It was a great pleasure to have been invited to contribute as a panellist to Session 406 of the WSIS Annual Forum on 2nd June 2022 on the theme of “Academic perspectives on WSIS and the SDGs”. This was a hybrid event, and as the picture below shows it was sadly not attended by very many people actually in Geneva! (Follow this link for my short, full presentation.)
However there was active participation online, and it was good to share some reflections on the theme. As ever, I tried to be diplomatically provocative, reflecting on my participation in the original World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva (2003) and Tunisia (2005)…
My presentation in particular emphasised the important need for the UN system to stop replicating and duplicating its efforts to use ICTs for “development” (or should this read “to serve the interests of the rich and powerful” especially the “digital barons“?); it is striking and sad, for example, that the UN Secretary General’s Roadmap for digital cooperation and Our Common Agenda make no mentions at all of the WSIS process.
My main argument was that with only eight years to go, it is essential that we start planning now for what will replace the SDGs, especially with respect to the uses of digital tech.
I did, though, also address to other themes: how academics can indeed benefit from the WSIS process (see below) as well as a short introduction to the work that we are now doing as part of the Digital-Environment System Coalition (DESC).
It was a real privilege to have been invited to give the keynote address at the 2022 London International Model UN conference held at Central Hall, Westminster on 25th February. After much discussion with the organisers we agreed that I would use the occasion to challenge the delegates with some of the problems I see facing the UN as an organisation, and offer some recommendations as to how these can be addressed. With the invasion of Ukraine by Russia the day before, I considered fundamentally revising what I had intended to say, until I realised that much of what I had prepared was even more relevant following the events of the previous 24 hours.
The event was recorded by the organisers, but for those wishing to have an outline of what I said it is available in .pdf format here (with low resolution images). I was delighted to receive so many questions, and I very much hope that my answers were able to provide further insights into my thinking on these matters.
It was a wonderful opportunity to engage in intergenerational dialogue, and I am most grateful to Luna, Savvas and Siddarth, as well as other members of the Secretariat, for all of their organisation and bringing together so many inspirational young people in London to discuss the important issues facing the world today.
The choice of blue and yellow flowers for my “thank you bouquet” was brilliantly appropriate!
This is a response to my post in July 2021, which identified seven main challenges and problems facing the UN system. While it is easy to criticise, it is much more difficult to recommend and deliver change. Hence, this short piece offers a set of suggestions for fundamental reform across the UN system in response to the challenges identified in my earlier post. These are grounded in a belief that the UN needs to be smaller, leaner and fitter for purpose in serving the needs of national governments across the world. In so doing it should therefore primarily serve the interests of citizens rather than of itself and the global corporations that have subverted its high ideals.
The seven main inter-related problems and challenges identified in my previous post were:
The UN largely serves the neo-liberal political interests of the USA and its allies.
The UN does not appoint the most capable and appropriate people to senior leadership positions.
There is disagreement about the size that the UN should be; should its agencies aspire to be implementers of development interventions themselves, or should they instead mainly provide guidance and good practices for governments to implement?
The SDGs have already failed, but the UN persists in their propagation primarily in its own interests, so that UN agencies can claim they are doing something worthwhile
The UN system is beset by duplication of effort, overlap, and reinvention of the wheel between agencies, between the Secretariat and the agencies, and even in larger agencies between the various silos within them.
The UN’s ambitions go well beyond the budget available to fund them.
The SDG agenda, the lack of UN funding, and the opportunistic behaviour of many global corporations mean that the private sector has been able to subvert the UN’s global governance structures in its own interest
Responses to each of these are addressed in turn, outlining potential ways in which these problems might be overcome. As with my previous post, it draws largely on my experience in working with UN agencies over the last two decades primarily on aspects associated with the use of digital technologies in international development, and it also draws comparisons with my experiences from working with a diversity of organisations within The Commonwealth.
The UN has indeed begun to recognise the importance of some of these issues, and the Secretary General’s (SG’s) recent Our Common Agenda report in 2021[i] does emphasise two important requirements with which I largely concur:
The need to renew the social contract between governments and their people (see Section II);[ii] and
The introduction of new measures to complement GDP to assist people in understanding the impacts of business activities and the true costs of economic growth.[iii]
However, much of the SG’s report is wishful thinking, highly problematic, and not grounded sufficiently in the harsh reality of the interests underlying global geopolitics and economic systems. It also clearly represents the interests of those within the UN system, and especially in the central Secretariat, as expressed succinctly in its assertion that “now is the time for a stronger, more networked and inclusive multilateral system, anchored within the United Nations” [my emphasis].[iv] The fundamental challenge is that the UN system and its leadership are part of the problem and not the solution.
1. Increasing diversity and changing the power relationships within the UN
The UN and its agencies have generally sought to be broadly representative of the cultural diversity of the world’s peoples. They have also recently made important strides to increase gender diversity amongst staff. Nevertheless, huge efforts still need to be made to achieve greater diversity both among the staff and in the interests that the UN promotes. Remarkably few staff within the UN system, for example, are drawn from those with recognised disabilities, and the interests of many economically poorer or smaller countries, as well as minority ethnic groups remain under-represented. Rather than serving the rich and the powerful (as well as itself), the UN truly needs to serve all of the world’s peoples, including the stateless.
The fundamental issue here, though, is the need to change the UN’s ideological balance away from the primacy that it gives to neo-liberal democracy (in large part derived from the heavy influence of the USA and its allies), towards a recognition that there are many competing political-economic ideologies currently being promoted globally. One of the UN’s roles is to help weaker countries negotiate these ideological power struggles, and if it is allied too closely with any one of them the UN is doomed either to increasing irrelevance or failure. It must above all serve its role wisely in delivering the first paragraph of Article 1 of its founding charter: “To maintain international peace and security”.[v] This is becoming an ever more pressing issue at a time when the fortunes of the USA and its previously dominant ideology are waning and those of China are waxing.[vi] It is thus crucial for the UN to have the means whereby it can retain a level of oversight, while also serving as a neutral forum where conflict can be resolved through negotiation and mediation.
Three practical recommendations could help resolve this issue:
First the UN Security Council[vii] needs to be fundamentally restructured. Its permanent membership seems anachronistic, and at the very least France and the UK should no longer be included, perhaps to be replaced by a rotating representation from countries within the European Union.[viii] There are many options: the idea of permanent membership itself should be revisited; membership could be linked to population size, whilst also providing some guarantees for small states; the more than 50 countries that have never been members could be prioritised; and better means should be found to enforce its resolutions.
Second, new locations should be identified for the headquarters of UN agencies and the central Secretariat. It would be a massive and expensive undertaking to move the entire Secretariat from New York to an alternative location. However, this is ultimately likely to be necessary for the long-term viability of the UN system, not only for symbolic reasons, but also because of the bias that a US location causes in terms of the number of US citizens employed and also the subtle ideological influences that it creates in the minds of those working there from other countries. More realistically, there should at the very least be a substantial reduction in the overall UN presence in New York. The use of new generations of digital technologies could greatly facilitate this. As experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic have shown, it is no longer necessary to hold as many face-to-face meetings within the UN system as has heretofore been the case. A very strong argument can be made for the UN headquarters to be located in a clearly neutral country,[ix] as is already the case with those UN agencies located in Geneva. However, at the very least it would make sense for it to be situated somewhere other than in one of the major, and potentially conflicting, states such as China, the USA, Russia and India.
Third, considerably more attention and resourcing need to be given to those UN agencies concerned with reducing conflict and maintaining peace, notably the Department of Peace Operations (DPO),[x] but also those with experience of mediation, conflict reduction and peace building such as UNODA (Office for Disarmament Affairs), OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights), UNODC (Office on Drugs and Crime), and possibly even UNOOSA (Office for Outer Space Affairs) as territorial and strategic interests of nations and corporations now spread beyond planet earth.
2. Improving the quality and diversity of the UN’s leadership and senior management
There are undoubtedly some capable and well qualified people in senior leadership positions[xi] within the UN system, but they are the exception. Far too many do not have the qualifications or experience to be able to deliver their roles effectively. There therefore needs to be a fundamental restructuring of the processes used to elect or appoint them.[xii]
At least two tensions make it difficult to resolve this issue: the perceived need to balance appropriate national representation with quality and expertise of leadership; and the varying challenges associated with election and/or appointment to senior roles. However, despite such challenges it is completely unacceptable that a UN Under-Secretary General on appointment to a new post within the UN should as recently as 2021 tweet that he was “a relatively newcomer to the field”.[xiii]
One way to resolve these issues would be for a small review and appointments office to be created to provide guidance to all entities within the UN system relating to senior leadership positions. Two of its key roles could be:
to review all short-listed or nominated applicants against the criteria required for the specific post, ensuring that they have the experience and expertise to fulfil the role; and
to serve as a search facility that could identify additional people who might be appropriate for upcoming appointments.
