It was great to have been invited by Aminata Amadou Garba to give the final talk in the ITU Academy’s training session on Last Mile Connectivity on 30th June. She was happy for me to be a little bit provocative, and so I returned to one of my long-standing arguments – that by using terms such as “the last mile” or the “last billion” we often denigrate the poorest and the most marginalised. If we really want to ensure that they benefit from the use of digital technologies, we should instead start thinking about them as “the first mile” because they are most important!
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.
Clearing out boxes of old books and reports recently, I was struck by how many ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development) initiatives there have been over the last 20 years, many of which have simply repeated the mistakes of their predecessors. Most have failed to make real and significant improvements in the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people. Quick looks at Weigel and Waldburger’s (2004) seminal book, and the ICT4 all Exhibition catalogue for the 2005 WSIS Summit in Tunis, remind us that most of the problems we are addressing in 2021 are broadly similar to those that were being addressed 20 years ago: how to enable the most marginalised to benefit from digital tech; moving from rhetoric to action; how to deliver effective partnerships; the importance of local languages; financing challenges; or how to ensure access…
An invitation to give a lecture at the Aga Khan University in Pakistan as part of a Master’s course on Learning and Teaching with Technology later this week provided me with the opportunity to reflect at some length on this thorny issue, and to come up with some suggestions as to why we continue to reinvent the wheel, and what we need to change if we really want to work with the poorest and most marginalised in delivering effective ICT4D initiatives that will help to empower them.
It also reminded me that even when I first started teaching in universities in the mid-1970s I used multimedia technologies such as slides (diapositives), aerial photos, film clips, overhead transparencies – as well as books. There is very little fundamentally new in the use of ICTs in education; it’s just the detail of the tech that has changed. As long ago as the early 1990s I thus enjoyed delivering lectures to students across London through the University Live-Net TV network, and in the middle of that decade enjoyed participated in the work of the Computers in Teaching Initiative in the UK. Hopefully we had learnt by then many of the challenges and success factors that previous colleagues involved in delivering education at a distance had shared with us.
Why are we failing so badly to learn the lessons of the past?
Reflecting on this simple question, I came up with six main suggestions as to why valuable lessons from previous ICT initiatives, especially in the education sector, do not seem to have been sufficiently learnt:
Lack of background research
Increased emphasis on innovation
The problem with “self”
Commercialisation and marketisation of education
Insufficient intergenerational dialogue
I am sure there are many more, and I look forward to exploring these ideas further with interested colleagues. Each needs to be fleshed out in much more detail, but the following brief notes cover some of the aspects that may be of particular importance.
Lack of background research
The Google (or DuckDuckGo) first page syndrome
only following up links on the first page (or two)
only reading the most recently published material
Too many people failing to explore and learn from what has been done before
Too much of a hurry?
Believing only the latest is best?
Nothing old is worthwhile?
A strong sense of self-belief, and that there is no need to read (see further below)
Past research and practice are inaccessible or unavailable
but this isn’t really true – many of us have written at length about our previous experiences
Overcoming failure often seen as being essential for subsequent success
But surely it’s best not to make the well known mistakes that others have made before?
So why is innovation (scientific and business) usually seen as being such a good thing?
Many governments (and donors) are increasingly focusing on funding innovation to drive economic growth – should they use taxpayers’ money to fund failure?
Might it not be wiser for donors and governments to spread what we know works, say for 60% of the population, to everyone?
Reducing inequalities rather than maximising growth
The problem with “self”
The need to be first
Overconfidence in own excellence
Having great qualifications so must know the truth
But perhaps the qualifications are not so great after all!
Unwilling to be self-critical
Brought up within the power and culture of non-self-critical scientism
A self-congratulatory culture (illustrated by awards processes)
Competitive rather than communal culture
Enjoys making mistakes in the belief that they will learn
Very expensive for others, especially in the international development context
Short-term job delivery and then move on
It’s always good to be seen to be bringing in new ideas
You don’t have to pick up the bits because you’ve left by then
The world of 140 characters
Project cycles often very short
It’s important to show success even when you’ve done nothing
Those who shout loudest tend to get heard
Even when there is little substance behind the claims
Short term is much easier than doing something long term
Perhaps “Agile” also has something to do with this?
