I am delighted to see the research practice paper that I worked on and wrote with my dear friend and colleague Dr. Akber Gardezi has now been made available within the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D working paper series. It is one of the most important pieces of research that I have ever done, but academic journals did not see fit to publish it. Perhaps this is because it is indeed worthless, and we have done a disservice to all those who contributed to our research, but perhaps it may also be because it challenges too many of the taken for granted assumptions about style and content of publishing in ICT4D academic journals in the 2020s. Both Akber and I are immensely grateful to the many people in Pakistan with whom we spoke for this reseach, typified by the group of amazing women illustrated in the photo above from 2020.
I wanted the paper to be published in a good academic journal to help Akber’s career, but in the end after journal rejections we decided that the messages were too important simply to be binned in the rejection folder. I will let readers judge whether it is indeed worthless – but for those of you who think it is, please at least take away some of the important messages contained within it.
The full paper is available here, but the abstract reads as follows:
This paper reports on qualitative research undertaken to explore men’s attitudes and behaviours towards women and technology in Pakistan (in Azad Kashmir, Islamabad, Punjab and Sindh) in January-February 2020. It is premised on a concern that much research and practice on gender digital equality is based on ideas emanating mainly from North America and Europe, and may not be nuanced enough and sufficiently culturally appropriate to be relevant in different contexts, such as an Islamic state in South Asia. It builds on our previous research on mobile ‘phones and identity, as well as the use of mobiles for sexual harassment in Pakistan. Four main conclusions are drawn: first, wider aspects of Pakistan’s society and culture would need to be changed before substantial gender digital equality (as conceived in most “Western” literature) is achieved; second, there was considerable diversity in the views expressed by our participants about gender digital equality, and whilst we do draw some general conclusions these should not mask the importance of such diversity; third, despite the challenges, the last decade has seen substantial changes in the use of digital technologies by women, especially in urban areas and among the higher classes, with many more girls now studying STEM subjects and a small but growing number of women taking jobs in the tech sector; and finally, it highlights complex and difficult questions about universal and relativist approaches to gender digital equality.
Very many people contributed to this research, and it is their voices that we wanted to reproduce in the paper. Many of them asked to be named in anything we wrote, and so I reproduce the paper acknowledgements here in full:
We are extremely grateful to colleagues in COMSATS University Islamabad (especially Dr. Tahir Naeem), the University of Sindh (especially Dr. Mukesh K. Khatwani) and the International Islamic University Islamabad (Dr. Bushra Hassan) for facilitating and supporting this research. We are also grateful to those in Riphah International University (especially Dr. Ayesha Butt) and Rawalpindi Women University (especially Prof Ghazala Tabassum), as well as senior management of those companies (Alfoze and Cavalier) who helped with arrangements for convening the focus groups.
This paper is above all, though, an expression of our efforts to share the views of the many people who contributed so passionately and openly to our questions. These people (listed in alphabetical order of first names) are therefore, in practice, the originators of the views that we have sought to combine and share more widely: Aakash Kumar, Abdul Bari, Abdul Maalik, Abdul Manan, Abdul Rehman, Abdul Saud, Afsheen Altaf, Ahmed Bilal, Ali, Ali Shah, Dr. Alina Zeeshan, Amir Gohar, Amna Anwar, Anam, Andleeb Ismail, Anmol, Anzalna, Arslan Ahmad, Asad Malik, Atia-Tul-Karim, Awais Ahmed, Awais Rahat, Ayesha Kayani, Dr. Azhar Mahmood, Babar Ali, Balaj Chaudary, Bilawal Ali, Bushra Kanwal, Ch. Hussain, Ch. Murtaza, Danish Shoukat, Danyal Malik, Darima Habib, Darshana, Fahad Saleem, Fahim, Faiza Kanwal, Faiza Shah, Faizan Abrar, Fatima Seerat, Ghazala Tabbassum, Heba