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United Methodists help shape global language of technology

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A UMNS photo by Ginny Underwood

The Rev. Liberato Bautista (right) preps a United Methodist delegation at the beginning of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia.
Dec. 2, 2005

By Ginny Underwood*

TUNIS, Tunisia (UMNS) — As fast as the Internet has exploded into every corner of the world, so have the issues associated with this ultimate form of communication.

The World Summit on the Information Society, convened Nov. 16-18 in Tunis by the United Nations, became a magnifying glass for the concerns of human rights, access to information, Internet governance and the gap between the haves and have-nots in global technology.

“Technology should be a tool, a medium put to use for health, wholeness and well-being of everyone, ” said Glory Dharmaraj, a summit participant and executive secretary of justice education for the United Methodist Women’s Division. “All of the new discoveries, all the new information and communication technology should create access and participation for all.”

Bridging the digital divide, building community and creating a ministry of presence were among the goals of the eight-member delegation representing the United Methodist Church.

The group participated in sessions for nongovernmental organizations and the summit’s civil society group. By attending both phase one of the summit in Geneva two years ago and the final summit in Tunisia, United Methodists influenced the language used in addressing information communication technologies. Recommendations from the civil-society group were included in the final document adopted by the governments participating in the summit.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Ginny Underwood

The Rev. Liberato Bautista (right) convenes the values and ethics caucus at the summit.
“The technology language has been about efficiently distributing and efficiently consuming information. The technology is the conduit to a good communication process. So we thought, as civil society, this is an incomplete perspective,” said the Rev. Liberato C. Bautista, a summit participant and United Methodist Board of Church and Society staff executive assigned to the United Nations.

“The church is adept (in) the language of ethics and values,” he said. “The language that includes empowerment, human rights, sharing of resources, creating sustainability is important and needed to be included in this process.”

In a document titled “Tunis Commitment,” the participating governments reaffirmed their pledge to build a people-centered, inclusive and development-oriented information society, outlined in the Geneva phase of the summit in 2003.

Some 174 states and European Community governments participated in the summit, which drew 19,401 people, including representatives from international and nongovernmental organizations, media and business.

Bautista said that while the “Tunis Commitment” language sounds hopeful, the “Tunis Agenda,” which spells out implementation and follow-up of the summit, lacked details on who politically governs and finances this global tool called the Internet.

“Governments, civil society and the private sector are critical stakeholders. That’s where the church can play a role in public policy advocacy and sharing information,” he said.

“While we are increasingly using information communication technologies, and are addressing ways how production and use of these technologies are governed and financed, a digital divide — which is ultimately an economic divide — has emerged,” he said. “The greater population does not have access to these technologies, and the church is in a position to address the economic divide.”

Bridging the divide

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Missionary Marthe Dansokho sees evidence of the digital divide in her work with young women in Senegal.
Summit participant Marthe Dansokho is a regional United Methodist missionary and a social worker in Senegal. She spends her time working with young women who either left school early or never attended at all. When the young women are offered computer training, Dansokho said, the digital divide becomes apparent.

“We know 65 percent of women in Senegal are not literate, they don’t go to school and don’t know how to read or write,” said Dansokho, who works for the Women’s Division of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. “It brings me to think that this technical language is not for them, for the larger part, not for women.”

The technology is a challenge, but even if participants overcome that, they are tested again because the computer text is only offered in French or English, Dansokho said. “The language is not for all.”

In 2004, less than 3 out of every 100 Africans used the Internet, compared with an average 1 out of every 2 inhabitants of the G8 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), according to International Telecommunication Union statistics. The number of Internet users in the United States is more than eight times greater than that for the entire African continent.

Not only is communications a human rights issue; it’s ultimately a justice issue. “The digital divide in the end must address the economic divide,” Bautista said. “The infrastructure that will make the efficient and sustainable flow of information and knowledge that is nondiscriminatory and therefore participatory is not possible without the necessary economic structure.”

Building community

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The eight-member delegation included staff from the United Methodist Church’s global ministries, church and society, and communications agencies.
The United Methodist Book of Resolutions acknowledges the benefits of information communication technologies: “They enable global contact and, when made available for human uses and to address human needs, can significantly enhance life, development and global consciousness.”

The resolution, “Proper Use of Information Communication Technologies,” also calls the church “to affirm that the right to communicate and to access information is a basic human right, essential to human dignity and to a just and democratic society.” The statement was adopted by the denomination’s top legislative body, the General Conference, last year.

“We are called upon to witness to power here,” Dharmaraj said. “Communication in the ultimate sense needs to connect each other, promote reconciliation and create community.”

Dharmaraj said the role of the church is to ask the difficult questions: Do these information communication technologies promote community or do they create further division? Is the benefit for everyone?

The discussion should take place in every local church, she said. For example, music and songs used in worship are often borrowed from other societies and other countries. As a church, building community, Dharmaraj suggests that the communities or the people providing the resources should be properly compensated.

“Intellectual property and knowledge should be handled with care to the smallest degree,” she said.

“The general church’s role is to be informed and raise awareness. We have a greater responsibility as Christians living in the United States to raise a prophetic voice.”

Moving forward

Dharmaraj is preparing a kit to help local churches discuss issues raised at the summit. It will be available in 2006 through the Women’s Division. The following year, United Methodist Communications will hold a digital summit.

As for the work of the governments participating in the summit, follow-up forums will be organized in 2007. The first will address Internet governance.

In addition to Bautista, Dharmaraj and Dansokho, the inter-agency delegation included Mia Adjali, executive secretary for global affairs, Alice Belton, vice president, chairperson of finance and a director, and Kathleen Enzminger, chairperson of the missions volunteer committee, all of the Women’s Division; the Rev. David Briddell, retired from the National Council of Churches and a 2003 delegate to the summit in Geneva; and Ginny Underwood, executive director of the Media Group at United Methodist Communications.

The “Tunis Commitment” statement can be read at

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*Underwood is executive director of the Media Group at United Methodist Communications, which includes United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Ginny Underwood, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

Audio Clips

Glory Dharmaraj: “We are called upon to witness to power.”

The Rev. Liberato Bautista: “Communications is a justice issue.”

Marthe Dansokho: “We need to think of those who don’t have access.”

Related Article

Gender issues in ICTs and poverty reduction (PDF)


Ethical Dimensions of the Information Society

Tunis Commitment Document

Book of Resolutions: Information Communication Technologies

Digital Divide at a Glance

World Summit on Information Society