Category Archives: ICT4D

A new UN for a new (and better) global order (Part Two): seven solutions for seven challenges

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. 

Context

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.


Seven proposals


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 future for 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 conclusion

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 sector companies, 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]


[i] UN (2021) Our Common Agenda – Report of the Secretary General, New York: UN, https://www.un.org/en/content/common-agenda-report/.

[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.

[v] https://www.un.org/en/about-us/un-charter/chapter-1.

[vi] See for example my https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/04/23/digital-political-economy-in-a-post-covid-19-world-implications-for-the-most-marginalised/.

[vii] https://www.un.org/securitycouncil

[viii] This could in effect be rotational among countries within the European Union, since UN membership is based on nation states rather than regional blocs.

[ix] Perhaps even somewhere like Costa Rica, which has not had any armed forces since 1949.

[x] Although this was only created in 2019 following restructuring of the UN’s peace and security operations.

[xi] For the present purposes taken to be D1, D2, ASG, USG, DSG and SG.

[xii] For an interesting perspective, see Feltman, J. (2020) Restoring (some) impartiality to UN senior appointments, Brookings, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/restoring-some-impartiality-to-un-senior-appointments/.

[xiii] Tweet by on 23 January 2021; https://twitter.com/HochschildF/status/1352789899938824192.

[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.

[xvi] Now the FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/foreign-commonwealth-development-office.

[xvii] DFID (2016) Raising the Standard: the Multilateral Development Review 2016 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/573884/Multilateral-Development-Review-Dec2016.pdf

[xviii] Easterly, W. (2015) The SDGs should stand for Senseless, Dreamy, Garbled, Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/09/28/the-sdgs-are-utopian-and-worthless-mdgs-development-rise-of-the-rest/.  For my own condemnation of the SDGs see Unwin, T. (2015) ICTs and the failure of the Sustainable Development Goals, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2015/08/05/icts-and-the-failure-of-the-sustainable-development-goals/, and Unwin, T. (2018) ICTs and the failure of the SDGs, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2018/04/23/icts-and-the-failure-of-the-sdgs/.

[xix] Much of my work addresses this issue, but see in particular Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development, Oxford: OUP.

[xx] For more detailed argumentation, see Unwin, T. (2104) Prolegomena on human rights and responsibilities, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2014/09/01/prolegomena-on-human-rights-and-responsibilities/.  See also Onora O’Neill’s wonderful (2016) book Justice across boundaries, Cambridge: CUP.

[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.

[xxiii] https://www.un.org/en/content/digital-cooperation-roadmap/.

[xxiv] https://unsceb.org/structure.

[xxv] https://unsceb.org/high-level-committee-programmes-hlcp.

[xxvi] https://unsceb.org/sites/default/files/2021-09/Towards%20a%20United%20Nations%20system-wide%20strategic%20approach%20for%20achieving%20inclusive%2C%20equitable%20and%20innovative%20education%20and%20learning%20for%20all.pdf.

[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.

[xxviii] https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/12/1054431.

[xxix] The peacekeeping budget for 2021-2022 was US$ 6.38 billion https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/how-we-are-funded.

[xxx] https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/73/271.

[xxxi] https://en.unesco.org/partnerships/private-sector.

[xxxii] Martens, J. (2007) Multistakeholder partnerships: Future models of multilateralism? Berlin, Germany: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung; see also more recently Adams,B. and Martens, J. (2016) Partnerships and the 2030 Agenda: Time to reconsider their role in implementation, New York: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

[xxxiii] See, for example, Martens continued work as Executive Director of the Global Policy Forum

[xxxiv] Much can be learnt about these from the extensive and long-established work of the World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/.

[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.

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Filed under China, Development, Education, ICT4D, partnerships, Politics, UK, United Nations

The advantages of being unconnected to the Internet: a thought experiment

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.
  • Being unconnected means not harming the physical environment through the heavy demands digital technologies place on our precious natural world (see the work of the Digital-Environment System Coalition – DESC)
  • 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!

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Filed under Africa, digital technologies, Empowerment, ICT4D, United Nations

“We’ve seen it all before”: sketches about why so many digital tech for development initiatives fail

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”
  • Short-termism
  • 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

Problems with innovation

  • It is well known that most innovations fail
  • 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”

  • Self(ish) individualism
  • 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-termism

  • 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
    • Really?
  • Little priority given to mentoring
    • Especially 360o
  • 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.

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Filed under digital technologies, Education, ICT4D

Digital for Life?

View of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau from small tarn above Grosse Scheidegg

It was a privilege to have been invited to contribute to the panel on Digital for Life? at the Club of Rome’s annual conference today along with luminaries such as Carlos Álvarez Pereira, Ndidi Nnoli-Edozien, Anders Wijkman, Charly Kleissner, Mariana Bozesan and Bolaji Akinboro. I fear, though, that my perspective was a little different from that of many of the panelists who were from a business, financial and entrepreneurial background. It was also challenging to convey the nuances of what I had intended to say in my opening 4 minutes!

So, for anyone who might be interested, I’m posting my speaking notes here. At least, this is more or less what I had intended to say!


Digital for Life?

I think of two things when presented with this question:

  • First, that many of those developing digital technologies and indeed in the biotech sector more widely are working hard to extend human life through digital tech.  The work of Calico (subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company) and Elon Musk’s creation of Neuralink are just two examples (claiming that “that people would need to become cyborgs to be relevant in an artificial intelligence age. He said that a “merger of biological intelligence and machine intelligence” would be necessary to ensure we stay economically valuable”, Guardian, 2017).   More widely, the increasing blending of human and digital makes me think that within a relatively short period of time, perhaps already, it will not be possible for “pure humans” to survive, in a world increasingly dominated by cyborgs. For many this does not matter; for others (including me) it does. We need to think such thoughts so that we can debate them openly, thereby enabling people to reach wise judgements as to the kinds of future “we” wish to create.  This in turn of course depends on who “we” are, and here I would err on the side of relativism and diversity.  I find one single universal “we” frightening; just as I do the idea of universal individual human rights, without the balancing necessary responsibilities to ensure that diverse individuals can live side-by-side (see Unwin, 2014).
  • The second idea I would like to share is that digital technologies are becoming increasingly harmful to life (of all kinds) on planet earth.  We need to understand the negatives of technology on nature/earth/the physical environment, as well as the positive potential of its use. This is obviously important in the context of the upcoming COP26 jamboree.  Although much effort has been expended on trying to show how digital tech is squeeky-green-clean and can contribute much to a reduction in CO2 and thus “save the planet from climate change”, the truth is much dirtier.  Increasing research shows just how anti-sustainable many digital techs are: fast fashion business models (smart-phone life/owned span around a couple of years); companies preventing right to repair; environmentally harmful mining of rare-earth minerals; bitcoin using more energy than Argentina or the Netherlands; satellite pollution of outer space (akin to the way we used to treat the oceans); digital tech creating twice as much carbon emissions as the airline industry; and energy demand spiralling upwards as 5G, AI, smart cities and a world of sensors come to dominate our lives.  The Digital-Environment System Coalition (DESC) that I founded earlier this year, and to which anyone is most welcome to join, is committed to rethinking the relationships between digital tech and the life of nature, focusing on both the benefits and the harms that it can be used to create.

Page one of the participants

We had a fascinating, albeit attenuated, discussion and I look forward to continuing the exploration. I have much to learn from what others think and say. These are critically important issues if we wish to leave a better world to the next generation, and not have it transformed irrevocably by the scientism of those creating ever more enslaving and destructive digital technologies.

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Filed under DESC, digital technologies, Environment, ICT4D

Rural-urban interaction: wind turbines as a form of surplus extraction

Back in the late-1980s Robert Potter and I edited a book called The Geography of Urban-Rutal Interactions in Developing Countries (Routledge, 1989; recently republished in the Routledge Library Editions: Urbanization) as a festschrift for our colleague Alan Mountjoy who had retired in 1985. My introductory conceptual chapter summarised various theories that had by then been developed to explain and help understand the ways through which people interacted between these very different kinds of places, the “rural” and the “urban”. It also proposed a framework for new thinking about these issues that focused on linkages (economic, social, political and ideological), flows (such as labour, money, telephone calls, authority and ideas) and interactions (involving things such as capital, families, allegiance and religious activities). The book was a product of its time, and much has changed over the last 35 years – although I am glad to see that I did indeed write about telephones, radios and televisions even back then.

Crossing northern France last weekend reminded me of those arguments, as I saw kilometre upon kilometre of wind turbines stretching across the vast expanses of the farmland of the pays champenois. Some people find these turbines inspiring and beautiful; I do not! However, no-one can deny that they have changed the landscape. What struck me most, though, was that this was yet another very visible, powerful and extensive form of exploition of “the rural” by “the urban”. Little of the energy produced by these turbines will be used in the rural areas where they are situated; their presence reflects the powerful urban demand for electricity, and the imposition of an essentially urban bourgeois ideology that wants to maintain its “culture” with little real regard for the rural environment. The rural is out of sight, out of mind; it is there to be exploited.

