It was a great honour to be asked by a group of young Chinese interns at the United Nations University Institute in Macau to give a short keynote address at the hybrid event that they were organising from there on 30th April in partnership with The Institute for AI International Governance of Tsinghua University (I-AIIG), forming part of the World Data Forum satellite event being convened by the Institute in the city of Macau. As their introduction to the event summarised:
The younger generation are often seen as digital natives who have more exposure and access to data technology than older generations. They are also more likely to use data technology for learning, innovation, participation and empowerment. However, this also means that they face unique opportunities and challenges related to data that need to be explored and addressed. As the satellite event of this year’s World Data Forum, this youth forum will take “Digital and Youth” as the main theme, adhere to youth leadership and youth participation, aiming to provide a platform for dialogue and exchange among different stakeholders who are interested in or affected by data and its impact on youth.
In the brief 15 minutes available, I chose to focus on three proposals:
We need new, more inclusive modes of inter-generational dialogue about digital
Just because it is possible to do something, does not mean that it is right or good to do so.
Digital tech is all too often assumed to be inherently good – but we need to mitigate the harms to ensure any good can prevail
We must all consider the environmental impact of data, and digital tech more widely.
Digital tech is often the cause of environmental harms rather than a solution
The event was great fun, and the organisers had brought together many leading young academics from across China working on digital tech in general, and data in particular, divided into four main sessions:
Youth Work on Digital Humanities in Empowering the Cultural Legacy
Digital technology and Wellness
Artificial Intelligence Cutting Edge
Personal Information Protection and Data Security Governance
Many thanks to everyone involved for making this such an interesting and enjoyable experience.
This is a response to my post in July 2021, which identified seven main challenges and problems facing the UN system. While it is easy to criticise, it is much more difficult to recommend and deliver change. Hence, this short piece offers a set of suggestions for fundamental reform across the UN system in response to the challenges identified in my earlier post. These are grounded in a belief that the UN needs to be smaller, leaner and fitter for purpose in serving the needs of national governments across the world. In so doing it should therefore primarily serve the interests of citizens rather than of itself and the global corporations that have subverted its high ideals.
The seven main inter-related problems and challenges identified in my previous post were:
The UN largely serves the neo-liberal political interests of the USA and its allies.
The UN does not appoint the most capable and appropriate people to senior leadership positions.
There is disagreement about the size that the UN should be; should its agencies aspire to be implementers of development interventions themselves, or should they instead mainly provide guidance and good practices for governments to implement?
The SDGs have already failed, but the UN persists in their propagation primarily in its own interests, so that UN agencies can claim they are doing something worthwhile
The UN system is beset by duplication of effort, overlap, and reinvention of the wheel between agencies, between the Secretariat and the agencies, and even in larger agencies between the various silos within them.
The UN’s ambitions go well beyond the budget available to fund them.
The SDG agenda, the lack of UN funding, and the opportunistic behaviour of many global corporations mean that the private sector has been able to subvert the UN’s global governance structures in its own interest
Responses to each of these are addressed in turn, outlining potential ways in which these problems might be overcome. As with my previous post, it draws largely on my experience in working with UN agencies over the last two decades primarily on aspects associated with the use of digital technologies in international development, and it also draws comparisons with my experiences from working with a diversity of organisations within The Commonwealth.
The UN has indeed begun to recognise the importance of some of these issues, and the Secretary General’s (SG’s) recent Our Common Agenda report in 2021[i] does emphasise two important requirements with which I largely concur:
The need to renew the social contract between governments and their people (see Section II);[ii] and
The introduction of new measures to complement GDP to assist people in understanding the impacts of business activities and the true costs of economic growth.[iii]
However, much of the SG’s report is wishful thinking, highly problematic, and not grounded sufficiently in the harsh reality of the interests underlying global geopolitics and economic systems. It also clearly represents the interests of those within the UN system, and especially in the central Secretariat, as expressed succinctly in its assertion that “now is the time for a stronger, more networked and inclusive multilateral system, anchored within the United Nations” [my emphasis].[iv] The fundamental challenge is that the UN system and its leadership are part of the problem and not the solution.
1. Increasing diversity and changing the power relationships within the UN
The UN and its agencies have generally sought to be broadly representative of the cultural diversity of the world’s peoples. They have also recently made important strides to increase gender diversity amongst staff. Nevertheless, huge efforts still need to be made to achieve greater diversity both among the staff and in the interests that the UN promotes. Remarkably few staff within the UN system, for example, are drawn from those with recognised disabilities, and the interests of many economically poorer or smaller countries, as well as minority ethnic groups remain under-represented. Rather than serving the rich and the powerful (as well as itself), the UN truly needs to serve all of the world’s peoples, including the stateless.
The fundamental issue here, though, is the need to change the UN’s ideological balance away from the primacy that it gives to neo-liberal democracy (in large part derived from the heavy influence of the USA and its allies), towards a recognition that there are many competing political-economic ideologies currently being promoted globally. One of the UN’s roles is to help weaker countries negotiate these ideological power struggles, and if it is allied too closely with any one of them the UN is doomed either to increasing irrelevance or failure. It must above all serve its role wisely in delivering the first paragraph of Article 1 of its founding charter: “To maintain international peace and security”.[v] This is becoming an ever more pressing issue at a time when the fortunes of the USA and its previously dominant ideology are waning and those of China are waxing.[vi] It is thus crucial for the UN to have the means whereby it can retain a level of oversight, while also serving as a neutral forum where conflict can be resolved through negotiation and mediation.
Three practical recommendations could help resolve this issue:
First the UN Security Council[vii] needs to be fundamentally restructured. Its permanent membership seems anachronistic, and at the very least France and the UK should no longer be included, perhaps to be replaced by a rotating representation from countries within the European Union.[viii] There are many options: the idea of permanent membership itself should be revisited; membership could be linked to population size, whilst also providing some guarantees for small states; the more than 50 countries that have never been members could be prioritised; and better means should be found to enforce its resolutions.
Second, new locations should be identified for the headquarters of UN agencies and the central Secretariat. It would be a massive and expensive undertaking to move the entire Secretariat from New York to an alternative location. However, this is ultimately likely to be necessary for the long-term viability of the UN system, not only for symbolic reasons, but also because of the bias that a US location causes in terms of the number of US citizens employed and also the subtle ideological influences that it creates in the minds of those working there from other countries. More realistically, there should at the very least be a substantial reduction in the overall UN presence in New York. The use of new generations of digital technologies could greatly facilitate this. As experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic have shown, it is no longer necessary to hold as many face-to-face meetings within the UN system as has heretofore been the case. A very strong argument can be made for the UN headquarters to be located in a clearly neutral country,[ix] as is already the case with those UN agencies located in Geneva. However, at the very least it would make sense for it to be situated somewhere other than in one of the major, and potentially conflicting, states such as China, the USA, Russia and India.
