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World Forum for Democracy 2013: Connecting Citizens and Institutions

World Forum for Democracy 2013 in Strasbourg: plenary session. Photo by Suzanne Lehn.

World Forum for Democracy 2013 in Strasbourg: plenary session. Photo by Suzanne Lehn.

The second World Forum for Democracy took place in Strasbourg from 27 to 29 November, 2013. Two and a half days of intense in sessions presented by experts at the Council of Europe, for which the public could register, and an off programme lasting over a week in various settings around the city seem to have installed this event in the landscape and calendar of the capital of Europe. Rue 89 Strasbourg set out the event [fr] the evening before it opened:

Plusieurs dizaines de manifestations, un public attendu au in de 1 700 personnes (800 participants en 2012), diplomates, fonctionnaires européens et Strasbourgeois, au minimum de 700 à 800 personnes au off (estimations 2012). Le tout pour un budget d’1,2 millions d’euros auxquels s’ajoutent 300 000€ de la Ville de Strasbourg auparavant « fléchés » sur d’autres opérations dans l’année, concentrées désormais sur la période du Forum.

Several dozen presentations, an in public expected to reach 1,700 people (800 took part in 2012), diplomats, civil servants representing both Europe and the city, at least 700 to 800 people for the off events (estimations for 2012). All for a budget of 1.2 million euros [1.6 million US dollars], with an additional 300,000 euros [410,000 US dollars] from the City of Strasbourg previously ‘ring-fenced’ for other events throughout the year, but now concentrated on the period when the Forum takes place.

The Lab 18 panel. Photo by Suzanne Lehn.

The Lab 18 panel. Photo by Suzanne Lehn.

The first Forum in 2012 focussed on the theme of “Democracy on Trial: Between Old Models and New Realities”, and was surrounded by the hope brought by the Arab spring and attended by global personalities. The 2013 Forum, on the other hand, which took place in the presence of the Secretary General of La Francophonie Abdou Diouf [fr] and the writer Amin Maalouf, claimed a more technical focus, both in its subject matter, “Re-wiring Democracy: connecting institutions and citizens in the digital age” and in its organisation, with 4 topics addressed in 21 ‘Labs', with expert presentations having been selected months in advance.

As a Global Voices representative and living only a few steps from the Palais de l'Europe where the forum took place, here is a review of some of the Labs I attended:

Liquid democracy - Lab 1. Photo by Suzanne Lehn.

Liquid democracy – Lab 1. Photo by Suzanne Lehn.

- Alternatives to representative democracy? Lab 1: Liquid democracy, with a presentation by the German Pirate Party, and Lab 3: Fostering public debate and building a shared vision of the future, with particular reference to young people (Phillipines, France);

- Democracy 2.0: Lab 9: Election alert, with our friends from the iHub in Kenya;

- Governing with citizens;

- Envisioning the future: Lab 17: Making films, making society, focussing on the Tunisie 4.0 Nesselfen project, and my favourite, Lab 18: “Solution journalism” in action in the presence of the Bangladeshi blogger Shahidul Alam and the Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas. Finally more human density.

The presentations were then summarised in two plenary sessions, including a vote on the initiatives presented; a somewhat empty process given that approval was invariably between 70 to 80%.

To provide more information, a Facebook page and a Twitter hashtag #CoE_WFD (the same as for the 2012 Forum) were created. The Council of Europe website put videos and photos (here and here) of the sessions online, and created Google groups to continue discussions.

The Médiapart blog provides detailed coverage of all of the sessions [fr] – including some of the off conferences.

A design artist was present at each Lab. Photo by Suzanne Lehn.

A design artist was present at each Lab. Photo by Suzanne Lehn.

In this podcast, 5 student bloggers from Holland and Germany give their opinions. As part of the off events, the Global Voices author Alexey Sidorenko was interviewed [fr] by the Franco-German television channel Arte on the freedom of information in Russia.

Although the Forum was attended by participants from all over the world, it had very little in common with the designer chaos of a World Social Forum [fr], despite the Democracy Innovation Fair grouping together stands of organisations presenting their initiatives in a space within the Council of Europe, where access is reserved. The off programme [fr], coordinated by the City of Strasbourg, presented those living in and visiting Strasbourg with a diverse range of concerts, cinema festivals, debates and meetings organised by Reporters without Borders, the newspaper Le Monde, France Culture… That being so, one of the main purposes of the event seemed to be to stimulate reflection and increase the propositions of the Council of Europe in its role as a defender of democracy. The ‘young leaders’ from Europe, who are currently following courses given by the Council of Europe's network of schools of political studies, actively participated in sessions.

The Franco-German newspaper Eurojournal commented [fr] somewhat maliciously:
Hier, juste après la fin du FMD, les illuminations du Marché de Noël ont été lancées. Chic. Mais une nouvelle fois, de nombreux participants ont regretté le manque de résultats concrets que l’on est en droit d’attendre d’une telle manifestation qui se veut mondiale et qui aurait effectivement le potentiel de le devenir. Si seulement les organisateurs affichaient un peu plus d’ambitions.

 Yesterday, just after the end of the WFD, the lights of the Christmas market were switched on. Chic. But once again, numerous participants were disappointed by the lack of concrete results which are to be expected from such a presentation claiming to represent the world and which certainly has the potential to do so. If only the organisers were more ambitious. 

The blog Décrypter la communication européenne [Decrypting European Communication] decrypted [fr] the issues of this Forum, based on the World Forum for Democracy 2013 Issues Paper: “Exploiting the web as a tool of democracy: new ways forward in the study and practice of digital democracy” [pdf], concluding:
Au total, la révolution de la démocratie numérique européenne est en marche, mais plutôt que d’opposer des « forces de progrès » cyberenthousiastes à des « rétrogrades » cybersceptiques, la ligne de fracture dépend d’abord de ce que les citoyens et les institutions font ou ne font pas d’Internet, en tant qu’outil fonctionnel de démocratie.  

Overall, the revolution of European digital democracy is underway, but rather than opposing the ‘force-for-progress’ cyberenthusiasts and the ‘backwards-looking’ cybersceptics, the fracture line depends first of all on what citizens and institutions do or don't do with the internet as a functional tool for democracy.

"E-toile" installation on the side of the Council of Europe during the Forum. Photo by Suzanne Lehn.

“E-toile” installation on the side of the Council of Europe during the Forum. Photo by Suzanne Lehn.

Has the World Forum for Democracy reached maturity with this second event? Led by the Council of Europe, an institution still lacking wider recognition [fr], and the City of Strasbourg, other French institutions, whether governmental, regional or local, were barely visible. The contributions and debates were rich, although their concentration over a short period of time – two half days of ‘Lab’ presentations – meant that only two out of twenty one could be attended in full. The organisation was effective and creative, in particular with regard to the participation of artists, and has found a good cruising speed. Unfortunately, friendliness seemed to have been somewhat forgotten – unless it was hiding away in one of the famous ‘winstubs‘ found in the European and Alsatian capital? 

Women and democracy: World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg 2013.

Women and democracy: World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg 2013.

All of Suzanne Lehn's photos of the World Forum for Democracy 2013 can be found on Flickr (licence CC).

This post was proofread in English by Georgi McCarthy.

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