There have been numerous studies of the environmental impact of different kinds of energy, but many of these are based on traditional forms of analyses that tend to have an inbuilt prioritisation of the interests of those living in urban areas, and almost always ignore the environmental values of “indigenous peoples” and ethnic minorities. Moreover, insufficient work has yet been done on the environmental impact of the decommissioning of wind turbines, most of which have a lifespan of less than 25 years, and are currently disposed of in landfill sites. With rising demand for electricity, driven in large part by the expansion in the use of digital technologies (see the work of DESC), there will be a dramatic increase in the number of such windfarms, and thus yet further surplus extraction of “the rural” by the “urban”.

Further north in the Nord-Pas de Calais coal mining basin (since 2012 a UNESCO World Heritage Site) it is still possible to see many of the old spoil tips. As elsewhere in the world’s coalmining regions, there has been much landscape reconstruction. Some old tips have been flattened, others have been wooded, and at least one has been turned into a dry ski slope. However, I couldn’t help but think that the despoliation of the rural landscape (and indeed seascapes) by wind turbines in Europe is likely to be very much more extensive than that caused in the past by coal mining. How, though, do we judge and evaluate such thoughts? It is time for a very considerable rethink about the environmental impacts of all forms of energy, especially in the context of the rapid growth in digital technologies. After all, does not the term “Smart Cities” automatically imply that “villages must therefore be dumb”?

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Filed under Electricity, Energy, ICT4D, Rural

A new UN for a new (and better) global order (Part One): seven challenges

The Untied Nations
Side entrance to the UN in Geneva (slightly altered)

COVID-19 has accelerated the restructuring of the global world order that was already underway in the late 2010s.[i]  If anyone remains in doubt about this, they might ponder the differences between the ways in which China and the USA were able to respond to the pandemic.  They could also reflect on the map of China’s expanding economic reach recently published by the World Government Summit.[ii]  This does not mean that one regime is “right” and the other “wrong”; what it does imply, though, is that this is the reality with which individuals and states need to come to grips.

This post explores the extent to which the UN remains fit for purpose, and whether it has the capacity to adjust appropriately to this evolving political economy in the 2020s.  An earlier draft was shared with people whose views on these matters I respect, and it has been revised substantially in the light of their recommendations.[iii]  A second post will follow focusing on suggestions for how to resolve the issues raised here.[iv]


Context

It is often said that if the UN didn’t exist, the world community would have to create such an organisation, but that it would be very different from the UN we have today.[v]  Although established in the aftermath of the global 1939-45 war, with a commitment to maintain “international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights”,[vi] today’s UN is largely a product of the neo-liberal,[vii] free-market political and economic establishment that has sought to impose its ideologies, will, and “best practices”[viii] on the world since the 1970s.  Few would agree that the (hopefully) noble ambitions of the first 50[ix] countries to sign its Charter on 26 June 1945 have been achieved.  There remains an absence of peace and security in many parts of the world, numerous nations are far from friendly with their neighbours, and global inequalities remain hugely divisive. 

Despite the efforts of large numbers of very committed and able individuals working within UN agencies, it is time for a fundamental rethink of the structures, agendas, practices and rationale of the UN system.[x]  This needs to go well beyond the limited United to Reform agenda launched by the present Secretary General in 2017.[xi]  With nine years to go until the end of the UN’s Agenda 2030, now is the time to consider putting in place very substantial structural changes that can make the UN fit for purpose for the middle of the 21st century.

This reflection addresses seven of the most important interconnected challenges facing the UN.  These vary in relevance across different UN agencies, but they are especially apparent in the context of the promotion of ICTs as a solution to the world’s “development” challenges.[xii]  It is written very much from the perspective of a “critical friend”.[xiii] The comments that follow apply equally to the UN system and Secretariat as a whole, as well as to the practices of its specific specialised organisations, agencies and funds.


Seven Challenges


1. Diversity and power: who runs the UN?

The problem: the UN largely serves the neo-liberal political interests of the USA and its allies

There has long been a commitment within the UN to appointing officials and staff at all levels from as diverse a range of countries and backgrounds as possible. Nevertheless, challenges remain in the range of countries from whom senior officials are engaged.[xiv]  Those with senior roles in the UN do not satisfactorily represent the existing balance of national power or population size in different countries of the world; India and China are considerably under-represented.

It is difficult to gain overall figures for the nationalities of senior officials across the UN system, but data concerning the nationality of those whose duty station is New York starkly illustrates the scale of this problem.[xv]  Not only is the UN Headquarters located in the USA (New York), but the number of US citizens employed in these roles vastly overwhelms those from other countries.[xvi]  The US has 6.34 places per hundred million people, whereas India has 0.72 and China 0.28.  To be sure, China now has four citizens as heads of specialised organisations and agencies (FAO, ICAO, ITU, and UNIDO) and one research and training institute (ITCILO) based outside New York, but the majority of agency heads and senior staff still represent the policies and practices of the neo-liberal free-market governments that have dominated their home countries over the last 50 years. Some UN agencies have also been criticised overtly for being essentially vehicles for the implementation of US policy.  The President of the World Bank has thus traditionally always been a US citizen nominated by the US government, and UNICEF has also been subject to such criticisms, [xvii] despite the crucially important work that it does, and the strong commitment of many of its staff to improving the lives of the world’s children.[xviii]

In the face of such US dominance, China has been quietly working behind the scenes to increase its representation and influence within the UN, and its contribution to the overall budget had risen to 12% of the total in 2020.[xix]  Feltman has thus suggested that this growing influence of China within the UN is inevitable, and that the US needs to compete actively if it wishes to retain its position as the UN’s most powerful member. [xx]  Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China makes striking reference to China’s role as a “major country” and what it needs to do to ensure that it does indeed serve in this capacity globally.[xxi]


2. Leadership: quality and diversity

The problem: the UN does not appoint the most capable and appropriate people to senior leadership positions

There are very capable and well-intentioned people working within the UN system; many of these are committed to using its reach primarily to make the world a better place.  However, as in any large organisation, this is by no means true of everyone, and both the processes through which people are elected or appointed into positions of leadership, and the calibre of many of them to provide the vision, energy and management required are often lacking.

Processes of election and appointment to high-level roles in the UN vary between agencies, but when elections are involved they are often hot-beds of political intrigue and reflect the complexities of block-voting and garnering international support for candidates.  Whereas some states hold lavish events to support their candidates, others consider that such activities are inappropriate.  I have often felt hugely sorry for very able candidates who have worked hard to try to get elected, but fail through no fault of their own – and often in large part through the failure of their own national governments sufficiently to promote them.  The net result is that the most competent candidates are not always elected or appointed to the top positions in the UN.

A second challenge is that many candidates do not have the appropriate skills or experience for the roles to which they are appointed.  Many are politicians or officials who have not reached the highest positions in their own countries, and yet are still eager to be selected for UN roles so as to find an alternative lucrative way of concluding their own careers.  UN posts at most levels are very well-remunerated, and for those who want the opportunity to travel internationally and build high-level personal networks they are indeed an attractive proposition.  Whilst the level of scandals of the past within the UN has diminished, as when the head of WIPO was forced to step down early in 2008,[xxii] the UN appointments process still does not always get it right.  A classic recent case was the appointment of the first UN tech envoy at the start of 2021.  Not only did he admit in one of his first tweets after he had been appointed that he was “a relative newcomer to the field”,[xxiii] but he was placed on leave almost immediately on appointment following complaints about his personal behaviour while previously serving as a UN Under Secretary-General and Special Advisor.[xxiv]  Regardless of the rights or wrongs of this specific case, it is surprising that the UN could proceed with such an appointment when it was already known within the system that unresolved complaints had been made against him.


3. Scale and role: a big UN or a small UN?

The problem(s): what size should the UN be; should its agencies aspire to be implementers of development interventions themselves, or should they instead provide guidance and good practices for governments to implement?

The UN was not originally created to “rule the world” or to be a body that implemented “international development”.  It was rather intended primarily to maintain peace and security and to enhance friendly relations between nations and their governments. Over time, it has become ever larger, accreting numerous additional activities to its portfolio, and particularly taking on a very wide range of “development” activities, intended to improve living standard and to promote human rights.  As its catalogue of failures has increased, particularly with respect to peace and security,[xxv] it has sought to create for itself an even greater role in implementing “development” interventions (see section 4 on the SDGs below).  

As the UN continues to grow at a time of increasing financial exigency, its core role must be re-examined and justified.[xxvi] A fundamental question is whether UN agencies should be trying to implement initiatives and projects themselves at scale (a “big UN”), or instead be giving guidance, advice and support to governments so that they can better craft initiatives in the interests of their own people (a “small UN”)? To put it very simply, does the share of the taxes paid by citizens across the world to their own governments and then given to the UN represent value for money, and is it used wisely in their overall interests.[xxvii]  Are the transaction costs too high in supporting development interventions through the UN system? In democracies, people can elect new governments; but global citizens cannot elect new UN officials. 