Third, considerably more attention and resourcing need to be given to those UN agencies concerned with reducing conflict and maintaining peace, notably the Department of Peace Operations (DPO),[x] but also those with experience of mediation, conflict reduction and peace building such as UNODA (Office for Disarmament Affairs), OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights), UNODC (Office on Drugs and Crime), and possibly even UNOOSA (Office for Outer Space Affairs) as territorial and strategic interests of nations and corporations now spread beyond planet earth.
2. Improving the quality and diversity of the UN’s leadership and senior management
There are undoubtedly some capable and well qualified people in senior leadership positions[xi] within the UN system, but they are the exception. Far too many do not have the qualifications or experience to be able to deliver their roles effectively. There therefore needs to be a fundamental restructuring of the processes used to elect or appoint them.[xii]
At least two tensions make it difficult to resolve this issue: the perceived need to balance appropriate national representation with quality and expertise of leadership; and the varying challenges associated with election and/or appointment to senior roles. However, despite such challenges it is completely unacceptable that a UN Under-Secretary General on appointment to a new post within the UN should as recently as 2021 tweet that he was “a relatively newcomer to the field”.[xiii]
One way to resolve these issues would be for a small review and appointments office to be created to provide guidance to all entities within the UN system relating to senior leadership positions. Two of its key roles could be:
to review all short-listed or nominated applicants against the criteria required for the specific post, ensuring that they have the experience and expertise to fulfil the role; and
to serve as a search facility that could identify additional people who might be appropriate for upcoming appointments.
Where elections are the means of appointment to such positions, countries could nominate as at present, but all such nominations would be subject to approval by this review office. For both appointments and elections, the unit could also encourage specific countries to nominate one of their nationals highlighted in any of its searches. Furthermore, this would provide a mechanism whereby the unit could specifically seek to find people who would be suitable to fill appointments from under-represented communities and countries, thereby helping to respond to commitments to diversity.[xiv]
Additionally, it is very important that all UN officials once appointed should undergo regular and appropriate training so that they can improve their relevant expertise. Given the importance of mediation and consensus building, it is critically important that these should also feature prominently in all staff UN training. It would not be too much to suggest that all staff in any UN entity should be required to spend 5% of their time in various forms of training. Far too many UN officials are overly confident of their own abilities, and do not pay enough attention to the critical importance of staff training, either for themselves or for those who report to them. Just because someone has been a government Minister, for example, does not mean that they have any understanding of international diplomacy or subject matter expertise. It is essential that the UN as a whole including all of its agencies should become learning organisations, so that they are better fit for purpose. This will be a major undertaking and require a fundamental shift of thinking within many such agencies.
The UN System Staff College (UNSSC) might be a possible home for this unit, although the highly critical 2020 report by the Joint Inspection Unit[xv]does not inspire confidence that it has the capacity to do so. It would, though, be wise for the unit to be situated outside the central UN Secretariat so that it can be seen to have some independence from the highly politicised and some would say over-bloated headquarters operations. If, though, it was felt that it had to be in the Secretariat headquarters, it might be created as a division within the Office of Internal Oversight Services.
3. Towards a smaller, more focused UN
The UN has grown haphazardly and surreptitiously largely in its own interests so that it is now far too big and ambitious, but has neither the funding nor the capacity to deliver its agendas effectively. A central issue that must therefore be addressed concerns how big the UN and its agencies should be. I suggest that it is already far too big, in part as a result of the neo-liberal hegemony it has embraced. Its agencies seek to do too much by themselves. Instead its basic role should be as the servant of all member governments, empowering them to serve the best interests of their citizens. It should not be the servant of private sector corporations, as it increasingly seems to be becoming.
One of the main ways in which this could be achieved would simply be through eliminating most of the work that UN agencies do in trying to implement their own development initiatives, and replace this with a clearer focus on delivering appropriate training and support for governments so that they can deliver relevant development programmes within their our countries. Most UN agencies are neither well designed or appropriately staffed actually to implement effective on-the-ground development interventions, yet huge sums of money are wasted on attempts to implement their own development projects, and this situation has got far worse through the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in support of Agenda 2030 (see Section 4 below). Many other civil society organisations, bilateral and multilateral donors, foundations, and private sector enterprises are already implementing high quality development programmes. There is absolutely no need for the UN to try to do so as well. Indeed, external reviews highlight the poor quality of the development work done by many (although certainly not all) UN agencies. The UK Department for International Development’s (DFID)[xvi] Multilateral Aid review in 2016 thus noted that the organisational strengths of UNAIDS, UNESCO, UNHCR, UNOCHA, the UN Peacebuilding Fund, UN Women, and the WHO were all weak or only adequate, and this excludes the agencies that DFID was not already funding because it did not even consider it worth so doing.[xvii]
This is not to say that the UN should cease trying to improve the important humanitarian and peacebuilding initiatives in which it is already engaged. As noted above (Section 1) the UN has a crucial role to play in global peacebuilding, and it could also do much more effectively to help co-ordinate global responses to physical disasters and humanitarian crises, providing relief assistance rapidly and efficiently where needed. However, its current implementation processes need to be considerably improved, and this requires both appropriate financial resourcing and increased global commitment to deliver them. Some will, no doubt, claim that such humanitarian interventions are often caused by wider failures in “development” and therefore that the UN must also be involved in these. However, the track record of many such interventions by UN agencies is poor and the existence of so many other agencies delivering better interventions suggests that the UN should concentrate on doing what it does best, rather than proliferating failure.
There are many other ways in which the UN could reduce its size and expenditure, such as employing fewer external consultants, producing fewer reports that have little real impact, limiting the number of wasteful meetings and events that it holds, and reducing the number of staff that it employs. The bottom line, though, is that we need to move away from a large poorly co-ordinated self-important system that is far too big, to a much smaller, leaner organisation that truly delivers effectively on the needs of governments and their citizens.
4. Abandoning the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030, and planning for a new futurefor the UN
Many of the above comments relate directly to the development agenda that the UN has embarked on, first with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and since 2015 with the SDGs. These still have their supporters, often mainly on the grounds that they are the best things we currently have to help co-ordinate global development agendas, and any criticism thereof is potentially damaging. However, the strength of criticism of the SDGs has grown considerably in recent years, reinforcing the views of those of us who were critical of them from the beginning, and were well captured by William Easterly in 2015 when he described SDGs as standing for “Senseless, Dreamy, Garbled”.[xviii]
Now is the time to recognise that the SDGs really are a failed agenda, and that, as noted in Section 3 above, the UN should replace most of its attempted practice in international development with clear, focused and high-quality support and training for governments in delivering their own interventions to improve the lives of their citizens. It will take considerable time to make this shift, but 2030 is only eight years away. We all need to be brave in acknowledging that the SDGs have failed, and start working urgently instead to create a better system that can serve the global community more fairly from 2030 onwards.
