It was 2017 and winter had finally come. The night-walkers that had swept the year with frustrating rejections did not overwhelm the chill winters of Geneva. When the best and worst week of your life are all in the same year, there is no other way to have it. The best week was, without a doubt, participating at the Internet Governance Forum at the United Nations of Geneva themed ‘Shape Your Digital Future’ in December.
AN INTRODUCTION TO INTERNET GOVERNANCE
After an intensive course on Internet Leadership by Internet Society offered on a competitive basis, 30 youth below the age of 25 were selected to be travel fellows at the 12th IGF multistakeholder forum taking place in Switzerland. The preparatory course ‘Shaping the Internet – History and Futures’ consisted of four modules including an Introduction to Internet Governance, Internet Policy Principles, Internet Actors and Stakeholder groups, and regulatory frameworks.
To have been selected to attend the 12th Annual IGF in Geneva was a humbling surprise. Dare I mention, the preparatory course was a ‘fish out of water’ experience for me, from the encyclopedia of abbreviations associated with Internet Governance IoTs, BPFs, DCs, TLDs – some I still struggle with – to understanding the multi-stakeholder nature of Internet Governance and where I fit in as a youth.
The beauty of the Internet Leadership course by Internet Society was how newcomers in this field, like myself, were given the opportunity to learn. Newcomer may be a wrong term because billions are end-users internet, we are just not aware we can be involved in its governance.
The Visa process to Switzerland was no walk in the park. Three fellows had their visa denied because of the strict visa requirements in Schengen states. I had to travel from Zambia to Tanzania, and back (sans my passport) to wait ten days for news. 16 hour journey from Lusaka to Dar Es Salaam. Three combined days on the road. My elder sister traveled with me. We were both at wits end when the journey concluded. Worst journey of my life, I can safely say. On the bright side, we saw some elephants, buffalos and Zebra’s en route. A drive through the park.
My virgin trip to Geneva, Switzerland, on the other hand, was quite rad – though admittedly I was so exhausted, I felt I would pass out at some point during the flight. In Geneva, the immigration was very friendly, and my average French was quite useful when my directionally challenged self couldn’t find way out of a very straightforward Geneve airport - for 30 minutes. Typical!
This recollection of the IGF is my own perspective and does not necessarily represent the views of young people attending the Internet Governance Forum for the first time.
I landed at 1pm in Geneva and got to my hotel at 4.30pm. Nevermind. The hotel was elusive to me, despite having a map (which I somehow did not read). At 5.30pm, I was at the Intercontinental for the preliminary meeting with other Youth@IGF2017 fellows and everything seemed right in the world again.
DAY 0 of 4
Day zero was my favorite day at the Internet Governance Forum 2017. It was more interactive, less business-sy and made for much easier networking.
The morning started by freezing our whiskers off – standing in line in the brutal cold without a cup of coffee because jet lag happens – as we waited to get our badges at the UN Security entrance. This was eased off by chatting with familiar faces of fellows met from the previous evening and then it was off to the Center of International Conferences (CICG).
The first session was the Collaborative Leadership exchange on ‘Shaping the Digital Future’. It was the most interactive session at the IGF for me because all the youth participants were given an opportunity to volunteer and lead their own mini-sessions in an unconference format. The session organized by Internet Society Next Generation and Collaboration for Change set the tone for youth engagement in the upcoming session and was a great confidence boost to encourage us to speak up and take the lead on issues we are passionate about. I led the discussion on ‘How online volunteering resolves gendered problems in the online and offline space’ and joined other discussions as well.
My second session was on Creating a world of Inclusion in Social and Economic Opportunities for Women from Developing countries. As Founder of SAFIGI Outreach Foundation, my focus has always been women and in this session I spoke about how gendered problems online truly are just a reflection of the societies we live in.
Everything was flowing smoothly. I took a walk outside during break, made new friends, and imagined it would be the same for the rest of the forum. It wasn’t.
DAY 1 of 4
Day one was the most challenging day. My spirits were up, notes prepared for my sessions, and I wore extra layers of clothing so I would not get cold. We even received cute IGF headsocks in our Swiss IGF goodie bags when we got to the United Nations building. Perfect.