A challenge, though, with recommending that the UN should primarily seek to support governments in implementing their own initiatives, rather than UN agencies delivering such initiatives themselves, is that not all governments are trusted by their citizens.[xxviii]  Here, I adopt Locke’s principle that people have both a right and a duty to overthrow governments that do not serve their interests.  I see the UN’s role therefore as primarily being to help governments indeed improve the services that they offer their people, because neither the private sector nor civil society theoretically have the interests of all of the citizens as their responsibility.  It has to be governments who above all have the responsiblilty for reducing inequalities in the countries that they govern.

The UN and its agencies are mandated to undertake activities recommended and agreed by the governments comprising their membership.  In some instances there are clear needs for global agreements between multiple countries that will hopefully provide potential benefits for all, as with the international maritime regulations (IMO), the treatment of refugees (UNHCR), managing the world’s radio-frequency spectrum (ITU) or reducing changes to the environment resulting from human activities (UNEP).  However, in many other contexts there is not a strong or clear-cut argument for global agreements, and it is not always easy to justify a role for the UN, especially in terms of the implementation of “development” agendas (see section 4 below).  It is fundamentally important, for example, to consider whether UN agencies should themselves design, fund and implement programmes such as teaching girls to code across the world, or should they instead use their resources to help governments to design and implement relevant programmes in their own contexts? Should UN agencies run capacity development programmes to train any- and every-one in digital skills, or should they instead use their limited resources to train governments (both politicians and civil servants) to design and implement their own such national or regional programmes more effectively?  Answers to these questions are in part dependent on ideological positions, but it would seem that UN-designed and implemented approaches tend to lead to (i) greater dependency of governments and thus peoples on the UN, (ii) less contextually relevant initiatives, and (iii) less value for money than were the UN to focus primarily on helping governments develop better programmes of their own.


4. The failed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030

The problem: 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

I have written at length since 2015 about the reasons why the SDGs have already failed, especially in the context of digital technologies,[xxix] and many others are increasingly challenging their rationale and effectiveness.  Three issues are particularly important for this critique of the UN system.

First, the SDGs largely serve the interests of those organisations that have designed and promoted them, rather than the voiceless poor and marginalised.  In particular, they serve to enable as many UN agencies as possible to have a clear role in their implementation, either individually or collaboratively.  Since 2015, most UN agencies have thus prioritised these agendas, and have sought very clearly in their rhetoric to show how they are delivering on specific goals and targets.  This has meant that in some contexts attention has shifted away from very important areas that were considered in insufficient detail, or not at all, in the SDGs.   The SDGs (and SDG17 in particular) have also become a rallying call through which the private sector can contribute to, and some would say subvert, the global development sector.  Once again, the neo-liberal hegemony is serving its own interests in retaining power and influence.

Second, the SDGs focus primarily on increasing economic growth rather than reducing inequalities. They have therefore served the interests of private sector companies, especially large global corporations, more than they have most of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people and communities.  The recent increased attention being paid to inequalities, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic is to be welcomed, but it is too little and has not led to a major realignment of the SDGs themselves.  Moreover, at least half of the 10 SDG10 (inequality) targets have at best tenuous links with actually reducing inequalities.

Third, the SDGs have spawned yet another industry in terms of the data required to be able to tell whether they have succeeded or not.[xxx]  The companies, organisations (including UN agencies) and individual consultants who have developed these tools, created the data, and written numerous reports thereon have certainly benefited from the SDGs.  Whether the poor and marginalised in whose name this work is supposedly being done have benefited as much remains to be seen.


5. Duplication, overlap and reinventing the wheel

The problem: the UN system is beset by duplication of effort, overlap, and reinvention of the wheel between agencies, and even in larger agencies between the various silos within them

Despite the opportunities provided by the SDGs for collaboration, all too often agencies compete with each other for “ownership” thereof, and the central UN Secretariat is also increasingly competing with the agencies mandated with specific responsibilities.  In summary, the UN suffer from three man challenges around these issues: it is riven by competition and overlap of effort between agencies, in part driven by the personal agendas of their leaders; there is increasing competition in certain fields between the aspirations of the central UN Secretariat and the UN’s many separate agencies;[xxxi] and all too often these agencies themselves seek to take on activities that others outside the UN system are already doing, often actually much better than the UN could ever do in its present format.

A classic example of this was the work of the UN Chief Executives Board for Co-ordination (CEB) and the High Level Committee on Programmes in 2018 and 2019 to develop and reach agreement between agencies on system-wide strategies for the future of AI, the future of work, and the future of education.  UNICEF and UNESCO brought together 21 UN agencies to develop a cogent approach to what the UN needed to do at a system-wide level to enhance the delivery of appropriate and relevant learning and education, and their report was welcomed by the CEB in May 2019.[xxxii]  Very shortly thereafter, though, the relatively new DG of UNESCO launched a high-profile initiative on the Futures of Education: Learning to Become, with a “distinguished” Commission to consider inputs received from the various consultation processes.[xxxiii] This was a clear attempt to place the organisation once again very much at the centre of UN work in education, and made no mention of the recent UN system-wide efforts to co-ordinate efforts between agencies more closely.  Most of the effort and good will generated in trying to reach a UN system wide approach to the future of learning was dissipated and lost. One cannot but ask “what was the point” of the HLCP and CEB’s work to this end?

Another classic case of duplication and re-inventing the wheel was the creation in 2018 by the UN Secretary General of the High-Level Panel of Digital Cooperation, co-chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, whose recommendations ultimately led to “his” Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.[xxxiv] The full stories of the machinations behind the creation of the panel and roadmap, as well as the subsequent bizarre appointment process of the Secretary General’s Digital Champion remain to be told (see also section 2 above).  Despite the best efforts of the panel’s Secretariat, though, many of the consultations largely repeated discussions that had been held many times before by those involved and added little new to global understanding.  Much of the report contains well-known platitudes, and although civil society was involved in the consultations upon which the recommendations were based, the dominant voices were largely those of governments, UN agencies and the private sector.  Paradoxically, whilst its overt aim was to enhance digital co-operation, in practice it also served as a means through which different UN agencies could claim primacy in various areas of the digital agenda, not least as expressed through their roles as “Champions” in the Roundtable discussion (as with the ITU and UNICEF on global connectivity, UNICEF and UN Global Pulse on Digital Public Goods, UN Women on digital inclusion and data, or OHCHR on digital human rights).  It remains to be seen whether the emerging architecture of this agenda will indeed enable greater co-operation or instead lead to greater division within the UN system on matters digital, but six months after the newly appointed technology envoy was put on administrative leave there remains little leadership and direction. Perhaps its main outcome will have been its efforts to revitalise the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) as something other than merely the talking shop that it was originally designed to be.


6. Scale and Finance

The problem: the UN’s ambitions go well beyond the budget available to fund them

The increasing aspirations of UN agencies come at a time when budgets are tight and many donors are reluctant to increase funding because they believe that other organisations can deliver better results, especially with respect to development outcomes.  The UK Multilateral Development (formerly Aid) Review thus warned in 2016 that funding for the FAO, IOM and UNESCO was at risk unless their performance improved, having already ceased core funding to UNIDO, ILO, UNISDR and UN Habitat as an outcome of its previous review in 2011.[xxxv]

Consequently, UN agencies have increasingly turned to other sources of funding, particularly from private sector companies and global corporations, but also in some instances from individual donations, as with UNICEF.  Some of the implications of this are addressed in section 7 on partnerships, but it is important here to note that all too often staff in UN agencies see the private sector primarily as a source of funding the initiatives that the agency wants to implement, rather than truly benefitting from a company’s specific industrial or technological expertise, their business acumen, or their management strengths.  This is particularly so in initiatives linked to digital technologies.  If a company’s business model is not sustainable, then it will go bust; companies therefore have much to contribute to an understanding of sustainability within the context of the SDGs.  The private sector of course has immense value in driving economic activity, and can contribute hugely to appropriate development interventions.  It is just that its real strengths are rarely appreciated by most of those working in and for UN agencies.

The increasing need for funding to boost the aspirations of the leadership of UN agencies, linked in part to their own personal ambitions, but also the mandates that they negotiate with their member states, gives rise to potential conflicts of interest for the UN.  Many governments also see the involvement of private sector companies in their own countries that have been developed through liaison with UN agencies as a way to deliver their own agendas, which are not always exclusively in the interests of their people, and especially the poorest and most marginalised.  Governments also do not always fully appreciate or account for the financial risks in taking on large loans for “development” projects be they from China, the World Bank, or the USA. 

It must therefore be asked whether the UN and its specialised agencies should actively be seeking to increase funding through sources other than national government regular member contributions, or whether they should cut their coats to suit their cloth?  After all most UN agencies were never intended in origin to be implementers of development interventions.  A strong argument can therefore be made that if UN agencies were indeed truly serving the needs of member states, then members should indeed fund them to deliver those needs. 


7. Partnerships and the restructuring of global governance

The problem: 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.  