Three things are key for the success of such a new agenda: the abandonment of attempts to make neo-liberal democracy the global religion that its advocates would like to see; the replacement of the economic growth agenda with a more balanced view that places the reduction of inequalities at its heart;[xix] and a shift away from the dogma of the primacy of universal human rights to a recognition that these need to be balanced by individual and governmental responsibilities.[xx] None of these will be easy to achieve, but there are indeed at last some signs that the second of them is gaining traction. As noted in the introduction to this post, Our Common Agenda has at last signalled recognition at the highest level within the UN that there is an urgent need to redress the focus on untrammelled economic growth as a solution to poverty with one that recognises that economic growth has a propensity to cause further inequalities, and that seeks to redress this by placing primacy on redistribution and equity. This is nowhere more true than in the vast wealth accrued by the digital barons from their exploitation of the world’s poor and marginalised.
Put simply, it is time to abandon the economic growth agenda of the SDGs, and replace it with a more caring and human approach that gives primacy to redistribution, equity, and a reduction in inequalities.
5. Removing duplication, overlap and reinventing the wheel
It is widely recognised that there is enormous waste within the UN system, driven in large part by competition and a lack of co-ordination between agencies. This is further enhanced by the aspiration of senior managers to gain ever higher positions within the UN by championing their own highly visible projects, a lack of understanding about what other agencies are actually doing, and inward looking and self-serving career structures within many such agencies.
An increasingly worrying tendency in recent years, at least in the digital tech sector, has also been the growing power of the UN Secretariat and its staff in wanting to lead by creating new initiatives that overlap with other existing global initiatives, and frequently reinvent the wheel.[xxi] This is nowhere more true than in the bizarre history of the formation of the UN SG’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation,[xxii] and the subsequent development of his Roadmap for Digital Cooperation in 2020.[xxiii]
Moving towards a smaller, more focused UN will require the creation of much tighter and precise mandates for its central Secretariat and each of its agencies. This in turn will require the strengthening of existing structures designed to enable effective cooperation and collaboration, not least since many of the world’s most pressing challenges require multi-sector and holistic approaches to their resolution. However, this should most certainly not be done by the UN SG setting up new initiatives within the Secretariat that frequently serve the personal interests of the senior leadership within it. One such mechanism that seems to be undervalued and insufficiently utilised is the UN System Chief Executives Board for Co-ordination (CEB) which “provides broad guidance, co-ordination and strategic direction for the UN system in the areas under the responsibility of Executive Heads. Focus is placed on inter-agency priorities and initiatives while ensuring that the independent mandates of organizations are maintained”.[xxiv] Much of its practical work is undertaken through the High-Level Committee on Programmes (HLCP),[xxv] and based on my own experience of working with this committee I have no doubt that its mechanisms can indeed lead to the production of valuable recommendations and actions.[xxvi] The challenge is that such initiatives can easily be overtaken by events, and the creation of new priorities, either by the UN SG (representing the collective interests of the Secretariat) or by individual agencies whose leaders want to drive forward their own agendas.
Another undoubted challenge is that decision making in most UN agencies is based on the collective views of their members, and ultimately these represent the interests of individual Ministers (or equivalent) in all the member countries of the world. Hence, the WHO is meant to represent the collectivity of Health Ministries, UNESCO the Education Ministries, and the ITU the Telecommunication and/or Digital Technology Ministries. Often, the lack of co-ordination at the UN level mirrors the lack of policy integration at the national level. This implies that if real progress is to be made there need to be ambitious approaches that seek to improve internal co-ordination within both national and global systems of government and governance. Unfortunately, the ambitions and aspirations of individual Ministers as much as the senior leadership of specific UN agencies therefore conspire effectively to constrain the potential for effective co-ordination systems to be put in place.
There would also be much to be gained from more effective collaboration between the UN and existing regional organisations which often have a much better understanding of regional issues than do UN agencies. Rather than competing with them or duplicating what they are already doing, it would make far more sense to pool resources and work together to achieve desirable outcomes for specific countries and groups of people.
In summary, the senior leadership of the UN system as a whole needs to give much greater attention to delivering effective co-ordination in policy and practice, but this should be done through existing mechanisms rather than by increasing the power of the UN Secretary General and his close colleagues.[xxvii]
6. Rebalancing the budget for a leaner UN
The problem of systemic funding shortages for much of the work of the UN Secretariat and its many agencies and offices is closely related to the scale of its activities. Not least, many poorer countries cannot provide sufficient resources for delivering its remit, especially when it comes to implementing development interventions. The funding arrangements for the UN Secretariat and its many funds, programmes and specialist agencies are separate, but most consist of a combinations of assessed and voluntary combinations, that enable funding countries to choose how much they support different agencies. The core budget for the UN Secretariat in 2020 was only US$ 3.1 billion,[xxviii]excluding additional donations and peacekeeping activities for which the budget is currently around twice as much.[xxix] One third of the 2019 core budget was provided by the USA (22%) and China (12%), with Japan providing 8.5%, Germany 6%, and the UK 5.4%.[xxx] The top 25 countries contribute about 88% of the total core budget. The percentage national contributions to specific UN agencies and programmes vary considerably with respect to the funding by different countries, but they do emphasise once again the striking overall power wielded by the USA. As noted above (Section 1), this is not healthy for the UN, and it is absolutely essential for many other countries to step up to the mark and fund the UN appropriately. However, the observation that they do not provide more funding could imply that they do not see sufficient value in supporting the UN system. If that is really true then fundamental restructuring of the UN and its agencies is long overdue. Having led a small intergovernmental agency, I know only too well the crucial importance of ensuring that such entities deliver on the wishes of all of their members so that funding can be guaranteed to maintain their activities. If members see no value in an agency then it should be shut down.
Two further important observations can be made about the UN’s funding situation. The first is that a smaller UN that is able to reduce the amount of duplication and overlap in its activities, as advocated above, would require less funding, and would therefore be able to live within its means more effectively. If countries are not willing to support the work of specific agencies or activities these should be closed. However, second, the most worrying trend with respect to funding is the way in which many UN agencies have instead sought to establish closer relationships with the private sector as funders of the ambitions of their leadership for expansion of their programmes and raising their own individual profiles through eye-catching initiatives. This is extremely worrying because it changes the role of UN agencies that have embarked on this approach away from being inter-governmental agencies supporting the needs of governments and their citizens, to being vehicles through which private sector corporations seek to shape global policy and implement activities across the world in their own interests of increasing market share, corporate profits and the benefit accruing to their owners and shareholders. As UNESCO states on its short private sector partnership page, “Over these last two decades, the Private sector has become an increasingly valuable partner for UNESCO – contributing its core business expertise, creativity, innovative technological solutions, social media outreach, financial and in-kind contributions to achieve shared objectives in the area of Education, Culture, the Sciences and Communication and Information”.[xxxi] There is, though, little that is innocent or altruistic about the corporate sector’s involvement in such partnerships. The UN yet again becomes diminished to being merely a vehicle that serves the interests of neo-liberalism and the free market – or to call it by a less popular name, global capitalism.