Mariyam, Habibullah, Hafeez ur Rehman, Hafsa, Hamid Nawaz, Hamza, Hassan, Hina Akram, Humna Ikhlaq, Ihtisham Ijaz, Kainat Aslam, Kainat Malik, Khuda Bux, M. Hamza Tahir, M. Hassan, M. Riaz, M. Wajahat, M. Hassan Zehri, Maira, Manzoor Ali, Maryam Rehmat, Mehmoona Akram, Memoona, Mishkat, Mohsin Tumio, Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Sarwar, Muhammad Zeeshan, Munawar Gul, Muqadas Saleem, Muqaddas Abid, Noman Javed, Noor Nabi, Noor ul Ain Maroof, Osama Osmani,Paras, Qayoum, Rajesh, Ramsha, Rashid Ali, Rashid Shah, Raza Asif Ali, Rehan Arshad, Renuka, Rohit Kumar, Rumaisa Feroz, Saeed Ahmed, Saima Mehar, Dr. Sajjad Manzoor, Saleha Kamal, Sameen Rashid, Saqib Hussain, Sara Shahzad, Sarfraz, Sarmed Javed, Sarwan Nizamani, Shahid Sohail, Dr. Shahwawa, Sharjeel, Shehrol Asmat , Sonia Khan, Sumaira Tariq, Syed Ahmed, Talha, Tasneem, Tehmina Yousaf, Tehreem, Usama Basharat, Usama Nasir Khan, Usama Thakur, Usman Farooq, Waleed Khan, Waqas Masood, Yasir Iqbal, Yousif Khan, and Zahra Ali. We hope that we have done them justice. All of them ticked the box indicating that they wished for their names to be recorded in material that we wrote; those few who chose to tick the box saying that they did not want their names recorded are not mentioned here, but we are very grateful to them nonetheless.
Some of the brilliant people with whom we spoke are illustrated in the images below, and I hope that what Akber and I have written does indeed do justice to the time you spent sharing your thoughts with us, and that together we can indeed begin to change attitudes towards the interactions between women and digital tech.
All of the material resulting from our research is available on the TEQtogether site in the section on our research in Pakistan, including the guidance notes that have subsequently been produced in Urdu and English based on the research.
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!
emphasised the substantial amount of existing research on spectrum efficiency and energy efficiency;
highlighted the lack of existing research on “spectrum environmental efficiency” (rather than just on energy);
reflected on the observation that, although 5G is widely seen as being more energy efficient, the total increase in traffic (and sensors) means that 5G systems as a whole require more energy than was the case with previous wireless generations;
emphasised the importance of future wireless generations being designed to reduce environmental harms;
outlined aspects of the future research agenda of the working group, including:
always taking environmental considerations (not just climate and energy) into our research practice;
what are environmental implications of using different parts of the spectrum?
how do different masts/antennae impact the environment?
new ways of assessing landscape impact
environmental implications of sensor network
recommendations for good practices by telecom/wireless companies – and regulators
It was a great pleasure to have been invited to contribute as a panellist to Session 406 of the WSIS Annual Forum on 2nd June 2022 on the theme of “Academic perspectives on WSIS and the SDGs”. This was a hybrid event, and as the picture below shows it was sadly not attended by very many people actually in Geneva! (Follow this link for my short, full presentation.)
However there was active participation online, and it was good to share some reflections on the theme. As ever, I tried to be diplomatically provocative, reflecting on my participation in the original World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva (2003) and Tunisia (2005)…
My presentation in particular emphasised the important need for the UN system to stop replicating and duplicating its efforts to use ICTs for “development” (or should this read “to serve the interests of the rich and powerful” especially the “digital barons“?); it is striking and sad, for example, that the UN Secretary General’s Roadmap for digital cooperation and Our Common Agenda make no mentions at all of the WSIS process.
My main argument was that with only eight years to go, it is essential that we start planning now for what will replace the SDGs, especially with respect to the uses of digital tech.
I did, though, also address to other themes: how academics can indeed benefit from the WSIS process (see below) as well as a short introduction to the work that we are now doing as part of the Digital-Environment System Coalition (DESC).