I have written much previously about the potential and challenges of partnerships with the private sector and civil society in international development,[xxxvi]  and I remain committed to their positive potential. The reality, though, is all too often that they work primarily in the interests of private sector companies, despite their usual claims that they are intended to benefit the poor and marginalised.

In a comprehensive and hugely prescient 2007 review of the potential of partnerships in the context of the UN, Jens Martens highlighted seven governance concerns relating to its growing trend of partnerships with the private sector:[xxxvii]

These predictions have all come to pass to a greater or lesser extent, and what is of most concern is that few global leaders seem to consider any of them to be a real problem.  The advocates of neo-liberalism and those promoting the ever-increasing role of the private sector in national and international governance, at the expense of states, seem to have achieved their objectives, subtly and surreptitiously behind the scenes.  The rise to power of the private sector within the UN system over the last 20 years is quite remarkable, and this is especially so with respect to digital technologies and the pharmaceutical sectors.

The prominent emphasis on partnerships within the UN system has also had practical problems, notably the lack of transparent and effective partnership structures, and confusion over the concept of mutistakeholderism.  On the first of these, it is remarkable how many, often widely-acclaimed “partnerships” or coalitions within the UN are based on at best flimsy partnerships structures.  The UN Global Compact[xxxviii] can claim to provide a mechanism through which companies can support the UN, but it remains voluntary, and few individual agencies have their own internal structures and agreements about how they should engage systematically and rigorously with partners.  It is well known, not least through some of the excellent work of the World Economic Forum,[xxxix] that a rigorous and comprehensive framework must be created early on for a partnership to have any chance of success.  Sadly, failure to design such comprehensive frameworks beforehand means that all too often UN partnership do not achieve what they set out to do, and even sometimes what they claim to have done.

There are also fundamental problems with the notion of multistakeholderism,[xl]  since different people and organisations define it in varying ways. While it is usually taken to mean partnerships that in some way involve governments, the private sector and civil society, the word itself only really means that many stakeholders are involved.  Frequently, this is little more than subterfuge, moving away from the increasingly discredited notion of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), but still focusing mainly on the interactions between the private sector and governments, through co-opting favourable others (from civil society or academia)[xli] within them.  Partnerships that combine civil society on equal terms with governments and companies, are much better termed “multi-sector” (reflecting the three sectors).[xlii]


In conclusion

Most people in the world have little if any understanding of what the UN is, have never heard of most of its agencies, and are completely unaffected by its actions.[xliii]  The arguments for a small, efficient and highly focused UN system would seem to be powerful in the face of such criticisms.[xliv] The diversity of interests represented by national states and regional blocks requires a competent, and highly professional organisation for mediation and the sharing of good practices in the interests of global peace, harmony and well-being.

This reflection has highlighted seven of the most pressing and interconnected challenges affecting the ability of the UN system to function effectively, especially in serving the interests of the vast majority of the world’s people, and also particularly in the context of the use of digital technologies.  In summary, these are:

  • The UN does not serve the interests of the majority of the world’s people, and needs to be restructured so that it does.
  • It has grown haphazardly and surreptitiously 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.
  • The SDG project and Agenda 2030 largely serve the UN’s own interests, has already failed, and will achieve little in reducing the inequalities that are all too prevalent across the world.
  • There is an immense amount of waste within the UN system, with an excess of duplication, overlap and reinvention of the wheel; the world’s poor can ill-afford such excess.
  • A large UN is living beyond its means, and has thus increasingly had to turn to other sources, and especially the private sector, for funding.
  • The consequent loosely defined “partnerships” that have been constructed, 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.
  • Finally, with some notable exceptions, the quality, experience, expertise and diversity of leadership within the UN system are not appropriate for the tasks that it has taken upon itself.

In essence, the neo-liberal hijacking of the UN system has made the UN part of the problem rather than part of the solution. It is time for change.  Part Two suggests some of the radical changes that need to be made for the UN to become the sort of organisation that many of its employees hoped that it could be when they joined it, and that the 7.9 billion people of the world urgently need to avoid the many crises that continue to beset us all.


Endnotes

[i] Unwin, T. (2020) Digital-political-economy in a post-COVID-19 world: implications for the most marginalised, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/04/23/digital-political-economy-in-a-post-covid-19-world-implications-for-the-most-marginalised/.

[ii] World Government Summit in collaboration with Kerney National Transformations Institute (2021), Map of China’s expanding economic reach, https://www.worldgovernmentsummit.org/docs/default-source/publication/2021/21-priorities-for-governments-in-2021-english.pdf?sfvrsn=e1d5c576_2

[iii] Among the many piece of helpful advice were suggestions: to shorten it; to tighten the argument around fewer key issues; to refer overtly to “corruption” (a word with which I have problems as discussed in this piece); to tone down some of the language, so that the audiences it is intended for may be more prepared to listen (my earlier suggestion that the UN was bloated did not go down too well; however, I had not even referred to the USA as being neo-imperial in the first draft); to clarify use of terms such as “neo-liberal”; and to justify the focus on governments, when many of these are seen to be problematic.  I have tried to do all of these, and remain grateful for everyone’s comments.

[iv] Parts one and two will be available to download separately in.pdf format once completed.

[v] See, for example, https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/climate-change/the-un-if-it-didnt-exist-we-would-have-to-invent-it/

[vi] https://www.un.org/un70/en/content/history/index.html

[vii] By the term neo-liberalism, I refer to market-oriented reform intended to enhance free-market capitalism and the reduction of state influence in the economy and society.  While this is a term that I deliberately continue to use to refer to changes that took place initially in the USA and Europe from the 1970s onwards, I recognise that it is less popular among many academics and politicians in the USA.  I use the term explicitly to argue that neo-liberalism should be replaced by greater state control and regulation in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised, so that global inequalities fostered by neo-liberalism can be reduced.

[viii] For my critique of the notion of best practices see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/icts-for-education-initiatives/ written in 2013, and expressed more strongly in 2018 https://unwin.wordpress.com/2018/06/29/interesting-practices-in-the-use-of-icts-for-education/.

[ix] https://research.un.org/en/unmembers/founders

[x] I have many hugely able and committed friends who work within the UN system, and have great admiration for the work that they do.  This commentary should in no way be seen as a personal criticism of them, but is rather an account of the structural challenges that they face in trying to fulfil their aspirations of a better world.

[xi] United to Reform, https://reform.un.org/.

[xii] My observations are all grounded in practice, and friends and colleagues will recognise the details of some of our shared experiences, although they are presented here in a generalised form so that specific institutions or individuals can usually not be identified.  I hope that they are taken in the constructive sense in which they are intended. Where relevant, references to other works that have referred to the matters addressed are also included in footnotes.

[xiii] Although, as although as Chairholder of a UNESCO Chair some might say that I have indeed been within the system since 2007! 

[xiv] While some recent progress has been made with respect to gender, the UN is also poor in terms of the inclusion of people with disabilities within its constituent bodies.  It was thus a very real pleasure to meet some years ago with W Aubrey Watson, who was appointed in 2014 as Antigua and Barbuda’s Permanent Representative to the UN, the first ever person with a declared disability to hold such a role. See https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/94/2/16-030216/en/.

[xv] UN (2021) Senior Officials of the United Nations and Officers of Equivalent Rank whose Duty Station is New York, 3rd May 2021, https://www.un.org/dgacm/sites/www.un.org.dgacm/files/Documents_Protocol/listofunseniorofficials.pdf.

[xvi] The scale of this problem is reinforced when countries with smaller populations are also included, and it is salient to note that many European countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Norway each have four such officials, with Sweden having five and the UK seven; Canada has ten such officials.

[xvii] See Lieberman, A. and Saldinger, A. (2017) Former USAID chief Henrietta Holsman Fore possible pick for top UNICEF job, Devex, https://www.devex.com/news/former-usaid-chief-henrietta-holsman-fore-possible-pick-for-top-unicef-job-91490, and Alyson, S. (2021) UNICEF values diversity. Except at the top, Karma Colonialism, https://karmacolonialism.org/unicef-values-diversity-except-at-the-top/. An interesting report from the Brooking’s Institute also shows that there is a statistically significant correlation between trust in the US and trust in the UN: the more people mistrust the US government, the more they mistrust the UN.  The Brookings Institute report goes on to suggest that this association “is driven by respondents’ view of the UN as a tool of intervention by its dominant member, the United States” (Call, C.T., Crow,D. and Ron, J. (2017) Is the UN a friend or foe, Brookings Institute, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2017/10/03/is-the-un-a-friend-or-foe/.

[xviii] https://www.unicef.org/public-partnerships/united-states-america. Moreover, the National Committee of the USA contributes a further US$ 286 million, https://www.unicef.org/partnerships/funding.

[xix] Cheng-Chia, T. and Yang, A.H. (2020) How China is remaking the UN in its own image, https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/how-china-is-remaking-the-un-in-its-own-image/ (although this article contains several important errors), and Fung, C.J. and Lam, S-H. (2020) China already leads 4 of the 15 UN specialized agencies – and is aiming for a 5th, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/03/03/china-already-leads-4-15-un-specialized-agencies-is-aiming-5th/.

