This post argues that a coalition of interests around economic and demographic growth has not only created significant inequalities across the world, but has also been the main factor driving global environmental degradation. It is demographic growth in combination with a particular form of tech-led capitalist economic growth that has been the main driver of global environmental change, of which climate change is but a small part.
Economic growth has for many decades been seen by economists and international organisations alike as the key means through which poverty can be eliminated, especially in the economically poorer countries of the world. This powerful mantra lay at the heart of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, 2000-2015) and has more recently been central to aspirations for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, 2015-2030). Yet, as I have frequently argued elsewhere,[i] these aspirations have never been achieved, they focus on absolute poverty rather than relative poverty, and the resultant unfettered economic growth has almost always been associated with an increase in inequalities. For those concerned with equity and who define “development” primarily as the reduction of inequalities, policies designed to increase growth alone are doomed to failure and need to be replaced.
National policies and international frameworks focused on growth primarily support the interests of those private sector companies and global corporations that have worked so assiduously to shape the UN rhetoric around economic growth and innovation. Digital tech companies have long been at the forefront of this, not only driving growth, but also reaping the benefits of so doing.[ii] Economic growth is deemed to be essential both to expand markets and also to increase labour productivity, whereby owners of the means of production can extract surplus value.
In trying to consider alternative models of socio-economic activity, I have often used the notion a “no-growth” economy as a heuristic device, encouraging audiences to consider how economic activity might be organised if growth was somehow prohibited. Although there are many potential outcomes, one of the most interesting is the thought that the pressures to achieve a reduction in inequalities might increase under such conditions, thus leading to a fairer and more equitable society. I have also found the work of the Post-Autistic Economics Network to be a helpful source of inspiration, challenging as it does many of the usually taken for granted assumptions of neo-classical (and indeed neo-liberal) economics.[iii]
Recent debates about the balance between the positive and negative impacts of demographic growth on the economy have highlighted their inextricable intertwining with the rhetorics of economic growth.[iv] On the one hand there are those who argue that ageing populations with few young and economically productive people are deeply problematic for economic growth, and that policies to encourage higher birth rates or immigration are essential to enable economic viability. Years ago, I thus well remember the French advertising campaign to encourage families to have more children, beautifully encapsulated in this postcard:
On the other, are those who point to a demographic dividend in Africa, through which increasing numbers of young people are going to drive the economy forward, fuelled especially by the potential of digital tech. See for example, this image below from Invest Africa in an article entitled How can Africa harness its demographic dividend (and note its emphasis on digital tech).
Both arguments are deeply problematic. In the African case, this naïve dream is only going to be possible if young people are well educated and jobs are available for them; it seems more likely that this will actually be a demographic millstone rather than a dividend. The “problem” of an ageing population likewise only becomes serious if systems are put in place to extend human life at high cost for long periods of time, or if labour productivity stagnates or declines.[v]
Much of the international debate concerning demographic change has been articulated around its interconnectedness with economic growth. Put simply, the interests underlying the continued drive for economic growth are frequently the same as those that advocate for population increase as being positive and that technology can continue to ensure a healthy lifestyle for a very much larger human population. Rather less interest has surprisingly been devoted to what human experiences of such changes might be. This is especially so when the twin mantras of economic growth and demographic growth are confronted by their combined impact on the environment. This is particularly evident in the reactions over the last 50 years to The Club of Rome’s 1972 report on Limits to Growth,[vi] and to the much more recent and controversial film Planet of the Humans, produced by Michael Moore in 2019.
Limits to Growth, Planet of the Humans and the legacy of Thomas Malthus
In 1972, the Club of Rome published its prescient report entitled Limits to Growth, which argued that if the then growth trends in population, industrialisation, resource use and pollution continued unchecked, then the carrying capacity of the earth would be reached some time within the following century.[vii] I remember distinctly the wake-up call that this provided for me as an undergraduate, and thinking back to those days have been fascinated by how its message seemed increasingly to be ignored in the ensuing decades. Few countries apart from China (see below) really responded to this message, although some such as India made tentative efforts to address it. I distinctly remember, for example, being in Sonua market in what was then South Bihar (now Jharkhand) in 1976 and seeing this painted slogan of two parents and two children that formed part of the government’s 20 point programme during the 21 month state of emergency declared by Indira Gandhi.