Being directionally challenged is a disadvantage anywhere. The room numbers were in Roman Numerals and even when I asked for directions, I sometimes went in circles. This was the least of my problems, since I’m used to that and eventually found my way.
The environment at the UN was much spacious and everyone seemed in a hurry to get somewhere. There was a snake bar. Yes, a snake bar, and people appeared busy. The booths were nice, the child (errhm adult) in me couldn’t turn down free candy. And really, the booths were the best place to learn about different projects going on across the globe.
Though a multistakeholder environment, there appeared to be a hierarchy. People doing their jobs and ‘professional travellers’ – me as a youth. It was a bit disorienting. The sessions were great though limited in time so it was difficult to warm up. There was an unspoken need to be smart – everyone in the room was doing smart things, and then as a young person (speaking for myself), there is feelings of being inadequate. Then again, it was important to remind myself that this is a multi-stakeholder forum and every contribution is as valid as the next regardless of whom it came from. This reminder was very crucial because I had to recognize how few the people representing me were at the event – representing a young black female from a developing world with low internet penetration and recognizable digital right abuses. There weren’t any people with my knowledge, my background, and my point of view so I had to woman-up and speak up.
My confidence was boosted with the opening session and high thematic session on 'Shape Your Digital Future' led by President of the Swiss Confederation, Doris Leuthard, and on panel ISOC President, Kathy Brown, and Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf among keynote global leaders.
DAY 2, 3 of 4
Day two was much more balanced. My choice of sessions also set the tone for the day for I attended both an all youth panel and an all female panel led moderated by Web Foundations Nanjira Sambuli, an amazing moderator who gave everyone a chance to speak. There were sessions were a contribution by a young person would be overlooked, or were the panel discussing youth comprised of adults, or were the panels were so large that it left no chance for interaction with participants – nevermind the online participants who also had difficulty in viewing some sessions or have the online moderator read them.
The Internet Society Open Forum also took place on Day 2 and I learned about IoT – Internet of Things and how it affects our security. IoT s are basically smart devices and the risk comes in because they can be controlled remotely. This stood out to me because what had sounded so complicated before was really simple and relatable.
Networking on the second and third day was easier though still cumbersome and socially awkward in some instances. Yet all is well that ends well, and I got to meet some amazing people who were kind. No one I spoke to was rude, a few were politely uninterested, but overall the crowd was very friendly.
Truly the second and third day appeared merged to me because I finally stopped being self-conscious and went with the flow. We’re all humans.
DAY 4 OF 4
The final day of the forum was bittersweet. It had all passed so quickly. After checking out of the hotel, I went to the UN with my bags so as to head straight to the airport shortly after the closing ceremony. The thought made me slow down a bit and reflect more on what I would do to continue engaging in this wonderful model when I returned home. The beauty and weakness of the IGF is everyone has to be responsible enough to play their part – no one is going to force another to engage after the forum is over or create solutions. This is an individual’s responsibility.
I took it upon myself to increase youth and gender representation at the IGF, and with a team of ISOC Youth@IGF, started Digital Grassroots, a youth initiative to increase digital citizenship in local communities.
If there is advice I can give to any new comer or youth is to be confident in the uniqueness of your experience. Do not compare yourself to other people, and if you have something to say or something you don’t agree with, speak up. Not everyone may listen, but someone always does. Do your homework before attending the IGF, and if you happen to be directionally challenged, use a map or two, or stick to a person with better sense of direction, or leave an hour early to get to your meeting.
Let yourself be seen, and if it comes to it, don’t shy away from going out and being human. Though the event is short and has long hours, it is easy to fall into a robotic fear pattern and forget to enjoy the process.
Flying back home, I felt much more relaxed and confident than when I was traveling to Switzerland; The fear of something going wrong at any point from the visa process, to immigration, flights, turbulence, directions, hotels, language, and even how to interact with fellows had overshadowed most of the excitement I should have had when traveling to Switzerland.
All those fears had come to naught, as do many fears in our lives.