[xx] Feltman, J. (2020) China’s expanding influence at the United Nations-and how the United States should react, Brookings Institute, Global China, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/FP_20200914_china_united_nations_feltman.pdf.

[xxi] Xi Jinping (2014-2020) The Governance of China, 3 volumes, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

[xxii] See report in Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-un-wipo-chief-idUSL152966620071115 and https://news.un.org/en/story/2005/12/163542-major-accounting-firm-clears-un-intellectual-property-body-corruption

[xxiii] Tweet on 23rd January 2021.

[xxiv] Kirkpatrick, L.E. (2021) The new UN Tech Envoy is put on leave pending an investigation, Passblue, https://www.passblue.com/2021/01/27/the-new-un-tech-envoy-is-put-on-leave-pending-an-investigation/.

[xxv] Some might seek to claim otherwise, but the continuation of widespread war and violence into the 21st century, from the Gulf Wars, to Afghanistan, Syria, North Africa, Yemen, Mozambique and Ethiopia suggests that whilst there have indeed been no major global wars to compare with the 1939-45 war, the UN has failed to bring peace and security to many millions of people.

[xxvi] A limited survey or people in only 34 countries in 2019 by the Pew Research Centre suggest that the UN is generally perceived positively https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/23/united-nations-gets-mostly-positive-marks-from-people-around-the-world/.

[xxvii] The UK’s Multilateral Aid Review of 2016 provides one comparative overview of agencies’ performance (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/573884/Multilateral-Development-Review-Dec2016.pdf) indicating considerably variability in terms of organisational strength and alignment with UK objectives;  UNESCO scored particularly poorly).

[xxviii] I dislike using the word “corruption”, which commentators on an early draft suggested I should raise here.  Often, the word “corruption” seems to be used to disparage others, when actually it refers merely to a different moral framework to that of the person using the word.  Many bankers and government officials in north America and Europe are in this sense as corrupt as officials in other parts of the world who believe it is right to give their family members jobs once they are in positions of power.  This probably reflects my antipathy towards universalism, and my celebration of diversity and relativism.

[xxix] Unwin,T. (2015) ICTs and the failure of the sustainable development goals; Unwin,T. (2017) Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development, Oxford: OUP, Unwin, T. (2018) (2018) ICTs and the failure of the SDGs.

[xxx] See, for example, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2014/sep/24/gathering-data-sustainable-development-crippling; Jerven, M. (2016) How much will a data revolution in development cost?, Forum for Development Studies, 44(1), 31-50, Jütting,J. and Badiee, S. (2016) Financing SDG data needs: what does it cost?, Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Goals.

[xxxi] This is also a notable problem within the Commonwealth, where the Commonwealth Secretariat instead of collaborating constructively with the leading Commonwealth Associated Organisations, often seeks to compete with them, frequently reflecting the personal agendas of staff in the Secretariat.

[xxxii] https://undocs.org/en/CEB/2019/1/Add.4.

[xxxiii] https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/initiative.

[xxxiv] https://www.un.org/en/content/digital-cooperation-roadmap/; https://www.un.org/en/content/digital-cooperation-roadmap/assets/pdf/Roadmap_for_Digital_Cooperation_EN.pdf; see also the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation (2019) The Age of Digital Interdependence, https://www.un.org/en/pdfs/HLP%20on%20Digital%20Cooperation%20Report%20Executive%20Summary%20-%20ENG.pdf.

[xxxv] DFID (2016) Raising the Standard: the Multilateral Development Review 2016, London: DFID, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/573884/Multilateral-Development-Review-Dec2016.pdf

[xxxvi] See,for example, Unwin, T. (2015) Multistakeholder partnerships, in: Mansell, R, and Ang, P.H. (eds) The International Encyclopedia of Digital Communication and Society, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, and Unwin,T. (2017) Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development, Oxford: OUP.

[xxxvii] Martens, J. (2007) Multistakeholder partnerships: Future models of multilateralism? Berlin, Germany: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung; see also more recently Adams,B. and Martens, J. (2016) Partnerships and the 2030 Agenda: Time to reconsider their role in implementation, New York: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

[xxxviii] Global Compact, https://www.unglobalcompact.org; its ten principles are at https://www.unglobalcompact.org/what-is-gc/mission/principles.

[xxxix] Unwin, T. and Wong, A. (2012)  Global Education Initiative: Retrospective on Partnerships for Education Development 2003-2011, Geneva: World Economic Forum

[xl] See my Multistakeholderism and consensus decision making in ICT4D,  https://unwin.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/multistakeholderism-and-consensus-decision-making-in-ict4d/

[xli] Given that most universities are now in effect businesses, I prefer to see them as falling within the private sector rather than as separate sector.

[xlii] Although within the UN system (such as UNESCO) the term sector is often used to describe the different parts of an agency and is thus deemed to be inappropriate to be used to refer to partnerships.

[xliii] With reference to the UN’s flagship SDGs for example, a 2020 survey by YouGov in the UK suggested that 56% of people in Britain were not at all aware of the targets, while 27% had heard of them but were unfamiliar with what they involve.

[xliv] The UN’s own survey in 2020 for UN75 (https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/un75report_september_final_english.pdf) suggested that 60% of respondents believed the UN has made the world a better place, but more than half see is as remote from their lives.  Although more than a million people across the world contributed, the survey design itself was problematic.

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Filed under ICT4D, Politics, Private Sector, United Nations

On PhDs (in ICT4D): the good, the bad and the ugly

Several friends in recent weeks have contacted me about whether or not they should consider doing a PhD – and the first question I always ask is “why?”. How they answer that has a huge impact on how I answer their own question. However, it has made me realise that although I have written many bits and pieces about the changing character of a PhD, I have never pulled them all together into a single place. This reflection is therefore in part a summary of how I see PhDs as having changed since I completed all 642 pages of my own thesis in 1979 (having started in 1976). I hope that the insights I have gained in the 41 years since then may be of value not only to those considering doing a PhD, but also more widely to others engaged in the supervision and management of doctoral research in universities.

In summary, whilst there continue to be some brilliant students who complete outstanding theses within three years, the sad truth is that over the last 25 years the PhD has become significantly devalued and corrupted. It is time for fundamental change in PhD “production”.

I say this with enormous regret, since I see the PhD process as being of huge value and importance. It is, though, the only conclusion I can reach after having supervised 28 MPhil and PhD students since the mid-1980s (across different disciplines, and most as the only or first PhD supervisor), having examined PhDs in some 25 universities in 11 countries, having served for a decade on the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission (2004-14), and having also held various other roles relating to postgraduate research and training.

The following inter-related issues seem to be of most importance:

Not all PhDs are equal

There are huge differences in the requirements for and the quality of PhDs, not only between different countries, but also within countries, and even between departments in the same university. This is despite the use of external examiners who are meant to be arbiters of equivalence, and also despite the observation that most universities have fairly similar broad criteria for a PhD that focus on the advancement of knowledge through theoretical and empirical work. Imagine, for example, my shock when I was asked to agree to a PhD being awarded, thinking as I do that usually some 6 months of empirical field research is required for a good PhD in my field(s), only to be told that two weeks in the field was deemed to be sufficient by the university in question. The quality of expected intellectual curiosity, analytical acuity, conceptual ability, quantity of work, linguistic capability, and many other factors all vary hugely. The best PhDs remain outstanding pieces of research, but that cannot be said of all. Sadly, almost anyone with some ability can now be awarded a PhD at some university, even without resorting to some of the corrupt practices outlined further below.

Money talks and grade inflation

Grade inflation is well known at the undergraduate level (see for example Richmond, 2018; Lambert, 2019), but it has also happened at the Master’s level and even with PhDs. Unfortunately many (although again I stress not all) Master’s courses are poorly taught, and often seem to be mainly a means for universities to make as much money as possible from students willing to pay to differentiate themselves from their peers by having an additional Master’s qualification. This is a global phenomenon, but happens even in some UK universities that have a good reputation, which enables them to attract numerous higher fee-paying students from oversees. As undergraduate degrees become of lower value, it makes increasing sense for those students who can afford it to opt to get a step ahead by doing a Master’s degree – regardless of its quality. I have heard far too many stories of students paying to do a Master’s degree in a presitigious university, fully aware of the poor reputation of the teaching on the course, but still choosing to do so because of its perceived future benefit for their careers. Sadly there is a conspiracy of silence over this, because few students are willing to say publicly how poor the courses are, because that would immediately devalue them and thus their own status. Likewise no academic is likely to say that they teach a poor course, even if they rarely actually teach much of it themselves because they are too busy doing research and instead leave most of the teaching load to teaching assistants. The same is increasingly happening at the doctoral level. Universities are desperate for the much larger funds that PhD students bring – especially from overseas – and having accepted students they will do almost anything to ensure that they pass in one way or another. This can only lead to a lowering of quality.