The commercialisation and marketisation of education
EdTech is about the technology not the education
Everything is about expanding the market
Sales driven, with short term targets
Pitching to donors
A different skill set to delivery
Donors have large budgets and also have to show quick gains
Unrealistic target setting
Pilots where it is easiest
Instead they should be done where it is most difficult
We are measuring different success factors
Connecting a million children
But are they the most marginalised, and do they learn anything?
Insufficient intergenerational dialogue
“Youth have all the answers”
Older people have wrecked the world and so should now listen to young people who have all the good ideas
Much political posturing
The old have no idea how to use digital tech
Little priority given to mentoring
Even fewer initiatives specifically designed to be inter-generational
Youth political institutions often replicate existing flawed global institutions
Especially within the UN system
Moving beyond a sketch
I have frequently been frustrated when I hear exciting new ideas being advocated about ways through which the latest generation of technologies (be it AI, AR, blockchain, or the Metaverse) can transform global education for the better. More often than not, the technology is the easy bit. It’s everything else that’s difficult. As a contribution at least to what governments need to get right, we collectively crafted a report on Education for the most marginalised post-COVID-19: Guidance for governmetns on the use of digital technologies in education (freely available under a CC BY licence at https://ict4d.org.uk/technology-and-education-post-covid-19, and https://edtechhub.org/education-for-the-most-marginalised-post-covid-19) which I hope goes some way to sharing global good practices at least in this area. Perhaps we should do similar reports for the private sector and for civil society, although those in these sectors could still learn much from our report for governments.
The above six sets of suggestions are just a beginning, but I wanted to share them here to provoke discussion. Everyone will have their own list of suggestions. What’s missing from the above? I’d be interested to hear from anyone who might like to explore this theme further! I need to learn more! At the very least, I hope that future colleagues will address these suggestions head on and thereby no longer repeat the same mistakes that so many of us have made in the past.
This has been a crazy week of over-dosing on Zoom for those attending the online IGF 2020 (made worse by too many slide-decks). How I wish I was physically back with real friends in real Poland, having real conversations and drinking real Polish beer and cherry vodka!
However, it was really great to participate in the GIZ-convened session WS #255 on Digital (in)accessability and universal design this morning (my time!). Huge thanks are due to Paul Horsters (from GIZ) who brought us all together, and to Edith Kimani (Deutsche Welle) who was an excellent moderator, as well as those providing sign language and captioning. It was also excellent to have such a diverse range of other speakers (none of whom used the dreaded slide-decks!): Bernd Schramm (GIZ), Irene Mbari-Kirika (inABLE), Bernard Chiira (Innovate Now), Claire Sibthorpe (GSMA) and Wairagala Wakabi (CIPESA).
As part of the workshop we wanted to produce an output that others could use in their own work, and so have crafted a mind-map in various formats that we hope will be of use to everyone committed to working with persons with disabilities to ensure universal digital inclusion. A WordArt summary of everything in the mind-maps is also shown below:
The mind map that includes summaries of all the individual presetnations as well as responses to the questions asked during the workshop is available below in various formats:
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.
A week ago, I wrote a post about the potential of crowdsourcing and the use of hashtags for gathering enhanced data on infection rates for Covid-19. Things have moved rapidly since then as companies, civil society organisations, international organisations, academics and donors have all developed countless initiatives to try to respond. Many of these initiatives seem to be more about the profile and profits of the organisations/entities involved than they do about making a real impact on the lives of those who will suffer most from Covid-19. Yesterday, I wrote another post on my fears that donors and governments will waste huge amounts of money, time and effort on Covid-19 to little avail, since they have not yet learnt the lessons of past failures.
