The boom in video conferencing software driven by the pandemic has had a noticeable impact on communication in work and private spheres. International summits have in the past revolved around face-to-face meetings and direct exchange. But many of these conferences have now been cancelled or moved online. What are the effects of this "zoomification" - and what does it mean for civil society's opportunities for participation and influence?
The 13th edition of the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) provided a chance to gain some initial impressions regarding the opportunities and weaknesses of the new communication platforms. The Forum was hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) under the theme "The Future of Human Mobility: Innovative Partnerships for Sustainable Development".
The GFMD: a confidence-building dialogue forum
The GFMD is first and foremost a forum for dialogue: Challenges are identified, good practices in migration policy are presented, recommendations are made. Despite its informal nature, the forum has had a significant impact on the debate over the development of global migration policy over the years. Besides an initially narrow definition of development it has been, addressing issues such as climate-induced migration, gender, irregularity, and basic labour and human rights of migrants, in addition to. The GFMD process can be seen as a confidence-building measure for the actors involved as well as a precursor to the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) adopted in 2018.
The direct exchange with civil society in the host country has been lost
In this development, an important role has been played by civil society, which thus far had met for two days of independent delbierations as well as for a joint exchange with government representatives - the "common space". At the 12th meeting of the Forum, which took place in Ecuador in January 2020 with attendees being physically present, the UAE announced a striking innovation: A joint five-day meeting in Dubai, instead of separate events for civil society and governments. This is a significant step for the GFMD, especially as it was initiated by a federation of seven emirates that scored a disastrous 17 out of 100 in the Global Freedom Score in last year's Freedomhouse report, including rock-bottom scores for freedom of association, freedom of non-governmental organisations and trade union work.
It would have been interesting to observe the impact of the physical presence of a larger number of migrant civil society representatives on the ground: previous GFMD meetings have often contributed to a mobilisation and better networking of civil society in the organising country. Until late autumn, the Emirates had been trying to make at least a hybrid event possible, but then had to switch to "online only".
Understanding the summit as an ongoing process
The preceding five regional consultations were also moved online - another sensible innovation intended to make the GFMD not just a sequence of summit meetings, but an ongoing process. Digitalisation can certainly contribute to this, enabling wider participation while reducing costs and the environmental footprint. The regional consultations discussed six priority issues that were the focus of the January summit. In addition to fundamental issues such as "governance of labour migration in the context of changing employment landscapes", the agenda also included quite concrete topics such as skilling migrants for the employment, better protection of migrants and the use of new technologies. Governments and civil society have not been the only actors for some time now: in recent years, a "Business Mechanism" for exchange between employers and business representatives, a "Mayors Mechanism" for local politicians and the "GFMD Youth Forum" have been added.
It can be said that the new, more inclusive GFMD format also led to a lively exchange between these groups online, although there were restrictions on access for some sessions. In return, civil society was given four days in the run-up to the summit to exchange ideas and develop common positions for the summit. Votes were taken using the Zoom pollign function. Something that was not possible at the main meeting was also put into practice here: several discussion rounds took place twice a day to cover the range of time zones. Besides bandwidth and the culture of debate, this is one of many aspects that need to be taken into account in the new world of virtual conferences.
Access for civil society
Access is always a sensitive issue in civil society participation, as the instrument of accreditation can be used to exclude positions that are uncomfortable or perceived as too radical. As a result of the unclear planning situation this year, the UAE decided to only invite participants from past summits. The argument that delegates already familiar with the GFMD would find it easier to participate in the new online format sounded eminently plausible. On the one hand, meetings recorded online can be made accessible to a broader public with relatively little effort, and civil society made use of this. The summit, on the other hand, kept mist recordings internale, citing the confidential nature of the discussions. Also striking: far fewer people tweeted than at a face-to-face event - perhaps because the participants thought they were online anyway, but perhaps also because they were more actively involved in the debate.
Is the virtual format changing the culture of debate?
Some representatives of states and international organisations chose not to speak “live” and played pre-recorded video messages. Initially, this sounded like a less participatory format. On the other hand, this makes it possible to move extensive opening ceremonies to a separate space, where they can be watched as it suits the individual. There have been numerous GFMD sessions over the years with seemingly interminable frontal lectures and too little room for interaction.
The most recent GFMD, on the other hand, was compelling through its strict time management and technical moderation. The danger that the organisers could mute undesired statements did not materialise at the GFMD. Besides the often long list of speakers, the Zoom format offers another channel of communication - the chat. It was remarkable to see how intensively different positions and practical examples were shared or follow-up questions to the speakers were formulated in real time, whereby the tone always remained respectful, which is untypical of the Internet. When it turned out that the download function for the chat histories had been deactivated, this gave rise to suspicion among some participants. The technical team made this available later, however. Still, these digital technologies were not able to fully substitute for informal "analogue chats" at a real coffee table - not even a networking request via private message in the Zoom Chat can come close to this.
The future lies in hybrid formats
Zoomification holds out both advantages and disadvantages. It can facilitate access for participants who would otherwise not be able to attend for financial or logistical reasons, which in the past often included rejections of visas. However, technical issues such as lack of bandwidth can create new barriers. Debate can be made more inclusive and, if the recordings are made accessible, more transparent. On the other hand, the digital format also increases possibilities for control while reducing the possibility for networking and direct exchange with actors who are physically present. The latter is especially important for civil society, which can demonstrate its presence with parallel or counter-events. Hybrid formats would therefore be desirable in the future: Regular online meetings can ensure continuity, but the actual summit itself should take place on site - ideally supplemented by digital formats to facilitate broader involvement and visibility.
About the author
PD Dr. Stefan Rother is a research associate and private lecturer at Arnold Bergstraesser Institute at the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg. His research focuses on transnational migration, social movements, global governance and regional integration. He is co-author of the book "Internationale Migrationspolitik" (UTB 2021, with Uwe Hunger), published in 2021.