The duration of a PhD

In the distant past, PhDs could unfortunately sometimes become a lifetime’s work, although they were never really intended to be this, and it has always been possible to complete an excellent PhD within three years. The expected duration of a PhD also varies somewhat between countries with different academic traditions. Nevertheless, from the 1980s onwards in the UK, Research Councils with their concerns to show value-for-money put increasing pressure on universities to limit the term of a PhD to a maximum of 4 years. Today, many universities insist that students must submit within four years, and failure to do so means that a degree is not awarded. In part this is driven by competition in league tables that include completion rates in their calculations, but it has also unfortunately often had the effect of reducing the quality of work submitted. In my experience, students who come from different academic traditions and more disadvantaged backgrounds often find it very difficult to adjust to starting a PhD in the UK, and I know that several of my own students in the past who completed very good PhDs would simply not have been able to do this within the 4-year limit now imposed. That would have been a shame, because they produced excellent PhDs and have gone on to do great things.

The pre-requisites for doing a PhD

It may seem strange for some to think that in the 1970s I went straight from doing an undergraduate degree to completing a PhD successfully. Now in the UK, most students must have at least one Master’s degree before starting, and even then they still have to do large amounts of postgraduate training especially in their first years of a PhD. In part this reflects the grade inflation that has so beset the sector over the last quarter of a century, with many people saying that Master’s degrees now are about the same standard that undergraduate degrees were from the “best” universities only a few years ago. However, it also reflects the increasing complexity of PhDs, and the requirement for postgraduates who wish to teach to gain relevant skills and training for their future academic career whilst doing their PhDs. Nevertheless, I still believe that a well-supervised, well-educated, outstanding undergraduate should be able to embark on a PhD without the necessity of spending time completing a Master’s qualification just for the sake of the certificate, especially when it is poorly taught and not necessarily of direct relevance to the topic of their proposed PhD.

Many other prospective students also seem to think that just because they have gained a Master’s degree somewhere (indeed anywhere in the world) that means they are undoubtedly capable of getting a PhD. This is very far from the truth. Only a few Master’s students in my experience have the inellectual curiosity and acuity successfully to complete a high quality PhD.

The challenges of part-time PhDs

I was recently asked if I thought that someone could successfully complete a PhD whilst also holding down a full-time job elsewhere. I responded quite simply “no”! It is extremely difficult if not impossible to do this and to submit a good thesis within a reasonable time period. Part-time degrees are meant to imply just that, namely that the student is also doing part-time paid work as well (not full-time), and if a full-time PhD is meant to be 3-4 years in length, then a part-time one, working >20 hours a week on it would require dedicated commitment for seven years which is a very tough order. I stand by this statement, and find it almost incredulous that some people can think of working 40-50 hours a week in paid employment and also do a PhD – especially when I feel that good PhD students should be committed to working at least 50 hours a week on their research for three entire years (with a few short holiday breaks). Yet many people still sadly do seem to think that they can complete a PhD with only a minimal amount of effort. This sadly just goes to show how the status of a PhD has fallen over the last half century!

There was definitely a time, though, in the mid-2000s when I very much championed the cause of part-time distance-based PhDs, and encouraged several people living in various parts of the world to join our ICT4D (Information and Communication Technology for Development) research community whilst working part-time in paid employment. This placed heavy burdens on them, and also on me as a supervisor, but it taught me a huge amount. None of them found it at all easy – and some found it very, very tough. However, they succeeded. Back in 2007 I therefore drafted a paper based on these experiences, although somehow never bothered to make the small number of revisions requested by a journal editor for it to be published. Having re-read it recently, I still think it has something of interest to say to those who are thinking of embarking on such a mode of PhD research and am now making it available here for anyone who might be interested – although it is undoubtedly somewhat dated.

Whose PhD actually is it?

I, perhaps too simplistically, still believe that in most cases a PhD should be the work of a single person, who actually does all, or certainly the vast majority, of it, from the research, fieldwork and analysis, to the writing up and presentation. To be sure things are sometimes more complex in laboratory sciences, or on expeditions when team work is essential, but even then the actual PhD should remain largely the work of one person – supported and guided by a supervisor (or a supervisory team) – and the precise amount contributed by others clearly stated. Not so long ago, supervisors worked carefully with their students, regularly going through manuscripts and helping them improve the quality of their academic writing. This is especially important when working with students from different cultures and academic traditions, and whose first language may not be the language in which the PhD has to be written. In the past, I often found myself spending a whole day going through a 10,000 word chapter for a student, and suggesting revisions to the text that could improve it. Increasingly, though, academics are discouraged from assisting students with developing these academic linguistic skills, because they don’t have the time to do it, because they are told that this is specialist work for support services to do, or because students who are accepted to do a PhD should already have these skills; sometimes students even object to supervisors commenting in detail about such things as sentence structure and written style, even though such comments are designed to help them develop these relevant skills!

A very specific, but increasingly common, issue arises when students send their draft work to an external “proof reader” before submitting it (there are many examples of companies offering this service, such as Scribendi, ProofReading, or Oxbridge Proofreading). It is relatively easy for a supervior to see when this happens, because there appears to be a dramatic, overnight, improvement in the quality of a student’s written work. It is, though, exceedingly difficult to know how much of a manuscrpt is actually written by the student, and how much by the “proof reader”. Given that having a PhD in a given language is meant to be indicative of the academic abilities of a person in that language, it seems to me that any substantial revision by someone other than a supervisor suggesting revisions to a draft is unacceptable.

At a further extreme, there are very clear examples of students getting a “friend” to do some of the work for them, such as doing the statistical calculations, drafting figures, preparing the templates, or even rewriting parts of it. If a thesis is meant to be a student’s own work, then these practices are likewise not acceptable. I remember drawing more than 50 figures with stencils and a Rotring pen for my own thesis, each of which took at least a day to complete – and that was without all of the computer generated graphs as well (which took some time to do back in the 1970s)!

Corruption within the system.

There are indeed many good supervisors, PhD students and management systems to support them across the world, but it also needs to be recognised that there are also many poor systems and outright corruption that must be rooted out, not least in my own country, the UK. Some dubious practices have already been suggested above, but these pale into significance when compared with the following examples.

Poor supervision and problematic examination boards

Sadly, there remain too many examples of poor doctoral supervision, although in my experience almost every academic I know well is hugely committed to this role, and sees it as a central and enjoyable part of their work. It is after all the main means through which new blood is brought into the system! Nevertheless, I am personally aware that the following practices still occur, and I am sure there are many others as well:

  • One of the main complaints is that some supervisors only rarely see their students. This has always been the case, but I know of cases where students have still had to complete their theses with only a handful of supervisory meetings over three years, and have been discouraged from making formal complaints about this because their supervisor is a “good academic researcher” and colleague in a department. Most students in such situations are also under severe pressure, not least because supervisors are often required as referees in their subsequent job applications, and in disciplines where supervisors are expected to be named authors on papers to make a complaint would severely handicap the submission of future publications from their theses.
  • Other supervisors have been known to use their students’ work primarily to build their own career and without giving them the credit for their original research [Partly for this reason, I have never asked to be an author on my students’ papers, and only ever write joint papers with them when I do a substantial amount of the actual research].
  • Some supervisors have tried to prevent their students from submitting their theses – occasionally right at the last minute – even when they themselves haven’t made the time to read and comment on final drafts. [It should always be up to the student to decide when a thesis is submitted].
  • Others are willing to take on large numbers of doctoral students for the prestige and income they generate, but know they don’t have time to supervise them all properly; the weakest often fail to swim and eventually drop out.
  • When it comes to the examination, it is sadly often the case that supervisors tend to try to find “softer” examiners for “weaker” candidates.
  • As an external examiner, I have also encountered very strong (and indeed quite upsetting) pressure from internal committees to change my mind; at least I won’t be asked to be an external again for such universities! [Increasingly, I have found myself warning universities that I will make judgements according to the standards that I consider appropriate, and when I suspect that a candidate may be weak I do not accept the invitation to be an external examiner. I have also been known to give my honest opinion of a piece of work, whilst adding the caveat that I don’t know the normal standard acceptable in an institution/country, and I would of course be willing to discuss the matter further].
  • I have recently been made aware of the term “Sexually Transmitted Degrees”, which is apparently quite common in certain parts of the world, particularly for undergraduates, but also occasionally for postgraduate degrees as well. I have to admit to being shocked that I hadn’t known of this term until the last few years – perhaps this shows just how naïve I am! It is, though, an issue that must be addressed – and the complexities involved mean that this is not necessarily always as easy as might at first sight be thought.

Fortunately, systems are being put in place by many universities to reduce such practices, but they do still exist, and tighter mechanisms need to be implemented to reduce poor supervisory and examination practices.