I still believe that crowdsourcing could have the potential, along with many other ways of gathering data, to enhance decision making at this critical time. However the dramatic increase in the number of such initiatives gives rise to huge concern. Let us learn from past experience in the use of digital technologies in development, and work together in the interests of those who are likely to suffer the most. Eight issues are paramount when designing a digital tech intervention to help reduce the impact of Covid-19, especially through crowdsourcing type initiatives:
Don’t duplicate what others are already doing
Treat privacy and security very carefully
Don’t detract from official and (hopefully) accurate information
Keep it simple
Ask questions that will be helpful to those trying to respond to the pandemic
Ensure that there are at least some questions that are the same in all surveys if there are multiple initiatives being done by different organisations
Work with a globally agreed set of terminology and hashtags (#)
Collaborate and share
Don’t duplicate what others are already doing
As the very partial list of recent initiatives at the end of this post indicates, many crowdsourcing projects have been created across the world to gather data from people about infections and behaviours relating to Covid-19. Most of these are well-intentioned, although there will also be those that are using such means unscrupulously also to gather data for other purposes. Many of these initiatives ask very similar questions. Not only is it a waste of resources to design and build several competing platforms in a country (or globally), but individual citizens will also soon get bored of responding to multiple different platforms and surveys. The value of each initiative will therefore go down, especially if there is no means of aggregating the data. Competition between companies may well be an essential element of the global capitalist system enabling the fittest to accrue huge profits, but it is inappropriate in the present circumstances where there are insufficient resources available to tackle the very immediate responses needed across the world.
Treat privacy and security very carefully
Most digital platforms claim to treat the security of their users very seriously. Yet the reality is that many fail to protect the privacy of much personal information sufficiently, especially when software is developed rapidly by people who may not prioritise this issue and cut corners in their desire to get to market as quickly as possible. Personal information about health status and location is especially sensitive. It can therefore be hugely risky for people to provide information about whether they are infected with a virus that is as easily transmitted as Covid-19, while also providing their location so that this can then be mapped and others can see it. Great care should be taken over the sort of information that is asked and the scale at which responses are expected. It is not really necessary to know the postcode/zipcode of someone, if just the county or province will do.
Don’t detract from official and (hopefully) accurate information
Use of the Internet and digital technologies have led to a plethora of false information being propagated about Covid-19. Not only is this confusing, but it can also be extremely dangerous. Please don’t – even by accident – distract people from gaining the most important and reliable information that could help save their lives. In some countries most people do not trust their governments; in others, governments may not have sufficient resources to provide the best information. In these instances, it might be possible to work with the governments to ehance their capacity to deliver wise advice. Whatever you do, try to point to the most reliable globally accepted infomation in the most appropriate languages (see below for some suggestions).
Keep it simple
Many of the crowdsourcing initiatives currently available or being planned seem to invite respondents to complete a fairly complex and detailed list of questions. Even when people are healthy it could be tough for them to do so, and this could especially be the case for the elderly or digitally inexperienced who are often the most vulnerable. Imagine what it would be like for someone who has a high fever or difficulty in breathing trying to fill it in.
Ask questions that will be helpful to those trying to respond to the pandemic
It is very difficult to ask clear and unambiguous questions. It is even more difficult to ask questions about a field that you may not know much about. Always work with people who might want to use the data that your initiative aims to generate. If you are hoping, for example, to produce data that could be helpful in modelling the pandemic, then it is essential to learn from epidemiologists and those who have much experience in modelling infectious diseases. It is also essential to ensure that the data are in a format that they can actually use. It’s all very well producing beautful maps, but if they use different co-ordinate systems or boundaries from those used by government planners they won’t be much use to policy makers.
Ensure that there are at least some questions that are the same in all surveys if there are multiple initiatives being done by different organisations
When there are many competing surveys being undertaken by different organisations about Covid-19, it is important that they have some identical questions so that these can then be aggregated or compared with the results of other initiatives. It is pointless having multiple initiatives the results of which cannot be combined or compared.