7. The restructuring of global governance and the establishment of multi-sector partnerships on a rigorous basis
The increasing embeddedness of the private sector in UN activities (Section 6) is seriously worrying since it detracts from the core role of its agencies as inter-governmental organisations. In a richly prescient argument, Jens Martens summarised the potential dangers of such partnerships some 15 years ago,[xxxii] and most of his concerns have since come to pass. Anyone in the UN who has sought to implement such partnerships since then, and has failed to read his work, as well as some of the other detailed recommendations concerning the dos and don’ts of partnership building by other authors is directly culpable for their failure.[xxxiii]
The private sector does indeed have much to contribute to effective development interventions, bringing technical knowledge, appropriate management skills, and additional specific resources, but far too often UN agencies seek to engage with the private sector primarily for the additional funding that may be provided. Most people in UN agencies have little real idea about how to forge effective partnerships with the private sector that are built on a rigorous assessment of needs and a transparent mutual benefits framework. Far too many agencies have therefore become subverted by global corporations, and are often viewed with suspicion by those in other UN agencies who have deliberately chosen to have less direct collaboration with companies.
Many UN agencies resort to the UN’s Global Compact established in 2000 as a means through which to engage with the private sector. The Compact itself is based on CEOs’ commitments to ten principles relating to Human Rights, Labour, Environment, and Anti-Corruption; with 15,268 companies having signed up, it now claims to be the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative. However, it actually has rather little to say in detail about about partnership, or with the mechanisms through which effective mutually beneficial partnerships can indeed be established between companies, governments and UN agencies, in the interests of the many rather than the few.[xxxiv] Sadly, the consequent loosely defined “partnerships” that have been constructed, often subvert the UN’s governance structures and have increasingly led it to serve the interests of the rich and powerful against the poorest and most marginalised.
Unlike some of the other recommendations above, it is relatively easy to implement effective multi-sector partnerships, with much guidance having been written on the subject.[xxxv] Key success factors for development-oriented partnerships that serve the interests of the many rather than the few include
having a clear partnership framework in place from the beginning,
ensuring that civil society is also engaged (and thus also avoiding the term Public-Private Partnerships),
recognising that there is no one-size-fits-all (partnerships work best when they are attuned to local context),
establishing an appropriately skilled partnership management office,
building in scale and sustainability at the very beginning (not as an afterthought),
ensuring the continuity of participation among key individuals,
creating a clear and coherent communication strategy, and
ensuring that they are based on mutual trust, transparency, honesty and respect.
More generally, such partnerships should become less important for UN agencies if they focus more on delivering effective training for governments to be able to implement their own development interventions, rather than the UN agencies trying to deliver such interventions themselves. At present, though, I would not recommend that governments turn to most UN agencies for advice on how to craft appropriate partnerships.
In summary, many of the current problems facing the UN (both the Secretariat and its specialist agencies) could be resolved by:
Focusing on doing a few things well, rather than taking on too many activities and failing with most of them (recognising that this will lead to a smaller, but more effective UN);
Rejecting neo-liberalism, and instead seeking to serve as a mediator and consensus builder between the many different existing global views around political economy and development;
Improving the quality of its leadership (possibly through a specialised unit with such responsibilities), and requiring significant amounts of good quality and relevant training for all of its staff;
Accepting that the SDGs were a mistake, and starting to plan now for a new framework for the UN in 2030;
Focusing primarily on serving the needs of governments through training and advice, rather than by the UN implementing its own development interventions;
Limiting its partnerships with private sectorcompanies, but where these are essential ensuring that they are based on sound partnership mechanisms;
Developing effective co-ordination mechanisms for limiting the increasing amount of replication and duplication of effort within the UN system (which could be facilitated through enhancing the roles of the CEB and HLCP); and
Ensuring that more countries commit to funding the UN appropriately, so that no country ever provides more than 10% of its budget.
Implementing such changes will not be easy, but that is no excuse for not trying to undertake them. If progress on these agendas is not made soon, the UN and its agencies will become even less significant than they are at present, and it will forever fail to deliver the ambitious intentions laid out in the four paragraphs of Article 1 of its Charter.
Two final issues require some comment: the balance between the UN Secretariat and the UN’s specialised agencies; and the involvement of governments that are unwilling to engage peacefully and constructively. On the first of these, my close engagement in various Commonwealth organisations over the last two decades has made me very aware of a tendency for the “centre” to try to take control over as many areas as possible, even when it does not have the competence to do so and there are already existing specialised agencies capable of so doing. This clearly also applies within the UN, and particularly in the field of digital tech. Competition between entities within the UN system is both wasteful and damaging (to organisations and individuals), and must be reduced. There is little within Our Common Agenda that gives rise to the hope that the present leadership of the UN is capable of achieving this. Clarity of mandates and reducing mission creep are essential for the organisation as a whole to be effective.
Second, though, I am conscious that my arguments rely on a positive view about the role of governments in serving the real needs of their citizens. In part this is based on my experience that even within governments (in the broadest sense, including civil servants as well as politicians) that some might describe (generously) as unsavoury, I have almost always been able to find people that I can like and trust. It is these people that we need to foster and support. The private sector, with its fundamental remit of generating profit, will never be able to serve the interests of the poorest and the most marginalised. Only governments (at a structural level) and civil society organisations (generally at an individual level) have this theoretically within their remit. To achieve fairer, less unequal societies, we must therefore work primarily with governments, to help them deliver a better and safer world for all of their citizens. If princes (or governments) do not serve the interests of their citizens, I follow John Locke in maintaining that they have a right and a duty to replace them.[xxxvi]
[ii] But even this is hugely problematic, grounded as it is in traditional UN understandings of human rights, and paying insufficient attention to the responsibilities that are necessary for them to be assured.
[iii] Although highlighted as the fourth main point in the summary of Our Common Agenda, it is only treated relatively briefly in paras 38 and 39 of the report.
[iv] UN (2021) Our Common Agenda – Report of the Secretary General, New York: UN, p.4.
[xiv] I am not inclined to quota systems, which are very difficult to administer and often lead to a diminution in quality of appointments if there are insufficient people with the necessary skills. However, I appreciate that there are those who see such quotas as being the only way to achive scuh goals.
[xv] Dumitriu, P. (2020) Policies and platforms in support of learning: towards more coherence, co-ordination and convergence, Report of the Joint Inspection Unit, Geneva: United Nations.
[xxi] I regret that I have found it difficult to fathom out quite what the reason for this is, and whether it reflects a strong UN Secretary General (in which case he is very often wrong) or a weak one (also not exactly good) who is being manipulated by career-minded staff in the Secretariat. Perhaps he simply has too much on his plate, and is not prioritising the right things.