My main aim was to explore how thinking about the “unfree” can help us better understand the intersection between freedom and digital tech. In particular I focused on five main themes: some of the ways in which academics have previously considered the concept of freedom within the field of Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D); ways of understanding “unfreedom”; six examples of digital enslavement; the relationships between freedom, rights and responsibilities; and the ways in which people in general and academics in particular can resist enslavement by the digital barons.
The examples of digital enslavement that I briefly explored were:
We are the data
Governments enforcing use of digital systems for government services
Labour exploitation (through extending the working week)
Digital poverty and education
Digital tech contributing to modern slavery
Time precluded the inclusion of several other forms of enslavement that I might have considered. Drawing on my medievalist backgroung, I was especially interested in the role and interests of the Digital Barons.
In part, this keynote drew on arguments that I have previously addressed in more detail in
I also made it clear that appropriately designed digital tech can be used to great advantage by poor and marginalised communities, although given the theme of the confernce I concentrated exclusively on “digital enslavement” and the role of the “digital barons”.
The full slide deck (in .pdf format) is available here without the transitions and animations. It also omits the subtitles in Spanish that were included for our colleagues in Peru who had originally been planning to host us in person.
The short chapter is divided into two parts. The first on language, gender and digital tech is based on the premise that in the broad field of digital technologies, most practitioners have been blind to the gendering of language and thus perpetuate a male-dominated conceptualization of ICT4D. It addresses: the gendering of electronic parts, the use of language in ICT4D, digital technologies represented by male nouns, and computer code: bits and qubits. The second part explores some of my thoughts on the use of the term “frontier technologies”, building on another 2018 blog post.
I’m delighted that the publishers have now shared a copy of this with me, and have also given me permission to share it here. The chapter is only seven pages long, but I hope that readers may find that it challenges some of their existing thoughts about aspects of gender and digital tech. I would be delighted to carry on the conversation with anyone who mght be interested…
It was a real privilege to have been invited to give a keynote on “Open Science in Africa and for Africans: addressing the challenges” this morning at the West and Central African Research and Education Network (WACREN) 2022 conference held in Abidjan. The role of a keynote is to provoke and challenge, and so I took the opportunity to share some of the reflections and challenges that I have been struggling with over many years, and especially since I first met the inspirational CEO of WACREN, Boubakar Barry, some 18 years ago in Dakar, Sénégal at an event we participated in on Free/Libre and Open Source Software convened by Imfundo.
The six challenges on which I focused in the Keynote were:
Whose interests does Open Science really serve?
The rise of individualism: is it too late for communal science?
Which models of publication best serve Africa?
How valuable are Open Data, and for whom?
The dangers of Scientism?
Underlying my thoughts are two fundamental concerns:
If you don’t have access to, or cannot use “Open Science”, can you really benefit from it? Does “Open Science” really empower the poor and marginalised?
Is Open Science mainly a means through which the rich and powerful continue to maintain their positions of privilege? This is typified by the ways through which global corporations and companies persuade governments to make their data about citizens available as Open Data, so that these companies can then extract considerable profit from them.
The full slide deck in .pdf format is available here, and the slide below summarises my final thoughts about the ways forward.
This post was first published on the OECD’s Development Matters site on 7th February 2022, and is reproduced here with permission and under a slightly different title
UN agencies, donors, and civil society organisations have invested considerable time, money and effort in finding novel ways through which migrants, and especially refugees, can benefit from the use of digital technologies. Frequently this has been through the development of apps specifically designed to provide them with information, advice and support, both during the migration journey and in their destination countries. All too often, though, these initiatives have been short-lived or have failed to gain much traction. The InfoAid app, for example, launched by Migration Aid in Hungary amid considerable publicity in 2015 to make life easier for migrants travelling to Europe, posted a poignant last entry on its Facebook page in 2017: “InfoAid app for refugees is being rehauled, so no posting at the moment. Hopefully we will be back soon in a new and improved form! Thank you all for your support!”