Where elections are the means of appointment to such positions, countries could nominate as at present, but all such nominations would be subject to approval by this review office. For both appointments and elections, the unit could also encourage specific countries to nominate one of their nationals highlighted in any of its searches. Furthermore, this would provide a mechanism whereby the unit could specifically seek to find people who would be suitable to fill appointments from under-represented communities and countries, thereby helping to respond to commitments to diversity.[xiv]
Additionally, it is very important that all UN officials once appointed should undergo regular and appropriate training so that they can improve their relevant expertise. Given the importance of mediation and consensus building, it is critically important that these should also feature prominently in all staff UN training. It would not be too much to suggest that all staff in any UN entity should be required to spend 5% of their time in various forms of training. Far too many UN officials are overly confident of their own abilities, and do not pay enough attention to the critical importance of staff training, either for themselves or for those who report to them. Just because someone has been a government Minister, for example, does not mean that they have any understanding of international diplomacy or subject matter expertise. It is essential that the UN as a whole including all of its agencies should become learning organisations, so that they are better fit for purpose. This will be a major undertaking and require a fundamental shift of thinking within many such agencies.
The UN System Staff College (UNSSC) might be a possible home for this unit, although the highly critical 2020 report by the Joint Inspection Unit[xv]does not inspire confidence that it has the capacity to do so. It would, though, be wise for the unit to be situated outside the central UN Secretariat so that it can be seen to have some independence from the highly politicised and some would say over-bloated headquarters operations. If, though, it was felt that it had to be in the Secretariat headquarters, it might be created as a division within the Office of Internal Oversight Services.
3. Towards a smaller, more focused UN
The UN has grown haphazardly and surreptitiously largely in its own interests so that it is now far too big and ambitious, but has neither the funding nor the capacity to deliver its agendas effectively. A central issue that must therefore be addressed concerns how big the UN and its agencies should be. I suggest that it is already far too big, in part as a result of the neo-liberal hegemony it has embraced. Its agencies seek to do too much by themselves. Instead its basic role should be as the servant of all member governments, empowering them to serve the best interests of their citizens. It should not be the servant of private sector corporations, as it increasingly seems to be becoming.
One of the main ways in which this could be achieved would simply be through eliminating most of the work that UN agencies do in trying to implement their own development initiatives, and replace this with a clearer focus on delivering appropriate training and support for governments so that they can deliver relevant development programmes within their our countries. Most UN agencies are neither well designed or appropriately staffed actually to implement effective on-the-ground development interventions, yet huge sums of money are wasted on attempts to implement their own development projects, and this situation has got far worse through the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in support of Agenda 2030 (see Section 4 below). Many other civil society organisations, bilateral and multilateral donors, foundations, and private sector enterprises are already implementing high quality development programmes. There is absolutely no need for the UN to try to do so as well. Indeed, external reviews highlight the poor quality of the development work done by many (although certainly not all) UN agencies. The UK Department for International Development’s (DFID)[xvi] Multilateral Aid review in 2016 thus noted that the organisational strengths of UNAIDS, UNESCO, UNHCR, UNOCHA, the UN Peacebuilding Fund, UN Women, and the WHO were all weak or only adequate, and this excludes the agencies that DFID was not already funding because it did not even consider it worth so doing.[xvii]
This is not to say that the UN should cease trying to improve the important humanitarian and peacebuilding initiatives in which it is already engaged. As noted above (Section 1) the UN has a crucial role to play in global peacebuilding, and it could also do much more effectively to help co-ordinate global responses to physical disasters and humanitarian crises, providing relief assistance rapidly and efficiently where needed. However, its current implementation processes need to be considerably improved, and this requires both appropriate financial resourcing and increased global commitment to deliver them. Some will, no doubt, claim that such humanitarian interventions are often caused by wider failures in “development” and therefore that the UN must also be involved in these. However, the track record of many such interventions by UN agencies is poor and the existence of so many other agencies delivering better interventions suggests that the UN should concentrate on doing what it does best, rather than proliferating failure.
There are many other ways in which the UN could reduce its size and expenditure, such as employing fewer external consultants, producing fewer reports that have little real impact, limiting the number of wasteful meetings and events that it holds, and reducing the number of staff that it employs. The bottom line, though, is that we need to move away from a large poorly co-ordinated self-important system that is far too big, to a much smaller, leaner organisation that truly delivers effectively on the needs of governments and their citizens.
4. Abandoning the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030, and planning for a new futurefor the UN
Many of the above comments relate directly to the development agenda that the UN has embarked on, first with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and since 2015 with the SDGs. These still have their supporters, often mainly on the grounds that they are the best things we currently have to help co-ordinate global development agendas, and any criticism thereof is potentially damaging. However, the strength of criticism of the SDGs has grown considerably in recent years, reinforcing the views of those of us who were critical of them from the beginning, and were well captured by William Easterly in 2015 when he described SDGs as standing for “Senseless, Dreamy, Garbled”.[xviii]
Now is the time to recognise that the SDGs really are a failed agenda, and that, as noted in Section 3 above, the UN should replace most of its attempted practice in international development with clear, focused and high-quality support and training for governments in delivering their own interventions to improve the lives of their citizens. It will take considerable time to make this shift, but 2030 is only eight years away. We all need to be brave in acknowledging that the SDGs have failed, and start working urgently instead to create a better system that can serve the global community more fairly from 2030 onwards.
Three things are key for the success of such a new agenda: the abandonment of attempts to make neo-liberal democracy the global religion that its advocates would like to see; the replacement of the economic growth agenda with a more balanced view that places the reduction of inequalities at its heart;[xix] and a shift away from the dogma of the primacy of universal human rights to a recognition that these need to be balanced by individual and governmental responsibilities.[xx] None of these will be easy to achieve, but there are indeed at last some signs that the second of them is gaining traction. As noted in the introduction to this post, Our Common Agenda has at last signalled recognition at the highest level within the UN that there is an urgent need to redress the focus on untrammelled economic growth as a solution to poverty with one that recognises that economic growth has a propensity to cause further inequalities, and that seeks to redress this by placing primacy on redistribution and equity. This is nowhere more true than in the vast wealth accrued by the digital barons from their exploitation of the world’s poor and marginalised.
Put simply, it is time to abandon the economic growth agenda of the SDGs, and replace it with a more caring and human approach that gives primacy to redistribution, equity, and a reduction in inequalities.
5. Removing duplication, overlap and reinventing the wheel
It is widely recognised that there is enormous waste within the UN system, driven in large part by competition and a lack of co-ordination between agencies. This is further enhanced by the aspiration of senior managers to gain ever higher positions within the UN by championing their own highly visible projects, a lack of understanding about what other agencies are actually doing, and inward looking and self-serving career structures within many such agencies.
An increasingly worrying tendency in recent years, at least in the digital tech sector, has also been the growing power of the UN Secretariat and its staff in wanting to lead by creating new initiatives that overlap with other existing global initiatives, and frequently reinvent the wheel.[xxi] This is nowhere more true than in the bizarre history of the formation of the UN SG’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation,[xxii] and the subsequent development of his Roadmap for Digital Cooperation in 2020.[xxiii]
Moving towards a smaller, more focused UN will require the creation of much tighter and precise mandates for its central Secretariat and each of its agencies. This in turn will require the strengthening of existing structures designed to enable effective cooperation and collaboration, not least since many of the world’s most pressing challenges require multi-sector and holistic approaches to their resolution. However, this should most certainly not be done by the UN SG setting up new initiatives within the Secretariat that frequently serve the personal interests of the senior leadership within it. One such mechanism that seems to be undervalued and insufficiently utilised is the UN System Chief Executives Board for Co-ordination (CEB) which “provides broad guidance, co-ordination and strategic direction for the UN system in the areas under the responsibility of Executive Heads. Focus is placed on inter-agency priorities and initiatives while ensuring that the independent mandates of organizations are maintained”.[xxiv] Much of its practical work is undertaken through the High-Level Committee on Programmes (HLCP),[xxv] and based on my own experience of working with this committee I have no doubt that its mechanisms can indeed lead to the production of valuable recommendations and actions.[xxvi] The challenge is that such initiatives can easily be overtaken by events, and the creation of new priorities, either by the UN SG (representing the collective interests of the Secretariat) or by individual agencies whose leaders want to drive forward their own agendas.
Another undoubted challenge is that decision making in most UN agencies is based on the collective views of their members, and ultimately these represent the interests of individual Ministers (or equivalent) in all the member countries of the world. Hence, the WHO is meant to represent the collectivity of Health Ministries, UNESCO the Education Ministries, and the ITU the Telecommunication and/or Digital Technology Ministries. Often, the lack of co-ordination at the UN level mirrors the lack of policy integration at the national level. This implies that if real progress is to be made there need to be ambitious approaches that seek to improve internal co-ordination within both national and global systems of government and governance. Unfortunately, the ambitions and aspirations of individual Ministers as much as the senior leadership of specific UN agencies therefore conspire effectively to constrain the potential for effective co-ordination systems to be put in place.
There would also be much to be gained from more effective collaboration between the UN and existing regional organisations which often have a much better understanding of regional issues than do UN agencies. Rather than competing with them or duplicating what they are already doing, it would make far more sense to pool resources and work together to achieve desirable outcomes for specific countries and groups of people.
