT initiatives.

Experimental Nature of the Gateway

Reflecting the experimental nature of the Internet, the Gateway initiative has been characterized by a “learning by doing” approach, which is analyzing different architecture models, experimenting with different software applications, testing different content management approaches, and piloting several institutional partnership approaches. Throughout the process we have spoken to a diverse range of interlocutors and learned from the experience of other similar ICT initiatives, including from the extensive civil society experience in this field. Unlike what is portrayed by the Bretton Woods Project brief, decisions about the Gateway design and governance structure are not “set in stone”, and new approaches will continue to be explored and changes made as the project moves forward. Indeed, many significant changes have already been adopted as a result of the feedback we have received (see below).

Responding to Feedback

The Gateway has actively sought feedback from a broad range of stakeholders in government, civil society, and the private sector. During 2000 the team held over a dozen meetings with leading CSO networks in North America, Europe, and Latin America, and held several electronic discussions such as the 7-week discussion hosted by GKD. The Gateway has responded to the feedback received – both positive and negative – by being open and frank, and by constantly reviewing the concept and design in light of comments and suggestions. The Gateway’s key documents (business plan, concept note, consultation meeting notes), implementation timetable, and names of our partner organizations are posted on our site (see “About Us” section). Further, as a response to this feedback the Gateway team has adopted a series of needed changes into its technology, editorial policy, and governance structure. These include evolving to a more decentralized architecture and testing of autonomous sub-sites; moving from an individual to an institutional model of guided pages; appointing an external Editorial Advisory Committee; and establishing a multi-stakeholder Gateway Foundation.

Decentralized Content Management Through Partnerships

The Gateway is piloting several models of decentralized content management on its topic pages. Initially it began with an individual topic guide approach, but in order to ensure greater diversity and attract greater institutional collaboration, the Gateway has increasingly been partnering with organizations from civil society and the donor community. These organizations select advisors for their pages, manage the content posted on their site, and select which resources to highlight. Such partner organizations have also assisted the Gateway in determining the taxonomy of topic and sub-topic pages as this has evolved over time, in order to capture crosscutting themes such as gender and ensure a more holistic view of development. This decentralized content management approach brings a good measure of diversity and ensures that recognized practitioners in the development field set the quality standards.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that launching and maintaining a portal such as the Gateway is a challenge. But we feel that while it is ambitious, it is not beyond reach, and could be a valuable tool in the fight against poverty. The issues of technological design, editorial policy, taxonomy definition, content management, and governance structure are complex and require a thoughtful and collaborative approach. For this reason, the Gateway team has consulted openly and widely with civil society, government, and the private sector, and has made available major background and policy documents. The Gateway is a work in progress and the feedback received has been instrumental in assessing underlying notions, introducing needed design changes, and fine-tuning specific features. The active participation of CSOs representing different constituencies and issues, particularly from the developing world, will help the Gateway to reach its full potential. We thus invite civil society organizations to work with us on the Gateway initiative by registering on the site, searching data, contributing content, participating in electronic discussions, monitoring the Gateway, sending us feedback, serving as topic guides and advisors, and collaborating on pilot ICT initiatives.

For additional information on these issues and how the Gateway is working with civil society please visit the Development Gateway site or or email John Garrison.

John Garrison, Gateway team, World Bank

14th May 2001