India’s population was then 637.45 million; in 2023 it is 1,428.63 million. The policy was not a success.
Interestingly, 30 years after the Club of Rome report, the authors published an update, in which they concluded that “it is a sad fact that humanity has largely squandered the past 30 years in futile debates and well intentioned, but halfhearted, responses to the global ecological challenge”. This is an overly generous observation, largely because of the very specific interests that have underlain economic and demographic change in subsequent years. In essence, as noted above, the owners of the world’s major companies, supported by many economists have argued convincingly that both economic and demographic growth are essential for the future success of humanity, that the new SDGs are indeed sustainable,[viii] and that technology can continue to provide innovative solutions to the increasing problems caused by the pressure of people on the planet. I find it extraordinary to think that in my lifetime the world’s population has risen by 288% from 2.77 billion people to 8 billion people. What I find more frightening, though, is that there is nothing in the UN’s development goals really about population growth,[ix] and there was almost universal condemnation in the world’s capitalist countries when China adopted its 1 child per family policy when it was introduced in 1980.[x] Widespread criticism of the Club of Rome’s report and others who held their views was based primarily on the grounds that they were neo-Malthusian,[xi] and that the world was coping perfectly well, in large part through technological advances that were overcoming the challenges of an increasing population. Indeed, the observation that very much higher levels of population have been able to live on the planet over the last 50 years would seem to support such a view. However, this fails to recognise that very many of those people live in abject poverty and misery, and that the environmental impact of such growth has been very significant indeed. Unfortunately, much of the focus of the international community has been captured by the rhetoric around climate change, which has served to reduce emphasis on the wider environmental impact caused by the double mantra of economic and demographic growth. Climate change causes nothing; it is the factors giving rise to changes in the climate that are the ultimate cause and the real problem that needs addressing.
These issues were brought to the fore by the film Planet of the Humans produced by Michael Moore, and directed by Jeff Gibbs in 2019. This has been very widely criticised by those within the so-called environmental and green lobbies on the grounds that it was outdated and misleading, especially concerning the scientific evidence and more recent developments in renewable energy. However, many of these criticisms miss the fundamental point of the film, which was that our economic system, based on the present model of capitalist growth is fundamentally unsustainable, particularly in the context of continued demographic growth.[xii]
Many of these arguments might appear to smack of neo-Malthusianism which has been almost universally condemned from a wide range of angles, as were the criticisms of Malthus’ original works.[xiii] Engels, writing in 1844,[xiv] put it this way: technological and scientific “progress is as unlimited and at least as rapid as that of population”. Many continue to agree with Engels’ proposition, or at least hope that he was right. However, the scale of human impact on the environment today is vastly different from when Malthus first wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population at the end of the 18th century, and the world’s population is now more than twice as much as it was when Limits to Growth was first published. People are seriously talking about and investing in the colonisation of outer space to provide continued sustenance for the world; technology once again to the fore. My emphasis in this piece, though, is not so much to take issue with the many diverse arguments of those who challenge neo-Malthusianism, but rather, and much more simply, to suggest that the dominant global focus on climate alone is hugely damaging because it fails to address the wider environmental impacts of our thirst for growth.
“Climate change” has become a popular focus of concern and political protest, but as I have argued extensively elsewhere[xv] it is a deeply problematic notion conceptually, especially when abbreviated to just these two words “climate” and “change”, ignoring the words “human” and “induced”. All too often, it is used in a way that externalises it as being somehow separate from the human actions that cause weather patterns to change, while at the same time also implying that humans can somehow solve it without addressing the deeper structural problems facing the world. Likewise, all too frequently, the answer to the problem of “climate change” is naïvely deemed to be an over-simplified reduction in carbon emissions. Leaders of the digital tech sector, with their voracious appetite for growth and innovation are eager to comply with this agenda, while failing almost completely to recognise the enormous harms that they are causing to other aspects of the environment. By focusing largely on “climate change” they can feel good whilst also maintaining their life blood of economic and demographic growth that drives their creation of profit.
