The Internet had succeeded in bringing one of the most powerful people into contact with one of the most powerless.
In June 1999, a few days before the Cologne G7 Summit, UK Chancellor Gordon Brown picked up the phone to talk about international debt — not unusual in advance of a major summit. Except this time his call was to Elinata Kasanga, a poverty-stricken mother of seven in the remote village of Balakasu, Zambia, and his call was eavesdropped live on the Internet by thousands of people.

“The Internet had succeeded in bringing one of the most powerful people into contact with one of the most powerless. A woman who suffered directly from the effects of debt was directly challenging the man with the power to stop collecting her country’s debts.

This innovative project was put together by an aid agency, Tearfund, a key member of the Jubilee 2000 movement calling for cancellation of the poorest countries’ debts. Given the reality of more than one billion people who live on less than a dollar a day, it seems perverse for an anti-poverty campaign to advocate the importance of connecting people to the Internet. However, this project demonstrated the enormous potential of the Internet — in particular, how the Internet could be used to challenge unjust power structures and empower those traditionally excluded from development debates.

Campaigns such as Jubilee 2000 active in challenging this injustice have benefited greatly from the Internet. It is no coincidence that its rapid transformation from a campaign backed by three church agencies into an international movement occurred at the same time as the explosive growth of the Internet. Indeed, the growth and impact of Jubilee 2000 could not have happened at the pace and scale it did without the Internet.

The opportunities for campaigning via the Internet lie in its nature as a global, decentralised network of networks. All successful campaigns depend on getting messages out to interested contacts who will multiply their impact by distributing them to their own networks. The very structure of the Internet proved a highly suitable and flexible system for spreading the ideas of Jubilee 2000’s goals, as well as keeping people up-to-date with the campaign.

The efficiency, speed and relatively low cost of communicating internationally via the Internet also have immense advantages for campaigns which have to be global in their outlook. The Zapatistas of Mexico, in their indigenous uprising in 1994, were acutely aware of this: they pioneered the use of the Internet to build international solidarity and link the issues they faced with broader international concerns around NAFTA, WTO and neo-liberalism. Campaigns such as Jubilee 2000 followed in their footsteps.

At times the Internet showed its potential very starkly: in April 2002, when 63 campaigners were arrested in Kenya on a debt march, news of their arrest spread on Jubilee e-networks and prompted a storm of worldwide protest by fax, email and letter which led to the dropping of charges. Christine Nantongo of the Ugandan Jubilee 2000 campaign says that the way the Internet connected her to campaigners across the globe “like they are my next door neighbours,” and has been “an inspiration and enables us to share information that we otherwise could not.”

Having access to relevant information and being connected with an international movement was highly significant for Southern campaigners. The Internet allowed their experiences to be heard, and enabled them to get crucial information more often to be found in the offices of the IMF and World Bank than in their own government ministries. This information was necessary for holding their own governments and Northern creditors to account. It also enabled them to play a greater role in the Jubilee 2000 movement, where Northern voices could still dominate. The formation of a Jubilee South grouping within the Jubilee movement who networked online was one example of the increased confidence of Southern networks facilitated by Internet technology.

Perhaps most importantly, the Internet offers immense potential because it is a global medium that can be controlled by activists directly. All too often, mainstream modern media distorts campaigners’ messages. More often they are not heard at all. The Internet enables campaign Web sites to put out information lost in the mainstream media. Indymedia, for example, has been a pioneer in this area establishing Web sites in places such as Palestine, Argentina and Colombia, so local people can publish their own news and views on the site.

Yet these many advantages of the Internet also hold challenges for national campaign organisations.

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