Contributions to UNESCO’s first Partners’ Forum: notes from the underground


AzoulayIt was great to be able to participate in UNESCO’s first Partners’ Forum on 11th-12th September in Paris, and to contribute as a panellist in the session arranged by Indrajit Banerjee and his team on Responding to Opportunities and Challenges of the Digital Age.  Much of the Forum focused on the successes of existing UNESCO partnerships, but our panel yesterday instead addressed practical issues where UNESCO’s Knowledge Societies Division could make a difference.

AudienceOur panel also consisted of:

  • Moderator: Indrajit Banerjee (Director, Knowledge Societies Division, UNESCO)
  • Marcus Goddard (Netexplo Observatory)
  • Marie-Helene Parizeau (Chair of World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology)
  • Dr. Davina Frau-Meigs (Professor of Media Sociology at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, and Chairholder of UNESCO Chair for “savoir-devenir le développement numérique durable: maîtriser les cultures de l’information”)
  • Octavio Kulesz (Teseo, Argentina).

Our session had five themes, and there was a great audience who contributed hugely through their smiles!  I note below some of the contributions that I sought to make:

Introductory comments

I focused on two main issues:

  • We must avoid an instrumental view of the world. AI, the Internet of Things,  5G… do not have any power to change anything themselves.  They are created by global corporations – be they failing USAn ones, or rising Chinese ones – and by individuals in them who have particular interests.  AI, for example, will not change the world of work.  Those who are creating AI are doing so for a very particular set of reasons…  We are responsible for the things we create.
  • Use of the term 4th Industrial Revolution is highly problematic. I guess there are two kinds of people – those who see the world as being revolutionary, and those who see it as evolutionary.  The “revolutionary” people like to see the world as shaped by heroes (perhaps they want to be heroes themselves) – elite people such as Turnip Townsend or Thomas Coke of Holkham in the “agricultural revolution”, or Richard Arkwright who invented the water-powered spinning mill, Jean Baptiste Colbert here in France, or George Stephenson – people who led the so-called industrial revolution. However, the reality is that these changes evolved through the labour of countless millions of poor people across the world, and their lives were shaped by fundamental structural forces, most notably the driving forces and interests of capitalism – money bent on the accretion of money – that sought to reduce labour costs and increase market size.  These forces still shape today’s world.  There is no 4th Industrial Revolution

How can UNESCO leverage digital technologies to achieve SDGs?

I sought to raise challenging questions about the relationship between digital technologies and the SDGs, particularly around notions of sustainability:

  • First, most ICTs and digital technologies are based on fundamentally unsustainable business models – and there are therefore real challenges claiming that they can contribute positively to “sustainable development”. Just thinking about it.  How often do you replace your mobile phone, or have to get new software because you have bought some new hardware with which it is incompatible, or instead need new hardware to run the latest memory and processor demanding software.  Such obsolescence is a deliberate ploy of the major technology companies.
  • Second, the use of most such technologies is damaging to the environment – this is hardly sustainable – think about the satellite “waste” in outer space, or the electricity demands of server farms, or take blockchain; do you realise that Bitcoin mining consumes more electricity a year than does the whole of Ireland?
  • And then, the SDGs have failed already – most countries have not set their targets, and for many the baseline data simply do not exist. It is therefore not going to be possible to say whether many targets have been met or not. Take UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics date on SDG 4.  In most parts of the world less than a third of countries have data for the educational indicators and targets. [http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/sdg4-data-book-2018-en.pdf].  Indeed, it is often said that the SDGs purely exist to give UN agencies something to do!
  • But being positive, the answer is simple – we need to concentrate our efforts first on the poorest and most marginalised. These new technologies have rapidly been used to make the world a more unequal place.  It is good that we now have SDG 10 focusing on inequality, but few people ever mention it in the context of digital technologies. No-one else has mentioned it in any of the sessions at which I have yet been during this Forum. We should not always be talking about connecting the next billion – but instead of connecting the first billion – yes, the first and most important – those who are poorest and most marginalised – people with disabilities, street children, refugees, and women in patriarchal societies.  We need to work with them, to craft new technologies that will help them achieve their empowerment.

How can we de-risk digital interactions and counter online challenges to privacy, human rights and freedom of expression?

I responded briefly, since other speakers addressed this at greater length and with more sophistication:

  • Ethics is incredibly important – Most people tend to think that new technology is necessarily good. But it is not.  Technology is neither good nor bad – it simply “is”.  But technologies can be made, and used, for good or bad purposes.
  • Two examples on which I have recently been working are:
    • Sexual harassment through mobile devices – Pakistan, India and Caribbean
    • Is it too late for “pure humans” to survive – or will we, are we already, all cyborgs?
  • How might we respond to these challenges
    • We need to focus as much on the negatives as on the positives of technologies in our education systems and media.
    • We need more open public debate and discussion on the ethics of digital technologies – governments tend not to trust their citizens to engage in these very difficult issues.

What forms of multi-stakeholder mechanisms/government frameworks will foster global dialogue around the use of advanced ICTs?

Again, towards the end of the session, there was little time to discuss this, but I noted:

  • Everyone talks about partnerships, but few actually succeed
  • Back in 2005 I actually wrote about multi-sector partnerships as part of UNESCO’s contribution to WSIS – and most of what I wrote then still applies!
  • We must stop competing and instead work together creatively and collaboratively in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised. This applies particularly both within and between UN agencies!

Concluding remarks

This is what I think I said:

I have huge admiration for many of the staff in UNESCO; the organisation has the most important mandate of any UN agency – focusing as it does on Education, Science and Culture.  There are three simple, and easy things that UNESCO could do, but they require a fundamental change of mentality:

  • Focus on understanding the needs of the poorest and most marginalised
  • Work with, not for, the poorest and marginalised
  • Develop digital solutions that will serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

And of course, UNESCO could take much more advantage of the expertise of the many Chairholders in its UNITWIN and UNESCO Chairs networks!

Thanks again to all those in UNESCO who made the Forum such an interesting event.

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