[xxii] This history, some of which I know about in considerable detail, remains to be told publicly by those who really know the full murky background.
[xxvii]Innovative uses of technology could effectively support the necessary decentralised co-ordination, although as yet most such consultative and collaborative systems have tended in practice to increase rather than reduce the ultimate control of those at the centre (or top) at whatever scale is being considered.
[xxxv] See, for example, some of my own work on effective multi-sector partnership building, including Unwin, T. (2005) Partnerships in Development Practice: Evidence from Multi-Stakeholder ICT4D Partnership Practice in Africa, Paris: UNESCO for the World Summit on the Information Society, Unwin, T. and Wong, A. (2012) Global Education Initiative: Retrospective on Partnerships for Education Development 2003-2011, Geneva: World Economic Forum, and Unwin, T. (2015) MultiStakeholder Partnerships in Information and Communication for Development Interventions, in International Encyclopedia of Digital Communication and Society, Chichester: Wiley, 634-44.
[xxxvi] Locke, J. (ed. by Laslett, P. (1988) Locke: Two Treatises of Government, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Now is the time to be thinking seriously about the kind of world that we wish to live in once Covid-19 has finished its rampage across Europe and North America.[i] Although its potential direct health impact in Africa and South Asia remains uncertain at the time of writing, countries within these continents have already seen dramatic disruption and much hardship as well as numerous deaths having been caused by the measures introduced by governments to restrict its spread. It is already clear that it is the poorest and most marginalised who suffer most, as witnessed, for example, by the impact of Modi’s lockdown in India on migrant workers.[ii]
This post highlights five likely global impacts that will be hastened by Covid-19, and argues that we need to use this disruption constructively to shape a better world in the future, rather than succumb to the potential and substantial damage that will be caused, especially to the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised. It may be that for many countries in the world, the impact of Covid-19 will be even more significant than was the impact of the 1939-45 war. Digital technologies are above all accelerators, and most of those leading the world’s major global corporations are already taking full advantage of Covid-19 to increase their reach and their profits.[iii]
The inexorable rise of China and the demise of the USA
I have written previously about the waxing of China and the waning of the USA; China is the global political-economic powerhouse of the present, not just of the future.[iv] One very significant impact of Covid-19 will be to increase the speed of this major shift in global power. Just as 1945 saw the beginning of the final end of the British Empire, so 2020 is likely to see the beginning of the end of the USA as the dominant global (imperial) power. Already, even in influential USAn publications, there is now much more frequent support for the view that the US is a failing state.[v] This transition is likely to be painful, and it will require world leaders of great wisdom to ensure that it is less violent than may well be the case.
The differences between the ways in which the USA and China have responded to Covid-19 have been marked, and have very significant implications for the political, social and economic futures of these states. Whilst little trust should be placed on the precise accuracy of reported Covid-19 mortality rate figures throughout the world, China has so far reported a loss of 3.2 people per million to the disease (as of 17 April, and thus including the 1290 uplift announced that day), whereas the USA has reported deaths of 8.38 per 100,000 (as of that date); moreover, China’s figures seem to have stabilised, whereas those for the USA continue to increase rapidly.[vi] These differences are not only very significant in human terms, but they also reflect a fundamental challenge in the relative significance of the individual and the community in US and Chinese society.
Few apart from hardline Republicans in the USA now doubt the failure of the Trump regime politically, socially, economically and culturally. This has been exacerbated by the US government’s failure to manage Covid-19 effectively (even worse than the UK government’s performance), and its insistent antagonism towards China through its deeply problematic trade-war[vii] even before the outbreak of the present coronavirus. Anti-Chinese rhetoric in the USA is but a symptom of the realisation of the country’s fundamental economic and policial weaknesses in the 21st century. President Trump’s persistent use of the term “Chinese virus” instead of Covid-19[viii] is also just a symptom of a far deeper malaise. Trump is sadly not the problem; the problem is the people and system that enabled him to come to power and in whose interests he is trying to serve (alongside his own). China seems likely to come out of the Covid-19 crisis much stronger than will the USA.[ix]
Whether people like it or not, and despite cries from the western bourgeoisie that it is unfair, and that the Chinese have lied about the extent of Covid-19 in their own country in its early stages, this is the reality. China is the dominant world power today, let alone tomorrow.
An ever more digital world
The digital technology sector is already the biggest winner from Covid-19. Everyone with access, knowledge and ability to pay for connectivity and digital devices has turned to digital technologies to continue with their work, maintain social contacts, and find entertainment during the lockdowns that have covered about one-third of the world’s population by mid-April.[x] Those who previously rarely used such technologies, have overnight been forced to use them for everything from buying food online, to maintaining contacts with relatives and friends.
There is little evidence that the tech sector was prepared for such a windfall in the latter part of 2019,[xi] but major corporations and start-ups alike have all sought to exploit its benefits as quickly as possible in the first few months of 2020, as testified by the plethora of announcements claiming how various technologies can win the fight against Covid-19.[xii]
One particularly problematic outcome has been the way in which digital tech champions and activists have all sought to develop new solutions to combat Covid-19. While sometimes this is indeed well intended, more often than not it is primarily so that they can benefit from funding that is made available for such activities by governments and donors, or primarily to raise the individual or corporate profile of those involved. For them, Covid-19 is a wonderful business opportunity. Sadly, many such initiatives will fail to deliver appropriate solutions, will be implemented after Covid-19 has dissipated, and on some occasions will even do more harm than good.[xiii]
There are many paradoxes and tensions in this dramatically increased role of digital technology after Covid-19. Two are of particular interest. First, many people who are self-isolating or social distancing are beginning to crave real, physical human contact, and are realising that communicating only over the Internet is insufficiently fulfilling. This might offer some hope for the future of those who still believe in the importance of non-digitally mediated human interaction, although I suspect that such concerns may only temporarily delay our demise into a world of cyborgs.[xiv] Second, despite the ultimate decline in the US economy and political power noted above, US corporations have been very well placed to benefit from the immediate impact of Covid-19, featuring in prominent initiatives such as UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition,[xv] or the coalition of pharmaceutical companies brought together by the Gates Foundation.[xvi]
Whatever the precise details, it is an absolute certainty that the dominance of digital technologies in everyone’s lives will increase very dramatically following Covid-19 and this will be exploited by those intent on reaping the profits from such expansion in their own interests.
Increasing acceptance of surveillance by states and companies: the end of privacy as we know it.