Work with a globally agreed set of terminology and hashtags (#)
The field of data analytics is becoming ever more sophisticated, but if those tackling Covid-19 are to be able readily to use social media data, it would be very helpful if there was some consistency in the use of terminology and hashtags. There remains an important user-generated element to the creation of hashtags (despite the control imposed by those who create and own social media platforms), but it would be very helpful to those working in the field if some consistency could be encouraged or even recommended by global bodies and UN agencies such as the WHO and the ITU.
Collaborate and share
Above all, in these unprecendented times, it is essential for those wishing to make a difference to do so collaboratively rather than competitively. Good practices should be shared rather than used to generate individual profit. The scale of the potential impact, especially in the weakest contexts is immense. As a recent report from the Imperial College MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis notes, without interventions Covid-19 “would have resulted in 7.0 billion infections and 40 million deaths globally this year. Mitigation strategies focussing on shielding the elderly (60% reduction in social contacts) and slowing but not interrupting transmission (40% reduction in social contacts for wider population) could reduce this burden by half, saving 20 million lives, but we predict that even in this scenario, health systems in all countries will be quickly overwhelmed. This effect is likely to be most severe in lower income settings where capacity is lowest: our mitigated scenarios lead to peak demand for critical care beds in a typical low-income setting outstripping supply by a factor of 25, in contrast to a typical high-income setting where this factor is 7. As a result, we anticipate that the true burden in low income settings pursuing mitigation strategies could be substantially higher than reflected in these estimates”.
This concluding section provides quick links to generally agreed reliable and simple recommendations relating to Covid-19 that could be included in any crowdsourcing platform (in the appropriate language), and a listing of just a few of the crowdsourcing initiatives that have recently been developed.
The following are currently three of the best sourcs for global information about Covid-19 – although I do wish that they clarified that “infections” are only “recorded infections”, and that data around deaths should be shown as “deaths per 1000 people” (or similar density measures) and depicted on choropleth maps.
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.
Recently I was asked by the GFA Consulting Group to provide some short comments and reflections (just a few sentences) in response to four questions, the answers to which will be incorporated as part of a final chapter in an important new Toolkit on Education and Digitisation in Development Cooperation being developed by them together with GIZ (Sector Programme Education) and BMZ (Division 402, Education), and due to be published in April 2020 [as: BMZ, Toolkit – Education and Digitalization in Development Cooperation, to be published in 04/2020]. It is always interesting to try constructively to answer questions that contain inbuilt assumptions with which I don’t necessarily agree! They have kindly agreed that I can share them here for wider commentary and feedback. This is how I responded:
1) How can digitalization contribute to achieving the educational objectives of the Agenda 2030?
“Digitalization by itself contributes little to enhancing education, and can often actually cause more harm than good. The introduction of digital technologies into educational systems must be undertaken in a holistic and carefully planned way. It needs to be designed and implemented “at scale”, beginning in the poorest and most marginalised contexts: in isolated rural areas, for people with disabilities, for out of school children, and for girls in patriarchal societies. Only then will it begin to reduce the inequalities in learning provision, and help to provide children and adults alike with the skills they need to empower themselves”.
2) Which digital technologies will bring about revolutionary changes in the education sector in the future?
“Digital technologies by themselves cannot bring about any changes, let alone revolutionary ones! To claim otherwise propagates the damaging reductionist myth of technological determinism. Technologies are designed by people who have specific interests and for particular purposes. We need to begin with the education and not the technology. Hence, people with exciting ideas about how to improve education – particularly in the most challenging circumstances – should be encouraged to develop new technological solutions to the most pressing problems that they identify. These challenges include enabling teachers to have the right skills and understanding to help children learn, ensuring that relevant content is available in the optimal formats to enable children to live fulfilled lives, and creating systems to ensure efficient resource use in educational systems”.
3) What will be the most pressing challenge in the educational development cooperation sector in the future and how can the use of digital technologies help to overcome it?