Student corruption

Much has been said and written before about problems with the supervisory process, but a few doctoral students are also themselves engaged in clearly corrupt practices. The extent of such corruption globally is unknown (although see Osipian, 2012; Denisova-Schmidt, 2018), but some inappropriate practices with which I am familiar include:

  • Paying someone to write part or all of a thesis. There is a fine line between this and the increasingly common use of “copy editors” noted above, but the widespread and sophisticated use by universities of plagiarism detecting software (such as Turnitin) has meant that those students who don’t have the time (or ability) to write their theses are now turning to professional dissertation and thesis writing services (see for example, Study Aid Essays, British Hub, UK Top Consultant, WritePaperForMe). One of these brazenly advertises its services as follows:

For 9 Years … has supported over 3,000 undergraduate, postgraduate & doctorate students with original custom essays, proposals, reports, literature reviews, full dissertations and statistical analysis in a wide range of subject areas

  • Arranging for a friend who will be supportive to serve as the external examiner. This should be precluded by the systems a university has in place for the appointment of examiners, but I even know of a case where it appears there was collusion between the student and the supervisor to ensure that a favourable friendly examiner was appointed.
  • Unfounded malicious accusations by students against their supervisors with the intent of ensuring that they are awarded their doctorates. Although these cases are rare, it is easy for a student to blame a supervisor for their own failings. Despite the apparent power relationships in favour of supervisors, some universities are so concerned about the “bad press” that can follow in such circumstances that they tend to find ways through which the student can succeed, even when the consequent standard is low.
  • The giving of lavish gifts by a student to their supervisor. This can be hugely complex, especially because gift giving has varying meanings and significance in different cultures. Nevertheless, it can be very problematic for a supervisor to accept expensive gifts from a postgraduate student before the award of the degree, even when there is no devious intent behind it [Gifts of appreciation after the award of a degree do, though, still seem appropriate should a student wish to give them].
  • I know several examples where doctoral students have not done the empirical field research themselves, but have instead paid for assistants to do it on their behalf, and do not acknowledge or admit such “help” in the text of a thesis. Given that I expect a thesis to be “all the student’s work” (see above), I cannot condone this practice, but I am aware that it seems to be acceptable by some universities in certain circumstances. Translation also represents a challenge, and I confess that in the past I have usually insisted that students learnt a language of the country in which they were doing their research.
  • I have not myself encountered cases where thesis data have been fraudulently “created”, but notorious examples exist, and the scale of this problem is undoubtedly greater than many people care to admit, not only in postgraduate research but also more widely in academia (see Hopf, Mehta and Matlin, 2019).

Many of these dimensions of corruption are extremely difficult to prove, but universities should recognise that they exist, and should do more to prevent them. In a nutshell, as less-able people seek to gain doctorates, the likelihood of fraud and corruption undoubtedly increases.

This is not only morally wrong, but it is also unfair on those many students who work extremely hard to achieve a PhD, it devalues the worth of PhDs in general, and it contributes yet further to a lowering of the overall quality of academic research.

A positive conclusion

Despite the above comments, I like to believe that most supervisors and doctoral students work collaboratively and well together, and that many truly original and excellent theses continue to be crafted across the world. Working with able postgraduates has certainly been one of the real joys of my academic career although there is no doubt that supervisory relationships are among the most fraught and challenging of any in academia. It is truly a blessing to see how the careers of most of those students who I have had the privilege to supervise have flourished and blossomed, and it is a joy to keep in touch with so many of them.

In the 2000s, recognising the need for me to give greater clarity about what was involved in doing a PhD in our ICT4D Collective, and to help students undertstand my own expectations of the superviosry process, I produced two documents. Having looked at them again, it is evident that they need some updating (they were last updated in 2007 and 2008), but I still stand by almost everything contained within them, and so am posting them here as a guide for potential students (and interested others) to what I try to practise as far as supervision is concerned:

The first of these emphasises that a good PhD should not be a life-work – that will come later! Instead, I have found that it is often easier to see a PhD primarily as something that provides evidence of the achievement of a key set of seven academic skills (slightly adapted below):

  • Being thoroughly conversant with the key intellectual debates in a particular subject area, and using this to provide a conceptual framework for the thesis
  • Being able to identify important novel issues from these that will form the focus of their research, and developing these into a clear aim
  • Being able to design a relevant methodology to undertake rigorous empirical work that will add to our collective knowledge in that research field
  • Then using this to undertake research and gain empirical evidence in a particular place or places
  • Analysing the results of that field research in the context of the theoretical or conceptual framework
  • Writing this up clearly and effectively in an interesting way
  • Drawing relevant conclusions that move knowledge forward, and (for the field of ICT4D) make new practical recommendations in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

Over the years, I have come to realise that students have varying strengths and weaknesses in achieving each of these. Many have difficulties in engaging theoretically and developing an approprioate conceptual framework, whilst the majority find the empirical field research most enjoyable. Nevertheless, a good prior degree should enable the first four of these elements to be done relatively easily. Unfortunately, some students can only get this far, and find it impossible satisfactorily to analyse the data, which results in an overly descriptive and thus problematic thesis.

I do hope that these reflections may be of help and interest to those embarking on a research degree – although I have very deliberately not answered the question that I posed at the beginning! That’s up to you, but I hope that what I have written will help you answer it!

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Filed under ICT4D, Postgraduate supervision, research

Digital environments and social media

Having recently written a post reflecting on aspects of power relationships and control through digital systems, I just thought that it might be helpful to share the list below of those digital systems and social media that I generally use so that others can know how to interact with me should they wish:

Digital environments that I use for public interaction

  • e-mails – multiple accounts, some integrated through Outlook/Office 365 (mainly formal work-related – contact via Royal Holloway, University of London) and others (mainly private) through Apple Mail. This remains my main mode of digital communication, largely because my e-mail account is one central place where people can send me material they want me to read!
  • WordPress (since 2008, although I began blogging earlier in 2007) – mainly for work-related issues, but also for personal views and opinions – for links to my various blogs see http://unwins.info. Interestingly, I am now blogging much less than I used to with views in recent years being half of the 30,349 I had in 2011.
  • Zoom – as have so many people during COVID-19, I have come to use Zoom quite extensively for large group meetings as well as personal ones, and it has largely replaced my former use of Skype. I particularly like its ease of use, and the way that it enables me to deliver live presentations through using its background feature.
  • Elgg (open source social networking software) – but sadly this is little used by others, and so I only tend to use it for small work-related groups (and in part as a replacement for Moodle).
  • Slack (sadly bought by Salesforce in December 2020) as a group communication platform – no longer sure how long I will continue to use it.
  • Moodle – the environment we’ve used for various courses at Royal Holloway, University of London and beyond; also where we used to make our ICT4D course materials freely available.
  • Twitter – joined in January 2009 – mainly for sharing information about our research and practice (several different accounts including @unescoict4d and @TEQtogether for research, and @timunwin for personal) – am using it much less than I used to, because the character limit tends to lead to short soundbites that oversimlify issues, and it has become a place dominated by “politically-correct” resonating rhetoric.
  • Facebook – joined in November 2006 – mainly used to share things that interest me, but also use for work-related groups (such as the ICT4D Group created in April 2007 and now with around 5.5K members, and the TEQtogether Group) – I’m again using it much less than I used to, especially since the dreadful new desktop/laptop version was introduced.
  • Microsoft Teams and assorted other Microsoft apps such as Skype for Business and Yammer (social networking; bought by Microsoft in 2012) – the basic environment adopted by Royal Holloway, University of London some time ago (and so I really have to use it to communicate with colleagues there), but also widely used in other enterprises. I find it rather clunky, in much the same way that I also never liked Microsoft’s Sharepoint (launched back in 2001); I still try to use these as little as possible.
  • I’m beginning to use Miro (an online whiteboard) for team work and collaboration.

Environments that I will not use

So, definitely don’t ask me to collaborate with you using the following:

  • Any Google environment (including Cloud, Drive, Chrome) – and especially if I have to sign in with a Google account (I refuse to have one). Exceptionally, I will occasionally use a Google environment providing I don’t have to sign in – but I would prefer to be sent documents in a way that is easier for me, such as by e-mail.
  • WeChat – I may well have to use this one day to be able to communicate in China and with Chinese friends since it is becoming so ubiquitous and essential there, but for the moment I don’t want too many governments having easy access to too much information about me.
  • Sina Weibo – similar reservations to the above, but I am also getting too old to learn to microblog in Chinese.

Environments that I use for private communication

The following are some of the environments that I use for private communication, and will not use for professional purposes (so please don’t ask me, for example, to join a WhatsApp group):

  • WhatsApp – although I almost stopped using it when it was purchased by Facebook. I only use it with family and friends, and most definitely will not use it for public or professional groups (so there is no point in asking me to join a group).
  • Signal – I use this privately because of its security, usability, and open source build – and it’s also free.
  • Instagram – for posting images of things that interest me (I may well soon start to use it to share information about our research and practice, since Instagram is increasingly being used effectively by businesses for this).
  • Dropbox – for sharing large files with friends.
  • Skype – for personal video discussions – although I have used it much less since 2011 when it was purchased by Microsoft.

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Filed under digital technologies, ICT4D, social media, Social Networking

On managerial control and the tyranny of digital technologies

I have written many times before about the changing balances of power enforced by most digital technologies, but three recent incidents have focused my mind yet again on the shifting relationships of control brought about by the use of such technologies.