A third, related, global impact of Covid-19 will be widely increased global acceptance of the roles of states and companies in digital surveillance. Already, before 2020, there was a growing, albeit insufficient, debate about the ethics of digital surveillance by states over issues such as crime and “terrorism”, and its implications for privacy.[xvii] However, some states, such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Israel, have already used digital technologies and big data analytics extensively and apparently successfully in monitoring and tracking the spread of Covid-19,[xviii] and other coalitions of states and the private sector are planning to encourage citizens to sign up to having fundamental aspects of what has previously been considered to be their private and personal health information made available to unknown others.[xix]
One problem with such technologies is that they require substantial numbers of people to sign up to and then use them. In more authoritarian states where governments can make such adherence obligatory by imposing severe penalties for failure to do so, they do indeed appear to be able to contribute to reduction in the spread of Covid-19 in the interests of the wider community. However, in more liberal democratic societies, which place the individual about the community in importance, it seems less likely that they will be acceptable.
Despite such concerns, the growing evidence promoted by the companies that are developing them that such digital technologies can indeed contribute to enhanced public health will serve as an important factor in breaking down public resistance to the use of surveillance technologies and big data analytics. Once again, this will ultimately serve the interest of those who already have greater political and economic power than it will the interests of the most marginalised.
Online shopping and the redesign of urban centres.
Self-isolation and social distancing have led to the dramatic emptying of towns and cities across the world. Businesses that have been unable to adapt to online trading have overnight been pushed into a critical survival situation, with governments in many of the richer countries of the world being “forced” to offer them financial bail-outs to help them weather the storm. Unfortunately, most of this money is going to be completely wasted and will merely create huge national debts for years into the future. People who rarely before used online shopping are now doing so because they believe that no other method of purchasing goods is truly safe.
The new reality will be that most people will have become so used to online shopping that they are unlikely to return in the future to traditional shopping outlets. Companies that have been unable to adjust to the new reality will fail. The character of our inner-city areas will change beyond recognition. This is a huge opportunity for the re-design of urban areas in creative, safe and innovative ways. Already, the environmental impact of a reduction in transport and pollution has been widely seen; wildlife is enjoying a bonanza; people are realising that their old working and socialising patterns may not have been as good as they once thought.[xx] Unfortunately, it is likely that this opportunity may not be fully grasped, and instead governments that lack leadership and vision will instead seek to prop up backward-looking institutions, companies and organisations, intent on preserving infrastructure and economic activities that are unfit for purpose in the post-pandemic world. Such a mentality will lead to urban decay and ghettoization, where people will fear to tread, and there is a real danger of a downward spiral of urban deprivation.
There are, though, many bright signs of innovation and creativity for those willing to do things differently. Shops and restaurants that have been able to find efficient trustworthy drivers are now offering new delivery services; students are able to draw on the plethora of online courses now available; new forms of communal activity are flourishing; and most companies are realising that they don’t actually need to spend money on huge office spaces, but can exploit their labour even more effectively by enabling them to work from home.
We must see the changes brought about by responses to Covid-19 as important opportunities to build for the future, and to create human-centred urban places that are also sensitive to the natural environments in which they are located.
Increasing global inequalities
The net outcome of the above four trends will lead inexorably to a fifth, and deeply concerning issue: the world will become an even more unequal place, where those who can adapt and survive will flourish, but where the most vulnerable and marginalised will become even more immiserated.
This is already all too visible. Migrant workers are being ostracised, and further marginalised.[xxi] In India, tens of thousands of labourers are reported to have left the cities, many of them walking home hundreds of kilometres to their villages.[xxii] In China, Africans are reported as being subjected to racist prejudice, being refused service in shops and evicted from their residences.[xxiii] In the UK, many food banks have had to close and it is reported that about 1.5. million people a day are going without food.[xxiv] The World Bank is reporting that an extra 40-50 million people across the world will be forced into poverty by Covid-19, especially in Africa.[xxv] People with disabilities have become even more forgotten and isolated.[xxvi] The list of immediate crises grows by the day.
More worrying still is that there is no certainty that these short-term impacts will immediately bounce-back once the pandemic has passed. It seems at least as likely that many of the changes will have become so entrenched that aspects of living under Covid-19 will become the new norm. Once again, those able to benefit from the changes will flourish, but the uneducated, those with disabilities, the ethnic minorities, people living in isolated areas, refugees, and women in patriarchal societies are all likely to find life much tougher in 2021 and 2022 even than they do at present. Much of this rising inequality is being caused, as noted above, by the increasing role that digital technologies are playing in people’s lives. Those who have access and can afford to use the Internet can use it for shopping, employment, entertainment, learning, and indeed most aspects of their lives. Yet only 59% of the world’s population are active Internet users.[xxvii]
Looking positively to the future.
People will respond in different ways to these likely trends over the next few years, but we will all need to learn to live together in a world where:
China is the global political economic power,
Our lives will become ever more rapidly experienced and mediated through digital technology,
Our traditional views of privacy are replaced by a world of surveillance,
Our towns and cities have completely different functions and designs, and
There is very much greater inequality in terms of opportunities and life experiences.
In dealing with these changes, it is essential to remain positive; to see Covid-19 as an opportunity to make the world a better place for everyone to live in, rather than just as a threat of further pain, misery and death, or an opportunity for a few to gain unexpected windfall opportunities to become even richer. Six elements would seem to be important in seeking to ensure that as many people as possible can indeed flourish once the immediate Covid-19 pandemic has dissipated:
First, these predictions should encourage all of us to prioritise more on enhancing the lives of the poorest and the most marginalised, than on ensuring economic growth that mainly benefits the rich and privileged. This applies at all scales, from designing national health and education services, to providing local, community level care provision.
This requires an increased focus on negotiating communal oriented initiatives and activities rather than letting the greed and selfishness of individualism continue to rule the roost.
Third, it is essential that we use this as an opportunity to regain our physical sentient humanity, and reject the aspirations of those who wish to create a world that is only experienced and mediated through digital technology. We need to regain our very real experiences of each other and the world in which we live through our tastes, smells, the sounds we hear, the touches we feel, and the sights we see.
Fourth, it seems incredibly important that we create a new global political order safely to manage a world in which China replaces the USA as the dominant global power. The emergence of new political counterbalances, at a regional level as with Europe, South Asia, Africa and Latin America seems to be a very important objective that remains to be realised. Small states that choose to remain isolated, however arrogant they are about the “Great”ness of their country, will become ever more vulnerable to the vagaries of economic, political and demographic crisis.
Fifth, we need to capitalise on the environmental impact of Covid-19 rapidly to shape a world of which we are but a part, and in which we care for and co-operate with the rich diversity of plant and animal life that enjoys the physical richness of our planet. This will require a comprehensive and rigorous evaluation of the harm caused to our world by the design and use of digital technologies.[xxviii]
Finally, we need to agree communally on the extent to which individual privacy matters, and whether we are happy to live in a world of omnipresent surveillance by companies (enabling them to reap huge profits from our selves as data) and governments (to maintain their positions of power, authority and dominance). This must not be imposed on us by powerful others. It is of paramount importance that there is widespread informed public and communal discussion about the future of surveillance in a post-Covid-19 era.
