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December 12, 2003Just say no. In April 1986 a very fat Briton and his fellow actors from the BBC children's programme Grange Hill shot to the top of the pop music charts with the song Just Say No.
This afternoon Nick Thorne, the plump British Ambassador to the United Nations, sang a similar tune when he took to the podium at the World Summit, giving the British verdict on whether his government would be contributing to a Global Solidarity Fund (a UN body designed to build digital infrastructure in poorer countries).
Mr Thorne was frank about the British stance. "We do not believe that a new international fund could tackle the real underlying problems," he said. "It might even divert funds away [from existing aid channels]. A fund is not the answer."
The UK was happy to provide "technical assistance" to poorer countries, but will provide cash only though existing channels.
More worrying for countries seeking change is that Britain seems to be playing down the significance of the World Summit's sequel, Tunis 2005. The UK will hold the presidency of the EU in the latter half of 2005, and wants to avoid the preparatory committees (PREPCOMS for all you acronym lovers) that proved so contentious in the run up to Geneva. "The UK believes that a light preparatory process will create the right conditions for a conference," Mr Thorne said.
This will be a punch in the teeth for non-Western countries, who need all the discussion time they can get to lobby for a change in the status quo on two issues. First, they want to get a better deal on the Digital Solidarity Fund, or something very like it. Second, they want to break the Western grip on the internet and its development - an issue known as internet governance. Tunis is the only chance non-Western countries will get to debate internet governance, a topic so controversial that it was dropped from the Geneva summit's agenda.
If the UK succeeds in limiting the debate over these two issues then the Western governments can put up the bunting and gather round the piano. They want to keep the UN out of both issues and have done a reasonable job so far.