In summary, the senior leadership of the UN system as a whole needs to give much greater attention to delivering effective co-ordination in policy and practice, but this should be done through existing mechanisms rather than by increasing the power of the UN Secretary General and his close colleagues.[xxvii]
6. Rebalancing the budget for a leaner UN
The problem of systemic funding shortages for much of the work of the UN Secretariat and its many agencies and offices is closely related to the scale of its activities. Not least, many poorer countries cannot provide sufficient resources for delivering its remit, especially when it comes to implementing development interventions. The funding arrangements for the UN Secretariat and its many funds, programmes and specialist agencies are separate, but most consist of a combinations of assessed and voluntary combinations, that enable funding countries to choose how much they support different agencies. The core budget for the UN Secretariat in 2020 was only US$ 3.1 billion,[xxviii]excluding additional donations and peacekeeping activities for which the budget is currently around twice as much.[xxix] One third of the 2019 core budget was provided by the USA (22%) and China (12%), with Japan providing 8.5%, Germany 6%, and the UK 5.4%.[xxx] The top 25 countries contribute about 88% of the total core budget. The percentage national contributions to specific UN agencies and programmes vary considerably with respect to the funding by different countries, but they do emphasise once again the striking overall power wielded by the USA. As noted above (Section 1), this is not healthy for the UN, and it is absolutely essential for many other countries to step up to the mark and fund the UN appropriately. However, the observation that they do not provide more funding could imply that they do not see sufficient value in supporting the UN system. If that is really true then fundamental restructuring of the UN and its agencies is long overdue. Having led a small intergovernmental agency, I know only too well the crucial importance of ensuring that such entities deliver on the wishes of all of their members so that funding can be guaranteed to maintain their activities. If members see no value in an agency then it should be shut down.
Two further important observations can be made about the UN’s funding situation. The first is that a smaller UN that is able to reduce the amount of duplication and overlap in its activities, as advocated above, would require less funding, and would therefore be able to live within its means more effectively. If countries are not willing to support the work of specific agencies or activities these should be closed. However, second, the most worrying trend with respect to funding is the way in which many UN agencies have instead sought to establish closer relationships with the private sector as funders of the ambitions of their leadership for expansion of their programmes and raising their own individual profiles through eye-catching initiatives. This is extremely worrying because it changes the role of UN agencies that have embarked on this approach away from being inter-governmental agencies supporting the needs of governments and their citizens, to being vehicles through which private sector corporations seek to shape global policy and implement activities across the world in their own interests of increasing market share, corporate profits and the benefit accruing to their owners and shareholders. As UNESCO states on its short private sector partnership page, “Over these last two decades, the Private sector has become an increasingly valuable partner for UNESCO – contributing its core business expertise, creativity, innovative technological solutions, social media outreach, financial and in-kind contributions to achieve shared objectives in the area of Education, Culture, the Sciences and Communication and Information”.[xxxi] There is, though, little that is innocent or altruistic about the corporate sector’s involvement in such partnerships. The UN yet again becomes diminished to being merely a vehicle that serves the interests of neo-liberalism and the free market – or to call it by a less popular name, global capitalism.
7. The restructuring of global governance and the establishment of multi-sector partnerships on a rigorous basis
The increasing embeddedness of the private sector in UN activities (Section 6) is seriously worrying since it detracts from the core role of its agencies as inter-governmental organisations. In a richly prescient argument, Jens Martens summarised the potential dangers of such partnerships some 15 years ago,[xxxii] and most of his concerns have since come to pass. Anyone in the UN who has sought to implement such partnerships since then, and has failed to read his work, as well as some of the other detailed recommendations concerning the dos and don’ts of partnership building by other authors is directly culpable for their failure.[xxxiii]
The private sector does indeed have much to contribute to effective development interventions, bringing technical knowledge, appropriate management skills, and additional specific resources, but far too often UN agencies seek to engage with the private sector primarily for the additional funding that may be provided. Most people in UN agencies have little real idea about how to forge effective partnerships with the private sector that are built on a rigorous assessment of needs and a transparent mutual benefits framework. Far too many agencies have therefore become subverted by global corporations, and are often viewed with suspicion by those in other UN agencies who have deliberately chosen to have less direct collaboration with companies.
Many UN agencies resort to the UN’s Global Compact established in 2000 as a means through which to engage with the private sector. The Compact itself is based on CEOs’ commitments to ten principles relating to Human Rights, Labour, Environment, and Anti-Corruption; with 15,268 companies having signed up, it now claims to be the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative. However, it actually has rather little to say in detail about about partnership, or with the mechanisms through which effective mutually beneficial partnerships can indeed be established between companies, governments and UN agencies, in the interests of the many rather than the few.[xxxiv] Sadly, the consequent loosely defined “partnerships” that have been constructed, often subvert the UN’s governance structures and have increasingly led it to serve the interests of the rich and powerful against the poorest and most marginalised.
Unlike some of the other recommendations above, it is relatively easy to implement effective multi-sector partnerships, with much guidance having been written on the subject.[xxxv] Key success factors for development-oriented partnerships that serve the interests of the many rather than the few include
having a clear partnership framework in place from the beginning,
ensuring that civil society is also engaged (and thus also avoiding the term Public-Private Partnerships),
recognising that there is no one-size-fits-all (partnerships work best when they are attuned to local context),
establishing an appropriately skilled partnership management office,
building in scale and sustainability at the very beginning (not as an afterthought),
ensuring the continuity of participation among key individuals,
creating a clear and coherent communication strategy, and
ensuring that they are based on mutual trust, transparency, honesty and respect.
More generally, such partnerships should become less important for UN agencies if they focus more on delivering effective training for governments to be able to implement their own development interventions, rather than the UN agencies trying to deliver such interventions themselves. At present, though, I would not recommend that governments turn to most UN agencies for advice on how to craft appropriate partnerships.
In summary, many of the current problems facing the UN (both the Secretariat and its specialist agencies) could be resolved by:
Focusing on doing a few things well, rather than taking on too many activities and failing with most of them (recognising that this will lead to a smaller, but more effective UN);
Rejecting neo-liberalism, and instead seeking to serve as a mediator and consensus builder between the many different existing global views around political economy and development;
Improving the quality of its leadership (possibly through a specialised unit with such responsibilities), and requiring significant amounts of good quality and relevant training for all of its staff;
Accepting that the SDGs were a mistake, and starting to plan now for a new framework for the UN in 2030;
Focusing primarily on serving the needs of governments through training and advice, rather than by the UN implementing its own development interventions;
Limiting its partnerships with private sectorcompanies, but where these are essential ensuring that they are based on sound partnership mechanisms;
Developing effective co-ordination mechanisms for limiting the increasing amount of replication and duplication of effort within the UN system (which could be facilitated through enhancing the roles of the CEB and HLCP); and
Ensuring that more countries commit to funding the UN appropriately, so that no country ever provides more than 10% of its budget.
Implementing such changes will not be easy, but that is no excuse for not trying to undertake them. If progress on these agendas is not made soon, the UN and its agencies will become even less significant than they are at present, and it will forever fail to deliver the ambitious intentions laid out in the four paragraphs of Article 1 of its Charter.
Two final issues require some comment: the balance between the UN Secretariat and the UN’s specialised agencies; and the involvement of governments that are unwilling to engage peacefully and constructively. On the first of these, my close engagement in various Commonwealth organisations over the last two decades has made me very aware of a tendency for the “centre” to try to take control over as many areas as possible, even when it does not have the competence to do so and there are already existing specialised agencies capable of so doing. This clearly also applies within the UN, and particularly in the field of digital tech. Competition between entities within the UN system is both wasteful and damaging (to organisations and individuals), and must be reduced. There is little within Our Common Agenda that gives rise to the hope that the present leadership of the UN is capable of achieving this. Clarity of mandates and reducing mission creep are essential for the organisation as a whole to be effective.
Second, though, I am conscious that my arguments rely on a positive view about the role of governments in serving the real needs of their citizens. In part this is based on my experience that even within governments (in the broadest sense, including civil servants as well as politicians) that some might describe (generously) as unsavoury, I have almost always been able to find people that I can like and trust. It is these people that we need to foster and support. The private sector, with its fundamental remit of generating profit, will never be able to serve the interests of the poorest and the most marginalised. Only governments (at a structural level) and civil society organisations (generally at an individual level) have this theoretically within their remit. To achieve fairer, less unequal societies, we must therefore work primarily with governments, to help them deliver a better and safer world for all of their citizens. If princes (or governments) do not serve the interests of their citizens, I follow John Locke in maintaining that they have a right and a duty to replace them.[xxxvi]
[ii] But even this is hugely problematic, grounded as it is in traditional UN understandings of human rights, and paying insufficient attention to the responsibilities that are necessary for them to be assured.
[iii] Although highlighted as the fourth main point in the summary of Our Common Agenda, it is only treated relatively briefly in paras 38 and 39 of the report.
[iv] UN (2021) Our Common Agenda – Report of the Secretary General, New York: UN, p.4.
[xiv] I am not inclined to quota systems, which are very difficult to administer and often lead to a diminution in quality of appointments if there are insufficient people with the necessary skills. However, I appreciate that there are those who see such quotas as being the only way to achive scuh goals.
[xv] Dumitriu, P. (2020) Policies and platforms in support of learning: towards more coherence, co-ordination and convergence, Report of the Joint Inspection Unit, Geneva: United Nations.
[xxi] I regret that I have found it difficult to fathom out quite what the reason for this is, and whether it reflects a strong UN Secretary General (in which case he is very often wrong) or a weak one (also not exactly good) who is being manipulated by career-minded staff in the Secretariat. Perhaps he simply has too much on his plate, and is not prioritising the right things.