I trust that these comments will serve to provoke and challenge much accepted dogma and practice. Above all, let’s try to think of others more than we do ourselves, let’s promote the reduction of inequality over increases in economic growth, and let’s enjoy an integral, real and care-filled engagement with the non-human natural world.
I have always worked in part from home, on the road overseas in hotels, alone in strange places… However, when I left full-time salaried work in 2015, and shifted primarily to working from home, I swiftly discovered the need substantially to readjust my habits. For those without such experiences, who are being forced to self-isolate or work at home as a result of Covid-19 there are likely to be many challenges – but there are now plenty of guides available for things to do to help manage the rapid change of lifestyle (see below). Most of these are very sensible, but do not necessarily coincide with my own experiences. So here are just a few tips that might be useful (in approximate order of importance):
1. Be positive and treat it as an adventure
It is much easier to enjoy change if you treat it in a positive way. Think about all the good things: no need to travel to work; spending time with those you love (hopefully); doing things at home that you have always wanted to! Treat the next few weeks or months as an opportunity to do new and exciting things. Discover your home again! (Although this highlights the huge challenges facing the homeless).
2. Try to keep your work place separate from your sleeping place
If at all possible, it is absolutely essential to have separate sleeping and working places so that you remain sane. There is much evidence that trying to sleep in the same place in which you work can confuse the mind, and may tend to make it continue to work when you want to go to sleep – even subconsciously – rather than enabling you to rest. You are likely to be worried about the implications of Covid-19, and so it is essential that you do all you can to ensure a good night’s sleep. This may not be easy for many people, but you should still try not to work in your bedroom! And don’t continue working too late – give your body the time it needs to relax and rest.
3. Take as much exercise as possible
It is incredibly easy to put on weight when working at home, even if you think you are not doing so! This is bad for your health, and bad for morale. It’s easy to understand why this happens: many people commute to work, and even if not cycling, they walk from their transport node to their office; homes are smaller than offices, and so you generally walk more at work than at home; and often you will go out of the office during the daytime, perhaps for lunch, but you can’t do this if you are self-isolating. There are lots of things, though, that you can do to rectify this: walk up and down stairs several times a day (never take the lift); ensure that you go for a short walk every hour (even if it is just 20 times around your home); if you have some outdoor space, take up gardening (it uses lots of muscles you never thought you had!); and even if you don’t decide to buy a stationary bike (actually much cheaper than joining a gym), you can still exercise with a resistance band, or even use bags of sugar as weights!
4. Let everyone in the household have their own nest for working in
You may well already have done this! However, if not, remember that we all construct different kinds of places for working in. I know I am one of the most antisocial people in the world when I am thinking and writing; my home office looks a complete mess, but I know exactly where everything is, and woe betide anyone who moves something! So, if there are several of you working at home, try to create your own spaces for working in. Your husband, wife, partner, or children will all work in different ways, so try to ensure that everyone has a separate working place. You will all be more productive – and get on better after you’ve finished working!
5. Plan your day – and give yourself treats
When you don’t have to catch public transport, or cycle/drive/walk to work it is terribly easy to be lazy, and let time slip by without focusing on the tasks in hand. Most people like to feel they have achieved something positive every day. One way to ensure this is to plan each day carefully. And don’t forget to give yourself treats when you have achieved something – whatever it is that you enjoy!
6. Keep a balance to your life
This is closely linked to planning – but don’t just spend all your time relaxing, or doing nothing but work! It’s important to maintain diversity in life. If your boss expects you to work a 10 hour day, then make sure that you do (hopefully s/he won’t). But even then you have 14 hours each day to do other things (please try and get 7 hours of sleep – it will help to keep you fit and well)! I find that having a colour coded diary with a clear schedule helps me manage my life – even though I tend to work far too much! The trouble is I enjoy my work!
7. Create agreed ground rules and expectations to reduce tensions
Many people who now have to work at home because of Covid-19 will not have had much experience previously at doing this. It can come as a shock getting to see other aspects of a loved one’s life. Tensions are bound to arise, especially if you are trying to work when your children are at home because school has been closed. It can help to have a thorough and transparent discussion between all members of a household (including the children) to set some ground rules for how you are going to manage the next few weeks and months. This can indeed be challenging, and will frequently require revisiting, but having some shared expectations can help reduce the tensions that are bound to arise. Listening (however difficult it is) often helps to lower tension.
8. Wear different clothes just as you would if you went out to work (and play)
The clothes we wear represent how we feel, but can also help shape those feelings. It is amazing what an effect it can have if you get dressed smartly when you are feeling low. Likewise, most people like to dress in more relaxed clothing when they stop working, and we don’t usually sleep in the same clothes that we have worn during the day. Just because you are working at home, doesn’t necessarily mean that you will work well in your pyjamas (and imagine if you are suddenly asked to join a conference call without time to change!). The simple message is that we should continue to take care of ourselves, just as if we were going out to work or to a party!
9. Switch off your digital devices (at least some of the time)
Enjoy the physicality of life. Don’t always feel you have to be online in case “work” wants to get in touch. None of us are that important. The world will get by perfectly well without us! There is a lot of evidence that being online late at night can also disturb our sleep patterns. Remember that although we are increasingly being programmed to believe that digital technology gives us much more freedom in how we work, it is actually mainly used by the owners of capital further to exploit their workforces by making them work longer hours for no extra pay!
10. Use the time creatively to do something that you have always wanted to do
Being self-isolated at home will mean that you have vastly more time on your hands than you can ever imagine (as long as you don’t work all day and night). Use it creatively to do something that you have always thought about doing, but never had the time before. Read those books that you always wanted to. Learn a musical instrument. Learn to speak a new language (Python or Mandarin). Take up painting. Discover how to cook delicious meals with limited resources. Photograph the wildlife in your garden. Grow your own vegetables. Make beer. Even just plan your next (or first) holiday.
Other useful resources (with a mainly UK focus) include:
I very much hope that some of these ideas will help to get you through the next few months, and that we will all emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic as being more considerate for others, and less concerned about ourselves. Thinking more about how you can help others rather than what you want yourself is a good way to start planning for self-isolation.
I have had the privilege of spending a total of around three months this year visiting China on different occasions, and in particular staying on the Peking University (Beida) campus. It has been amazing seeing the changing colours of the landscape through the seasons, and early on during my visits I decided to try to take regular photographs from the same spot near the centre of the campus to capture the different colours and senses of living there. I hope that the photographs below capture something of the differences I experienced. I definitely think I need to return in the midst of winter to see it in the snow. My favourite time has to be when Beijing was covered in blossom for an all too short period in early April!
I spent five weeks this summer undertaking research in Beijing and Gansu thanks to a UK-China Fellowship for Excellence from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The central purpose of my research was to explore the information and communication needs of poor and marginalised communities, especially people with disabilities (in Beijing) and farmers in rural areas (in Gansu Province). I learnt so much – and probably more from the informal discussions than I did from the focus groups and interviews that I conducted! Many thanks are due to Professor Ding Wenguang and Chen Fei for all of their help and assistance in arranging meetings, and translating our dialogues.