However, new apps continue to be developed, drawing on some lessons from past experience. Among the most interesting are MigApp (followed by 93 668 people on Facebook) developed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as a one-stop-shop for the most up-to-date information. Another is RedSafe developed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which enables those affected by conflict, migration and other humanitarian crises to access the services offered by the ICRC and its partners. Other apps seek to be more local and focused, such as Shuvayatra (followed by 114 026 on Facebook), which was developed by the Asia Foundation and its partners to provide Nepali migrant labourers with the tools they need to plan a safer period of travel and work abroad.
Our work with migrants nevertheless suggests that in practice very few migrants in the 12 countries where we are active in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, ever use apps specifically designed for migrants. Moreover, most of those who claim to use such apps name them as Facebook, Imo, or WhatsApp, which were never originally intended as “migrant apps”. A fine balance therefore needs to be made when developing relevant interventions in combining the professional knowledge (often top-down) of international agencies with the more bottom-up approaches that focus on the digital tech already used by migrants.
Our wider research goes on to highlight four broad areas for action to complement the plethora of activities around app development:
1. Information sharing and collaboration
First, there needs to be much more information sharing and collaboration between international organisations working in this field. While an element of competition between agencies may be seen as positive in encouraging innovation, there remains far too much overlap, duplication and reinventing the wheel. The creation of a global knowledge-sharing platform on digital tech and migration could provide a first port of call that any organisation considering developing a new initiative could go to for ideas or potential collaborative opportunities.
2. No one-size-fits-all: diversity in the use of digital tech by migrants
Second, our research has shown very clearly that use of digital tech by migrants varies considerably in different areas of the world and between different groups of migrants. There is no one-size-fits-all, and context matters. Hence, practitioners should be careful when making generalisations about how “migrants and refugees” use, or want to use, digital tech.
3. Developing digital tech with migrants not for them
Third, it is important to remember that actions and policies are much more likely to succeed if they are developed with rather than for migrants. This fundamental principle is too frequently ignored, with well-meaning “outsiders” too often seeking to develop digital interventions for migrants without fully understanding their needs and aspirations. As our own research has shown, though, it is far from easy to appreciate and understand the underlying needs that different groups of migrants prioritise and how best they can be delivered.
4. Assisting migrants to help each other in using digital tech wisely and safely
Fourth, it sadly remains as true today as it was twenty years ago that many of the poorest and most marginalised still do not know how to use digital technologies effectively, appropriately, securely and safely. Many migrants contributing to our research own a smartphone or have access to one, but frequently they only have a rudimentary knowledge of how to use it optimally. Some aspire to use digital tech to learn and acquire skills, while others wish to enhance their business opportunities; in both cases, many do not know how best to do so. Few also sufficiently appreciate the very significant security, privacy and surveillance issues associated with using digital tech. The development of basic training courses – preferably face-to-face – may be one of the best investments that can be made in assisting migrants to help themselves when using digital tech.
Looking to the future
Looking to the future, the power relationships involved in the migration process mean it is likely that migrants will become increasingly controlled and subject to surveillance through the use of digital tech. In some circumstances, it might even be wiser for migrants to avoid using any form of digital tech at all. However, there are exciting opportunities to develop novel ways through which migrants might benefit further from digital tech. One of the challenges faced by many migrants is the sadness associated with being away from family and friends. While video calls can go some way to mitigate this, new developments in haptics may soon enable us to feel someone’s touch or hug.
Likewise, inserting microchips into our bodies is becoming increasingly widespread, and in the future this practice could offer real potential for migrants for example to have their qualifications and other documents actually within their bodies, or for their families to be able to track them on the often dangerous journey to their destination. Countering this, of course, is the likelihood that most authorities would use such technologies for surveillance purposes that would threaten migrants’ privacy.
As with all digital tech, it is important to remember that it can be used to do good or to harm. Many migrants are especially vulnerable, and it is incumbent on those seeking to support them that migrants are able to make their own informed decisions on how they choose to use digital tech. Often, the best interventions might well be built around improving existing ways through which migrants use apps and other digital technologies, rather than developing entirely new solutions that may never be widely used.