[xxii] This history, some of which I know about in considerable detail, remains to be told publicly by those who really know the full murky background.
[xxvii]Innovative uses of technology could effectively support the necessary decentralised co-ordination, although as yet most such consultative and collaborative systems have tended in practice to increase rather than reduce the ultimate control of those at the centre (or top) at whatever scale is being considered.
[xxxv] See, for example, some of my own work on effective multi-sector partnership building, including Unwin, T. (2005) Partnerships in Development Practice: Evidence from Multi-Stakeholder ICT4D Partnership Practice in Africa, Paris: UNESCO for the World Summit on the Information Society, Unwin, T. and Wong, A. (2012) Global Education Initiative: Retrospective on Partnerships for Education Development 2003-2011, Geneva: World Economic Forum, and Unwin, T. (2015) MultiStakeholder Partnerships in Information and Communication for Development Interventions, in International Encyclopedia of Digital Communication and Society, Chichester: Wiley, 634-44.
[xxxvi] Locke, J. (ed. by Laslett, P. (1988) Locke: Two Treatises of Government, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
The 2021 ITU Facts and Figures report highlighted that 2.9 billion people, or 37% of the world’s population, have still never used the Internet. Implict in this, as in almost all UN initiatives relating to digital technology, is the ideal that everyone should be connected to the Internet. Hence, many global initiatives continue to be designed to create multi-stakeholder (or as I prefer, multi-sector – see my Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development) partnerships to provide connectivity to everyone in the world. But, whose interests does this really serve? Would the unconnected really be better off if they were connected?
Walking in the Swiss mountains last month, and staying in a place where mobile phones and laptops were prohibited, reminded me of the human importance of being embedded in nature – and that of course we don’t really need always to be digitally connected.
Although I have addressed these issues in many of my publications over the last 20 years, I have never articulated in detail the reasons why people might actually be better off remaining unconnected: hence this thought experiment. There are actually many sound reasons why people should consider remaining unconnected, and for those of us who spend our lives overly connected we should think about disconnecting ourselves as much as possible. These are but a few of these reasons:
Above all, we were born to be a part of the physical world in which we live. Virtual realities may approximate (or even in some senses enhance) that physical world, but they are fundamentally different. Those who spend all of their time connected miss out on all the joys of living in nature; those who are unconnected have the privilege of experiencing the full richness of that nature.
Those who are unconnected do not have to waste time sifting through countless boring e-mails or group chats to find what is worthwhile, or the messages in which they are really interested.
The unconnected cannot give away for free their valuable data from which global digital corporations make their fortunes.
Those who are unconnected do not suffer the horrors of online harassment or digital violence.
The unconnected are not forced by their managers to self-exploit by doing online training once they are home after a day’s work, or answer e-mails/chat messages sent by their managers at all hours of the day and night.
Those who are not online don’t have to run the risk of online scams or phishing attacks that steal their savings – and the poor suffer most when, for example, their small amounts of money are stolen.
The unconnected can largely escape much of the digital surveillance now promulgated by governments in the name of “security” and “anti-terrorist” action.
The unconnected do not suffer from digital addictions to online games, gambling, or pornography.
Ultimately, being connected is akin to being enslaved by the world’s digital barons and their corporations; if you cannot stop using digital tech for a few days, let alone a week, surely you have lost your freedom?
Despite the fine sounding words of those leading global connectivity initiatives, is it really the poorest and most marginalised who are going to benefit most from being connected? Surely, this agenda of global connectivity is being driven mainly in the interests of the global corporations that will be paid to roll out the tech infrastructre, or that will benefit from exploiting the data that we all too willingly give them for nothing? Does not, for example, digital financial inclusion benefit the financial and tech companies and institutions far more than it does the poorest and most marginalised? This is not to deny that digital tech does indeed have many positive uses, but it is to ask fundamental questions about who benefits most.
I remember visiting a village in Africa with colleagues who couldn’t understand why the inhabitants didn’t want mobile phones. Walking over the hills to see their friends was more important to them than the ease of calling them up. This post owes much to that conversation.
We all need to ask the crucial questions about whose interests our often well-intentioned global digital connectivity initiatives really serve. If we wish to serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised, we must become their servants and not the servants of the world’s rich and powerful; we must be humble, and learn from those we wish to serve.
And the world’s rich and privileged also need to take care of ourselves; if we have difficulty living a day without being connected, surely we have indeed become enslaved? We need to regain our freedom as fully sentient beings, using all of our senses to comprehend and care for the natural world in which we live. May I conclude by encouraging people to think about using the hashtag #1in7offline. Take one day a week away from digital tech to experience the wonders of our world, unmediated by the paltry digital alternative. Or try taking a week away from the digital world every seven weeks. If you cannot do this, ask yourself why!
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]
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.
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]
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.
[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.
[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.
[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.
[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/.
[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.
[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.
[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.
[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.
[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.
[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.
The United Kingdom has among the worst COVID-19 infection and death rates in the world (see Financial Times, 28th May 2020). This is in part because of very serious errors of judgement made by the UK Government (see my list of questions to which they must answer, 27th April 2020), but it is also a result of the behaviour of substantial numbers of UK citizens during “lockdown” who, for whatever, chose not to self-isolate (including the Prime Minister’s Senior Advisor, Dominic Cummings). The UK government at the end of May also made another serious error of judgement, relaxing the restrictions, even for those who had previously been told to shield themselves, when daily numbers of new infections and deaths were very much higher than they were when other countries had begun to “open up” (BBC, 31st May 2020). This is despite the advice of many senior scientists who said that it was too early to relax the restrictions (BBC, 30th May 2020). Estimates by the Office for National Statistics (28th May 2020) suggested that there were then at least 8000 new cases a day in England, excluding those in care homes or hospitals. The daily average number of deaths from COVID-19 in the UK to the week ending 31st May was 242 (gov.uk, 31st May 2020).
Countries cannot stay locked down for ever, though, and it is essential for people to go back to work; indeed, it may well be that a vaccine or cure for COVID-19 will not be found in the short term, and societies may have to learn to live with this coronavirus for the foreseeable future. Difficult decisions will therefore need to be made about how to manage daily life and reduce the number of deaths caused by SARS-Cov-2. These decisions will need to vary depending on the specific contexts of each country, including its demographics (see my post of 7th May 2020) and environmental factors (see my post of 3rd May 2020). In the UK, the government has used fairly crude measures, trying to ensure that large numbers of people stayed at home (even though most of them would not be seriously ill if they caught COVID-19), rather than varying the strategy according to risk. Most actions and discussions have also adopted a human rights based approach to considering how decisions should be made (see for example Morley et al.’s paper on the ethics of tracing apps, or Lord Sumpton’s discussion of why lockdown is despotic). Instead, I suggest here that we need to adopt highly differentiated strategies, based on our responsibilities (or obligations, as Onora O’Neill suggests in her 2016 book Justice Across Boundaries).
Differentiated risks of COVID-19
There is increasingly sophisticated analysis in various parts of the world to suggest that different groups of people have substantially different risk factors. While anyone can die from COVID-19, the following generalisations about who is most likely to die seem to have widespread support:
Older people are more at risk of having serious complications or dying from COVID-19. Public Health England (PHE) in their early June 2020 report on disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19, showed that “Among people with a positive test, when compared with those under 40, those who were 80 or older were seventy times more likely to die”. Dowd et al. (2020) likewise show that “Currently, COVID-19 mortality risk is highly concentrated at older ages, particularly those aged 80+”. Case Fatality Rates (CFRs) generally increase significantly with age, especially for those over 60; in Italy 96.9% of deaths by the end of March were for those over 60 (Istituto Superiore di Sanità, 2020). In South Africa 80% of the COVID-19 deaths reported by 2nd May were for people over 50, with a quarter of deaths being in the 60-69 age group. There is, though, still uncertainty as to whether there is something specific about age itself, or whether these figures are because older people are more likely to have other comorbidities. It is also interesting to note that the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) Infection Survey pilot suggested that the highest percentage of those testing positive in the UK between 26th April and 24th May were in the 20-49 year age group.
Men are more vulnerable than women. This may well be because women have two X chromosomes (The Guardian, 7th June 2020), although there remains some dispute about the influence of gender on infection and mortality. The PHE report cited above shows that in England “Working age males diagnosed with COVID-19 were twice as likely to die as females”. Most surveys seem to suggest that men are more at risk than women, but the ONS survey of those testing positive interestingly indicated that “there is no evidence of differences in the proportions of men or women testing positive for COVID-19”.