“The most important challenge in educational systems is to ensure that there are sufficient well-trained and committed teachers and facilitators employed to inspire new generations of learners. It is estimated that around 69 million new teachers are needed if the educational objectives of Agenda 2030 are to be reached. We must ensure therefore that digital technologies are used efficiently and effectively to support in-service and pre-service training for educators, to provide effective learning resources for them to use with learners, and to enable them to be supported by efficient administrative and assessment schemes. This is without doubt the most pressing challenge”.
4) What needs to happen in order to utilize the potential of these digital innovations for education in partner countries?
“Four simple things are needed:
Partner countries (and indeed donors) must give education the highest priority in their development programmes. Many people talk about the importance of education, but it is only rarely given sufficient emphasis and resources. We need to reiterate over and over again that ignorance is far more expensive than education!
We need to put in place effective mechanisms through which good practices in the use of digital technologies in education can be shared and implemented. We must stop reinventing the wheel and repeating the mistakes made with digital technologies in the past. Far too many resources are wasted in developing pilot projects that will never go to scale and will not enhance learning opportunities for the most marginalised.
We must begin by implementing effective systems of using digital technologies in teacher training. Only once teachers and learning facilitators have been effectively trained should digital systems be rolled out across schools.
Finally, we need to ensure that we also minimise the harm that digital technologies can be used for in education and learning. The benefits of digital technologies can only be achieved if systems are put in place to mitigate the harm that they can be used for”.
I think it is likely that these were not the sort of answers that they were expecting, but I very much hope that they provoke discussion that may lead to changes in the way that governments, companies and civil society organisations seek to implement the use of digital technologies in education. Not surprisingly, they are very much in line with the work that I had the privilege of helping 21 UN agencies develop for the UN’s Chief Executive Board last year entitled Towards a United Nations system-wide strategic approach for achieving inclusive, equitable and innovative education and learning for all. It is so important that we all work together to develop sound policies and practices that do not reinvent the wheel or duplicate other onoging initiatives. Above all, we must begin with the education and learning, and not with the technology!
Once there was a brilliant young entrepreneur living in Africa. Let us call him Alfred. He wanted to make loads of money, but was also very committed to trying to improve the quality of girls’ learning and education. One evening, drinking probably too much Tusker, Alfred had a stroke of inspiration. What if he could persuade the government that giving girls high quality new running shoes would transform the quality of their learning experience, and thus their future job prospects. This was an absolute no brainer. The government would have to buy his trainers for every girl in the school system!
Schoolgirls in Ghana
But how was he to start? Many international donors are eager to support such schemes that might contribute to achievements of SDGs4 (education) and 5 (gender). So, he set about getting to know the heads of country office of some of the leading European donors, and learnt that at the heart of getting funding was the need to have a theory of change (well, really not a comprehensive “theory”, but just a basic description of how running shoes would improve girls’ learning). This was easy: good quality running shoes would enable the girls to get fitter, and it is well known that a fit body creates a fit mind; then, if they ran to and from school each day they would have more time to do their homework; and with good shoes on their feet they would not suffer as many injuries or catch diseases that might impair their learning. Alfred had to think of an inspiring name for these shoes, so that everyone would want a pair. How about “Jepkosgei” after the great young Kenyan runner who had just won the New York Marathon? She was very happy to lend her name to this incredibly exciting initiative that could transform girls’ learning.
A school classroom in Malawi
The stage was set. His friends among the donors recommended a great European university research team who would do the baseline survey as part of one of their research grants, and then they would do a follow-up evaluation at the end of the first term. The shoes would be randomly allocated to girls in classrooms in a small set of pilot schools, and the purpose was to show that giving girls smart new running shoes would indeed improve their results when compared with those in the classrooms that were not given the shoes. At the end of term, the researchers returned. Everyone was on best behaviour. What would they discover?