This is most definitely not to suggest that changes in temperature, rainfall, and wind patterns are unimportant; very far from it. But it is to argue that these are caused fundamentally by the twin mantras of economic and demographic growth that have increasingly dominated the world over the last century, rather than by some exogenous notion of climate change. More worryingly, these mantras have been fuelled still further by the unachievable and unsustainable Sustainable Development Goals that have become part of the problem rather than a solution. Contrary to much popular rhetoric, the very dramatic increases in global carbon emissions do not appear to have begun until the beginning of the 20th century, and coincide very closely with increases in world population.[xvi] Put another way, had global population not increased as dramatically as it has done over the last century, then those living here would not have been faced with the impending crisis that we now urgently need to address.
Moreover, and I would suggest more importantly, the emphasis on “climate change” has largely distracted attention from the crucial effort that must be placed on the wider environmental impacts of economic-demographic growth. Climate is but a small part of the physical environment, which includes the lithosphere, biosphere and hydrosphere, alongside the atmosphere. By focusing so heavily on climate, and ways that digital tech can be used to reduce carbon emissions, activists, academics, politicians, business leaders, civil society organisations and citizens alike are missing the bigger picture. The design and use of digital tech is causing significant environmental harms that tend to be ignored in the search for a solution to climate change.[xvii]
In conclusion: a new beginning
This post has contributed to my previous body of work by articulating five main inter-related propositions:
There has been a coalition of interests between those advocating economic and demographic growth, largely reflecting the determinant structures of contemporary global capitalism.[xviii]
This is archetypically reflected in the power of the digital tech sector, which has permeated the UN system.[xix]
The dramatic impact of the digital tech sector on the wider physical environment has been largely hidden by an overwhelming global emphasis on climate change, and ways through which digital tech can reduce carbon emissions.
It is important to understand climate change as a result and not a cause, and therefore focus on doing something about the real causes of climate change (the economic-demographic growth mantra) rather than primarily addressing carbon emissions.
It is essential to understand changes to the climate as but a part of the much wider negative environmental impacts of the coalition of interests underlying the economic-demographic growth mantra.
Are we facing a new era of increasing mass-migration, famine, disease and warfare? Is the economic growth model that has dominated the last century going to consume itself in a falò delle vanità? Might there be less inequality and poverty in the world if there were fewer people and the wealth that was created was shared more equally? Can we imagine a beautiful physical environment that could be created out of the desolate and scourged world we are currently creating? How might digital tech be used to serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised more than those of the rich and powerful? These questions are all inter-related, and we need to find answers to them before it is too late.
[iii] For a brief history, see http://www.paecon.net/HistoryPAE.html; see also Stiglitz, J.E. (2019) People, Power and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent, Allen Lane, and Stiglitz, J.E. (2002) Globalization and its discontents, New York: W.W. Norton & Company
[v] Efforts by the Digital Barons (leaders of major US digital corporations) to extend human life far beyond its present span, such as those by Zuckerberg (see CNET, 2013), Larry Page (founding Calico, an Alphabet subsidiary, in 2013), Jeff Bezos (with his investment in Altos Labs, MIT Technology Review in 2021) and Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle, investing in ageing research, see Time, 2017) to name it a few are deeply worrying, both because only the rich will be able to afford such treatments, but also because they will inevitably mean an even greater population load on the planet; Elon Musk’s reported criticism of such practices (The Independent) is about the only occasion I have ever agreed with him about something!
[xi] See further below on Thomas Malthus; in essence, critics of neo-Malthusianism have suggested that these arguments were overstated and premature, and that technology would enabled very much higher population levels to be sustained.
[xvii] See http://desc.global which is attempting to understand the relative balance between environmental harms and benefits of digital tech.
[xviii] In essence, demographic growth has been co-opted to serve the interests of the private sector (capitalism) in seeking to overcome the tendency towards a falling rate of profit. Put simply, population must grow to provide both an expanded market and more labour to ensure economic growth.