People with comorbidities are much more likely to be seriously ill or die from COVID-19 than are those who are otherwise healthy. Data for March reported by the US CDC indicates that almost 90% of all patients hospitalised that month had one or more underlying conditions, with 49.7% having hypertension, 48.3% being obese, 34.6% having chronic lung disease, 28.3% having Type 2 diabetes, and 27.8% having cardiovascular disease. These five health problems are associated with higher death rates in most places where the data have been studied, although precise percentages vary quite considerably between populations (for a review of underlying metabolic health see Lancet, 2020; for a useful South African perspective, see Cullinan, 2020). The UK authorities have defined clinically vulnerable people as follows:
“aged 70 or older (regardless of medical conditions)
under 70 with an underlying health condition listed below (that is, anyone instructed to get a flu jab as an adult each year on medical grounds):
chronic (long-term) mild to moderate respiratory diseases, such asasthma,chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema orbronchitis○chronic heart disease, such asheart failure
chronic kidney disease
chronic liver disease, such ashepatitis○chronic neurological conditions, such asParkinson’s disease,motor neurone disease,multiple sclerosis (MS), or cerebral palsy
a weakened immune system as the result of conditions such as HIV and AIDS, or medicines such as steroid tablets
being seriously overweight (a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or above)
As above, there is a further category of people with serious underlying health conditions who are clinically extremely vulnerable, meaning they are at very high risk of severe illness from coronavirus”
Ethnicity does appear to have an effect on the seriousness of health impacts of COVID-19, even taking other factors into consideration, but the precise reasons for this are not yet known. In the UK, more people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds have been seriously ill or died from COVID-19 than have people of white ethnicity, but this could be partly explained by deprivation, cultural factors (such as religious and family interactions), and comorbidities (such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes). England’s PHE report concludes that “An analysis of survival among confirmed COVID-19 cases and using more detailed ethnic groups, shows that after accounting for the effect of sex, age, deprivation and region, people of Bangladeshi ethnicity had around twice the risk of death than people of White British ethnicity. People of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Other Asian, Caribbean and Other Black ethnicity had between 10 and 50% higher risk of death when compared to White British”. More recently, the ISARIC CCP-UK study has shown convincingly that: (i) “Ethnic Minorities in hospital with COVID-19 were more likely to be admitted to critical care and receive IMV than Whites”, and (ii) “South Asians are at greater risk of dying, due at least in part to a higher prevalence of pre-existing diabetes” (see Harrison and Docherty, 17th June 2020). Insufficient detailed studies have yet been undertaken in other parts of the world, particularly in Africa and Asia, to see whether ethnicity is indeed also a risk factor there.
The risk of being infected is higher indoors than out of doors. This is mainly because there is generally more air movement to disperse SARS-Cov-2 outdoors (although air conditioning systems indoors do spread it in the direction blown by a fan), and people are usually in closer juxtaposition for longer indoors than outside. It is also easier to maintain sufficient distance between people outdoors than indoors (see inews, 11th May 2020). However, there is still some uncertainty about this. Thus, the UK ONS survey claimed in late May 2020 that “Individuals working outside the home show higher rates of positive tests than those who work from home”. This is, though, probably because those self-isolating and working at home simply don’t come into as much contact with potentially infectious people outside the home.
Much of the research on which these conclusions are drawn is based on early evidence from China, as well as more recent evidence from Europe and the USA where the infection and death rates have been so high. A particularly interesting issue is therefore whether these generalisations may also apply in other parts of the world, and especially in countries in Africa and South Asia which have yet to experience very serious rates of infection (see my previous post on On ageing populations, “development” and Covid-19). It may well be that their governments could learn from the mistakes made in the UK and the USA and develop a more nuanced approach as outlined below.
A differentiated risk- and responsibilities-based approach to managing COVID-19
This post makes two core suggestions: states need to adopt nuanced and differentiated responses to living with COVID-19 in the foreseeable future, and that human rights considerations should be balanced by a responsibilities agenda.
A differentiated risk-based approach to COVID-19
Most governments have adopted stringent lockdown policies in response to COVID-19 that have been applied to everyone, regardless of their health risks. This has caused considerable damage to their economies, as well as other serious health issues. Many deaths resulting from the existence of COVID-19 are thus not actually being caused by the SARS-COV-2 coronavirus. Numerous businesses are failing, and fit elderly people have complained vociferously about not being permitted to partake fully in “normal” society.
Now that more is known about the health risks of COVID-19, it makes considerable sense to develop context specific solutions that take into accont the risk factors noted above. Governments must first ensure that they have an adequate and robust health service capable of dealing with the number of people who are likely to get infected, but wasteful fiascos such as the construction of new Nightingale Hospitals in the UK that were never really needed, or the numerous projects across the world to create novel designs for new venitlators for which not enough nursing staff are available (and when many people on ventilators actually die), must not be repeated. The hospital services in some countries will come near to being overwhelmed (as in Italy), or may indeed collapse (see recent reports from Brazil, India and Pakistan which seem near this point). However, even where countries are unable to manage the health requirements of the majority of people affected, it is still vital that what services are available are used to treat those most in need and most likely to survive treatment. Is is also crucial that a responsibilities approach is inculcated and adopted at all scales from the state to the individual if the impact of the pandemic is to be mitigated.
It would thus seem wise to introduce comprehensive risk-based schemes through which everyone can evaluate their likelihood of being seriously ill from COVID-19 and their risk of infecting other vulnerable people, so that they can take appropriate actions to reduce such risk. At present, and as noted above, the key risk factors seem to be:
Put simply, and based largely on European and North American evidence, elderly men with comorbidities from BAME backgrounds spending all their time indoors would seem to be most at risk, and we should all do what we can to help protect them. Young, fit, active white women spending most of their time outdoors would seem to be least at risk.
This has implications for work, transport, and social life, and carefully nuanced schemes should be introduced to enable as many people as possible to live the lives that they wish to. For example, where resources are constrained, working-at-home policies could first be made available to the most at risk, encouraging those least at risk to stay at work, or indeed to return to work as previously. Tourism, travel and entertainment is much less risky for the fit and young, so they should be allowed to take those risks if they want to, while alternative arrangements are put in place for the most vunerably elderly Bangladeshi men (such as support for online tourism or special take-away meals for celebratory occasions).
Responsibilities- rather than rights-based approaches
For too long, rights-based approaches have dominated global and national policies, and insufficient attention has been paid to the responsibilities that are essential to ensure the extstence of well-functioning societies (see my Prolegomena on Human Rights and Responsibilities). All too often when a “right” is claimed, it is uncertain who has the “responsibility” to deliver it. Many, for example, have commented on the human rights aspects of COVID-19 (see Human Rights Watch, 19th March 2020; Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, 6th May 2020; The Guardian, 29th April 2020) , but rather fewer on the human responsibilities dimension.
This is particularly reflected in the tension between individual privacy rights and communal responsibilities in terms of the imposition and use of tracking apps to identify COVID-19 contacts (Human Rights Watch, 13th May 2020; Privacy International, no date; Morley et al., 2020). However, it also lies at the heart of discussions about wearing masks: all to often such usage is criticised for not really protecting the individual, which completely misses the point that their main use is to protect the community from infected individuals. People thus have a responsibility to wear masks so that if they are asymptomatic their chances of infecting many others are reduced (see my Face masks and Covid-19: communal not individual relevance).
Two main implications of a shift to a more responsibilities-based approach are important:
The first is that governments have a fundamental responsibility to care for their most vulnerable and at risk citizens. The shocking way in which the UK government placed its focus on “saving the NHS” above “saving vulnerable people” is an all-too-visible example of a failure to adhere to such a principle. It was a serious injustice for UK policy to have sent elderly people with COVID-19 back into care homes and the community from hospital, as a result of which many of them died, many others were infected, and many more certainly died sooner than they would otherwise have done. This principle, though, is also of crucial importance in countries where the health services have difficulty, or will have difficulties in the future, in coping with the COVID-19 crisis. It is absolutely the responsibility of governments to recognise that many low-risk people will survive COVID-19 with little or no lasting health implications, and that they should be allowed to continue if they wish to in the productive economy. However, at the same time, governments must put in measures whereby those at risk are protected, and given the wherewithall to sustain themselves.
The second, and closely related principle is that individuals also have fundamentally important responsibilities to others. Some positive evidence of communal responsibility and action has been visible in countries across the world during COVID-19, but support for at-risk people has been less than many had hoped for or expected. Moreover, there have also been substantial numbers of explicitly negative communal actions: digital-attacks on health care organisations have proliferated during the pandemic, and doctors and nurses have been victimised for spreading the coronavirus in countries as diverse as Mexico and Pakistan. Almost always, the emphasis has been on the rights of the individual (to enjoy the beach or to party) rather than on their responsibilites to others (to protect others from the actions of the self). Put simply, all of us have responsibilities to protect everyone else from being infected, and to enable as many people as possible to continue to live active and fulfilled lives.
Is it too much to hope for that one of the results of COVID-19 may be the creation of societies where we shift the focus more to our responsibilities towards others than attention on ourselves? In the short term, this would mean that we should all be:
Thinking that we could be asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19, and take actions to prevent us from infecting others;
Caring for and serving vulnerable neighbours who cannot benefit from the freedoms that we enjoy; and
Taking action to self-isolate and get tested immediately we think we might be infected with COVID-19.
Whilst this is written primarily from the perspective of someone living in a country that is now coming out of lockdown, these principles apply globally, and if adopted in countries that have not yet encountered serious outbreaks of COVID-19 might help them escape some of the more serious impacts of economic shutdown.
