Geo.tv in Pakistan has recently run the following headline “Pakistani computer scientist Dr Umar Saif appointed UNESCO chair for ICTD”, and in the article that follows has claimed that “World-renowned Pakistani computer scientist Dr Umar Saif has been appointed as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Chair for using Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICTD). This is the first international UNESCO Chair in the field of ICTD and will help Pakistan become a centre of excellence in using Information Technology for development, especially use of technology to address the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), said a press release issued earlier.” Other Pakistani media has run similar headlines, such as the Daily Pakistan Global’s “UNESCO appoints Pakistan’s Dr. Umar Saif as first international chair for ICTD”
Umar Saif has himself posted the following on Facebook to wide acclaim, stating that “Dear friends I have been awarded the UNESCO Chair for using ICT for development. This is a moment of pride for Pakistan and a recognition of our work in the past 10 years”.
Following several comments and enquiries from colleagues in the field of ICT4D who have questioned the veracity of these claims, I write here just to clarify not only the nature of UNESCO Chairs, but also to make it very clear that the first UNESCO Chair in ICT4D was created at Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2007, long before the university that Umar Saif founded in Punjab in 2013 was even created; interestingly that university is named the ITU University (Information Technology University), which itself raises confusion with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). It is also important here to note that ICT4D and ICTD are very different!
UNESCO Chairs are created as an agreement between a university and UNESCO, and they are the term given for a community of researchers working in a particular academic field. This can be confusing, because no individual is actually a UNESCO Chair, but rather they are appointed as a Chairholder. While there are no restrictions on the number of Chairs in any one field, it is usual practice for chairs to be clearly differentiated, so that the majority do not have the same names.
In the light of this, when I was approached by staff at the International Technology University in Pakistan about the procedure for acquiring the status of a UNESCO Chair in 2017, I was happy to offer them some advice about how to proceed. I had no idea that they would be applying for a Chair in exactly the same name to our own. On discovering that such a duplicate application had been made to UNESCO, I wrote to colleagues at the Information Technology University in Pakistan suggesting that it might be useful to change the proposed name of their new Chair from ICT4D to something else, so that there would not be confusion. They wrote back accepting a very minor change from ICT4D to ICTD.
It is up to readers of this post to judge the motives of those involved in applying for a UNESCO Chair in such a similar name to that of a long-established Chair, those on the National Committee in Pakistan who nominated such an application to UNESCO, and those who supported such an application.
To summarise and clarify for the record:
- The first UNESCO Chair in ICT4D was established at Royal Holloway, University of London, more than a decade ago in 2007; and
- Umar Saif has recently been appointed as the Chairholder of a UNESCO Chair at the Information Technology University in Pakistan, and is not the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D, or in ICTD.
I fear that this confusion sadly does not reflect well either on the political establishment in Pakistan who approved this nomination, nor on the professionalism of those involved in the nomination itself. I would hope that the Pakistani press and those on social media will recognise this and respond accordingly. I am sure they will agree that this is not a matter of pride for Pakistan, but actually sadly reflects rather badly on them.
I am somewhat saddened by this and only write to clarify the confusion that has already arisen and has been pointed out to me by colleagues. It will not make the slightest difference to the ongoing work that my colleagues continue to do in this field. I should also emphasise that I have many dear friends in Pakistan, and it is a wonderful and beautiful country. I like and respect very many people in Pakistan, ranging from senior government officials to the many Commonwealth Scholarship Commission alumni who it has been my privilege to know. The UNESCO Chair in ICT4D has worked with long established research-led universities in Pakistan, such as COMSATS IIT which has a world-renowned reputation unlike some other provincial universities in the country, and it has been an honour to undertake research with them and to promote the effective use of ICTs to support and empower the poorest and least privileged in the world.
Tim Unwin (Chairholder, UNESCO Chair in ICT4D)