It was a great honour to be asked by a group of young Chinese interns at the United Nations University Institute in Macau to give a short keynote address at the hybrid event that they were organising from there on 30th April in partnership with The Institute for AI International Governance of Tsinghua University (I-AIIG), forming part of the World Data Forum satellite event being convened by the Institute in the city of Macau. As their introduction to the event summarised:
The younger generation are often seen as digital natives who have more exposure and access to data technology than older generations. They are also more likely to use data technology for learning, innovation, participation and empowerment. However, this also means that they face unique opportunities and challenges related to data that need to be explored and addressed. As the satellite event of this year’s World Data Forum, this youth forum will take “Digital and Youth” as the main theme, adhere to youth leadership and youth participation, aiming to provide a platform for dialogue and exchange among different stakeholders who are interested in or affected by data and its impact on youth.
In the brief 15 minutes available, I chose to focus on three proposals:
We need new, more inclusive modes of inter-generational dialogue about digital
Just because it is possible to do something, does not mean that it is right or good to do so.
Digital tech is all too often assumed to be inherently good – but we need to mitigate the harms to ensure any good can prevail
We must all consider the environmental impact of data, and digital tech more widely.
Digital tech is often the cause of environmental harms rather than a solution
The event was great fun, and the organisers had brought together many leading young academics from across China working on digital tech in general, and data in particular, divided into four main sessions:
Youth Work on Digital Humanities in Empowering the Cultural Legacy
Digital technology and Wellness
Artificial Intelligence Cutting Edge
Personal Information Protection and Data Security Governance
Many thanks to everyone involved for making this such an interesting and enjoyable experience.
I have frequently been asked in recent weeks about my thoughts on the UN Secretary General’s Global Digital Compact (GDC). It is far from easy to summarise these, not least because the actual compact is not due to be agreed until the “Summit of the Future” in September 2024. Any such comments can therefore only be about its overall objectives and the process so far. However, I am deeply sceptical of both, and consider the compact to be fundamentally flawed in concept, design and practice. In essence, it largely reflects an elitist view, dominated heavily by the corporate tech sector, focused on a technologically deterministic ideology, that will do little or nothing to serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.[i]
For those who don’t have time to read this entire post, it argues in essence that:
The Global Digital Compact is a result of the ways in which the ideologies and practices of digital tech companies have come to dominate UN rhetoric arounddigital tech;
The issues it addresses, the questions it asks, and the ways in which the consultation is constructed, largely serve the interests of those companies, rather than those of the world’s poorest and most marginalised individuals and communities; and
It fails to address the most significant issues pertaining to the role of digital tech and the science underlying it, notably the future relationships between machines and humans, the environmental harms caused by the design and use of digital tech, and the increasing enslavement (loss of freedoms) of the majority of the world’s people through and by the activities of digital tech companiesof all sizes.
For the long read, read on… (also available as a .pdf here).
Context of the Global Digital Compact.
As the Digital Watch Observatory has so accurately commented, “The GDC is the latest step in a lengthy policy journey to have, at least, a shared understanding of key digital principles globally and, at most, common rules that will guide the development of our digital future”. Like all such initiatives, however, it reflects a very specific set of interests, and it is helpful to begin by briefly trying to unravel these.
There has been concern for a long time about the increasingly large number of overlapping international multi-stakeholder gatherings that have been created by different interest groups to discuss the interlinkages between digital tech and human life (for a detailed discussion of the origins of these, see my Reclaiming ICT4D, OU, 2017). Three are particularly interesting: ICANN, WSIS, and the IGF. The Internet Corporation for assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) created in 1998 was initially designed as a mechanism to transfer the policy and technical management of the DNS to a non-profit organisation based in the USA, and largely reflects private sector interests in the Internet. The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) process began with Summits in Geneva and Tunis in 2003 and 2005, that brought together UN agencies, governments and the private sector, and has since evolved to discuss and report on 14 action lines relating to the “information society”. In large part it serves the interests of UN agencies responsible for delivering on these in the context of the SDGs. The claim that WSIS initially placed insufficient emphasis on the needs and interests of civil society led to the foundation of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) first convened in 2006 essentially as a discussion forum without any direct decision-making authority.