Now is the time to be thinking seriously about the kind of world that we wish to live in once Covid-19 has finished its rampage across Europe and North America.[i] Although its potential direct health impact in Africa and South Asia remains uncertain at the time of writing, countries within these continents have already seen dramatic disruption and much hardship as well as numerous deaths having been caused by the measures introduced by governments to restrict its spread. It is already clear that it is the poorest and most marginalised who suffer most, as witnessed, for example, by the impact of Modi’s lockdown in India on migrant workers.[ii]
This post highlights five likely global impacts that will be hastened by Covid-19, and argues that we need to use this disruption constructively to shape a better world in the future, rather than succumb to the potential and substantial damage that will be caused, especially to the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised. It may be that for many countries in the world, the impact of Covid-19 will be even more significant than was the impact of the 1939-45 war. Digital technologies are above all accelerators, and most of those leading the world’s major global corporations are already taking full advantage of Covid-19 to increase their reach and their profits.[iii]
The inexorable rise of China and the demise of the USA
I have written previously about the waxing of China and the waning of the USA; China is the global political-economic powerhouse of the present, not just of the future.[iv] One very significant impact of Covid-19 will be to increase the speed of this major shift in global power. Just as 1945 saw the beginning of the final end of the British Empire, so 2020 is likely to see the beginning of the end of the USA as the dominant global (imperial) power. Already, even in influential USAn publications, there is now much more frequent support for the view that the US is a failing state.[v] This transition is likely to be painful, and it will require world leaders of great wisdom to ensure that it is less violent than may well be the case.
The differences between the ways in which the USA and China have responded to Covid-19 have been marked, and have very significant implications for the political, social and economic futures of these states. Whilst little trust should be placed on the precise accuracy of reported Covid-19 mortality rate figures throughout the world, China has so far reported a loss of 3.2 people per million to the disease (as of 17 April, and thus including the 1290 uplift announced that day), whereas the USA has reported deaths of 8.38 per 100,000 (as of that date); moreover, China’s figures seem to have stabilised, whereas those for the USA continue to increase rapidly.[vi] These differences are not only very significant in human terms, but they also reflect a fundamental challenge in the relative significance of the individual and the community in US and Chinese society.
Few apart from hardline Republicans in the USA now doubt the failure of the Trump regime politically, socially, economically and culturally. This has been exacerbated by the US government’s failure to manage Covid-19 effectively (even worse than the UK government’s performance), and its insistent antagonism towards China through its deeply problematic trade-war[vii] even before the outbreak of the present coronavirus. Anti-Chinese rhetoric in the USA is but a symptom of the realisation of the country’s fundamental economic and policial weaknesses in the 21st century. President Trump’s persistent use of the term “Chinese virus” instead of Covid-19[viii] is also just a symptom of a far deeper malaise. Trump is sadly not the problem; the problem is the people and system that enabled him to come to power and in whose interests he is trying to serve (alongside his own). China seems likely to come out of the Covid-19 crisis much stronger than will the USA.[ix]
Whether people like it or not, and despite cries from the western bourgeoisie that it is unfair, and that the Chinese have lied about the extent of Covid-19 in their own country in its early stages, this is the reality. China is the dominant world power today, let alone tomorrow.
An ever more digital world
The digital technology sector is already the biggest winner from Covid-19. Everyone with access, knowledge and ability to pay for connectivity and digital devices has turned to digital technologies to continue with their work, maintain social contacts, and find entertainment during the lockdowns that have covered about one-third of the world’s population by mid-April.[x] Those who previously rarely used such technologies, have overnight been forced to use them for everything from buying food online, to maintaining contacts with relatives and friends.
There is little evidence that the tech sector was prepared for such a windfall in the latter part of 2019,[xi] but major corporations and start-ups alike have all sought to exploit its benefits as quickly as possible in the first few months of 2020, as testified by the plethora of announcements claiming how various technologies can win the fight against Covid-19.[xii]
One particularly problematic outcome has been the way in which digital tech champions and activists have all sought to develop new solutions to combat Covid-19. While sometimes this is indeed well intended, more often than not it is primarily so that they can benefit from funding that is made available for such activities by governments and donors, or primarily to raise the individual or corporate profile of those involved. For them, Covid-19 is a wonderful business opportunity. Sadly, many such initiatives will fail to deliver appropriate solutions, will be implemented after Covid-19 has dissipated, and on some occasions will even do more harm than good.[xiii]
There are many paradoxes and tensions in this dramatically increased role of digital technology after Covid-19. Two are of particular interest. First, many people who are self-isolating or social distancing are beginning to crave real, physical human contact, and are realising that communicating only over the Internet is insufficiently fulfilling. This might offer some hope for the future of those who still believe in the importance of non-digitally mediated human interaction, although I suspect that such concerns may only temporarily delay our demise into a world of cyborgs.[xiv] Second, despite the ultimate decline in the US economy and political power noted above, US corporations have been very well placed to benefit from the immediate impact of Covid-19, featuring in prominent initiatives such as UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition,[xv] or the coalition of pharmaceutical companies brought together by the Gates Foundation.[xvi]
Whatever the precise details, it is an absolute certainty that the dominance of digital technologies in everyone’s lives will increase very dramatically following Covid-19 and this will be exploited by those intent on reaping the profits from such expansion in their own interests.
Increasing acceptance of surveillance by states and companies: the end of privacy as we know it.
A third, related, global impact of Covid-19 will be widely increased global acceptance of the roles of states and companies in digital surveillance. Already, before 2020, there was a growing, albeit insufficient, debate about the ethics of digital surveillance by states over issues such as crime and “terrorism”, and its implications for privacy.[xvii] However, some states, such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Israel, have already used digital technologies and big data analytics extensively and apparently successfully in monitoring and tracking the spread of Covid-19,[xviii] and other coalitions of states and the private sector are planning to encourage citizens to sign up to having fundamental aspects of what has previously been considered to be their private and personal health information made available to unknown others.[xix]
One problem with such technologies is that they require substantial numbers of people to sign up to and then use them. In more authoritarian states where governments can make such adherence obligatory by imposing severe penalties for failure to do so, they do indeed appear to be able to contribute to reduction in the spread of Covid-19 in the interests of the wider community. However, in more liberal democratic societies, which place the individual about the community in importance, it seems less likely that they will be acceptable.
Despite such concerns, the growing evidence promoted by the companies that are developing them that such digital technologies can indeed contribute to enhanced public health will serve as an important factor in breaking down public resistance to the use of surveillance technologies and big data analytics. Once again, this will ultimately serve the interest of those who already have greater political and economic power than it will the interests of the most marginalised.
Online shopping and the redesign of urban centres.
Self-isolation and social distancing have led to the dramatic emptying of towns and cities across the world. Businesses that have been unable to adapt to online trading have overnight been pushed into a critical survival situation, with governments in many of the richer countries of the world being “forced” to offer them financial bail-outs to help them weather the storm. Unfortunately, most of this money is going to be completely wasted and will merely create huge national debts for years into the future. People who rarely before used online shopping are now doing so because they believe that no other method of purchasing goods is truly safe.
The new reality will be that most people will have become so used to online shopping that they are unlikely to return in the future to traditional shopping outlets. Companies that have been unable to adjust to the new reality will fail. The character of our inner-city areas will change beyond recognition. This is a huge opportunity for the re-design of urban areas in creative, safe and innovative ways. Already, the environmental impact of a reduction in transport and pollution has been widely seen; wildlife is enjoying a bonanza; people are realising that their old working and socialising patterns may not have been as good as they once thought.[xx] Unfortunately, it is likely that this opportunity may not be fully grasped, and instead governments that lack leadership and vision will instead seek to prop up backward-looking institutions, companies and organisations, intent on preserving infrastructure and economic activities that are unfit for purpose in the post-pandemic world. Such a mentality will lead to urban decay and ghettoization, where people will fear to tread, and there is a real danger of a downward spiral of urban deprivation.
There are, though, many bright signs of innovation and creativity for those willing to do things differently. Shops and restaurants that have been able to find efficient trustworthy drivers are now offering new delivery services; students are able to draw on the plethora of online courses now available; new forms of communal activity are flourishing; and most companies are realising that they don’t actually need to spend money on huge office spaces, but can exploit their labour even more effectively by enabling them to work from home.
We must see the changes brought about by responses to Covid-19 as important opportunities to build for the future, and to create human-centred urban places that are also sensitive to the natural environments in which they are located.
Increasing global inequalities
The net outcome of the above four trends will lead inexorably to a fifth, and deeply concerning issue: the world will become an even more unequal place, where those who can adapt and survive will flourish, but where the most vulnerable and marginalised will become even more immiserated.
This is already all too visible. Migrant workers are being ostracised, and further marginalised.[xxi] In India, tens of thousands of labourers are reported to have left the cities, many of them walking home hundreds of kilometres to their villages.[xxii] In China, Africans are reported as being subjected to racist prejudice, being refused service in shops and evicted from their residences.[xxiii] In the UK, many food banks have had to close and it is reported that about 1.5. million people a day are going without food.[xxiv] The World Bank is reporting that an extra 40-50 million people across the world will be forced into poverty by Covid-19, especially in Africa.[xxv] People with disabilities have become even more forgotten and isolated.[xxvi] The list of immediate crises grows by the day.
More worrying still is that there is no certainty that these short-term impacts will immediately bounce-back once the pandemic has passed. It seems at least as likely that many of the changes will have become so entrenched that aspects of living under Covid-19 will become the new norm. Once again, those able to benefit from the changes will flourish, but the uneducated, those with disabilities, the ethnic minorities, people living in isolated areas, refugees, and women in patriarchal societies are all likely to find life much tougher in 2021 and 2022 even than they do at present. Much of this rising inequality is being caused, as noted above, by the increasing role that digital technologies are playing in people’s lives. Those who have access and can afford to use the Internet can use it for shopping, employment, entertainment, learning, and indeed most aspects of their lives. Yet only 59% of the world’s population are active Internet users.[xxvii]
Looking positively to the future.