The premises underlying my research were that:
all too often, new software and hardware are designed for the mass market, and then need to be ‘adapted’ to suit the ‘needs’ of poor and marginalised people
frequently, well-intentioned new technologies are developed in some of the richer parts of the world and then ‘applied’ in poorer countries; researchers are then surprised that there is little take up for their products
hence, we still need to get a much better understanding of the needs of these communities, and focus much more on designing technologies explicitly with their interests in mind
China has 18% of the world’s population, and so the market size of marginalised communities makes it worth developing products commercially for them
The resultant data are so rich that it is difficult to summarise them in detail. However, the following seem particularly pertinent
The diversity of people and communities in rural areas of China is replicated in a diversity of needs. ‘One size fits all’ solutions are not appropriate, yet the size of the market for particular groups is nevertheless very large given China’s overall population
Almost everyone already has at least one mobile ‘phone – mobiles are already widely used for information and communication, even for Internet access. There are real implications for Africa – if electricity and connectivity can be provided
Economic information is particularly desired – especially on such things as agricultural input prices and market prices – particularly by men. I was surprised at how dominant and significant this was.
There seem to be important gender differences in usage – women placed greater emphasis on social communication and health information; young male migrant workers in contrast seemed dominated by a desire to use mobile broadband to meet with girls.
Value for money is important – c. RMB 2-3 per month is all that most people are willing to pay for subscription services
Trust of source of information is also very important – there seems to be a lot of bogus messaging – and differing views as to what kind of organisation was most trustworthy.
There is real potential for village level training in effective use of mobiles – especially by women for women
For many users, the existing functionality of mobiles is more than they can cope with
There is huge potential for innovative hardware and software solutions – many interesting ideas were proposed
There is therefore a large opportunity for sharing good global practice with colleagues in China in the use of ICTs for people with disabilities in China
Information about location and direction is crucial for blind people – we need to think more innovatively about how to deliver on this
Screen size and configuration (not touch screen) are very important for blind people – Blackberry wins out over iPhones here!
There is an enormous opportunity for audio books (not only for blind people). Perhaps a civil society organisation could develop this, and even market audio books to generate income.
Security code challenges are important for blind people
Shopping information – much potential for RFID and 2D bar codes for blind people.
A powerful text scanner and reader in a mobile phone for blind people would be useful
Visualisation and touch/vibration of sound could also be developed further
There is a huge agenda ahead, and I am enthusiastic about ways in which we can encourage delivery on some of these exciting opportunities. Thanks so much to BIS, Lanzhou University and Peking University for supporting this research, and to all those who contributed through their wisdom and hospitality
One of the pleasures of Beijing is the opportunity to explore its numerous hutongs – narrow streets surrounded by low rise courtyard buildings, known as siheyuan. As most guidebooks say, many of the hutongs have been destroyed to make way for new high-rise development, but some still retain their traditional character, and others have been redeveloped specifically with the tourist in mind. Traditionally, hutongs were 9 metre wide streets, with some dating from as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1341), and until the middle of the 20th century they provided the basic residential areas of most of Beijing.
Following a day exploring Ditan Park, the Lama Temple, the Confucius Temple and the Imperial College, we wandered south to have dinner at the Red Capital Club on Dongsi Jiutiao, which had been recommended by friends. Everyone says it is difficult to find, but that was not our experience. Head south from the Zhangzizhonglu subway station and take the first hutong (Dongsi Jiutiao) immediately to the east (left as you head south!). The Red Capital Club is then about 400 metres along on the south side of the road.
Anyway, we arrived too early, and decided simply to wander on to see if there might be anywhere we could sit down for a cold Tsingtao beer. A short distance on, to the north of the road, we came across an amazing find – the Happy Dragon Courtyard Hostel at 51 Dongsi Jiutiao (note this is at a different location from the hostel mentioned on their website! Phone: +86 (10) 84021970). Although we only sat in the bar, we looked into the rooms which seemed very clean and well maintained. As well as dorms sleeping 6 people (RMB 90), they also had double rooms at only RMB 300 a night – amazing value for August (although the advertised rate was RMB 498). The bar itself was in the centre of the courtyard, full of comfortable chairs, and served a good range of beverages – the beer was definitely cold and refreshing! Its WiFi service was particularly popular – and people from many different nationalities were logging on to their emails and Internet! All in all, we reckoned that it would be a great place to stay for those on a limited budget.
The Red Capital Club itself was also definitely an ‘interesting’ experience. It is intended to reflect the life of the ruling elite in China in the 1950s. As its website comments, “The immaculately restored compound captures the mood of the 1950s when China was driven by idealism. The lounge cigar divan is like stepping into Mao’s private meeting room. The furnishings were originally used by the central government in the 1950s. Two sofas next to lounge door were actually used by Marshal Lin Biao (Mao’s fated successor who lost out in an attempted coup). A poem of Mao’s adorns one wall and a photograph of Deng taken by his daughter and presented to the club another”. The decor is now a little faded, and the food quite expensive, but it was definitely worth the visit. They even had a bottle of Marsanne from the Caves de Tain in the Rhône Valley – which tasted remarkably good (although that could have been related to the fact that it was the first white wine I had tasted for almost a month!).
Thanks to the wonderful hospitality of my assistant Chen Fei’s family, we were introduced over the last couple of days to the fascinating diversity of the area in the vicinity of Wuwei, in north-west central Gansu. The city is situated along the Hexi corridor, leading westwards into central Asia, and has been subject to numerous cultural influences. We had a kaleidoscope of experiences, including visiting the tomb where the famous bronze galloping horse treading on a flying swallow was found, wandering around the Confucius temple in Wuwei, walking in the desert at the edge of the city, learning all about how to serve and drink different types of Chinese tea, and then finishing up walking in the mountains near Tianzhu and being entertained by Tibetan dancers over lunch. It was a brilliant time, and owed everything to the generosity of our hosts.
We arrived in Lanzhou from Beijing last night. What a difference from my last visit almost exactly six years ago! The Yellow River remains the same, but the number of high rise buildings and the amount of traffic are vastly increased. Two dinners and a lunch later, the food has been wonderful – thanks so much to the generous hospitality of our hosts. Today was relatively relaxed before we go out into the field on Monday – an opportunity to see some of the efforts of the local government to beautify the banks of the river: reconstructions of the old waterwheels, Longyuan park dedicated to dragon culture, statues of traditional folk stories, and a new wetland park full of beautiful flowers and walkways through the rushes.
When I was in Beijing in the Spring, the city was full of cherry blossom and magnolia flowers. Now in hot, humid August there are not many flowers of any kind out, but the lotuses and water lilies on the lakes in Beihai Park and the Summer Palace add a splash of colour – especially above the weeds and debris in the not all-too-clean water…