All of these processes and institutions make claims to multi-stakeholderism (but define these in rather different ways), and all frequently discuss very similar themes and topics, again largely reflecting the varied interests of those participating. Many of the same people (or those who can afford it) are to be found at all three gatherings, discussing similar issues in similar cavernous conference centres. In addition to these three main international gatherings, countless other more focused series of gatherings and events are held, such as those convened by ISOC and IEEE, alongside the regular series of digital events convened by different UN agencies such as the ITU, UNCTAD and UNESCO, as well as specific conferences such as the ICT4D series or the GCCS London Process (Global Conference on Cyber Space) meetings between 2011 and 2017 that initially focused on cybersecurity. Again each of these represents and serves the interests and agendas of different interest groups.
A fundamental problem with the sheer quantity and frequency of these gatherings is that only large, powerful and rich entities are really able to participate in them all. Despite the efforts of many convenors to make some of these events more open and accessible, online and hybrid events have not yet really made a significant positive impact into opening up international discourse on digital tech and the Internet, so that small states and economically poorer entities can participate fully and effectively. Frustration with the proliferation of such meetings, and the urgency of the issues relating to digital tech for the planet and its human inhabitants has therefore precipitated calls for there to be a single, overarching framework for coordination. At first sight, this may seem to be a reasonable proposition, but it is essential to dig beneath the surface to understand the interests underlying the formulation of the Global Digital Compact, and its likely impact and conclusions. It is these interests that have shaped the new discourse, and especially the questions being asked in the ongoing global consultation due to close at the end of April 2023 These reflect a particular agenda, that will not serve the interests of the mass of the world’s population, and especially the poorest and most marginalised.
I remember about a decade ago talking with a young and enthusiastic member of the UN’s Office of Information and Communication (OICT) who surprised me by saying that they intended to take over all co-ordination of digital tech within the UN system. He came from a technical background, and appeared to know little about the vast amount of work that had been done in recent years by those of us working at the interface between technology and “international development”. In origin, the OICT was essentially the entity providing UN personnel with appropriate digital tools and processes to collaborate effectively, and in my understanding at that time it was nothing to do with the UN’s support for global policy making or programme/project implementation relating to digital tech on the ground.[ii] Other UN bodies such as the ITU, UNESCO, UNDP, and UNDESA had years of experience in supporting global digital policy and practice. This conversation nevertheless reflected four crucial features: competition within the UN system; the power and ambition of people within the UN Secretariat based in New York (USA); the dominance of a technical and scientistic perspective; and the energy and arrogance of youth. I thought little more of this conversation, unwisely dismissing it as mere aspiration, that could not possibly succeed, especially given the good work being done on digital tech for development (or ICT4D) by my many good friends in other UN agencies. Little did I know then about some of the ways in which the UN system operates, and the interests that it serves.[iii]
At about the same time, there was widespread ongoing discussion within the UN system and beyond about the post-2015 development goals. I had personally argued vehemently that the world needed some very clear statements, and perhaps targets, relating to digital tech in the proposed new goals, but there seemed little appetite for this among most of those involved in shaping them.[iv] In my role as Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO), I nevertheless co-ordinated a statement on the role of ICTs in the post-2015 Development Goals by all of our members (mainly governments but also companies), which was published on 7 October 2014 laying out 8 principles, and proposing one goal and three targets. The document concluded that “For ICTs to be used effectively for development interventions, there must be affordable and universal access”. Ironically, it took the UN system (The Office of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology and the International Telecommunication Union) until April 2022 to create a set of 15 aspirational targets for 2030 that were intended to achieve “universal and meaningful digital connectivity in the decade of action” (see further below). I cannot help but think that I should have pushed even harder for the proposal that we crafted eight years earlier within the CTO. If we had been able to achieve what we then proposed, much of the subsequent turmoil and wasteful infighting represented by the recent actions of the UN Secretariat could have been avoided.