Tales from a worker…

  • I was invited to be a speaker at an online event using a particular technology with which I was not very familiar (Streamyard). I tried both of the browsers that I usually use (Firefox and Safari), and although the former enabled me to use some of Streamyard’s functionality, I could not do everything that I had wanted to use (and usually do) when giving an online presentation. Streamyard recommends Chrome, but I limit my use of Google products as much as possible, and refused to download it just so I could give one short presentation. I fear that the organisers did not appreciate my obduracy, and were surprised that I kept receiving error messages when trying to use some of Streamyard’s functionality.
  • I also belong to a civil society organisation that has recently gone over to using a particular app for managing the activities of volunteers. Previously, the administrator used to circulate details of rotas directly to the e-mail boxes of volunteers, letting us know when we were required and also providing reminders nearer the time. We have just received a message saying that the new automated system has been set up, and I have to check “my rotas” periodically to see what I am scheduled to do, and if necessary arrange swaps with others. Now, that obviously makes life easier for the administrator, but adds greatly to my time load because I have to log on to the system, negotiate its far from perfect functionality, see what I am down to do, and then note this in my diary. This is many more clicks than just opening an e-mail sent to me! The centre benefits; the volunteers have more work to do!
  • I was likewise doing some work for an organisation that uses Microsoft Teams, and when I requested a document, rather than it being sent to me I had to got into Teams, find where it was located (often in a crazily obscure sub-folder), download it onto my device (which often took some considerable time), and only then was I able to open the file and read it. If only someone could simply have sent it to me, or even just sent me an accurate link so I could open it online.

All of these examples illustrate ways through which digital technologies are being used to shift the balance of work away from administrators/managers at the “centre” and towards the employees/volunteers at the periphery, whilst concentrating the actual power ever more at the centre. My hunch is that the net wastage of time within such systems has gone up, that inefficiency has increased, and that the extraction of labour power from human employees has likewise increased. Digital technologies rather than improving the efficiency of systems, have become a means through which work/labour has not only increased but has also become very much more dehumanised and exploited by those at the “centre”.

Changing the balance of power

There are many ways through which such dehumanisation and exploitation take place, but the following are some of the most prevalent:

“Papers” for meetings: a historical legacy

I am old enough to remember the days when staff were sent papers (even in manilla envelopes) sufficiently far in advance before a meeting so as to be able to read and annotate them by hand. As an employee I received them, but it was the management/administration team who actually printed and distributed them. From the early- to mid-1990s, with the introduction of MIME, attachments became possible, and very swiftly, papers for meetings (and everything else as well) started to be sent by e-mail. In the early days, employees were often even required to print them off themselves and bring them to the physical meeting (a ridiculous multiplication of effort and expense). The balance of direction had shifted. No longer could the employee just open the package; now they had to save, open and print the files themselves – and that was in the days before you could bring your laptop to a meeting. Today, as digital systems have become ever more complicated and sophisticated, all the administrators have to do is upload documents once onto a centralised digital administration or management system, and then all relevant employees or users each have to log on, find the file, download it (be it on Basecamp, Trello, Asana, Teams, Slack, SAP, Google Drive, DropBox or wherever), and then read it. All of these stages take additional time for employees, and many are problematic and frustrating to use. While such systems clearly benefit the central generators of content, the total amount of time spent by all of the users who need to access it has increased.

Multiple overlapping systems: who decides which system to use?

For people only working in a single organisation and trained to use a single main digital system or environment, the time wasted in accessing digital content is bad enough. For those working across organisations, each with different systems, it becomes a whole lot worse. Not only are users encouraged to leave all of their systems on all the time so that they know what is happening or required immediately, but they are frequently also expected to reply instantaneously. This is neither possible nor sensible. Moreover, leaving your systems on means that others can see if you are there and contactable, which is not always helpful!

Extending the working day

This is perhaps the most obvious and yet insidious “benefit” of digital technologies. I’m old enough to remember the notion of a working day being “9 to 5” – although confess that I have always tended to spend longer “in the office” than that! However, even before COVID-19 helped to create a 24 hour working day, digital technologies have been used by employers dramatically to extend the working day, whilst at the same time claiming it is in the employees’ interests. This is particularly seen, for example, in the expectation by many managers that employees are contactable all hours of the day and night by e-mail, or even worse now through invasive social media messages. Long gone are the days when London commuters locked their safes, finished the day at 5 pm and got on over-crowded smoke-filled trains for the long commute to the suburbs. The commute has often now become the time to respond to digital messages, and once home people are then also frequently expected to do online training in the comfort of their homes. Travel to work, and the sanctuary of the home – all times previously free from employment-related labour – have now been incorporated into normal work expectations.

The all-seeing eye

More concerning than the extension of the working day, though, are the many ways through which employers now monitor every aspect of an employee’s work – reflecting both a collapse in trust, and an intent yet further to maximise extraction of the labour power of employees. This goes far beyond the use of digital fingerprints or retinal scans that check when an employee enters an employer’s premises, to the spatial monitoring of their personal digital devices and their every use of the employer’s digital management system; some are already microchipping their employees, in the name of making life easier for them (see for example, Metz, 2018; Schwartz, 2019).

Wasting time in digital meetings – just because we can meet, doesn’t mean we should waste so much time online in them!

Most face-to-face management meetings are a waste of time for the majority of people attending them. Invariably they are held for the sake of holding them, for the performance, and as a way of “management” controlloing “staff”. The proliferation of online meetings during COVID-19 has dramatically exacerbated this problem, and the difficulty of picking up the sensuous physical indicators between people has actually also often caused damaging misunderstandings that would have been less likely during a physical meeting. Just because it is possible for many people to participate in online meetings at all hours of the day and night does not actully mean that this is a valuable use of time. Participating in online meetings is rarely productive work!

Digitally enabled co-production of content is not always a good use of time

The potential for many people to work together in creating a single document can be greatly facilitated by the use of digital authoring tools. However, this crafting process can actually take much longer for people to interact with, and the net outcome is not necessarily any better than traditional editorial commentary systems. Working with different colleagues in various ways to craft texts through COVID-19 has been fascinating, and has reignited concerns I have previously had that most such usage of digital technologies actually increases the total time spent on “writing” without necessarily producing a better outcome. Furthermore, so called more “democratic” digital systems actually usually still contain subtle power structures. The first person to comment on a shared document, for example, exerts great influence on the remaining respondents. In contrast, where colleagues each respond to a central editor without seeing the comments of other team members, this “first respondent” bias is not present.

Why on earth would you want to attend a Zoom webinar where you aren’t even allowed to speak?

One of the greatest recent forms of control – and time-wasting – has been the proliferation of Zoom webinars, where an audience is invited to a view-only platform without being able to see each other or participate interactively beyond a limited chat facility. What a power relationship! Almost every company, international organisation (especially UN agencies) and civil society organisation I know has got on the bandwagon of inviting people to join Zoom webinars. If I were to accept all of the invitations I have received, my diary would be full mutliple times over every hour of the day and night! But most of these are dreadfully presented, and a complete waste of time, quite simply because it is much quicker to read something than it is to listen to someone talking to the background of a shared overcrowded and poorly designed slide deck! This is not to suggest that we should not try to use digital technologies to interact at a distance, but we should try to do so in as open and democratic way as possible (this is at least what we tried to do successfully with the ICT4D2020 Non-Conference, as well as with the launch of the Education for the Most Marginalised report #emmpostcovid19, or which more than 350 people were registered).

In conclusion

These are but a few of the countless ways through which digital technologies are being used to impose new systems of control, and to shift that balance of work and time away from the “centre” (or employer/manager) to the “periphery” (worker, employee, volunteer). In the academic part of my like, I encounter this increasing everyday exploitation in so many ways:

  • through the increased amount of time that online marking takes;
  • through the time-consuming online grant application forms that need to be completed,
  • in having to submit ghastly unintelligible spreadsheets online to report on grant expenditure;
  • through being required to use the frequently dreadful journal online processes when asked to review papers for them;
  • in being required to process and provide comments on job applications online;
  • in reviewing online fellowship and grant applications…

The list could go on, but my essential points are that many of us who experienced pre-online life find the new systems much more time consuming than they were previously, and most of them represent increasingly centralised control of professional working life. In the name of efficiency and democracy, many digital “solutions” actually create sytstems that are much less efficient and much more centralised and controlling than they were previously.

This is also a call for change; a call for the wise to say enough is enough. It is a call for those designing these systems to make them serve the interests of the workers rather than the masters, a call for the overthrow of the tyrannical powers of the digital barons, and a challenge to those who seek digitally to enslave the masses. We, the people, have the power in our hands to reject such control – all we need to do is to determine our own digital boundaries (for a summary of mine, read here), and make those who wish to control us instead to serve us through them. Above all, we need to reclaim our own physical and sensuous experience of reality, unmediated by the powers of digital control.

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Filed under digital technologies, Empowerment, ICT4D

Session on digital inclusion at online IGF 2020

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:

Mind-map of workshop

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Filed under Accessibility, Africa, Beer, digital technologies, Disability, Education, ICT4D, ICTs, inclusion, Inequality