People will respond in different ways to these likely trends over the next few years, but we will all need to learn to live together in a world where:
China is the global political economic power,
Our lives will become ever more rapidly experienced and mediated through digital technology,
Our traditional views of privacy are replaced by a world of surveillance,
Our towns and cities have completely different functions and designs, and
There is very much greater inequality in terms of opportunities and life experiences.
In dealing with these changes, it is essential to remain positive; to see Covid-19 as an opportunity to make the world a better place for everyone to live in, rather than just as a threat of further pain, misery and death, or an opportunity for a few to gain unexpected windfall opportunities to become even richer. Six elements would seem to be important in seeking to ensure that as many people as possible can indeed flourish once the immediate Covid-19 pandemic has dissipated:
First, these predictions should encourage all of us to prioritise more on enhancing the lives of the poorest and the most marginalised, than on ensuring economic growth that mainly benefits the rich and privileged. This applies at all scales, from designing national health and education services, to providing local, community level care provision.
This requires an increased focus on negotiating communal oriented initiatives and activities rather than letting the greed and selfishness of individualism continue to rule the roost.
Third, it is essential that we use this as an opportunity to regain our physical sentient humanity, and reject the aspirations of those who wish to create a world that is only experienced and mediated through digital technology. We need to regain our very real experiences of each other and the world in which we live through our tastes, smells, the sounds we hear, the touches we feel, and the sights we see.
Fourth, it seems incredibly important that we create a new global political order safely to manage a world in which China replaces the USA as the dominant global power. The emergence of new political counterbalances, at a regional level as with Europe, South Asia, Africa and Latin America seems to be a very important objective that remains to be realised. Small states that choose to remain isolated, however arrogant they are about the “Great”ness of their country, will become ever more vulnerable to the vagaries of economic, political and demographic crisis.
Fifth, we need to capitalise on the environmental impact of Covid-19 rapidly to shape a world of which we are but a part, and in which we care for and co-operate with the rich diversity of plant and animal life that enjoys the physical richness of our planet. This will require a comprehensive and rigorous evaluation of the harm caused to our world by the design and use of digital technologies.[xxviii]
Finally, we need to agree communally on the extent to which individual privacy matters, and whether we are happy to live in a world of omnipresent surveillance by companies (enabling them to reap huge profits from our selves as data) and governments (to maintain their positions of power, authority and dominance). This must not be imposed on us by powerful others. It is of paramount importance that there is widespread informed public and communal discussion about the future of surveillance in a post-Covid-19 era.
I trust that these comments will serve to provoke and challenge much accepted dogma and practice. Above all, let’s try to think of others more than we do ourselves, let’s promote the reduction of inequality over increases in economic growth, and let’s enjoy an integral, real and care-filled engagement with the non-human natural world.
One of the starkest differences between East Asian and European/North American responses to the Covid-19 pandemic has been in their differing attitudes towards face masks (used here generically, and differentiated from FFP3, also known as N95, respirators) : they are common in East Asian countries such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Japan, and yet are rarely to be seen in other parts of the world. They have been part of the package of solutions recommended in East Asia, where infection and mortality rates have generally been quite low; yet they are absent in Europe and North America where rates are much higher.
If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected 2019-nCoV infection.
Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
If you wear a mask, then you must know how to use it and dispose of it properly.
This is frequently interepreted in an abbreviated form, as by the BBC, to imply that “Only two types of people should wear masks: those who are sick and show symptoms, and those who are caring for people who are suspected to have the coronavirus”.
The case against wearing face masks comes down essentially to the argument that they will do little to protect someone from getting infected. This is fundamentally an individualistic argument: “If I wear a mask it won’t be much good to me”. However, from a communal perspective that is absolutely not the point; what matters is that if you wear a mask and are unknowingly infected it may help to prevent you spreading the infection to many other people. Wearing a mask is about others not yourself.
A growing body of evidence is now suggesting that masks can indeed help to slow the spread of Covid-19:
The markedly different histories of infection between countries where masks are encouraged/enforced as part of a package of measures, and those where they are discouraged, is forcing researchers and policy makers to try to explain why. Masks are an obvious possible answer.
It is increasingly being suggested that many Covid-19 carriers are asymptomatic. They therefore don’t know that they might infect people, and so are going about their daily lives doing just that. If they had been wearing masks, it is argued, this could reduce the number of people that they infect.
Dentists and healthcare workers in many parts of the world are encouraged or required to use masks both to provide some protection from patients, but also to protect patients from any infections that a dentist may have. If such masks are seen to be offering patients some protection, then it seems strange to suggest that they offer no protection against a coronavirus such as Covid-19 (see reviews of surgical masks and N95 masks by Loeb et al., 2009, and more recently by Long et al., 2020)
Chinese doctors and scientists are increasingly confident that masks do make a difference. In a recent interview, George Gao (Head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention) has thus suggested that “The big mistake in the U.S. and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks. This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role—you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others”.
In societies such as the USA and much of Europe where the focus tends to be more on the “self” rather than the “community” it is scarcely surprising that individuals and their politicians see little value in masks; but in more communal societies, where there is perhaps more care for others, then masks are seen as an important part of the armour against Covid-19.
Many governments fear that encouraging citizens to wear face masks would mean that there would be insufficient left for medical professionals to wear. This, however, is rather a lame excuse. Such governments could readily have put in place systems in early February to prepare to expand production of protective clothing. It is not too late for them urgently to do so. The BBC thus reports that “UK clothes makers say the government has wasted time in ordering personal protective equipment for NHS staff. Fashion and textile firms believe they could have begun making gowns and masks for front-line workers 10 days ago”.
However, for those who do care about their neighbours and don’t want to disrupt the official production of masks for healthcare providers, an increasing amount of guidance is now available for making your own masks, as at:
These are clearly not going to be as good as masks made by companies to stringent regulatory standards (for UK see Regulatory status of equipment being used to help prevent coronavirus (COVID-19)), but they may well offer at least some protection to reduce the communal spread of Covid-19. Pressure on demand is likely to become very much worse than it is at present, especially when imported masks are low in supply and often fail to satisfy these standards: recent reports (see for example Business Insider, 29th March) thus suggest that 600,000 masks imported from China have had to be recalled by the Dutch government because they are faulty. In countries unable even to import masks from elsewhere, domestic production in line with international standards (see Wong, A. and Wilkinson, A., 2020) can be recommended.
Above all, the discussion should not so much be about “will I be protected?” but instead “how can I protect others?“. It rather depends on what kind of society we wish to live in – especially for those who are left after this pandemic has run its course.
[Update 30th March – it is great to see that Austria has announced today, the day after I wrote the above, that it is to make wearing masks compulsory, and will distribute basic masks for free at the entrances to all supermarkets]
[Update 31st March – Tom Whipple in The Times notes comments from Prof Cheng at Birmingham University and Prof Cowling at University of Hong Kong in favour of wearing masks, although Prof McNally, also from Birmingham, expressed concern that this would be counterproductive since people would think they could still go out]
[Update 15th December – Scientists say masks could stop coronavirus spreading in busy streets – nothing much has changed, apart from many thousands having died unnecessarily! Just goes to show what an individualistic and selfish society we live in – as many of us have said for months, masks can help protect other people. Every life saved matters]
We are all going to be affected by Covid-19, and we must work together across the world if we are going to come out of the next year peacefully and coherently. The world in a year’s time will be fundamentally different from how it is now; now is the time to start planning for that future. The countries that will be most adversely affected by Covid-19 are not the rich and powerful, but those that are the weakest and that have the least developed healthcare systems. Across the world, many well-intentioned people are struggling to do what they can to make a difference in the short-term, but many of these initiatives will fail; most of them are duplicating ongoing activity elsewhere; many of them will do more harm than good.
This is a plea for us all to learn from our past mistakes, and work collaboratively in the interests of the world’s poorest and most marginalised rather than competitively and selfishly for ourselves.
Bilateral donors and international organisations are always eager to use their resources at times of crisis both to try to do good, but also to be seen to be trying to do good. Companies and civil society organisations also often try to use such crises to generate revenue and raise their own profiles. As a result many crises tend to benefit the companies and NGOs more than they do the purportedly intended beneficiaries.
This was classically, and sadly, demonstrated in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, especially with the funding of numerous Internet-based initiatives – at a time when only a small fraction of the population in the infected countries was actually connected to the Internet. At that time, I wrote a short piece that highlighted the many initiatives ongoing in the continent. Amongst other things this noted that:
“A real challenge now, though, is that so many initiatives are trying to develop digital resources to support the response to Ebola that there is a danger of massive duplication of effort, overlap, and simply overload on the already stretched infrastructure, and indeed people, in the affected countries”, and
“Many, many poor people will die of Ebola before we get it under control collectively. We must never make the same mistakes again”.
I have not subsequently found any rigorous monitoring and evaluation reports about the efficacy of most of the initiatives that I then listed, nor of the countless other digital technology projects that were funded and implemented at the time. However, many such projects hadn’t produced anything of value before the crisis ended, and most failed to many any significant impact on mortality rates or on the lives of those people affected.