The results were extraordinary. In just one term, the girls had improved their scores by 20% in Mathematics and English. The researchers checked and re-checked their resuts, but there was absolutely no doubt. The President got to hear of Alfred’s great success, and eager to do well in the next elections he ordered all schools immediately to supply girls with Jepkosgei running shoes. Demand outstripped supply, but Alfred set up new factories to produce them, providing much needed employment and contributing to the country’s economic growth. Soon neighbouring countries got to hear about the impact of running shoes on girls’ learning, and they too sent in orders for tens of thousands of shoes. Alfred became a superstar. He won numerous awards at prestigious international events, and was fêted by the likes of Bill Gates and António Guterres. Alfred was an African hero transforming African girls’ learning. Why hadn’t anyone thought of this before. It was so simple.
A friendly and wise gecko
Back at the school where this all began there was a wise old gecko. He had watched and listened as the changes took place. He knew why learning had changed. When the girls had first been given their runing shoes they were so proud! They were going to be like Joyciline Jepkosgei! People were paying attention to them. For the first time in their lives they had felt appreciated at school. They wanted to respond positively. But it wasn’t just this. Other children in the school knew that if the pilot was a success, they too would be given smart new running shoes. So, they did everything they could to help ensure that their peers with the shoes would learn especially well that term. They did extra chores for them so they could concentrate on their work. They provided advice and help when something wasn’t understood. They gave them quizzes and checked they knew the right answers. The teachers also wanted to ensure that these girls did really well as a result of the running shoes, and so they put extra effort into preparing their classes, and ensuring that the girls had the best opportunities to learn, despite the limited resources. Some even helped them with the answers in the tests when the researchers came to evaluate the scheme.
It was all a wonderful success. Alfred was happy and rich, the President was happy and re-elected, the donors were happy because they could show how they delivered on the SDGs. But the girls weren’t happy, and their exam results gradually declined over the next few years. Girls’ feet grow, and their lovely bright shoes were soon too small for them. There was no way to hand them on or recycle them, and in any case after a couple of years continual use by their younger sisters they were wearing out. The government couldn’t afford to buy new shoes for all the girls. Once everyone had them, those who had been in the pilot no longer felt special, and no-one helped each other to try to improve results. In any case, the government was now more interested in the 4th Industrial Revolution, and how they could use it to control their people and further advantage those who were already rich and powerful and living in the burgeoning constantly surveilled smart cities…
The gecko, though, continued to enjoy catching insects, and watching the children play. Occasionally, he wistfully wondered why no-one had asked him how to improve girls education and learning.
Far too many initiatives using technology in education fail to learn from the experiences of others as they seek to be innovative and novel. Consequently, the same mistakes tend to be replicated over and over again. Far too many researchers likewise fail to read but a fraction of the vast literature that has been published on technology and education, and bibliographies in PhD theses in the field are increasingly often only sketchy at best.
In 2017 and 2018 I had the privilege of being asked to write a report for UNICEF on how the organisation might respond to the future interface between technology and learning. This involved reading hundreds of reports, interviewing numerous people, and drawing on my experiences across the world over the last quarter of a century. It made me realise how little I know, and how much still needs to be done.
However, in order to help others on this journey of discovery and learning, I thought it might be helpful to share a shortened version of the footnotes (34 sides) and a short summary bibliography (10 sides) that I included in that report. Many of the links to the original literature or examples are included (please let me know if any are broken so that I can try to update them!). Not least, I hope that this might reduce the flow of questions I receive from people beginning to get interested in the field, either for research or because they have a great idea that they would like to introduce in practice on the ground – most of whom have never actually read much before asking me the question! These are but starting points on a lifetime of learning and discovery, but I hope that people may find them useful.
I must stress that these are very much my own views, and in no way represent the opinions of UNICEF or those with whom I have previosuly worked. They are offered here, though, to get us all to ask some of the difficult questions about ways through which some of the poorest and most marginalised can benefit from the use of technology in education, if indeed that will ever truly be possible (at least in a relative sense).