GENEVA - A U.N. summit on information technology wound up Friday as delegates approved two documents long on ambitions but short on funding and strategy for bringing the Internet to poorer regions of the world.
Although many of the hard decisions were being deferred for two years, the World Summit on the Information Society was far from a wash as thousands of participants from government, business and civil society got a chance to network and exchange ideas.
By a voice vote Friday delegates approved a statement of principles and an action plan for addressing the plight of poor and rural areas and the potential for using technologies to boost development there.
Negotiators reached agreement on the proposals Tuesday, a day before the summit's start, largely by agreeing to disagree.
Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade had to settle for a study on his proposed Digital Solidarity Fund for financing projects to help close the technology gap between richer and poorer countries.
Still, Wade said he was leaving with more than he came with: His advocacy got the attention of Western leaders who are largely opposed to the idea, and Geneva and Lyon, France, have pledged money already. With a contribution to Senegal, the fund has more than $1 million, an aide said.
While government leaders and other senior officials made speeches, Marlene Horstmann and hundreds of others were in an adjacent hall exhibiting their programs and projects for addressing access to technologies.
Horstmann's program - the African, Caribbean and Pacific Joint Media Network for Agriculture and Rural Development - finances projects in Ghana, Uganda and a handful of other countries to help farmers better use technology to learn about things like when best to feed manure to pigs.
Beneficiaries met one another for the first time to share tips and techniques, while Horstmann learned of a similar project going on at a booth nearby and picked up business cards.
"We can just share ideas and see which projects work and how they work," Horstmann said Friday, the final day of the summit though exhibits continue through Saturday.
Others used the summit, and the scores of side events at the Geneva Palexpo convention center, to promote and discuss their issues of interest: equality for women, empowerment of youths, open access to scientific journals, alternative software models and the like.
The summit grew out of a 1995 U.N. International Telecommunication Union report on disparities in telephone penetration. The U.N. General Assembly endorsed it in 2001, by which time the scope was expanded to include the Internet and other communications technologies.
Representatives from 176 countries, including more than 40 heads of state, approved ambitious goals for connecting villages, schools and other locations, though they offered few details on how to do it or pay for it. They will have a chance to follow up or provide more specifics when they meet again in Tunisia in November 2005.
Proponents say the gathering produced much more than the two documents that committed little: It got some higher-level officials - rather than simply the technology and information ministers - to pay attention.
Microsoft Corp. announced plans to spend hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars in grants, software and assistance to provide Internet access and train refugees at camps in Russia and Africa.
Representatives also met with U.N. grant-making agencies and stressed in panel discussions how Microsoft's proprietary software can complement open source products promoted as cheaper alternatives.
"In one place, the concentration of people has really been tremendous," said Pamela Passman, Microsoft's managing director of global corporate affairs.
Equal Access, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that tries to bring information on AIDS, agriculture and other issues to Asia, sought out new funding partners for satellite broadcast systems in Nepal and moved closer to a deal that would make those systems two-way, giving a voice to regions without phone lines.
While some government officials took time out to hold bilateral talks with other leaders, they were often kept separate from business and civil society delegates, and there were few formal forums for the 12,000 participants to mingle, nor were there name tags to identify who they were. The exhibitors, for instance, spent most of their time staffing their booths and barely followed the government speeches.
Rahul Dewan is leaving with some dissatisfaction. He came from India on a grant to find people willing to finance his initiative to expand local content offerings. He wants to set up a photo archiving service with pictures of Africans and Asians as existing services, he said, are largely geared to Western audiences.
But funding was not forthcoming, despite numerous discussions this week. Dewan said he learned a lot, but couldn't take home what he needs most - money.