Internet opportunities for policy makers - An electronic conference on Access and Benefit Sharing


Jorge Cabrera Medaglia

Correct citation: Medaglia J.C. (2002), " Internet opportunities for policy makers - An electronic conference on Access and Benefit Sharing." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 49, p. 7-9.

A pilot online-workshop between four participating countries recently proved useful in exploring the complex issues related to the access and benefit sharing arrangements under the Convention on Biological Diversity. This article shows how information technologies can even differences in the resources of different countries whilst developing common areas of cooperation. In this case the participating countries succeeded in preparing a common declaration despite earlier experiences. Assessment is made of how such technology can be used efficiently for the benefit of all participants and what the limitations are. It also highlights the fact that capacity building as far as biotechnology is concerned has to include capacity building in information technologies.

Biotechnology is increasingly not only an agricultural and scientific issue but also a topic of international agreements and conferences. An example here is the upcoming Sixth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP6) and the Third Meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (ICCP3). Others include meetings within the context of the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). In such meetings, the fundamental differences between country delegations in terms of resources and capacity become obvious, especially when the topics are broad.

In the context of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the process was so broadly defined and complex that many parties could not digest the information produced in preparation of the meetings. The implications are felt during COP meetings when small delegations are forced to participate as observers rather than as active participants. The multi-dimensional issues like Access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing (ABS) aggravated the problem. There is a lot of information on biodiversity, but also the problem of how to use it.

Dialogue on access and benefit sharing
After the United Nations' Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 and on its own initiative, the Netherlands signed Bilateral Agreements for Sustainable Development (BASDs) with Costa Rica, Benin and Bhutan. Under this scheme, countries not only receive or are granted technical and financial assistance, but also undertake reciprocal obligations by jointly identifying priorities, needs and compromise areas. Besides mutual assistance and consultation, the participation of each party is based on principles of solidarity, equality, reciprocity and civil society participation.

As a part of this process, the participating countries have taken the opportunity to issue joint declarations on topics of mutual interest in different international forums and have also executed cooperative projects under the framework of the CBD. Normal decision-making processes of cooperation such as exchanging points of view via letters to shape plenary pronouncements, have been enhanced through an online initiative. The online expert dialogue among Sustainable Development Agreement Parties Benin, Bhutan, Costa Rica and the Netherlands (SDA dialogue) on ABS were put into practice in September/October 2001 with an online event titled "Access and Benefit Sharing: Preparing for Bonn". Ecooperation, the institute in the Netherlands that manages bilateral agreements, organised this dialogue. It involved experts from the four countries as a contribution to the Meeting of the Ad Hoc Open-ended Working Group on Access and Benefit-sharing in Bonn (Germany, October 2001) and to COP6 (The Hague, the Netherlands in April 2002).

The goal of the online dialogue was to create a suitable environment to enable a maximum exchange of experiences and explore further options for cooperation. By choosing the online approach the project was able to have a pool of experts available at the national levels and overcome some of the obstacle of geographic distance between countries. The online dialogue is intended as a first step towards a rapid, country-specific exchange of information with a relatively high spin-off in terms of policy formulation.

The online workshop
The specific objectives of the online workshop were to:

Lessons learned
The project has proved of great value in terms of educating the participants on how to take advantage of electronic means for practical purposes. For example, the Costa Rican participants, initially had many "how-to-use" questions. These dealt with issues such as login procedures, when to access the site and the use of different tools provided by the electronic format.

It was found that there was a lack of knowledge and therefore lack of utilisation of information and communication technology (ICT) resources to deal with topic discussions. Even though many of the participants were skilled in the use of email and web browsers, the idea of generating an online discussion with different inputs that would eventually evolve (under the steering and coordination of a moderator) into a final statement had not been practised before. There was some initial distrust or lack of faith in the mechanism. This was later transformed into an intensive use of the device after participants realised the advantages of a discussion with no time zone or geographic location constrictions. They also became aware of the cost-effectiveness of the device, since there was no need for costly travel arrangements or work agendas that might not suit everyone.

An appropriate site design is probably one of the most important issues. In this case the site displayed tools to structure the discussion and to post documents online for consultation. Familiarity between the participants was created through posting brief biographies. The placement of a desk translator (translators who would translate incoming contributions) was of particular use as the tool made non-English speakers comfortable because they could participate in their native languages. Finally, the role of the moderator was crucial in stirring up and channelling the debate. To encourage participation is crucial and even more difficult when there is no physical presence. Finally it is important to note that the electronic conference is not a substitute for final drafting of the documents. As one might expect, several points in the declarations can have political repercussions. In this context, face-to-face contacts to fine-tune the conclusive declaration are still necessary.

In spite of the fact that there was an asymmetric participation in terms of number of contributions, all the participants kept a general interest. Costa Rica was the main contributor, the Netherlands is basically a user country of genetic resources, while Benin and Bhutan expressed their interest and need for cooperation. This is a reflection of the different levels of development in ABS in the participating countries. In this sense the participation of the countries of Benin and Bhutan was oriented to identifying their necessities and to expressing general opinions on subjects of great relevance, without going into depth on technical or practical aspects. On the part of participants from the Netherlands and Costa Rica, however, more precise contributions about topics like IPR issues and regulatory frameworks were received.

Capacity building
The online conference can be described as a mechanism to build capacity in the handling of information technologies, especially for developing countries. There are differences in capacity between the four countries of the SDA due different access to internet services and technologies. This also entails new challenges in the development of the professional personnel who face the negotiations and the international cooperation on biodiversity issues. At the same time these mechanisms allow evening of the differences between countries, for example, by using tools to the translate the different contributions. It highlights the necessity of easy access to the internet including the appropriate equipment. The use of information technologies becomes critical for countries facing international negotiations and the subsequent exchange of information and strengthening of cooperation between countries.

The Joint Statement specifically approaches the topic of online conferences and proposes its future use to realize cooperative projects and to transfer experiences and information in an easy and economic way. In the Costa Rican case, the organizers of the workshop have affirmed their desire to make use of this instrument in future for other purposes.

The ABS electronic conference between Benin, Bhutan, Costa Rica and the Nether- lands under the aegis of the Bilateral Agreement for Sustainable Development, has demonstrated the potential of internet-based information technology in countries with differing economic, political and cultural environments. Well designed and utilised, such mechanism can foster cooperative working in a cost-effective way. It is possible that such approaches might also prove useful for other countries under the CBD.

Jorge Cabrera Medaglia
National Biodiversity Institute (INBio), Apartado 1487-1002, San Josť, Costa Rica.
Phone: +506 551 26 86, Fax: +506 381 90 86,
Email: jorgecmedaglia@hotmail.com, jcabrera@inbio.ac.cr

SDA Dialogue on Access and Benefit-Sharing: www.ecooperation.org/abs

Benin, Buthan, Costa Rica and The Netherlands Co-operation for Sustainable Development under the Convention on Biological Diversity Agreement - COP VI, January, 2001.


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