In the hope of trying not to make these same mistakes again, might I suggest the following short-term and longer-term things to bear in mind as we seek to reduce the deaths and disruption caused by Covid-19.
The following five short-term issues strike me as being particularly important for governments and donors to bear in mind, especially in the context of the use of digital technologies:
Support and use existing technologies. In most (but not all) instances the development and production of new technological solutions will take longer than the immediate outbreak that they are designed to respond to. Only fund initiatives that will still be relevant after the immediate crisis is over, or that will enable better responses to be made to similar crises in the future. Support solutions that are already proven to work.
Co-ordinate and collaborate rather than compete. Countless initiatives are being developed to try to resolves certain aspects of the Covid-19 crisis, such as lack of ventilators or the development of effective testing kits (see below). This is often because of factors such as national pride and the competitive advantage that many companies (and NGOs) are seeking to achieve. As a result, there is wasteful duplication of effort, insufficient sharing of good practice, and the poor and marginalised usually do not receive the optimal treatment. It is essential for international organisations to share widely accepted good practices and technological designs that can be used across the world in the interests of the least powerful.
Ensure that what you fund does more good than harm. Many initiatives are rushed onto the market without having been sufficiently tried and tested in clinical contexts. Already, we have seen a plethora of false information being published about Covid-19, some out of ignorance and some deliberate falsification. It is essential that governments and donors support reliable initiatives, and that possible unintended consequences are thorouighly considered.
Remember that science is a contested field. Value-free science does not exisit. Scientists are generally as interested in their own careers as anyone else. There is also little universal scientific agreement on anything. Hence, it is important for politicians and decision makers carefully to evaluate different ideas and proposed solutions, and never to resort to claiming that they are acting on scientific advice. If you are a leader you have to make some tough decisions.
Ensure that funding goes to where it is most needed. In many such crises funding that is made available is inappropriately used, and it is therefore essential for governments and donors to put in place effective and robus measures to ensure transparency and probity in funding. A recent letter from Transparency International to the US Congress, for example, recommends 25 anti-corruption measures that it believes are necessary to ” help protect against self-interested parties taking advantage of this emergency for their own benefit and thereby undermining the safety of our communities”.
In the medium term…
Immediate action on Covid-19 is urgent, but a well thought-through and rigorous medium-term response by governments and donors is even more important, especially in the context of the use of digital technologies:
We must start planning now for what the world will be like in 18 months time. Two things about Covid-19 are certain: many people will die, and it will change the world forever. Already it is clear that one outcome will be vastly greater global use of digital technologies. This, for example, is likely dramatically to change the ways in which people shop: as they get used to buying more of their requirements online, traditional suppliers will have to adapt their practices very much more rapipdly than they have been able to do to date. Those with access to digital technologies will become even more advantaged compared with those who cannot afford them, do not know how to use them, or do not have access to them.
Planning for fundamental changes to infrastructure and government services: education and health. The impact of Covid-19 on the provision of basic government services is likely to be dramatic, and particularly so in countries with weak infrastructures and limited provision of fundamental services. Large numbers of teachers, doctors and nurses are likely to die across the world, and we need to find ways to help ensure that education and health services can be not only restored but also revitalised. Indeed, we should see this as an opportunity to introduce new and better systems to enable people to live healthier and more fulfilled lives. The development of carefully thought through recommendations on these issues, involving widespread representative consultation, in the months ahead will be very important if governments, especially in the poorest countries, are to be able to make wise use of the opportunities that Covid-19 is creating. There is a very significant role for all donors in supporting such initiatives.
Communities, collaboration and co-operation. Covid-19 offers an opportunity for fundamentally different types of economy and society to be shaped. New forms of communal activity are already emerging in countries that have been hardest hit by Covid-19. Already, there are numerous reports of the dramatic impact of self-isolation and reduction of transport pollution on air quality and weather in different parts of the world (see The Independent, NPR, CarbonBrief). Challenges with obtaining food and other resources are also forcing many people to lead more frugal lives. However, those who wish to see more communal and collaborative social formations in the future will need to work hard to ensure that the individualistic, profit-oriented, greedy and selfish societies in which we live today do not become ever more entrenched. We need to grasp this opportunity together to help build a better future, especially in the interests of the poor and marginalised.
Examples of wasteful duplication of effort
Already a plethora of wasteful (in terms of both time and money), competitive and duplicative initiatives to tackle various aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic have been set in motion. These reflect not only commercial interests, but also national pride – and in some instances quite blatant racism. Many are also very ambitious, planning to deliver products in only a few weeks. Of course critical care ventilators, test kits, vaccines and ways of identifying antibodies are incredibly important, but greater global collaboration and sharing would help to guarantee both quantity and quality of recommended solutions. International Organisations have a key role to play in establishing appropriate standards for such resources, and for sharing Open Source (or other forms of communal) templates and designs. Just a very few of the vast number of ongoing initiatives are given in the reports below:
Despite criticisms of the replicative and wasteful nature of many such initiatives, there are a few initiatives at a global scale that do offer hope. Prime among these must be Jack Ma’s donation of 20,000 testing kits to each of 54 African countries, which will go some way to reducing the need for these to be domestically produced across the continent. But this is sadly only a small shower of rain on an otherwise parched continent. Working together, we have much more to be achieved, both now and in the months ahead.
Recently I was asked by the GFA Consulting Group to provide some short comments and reflections (just a few sentences) in response to four questions, the answers to which will be incorporated as part of a final chapter in an important new Toolkit on Education and Digitisation in Development Cooperation being developed by them together with GIZ (Sector Programme Education) and BMZ (Division 402, Education), and due to be published in April 2020 [as: BMZ, Toolkit – Education and Digitalization in Development Cooperation, to be published in 04/2020]. It is always interesting to try constructively to answer questions that contain inbuilt assumptions with which I don’t necessarily agree! They have kindly agreed that I can share them here for wider commentary and feedback. This is how I responded:
1) How can digitalization contribute to achieving the educational objectives of the Agenda 2030?
“Digitalization by itself contributes little to enhancing education, and can often actually cause more harm than good. The introduction of digital technologies into educational systems must be undertaken in a holistic and carefully planned way. It needs to be designed and implemented “at scale”, beginning in the poorest and most marginalised contexts: in isolated rural areas, for people with disabilities, for out of school children, and for girls in patriarchal societies. Only then will it begin to reduce the inequalities in learning provision, and help to provide children and adults alike with the skills they need to empower themselves”.
2) Which digital technologies will bring about revolutionary changes in the education sector in the future?
“Digital technologies by themselves cannot bring about any changes, let alone revolutionary ones! To claim otherwise propagates the damaging reductionist myth of technological determinism. Technologies are designed by people who have specific interests and for particular purposes. We need to begin with the education and not the technology. Hence, people with exciting ideas about how to improve education – particularly in the most challenging circumstances – should be encouraged to develop new technological solutions to the most pressing problems that they identify. These challenges include enabling teachers to have the right skills and understanding to help children learn, ensuring that relevant content is available in the optimal formats to enable children to live fulfilled lives, and creating systems to ensure efficient resource use in educational systems”.
3) What will be the most pressing challenge in the educational development cooperation sector in the future and how can the use of digital technologies help to overcome it?
“The most important challenge in educational systems is to ensure that there are sufficient well-trained and committed teachers and facilitators employed to inspire new generations of learners. It is estimated that around 69 million new teachers are needed if the educational objectives of Agenda 2030 are to be reached. We must ensure therefore that digital technologies are used efficiently and effectively to support in-service and pre-service training for educators, to provide effective learning resources for them to use with learners, and to enable them to be supported by efficient administrative and assessment schemes. This is without doubt the most pressing challenge”.
4) What needs to happen in order to utilize the potential of these digital innovations for education in partner countries?
“Four simple things are needed:
Partner countries (and indeed donors) must give education the highest priority in their development programmes. Many people talk about the importance of education, but it is only rarely given sufficient emphasis and resources. We need to reiterate over and over again that ignorance is far more expensive than education!
We need to put in place effective mechanisms through which good practices in the use of digital technologies in education can be shared and implemented. We must stop reinventing the wheel and repeating the mistakes made with digital technologies in the past. Far too many resources are wasted in developing pilot projects that will never go to scale and will not enhance learning opportunities for the most marginalised.
We must begin by implementing effective systems of using digital technologies in teacher training. Only once teachers and learning facilitators have been effectively trained should digital systems be rolled out across schools.
Finally, we need to ensure that we also minimise the harm that digital technologies can be used for in education and learning. The benefits of digital technologies can only be achieved if systems are put in place to mitigate the harm that they can be used for”.
I think it is likely that these were not the sort of answers that they were expecting, but I very much hope that they provoke discussion that may lead to changes in the way that governments, companies and civil society organisations seek to implement the use of digital technologies in education. Not surprisingly, they are very much in line with the work that I had the privilege of helping 21 UN agencies develop for the UN’s Chief Executive Board last year entitled Towards a United Nations system-wide strategic approach for achieving inclusive, equitable and innovative education and learning for all. It is so important that we all work together to develop sound policies and practices that do not reinvent the wheel or duplicate other onoging initiatives. Above all, we must begin with the education and learning, and not with the technology!