I am particularly grateful to G. Hari Harindranath and Maria Rosa Lorini, as well as the many other people and migrants with whom we are working, for their contributions to the ongoing research practice on which this post is based.
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.
The 2021 ITU Facts and Figures report highlighted that 2.9 billion people, or 37% of the world’s population, have still never used the Internet. Implict in this, as in almost all UN initiatives relating to digital technology, is the ideal that everyone should be connected to the Internet. Hence, many global initiatives continue to be designed to create multi-stakeholder (or as I prefer, multi-sector – see my Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development) partnerships to provide connectivity to everyone in the world. But, whose interests does this really serve? Would the unconnected really be better off if they were connected?
Walking in the Swiss mountains last month, and staying in a place where mobile phones and laptops were prohibited, reminded me of the human importance of being embedded in nature – and that of course we don’t really need always to be digitally connected.
Although I have addressed these issues in many of my publications over the last 20 years, I have never articulated in detail the reasons why people might actually be better off remaining unconnected: hence this thought experiment. There are actually many sound reasons why people should consider remaining unconnected, and for those of us who spend our lives overly connected we should think about disconnecting ourselves as much as possible. These are but a few of these reasons:
Above all, we were born to be a part of the physical world in which we live. Virtual realities may approximate (or even in some senses enhance) that physical world, but they are fundamentally different. Those who spend all of their time connected miss out on all the joys of living in nature; those who are unconnected have the privilege of experiencing the full richness of that nature.
Those who are unconnected do not have to waste time sifting through countless boring e-mails or group chats to find what is worthwhile, or the messages in which they are really interested.
The unconnected cannot give away for free their valuable data from which global digital corporations make their fortunes.
Those who are unconnected do not suffer the horrors of online harassment or digital violence.
The unconnected are not forced by their managers to self-exploit by doing online training once they are home after a day’s work, or answer e-mails/chat messages sent by their managers at all hours of the day and night.
Those who are not online don’t have to run the risk of online scams or phishing attacks that steal their savings – and the poor suffer most when, for example, their small amounts of money are stolen.
The unconnected can largely escape much of the digital surveillance now promulgated by governments in the name of “security” and “anti-terrorist” action.
The unconnected do not suffer from digital addictions to online games, gambling, or pornography.
Ultimately, being connected is akin to being enslaved by the world’s digital barons and their corporations; if you cannot stop using digital tech for a few days, let alone a week, surely you have lost your freedom?
Despite the fine sounding words of those leading global connectivity initiatives, is it really the poorest and most marginalised who are going to benefit most from being connected? Surely, this agenda of global connectivity is being driven mainly in the interests of the global corporations that will be paid to roll out the tech infrastructre, or that will benefit from exploiting the data that we all too willingly give them for nothing? Does not, for example, digital financial inclusion benefit the financial and tech companies and institutions far more than it does the poorest and most marginalised? This is not to deny that digital tech does indeed have many positive uses, but it is to ask fundamental questions about who benefits most.
I remember visiting a village in Africa with colleagues who couldn’t understand why the inhabitants didn’t want mobile phones. Walking over the hills to see their friends was more important to them than the ease of calling them up. This post owes much to that conversation.
We all need to ask the crucial questions about whose interests our often well-intentioned global digital connectivity initiatives really serve. If we wish to serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised, we must become their servants and not the servants of the world’s rich and powerful; we must be humble, and learn from those we wish to serve.
And the world’s rich and privileged also need to take care of ourselves; if we have difficulty living a day without being connected, surely we have indeed become enslaved? We need to regain our freedom as fully sentient beings, using all of our senses to comprehend and care for the natural world in which we live. May I conclude by encouraging people to think about using the hashtag #1in7offline. Take one day a week away from digital tech to experience the wonders of our world, unmediated by the paltry digital alternative. Or try taking a week away from the digital world every seven weeks. If you cannot do this, ask yourself why!