In July 2018, the UN Secretary General’s office then announced the convening of a High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation (HLPDC) “to advance proposals to strengthen cooperation in the digital space among Governments, the private sector, civil society, international organisations, academia, the technical community and other relevant stakeholders”.[v] It is not easy to identify exactly how and why this process was initiated, especially when reasonably good co-ordinating mechanisms already exist within the UN system, notably the Chief Executive’s Board (CEB) and the High-Level Committee on Programmes (HLCP).[vi] However, the composition of the Panel would seem to support the persistent rumours that a former President and CEO of ICANN might have persuaded the government of an Arab Gulf state, both with strong private sector connections, to lobby the UN Secretary General’s Office to create such a panel. The panel itself had 20 members, who according to its terms of reference were meant to be “eminent leaders from Governments, private sector, academia, the technical community, and civil society led by two co-chairs”.[vii] The two co-chairs (Melinda Gates and Jack Ma) were both heavily involved in successful private sector entities and had little prior engagement in implementing programmes that might beneficially impact the world’s poorest and most marginalised through digital tech. Although half of the panel were women, and there was indeed also some “youth” representation, the overall panel was almost exclusively made up of individuals from the private sector, rich countries, and academics with interests in innovation and the latest advanced technologies. Only three people had any substantial involvement with civil society, and the voices of the poor and marginalised, especially from small island developing states (SIDS) were largely absent. I would even venture to suggest that almost none of the panel had any real practical engagement on the ground with, or substantial understanding of, the use of digital technologies in international development, other than from a top-down, corporate or scientistic perspective (see more below). However, the small secretariat was led by two people, one of whom did indeed have substantial expertise and understanding of many of the crucial issues around the use of digital tech in development.
Once created the panel did then consult quite widely. As the Geneva Internet Platform (digwatch) summarised, “Between June 2018 and June 2019 the Panel organised several in person meetings, discussions, workshops, international visits to the Silicon Valley, China, India, Kenya, Belgium and Israel as well as online meetings”. This led to the publication in June 2019 of the panel’s short report The Age of Digital Interdependence.[viii]Many of the people participating in these meetings did indeed have good experience of the interface between digital tech and international development, and a considerable number of civil society organisations also participated in the discussions. However, I was struck by three things: first, the questions being asked mainly reflected the interests of the UN Secretariat and those on the panel; second there was very little new being said; and third the choice of countries visited excluded many of the poorest and most marginalised.[ix] Many, if not most, of the participants in the consultations were regular attendees at global gatherings such as the IGF, WSIS annual forums and ICANN meetings, and their collective knowledge already existed in the global community. It was fun to meet up with them again in a new virtual space, although many of us reflected during the process that we were just repeating what we had long been saying many times previously. There was absolutely no need to go to the expense and complexity of creating a panel of “experts” who actually had little real knowledge themselves of the key issues.
The outcome of these deliberations was nevertheless presented in June 2020 as the Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. In large part this reflects some fine work by the HLPDC secretariat in trying to mesh these discussions with existing and well-established principles of good practice in the field. The roadmap highlighted eight key areas for action:
Achieving universal connectivity by 2030—everyone should have safe and affordable access to the internet.
Promoting digital public goods to unlock a more equitable world—the internet’s open source, public origins should be embraced and supported.
Ensuring digital inclusion for all, including the most vulnerable—under-served groups need equal access to digital tools to accelerate development.
Strengthening digital capacity building—skills development and training are needed around the world.
Ensuring the protection of human rights in the digital era—human rights apply both online and offline.
Supporting global cooperation on artificial intelligence that is trustworthy, human-rights based, safe and sustainable and promotes peace.
Promoting digital trust and security— calling for a global dialogue to advance the Sustainable Development Goals.
Building a more effective architecture for digital cooperation—make digital governance a priority and focus the United Nation’s approach.
It is scarcely surprising that all of these had featured prominently in the WSIS Action Lines that were developed during and following the summits in 2003 and 2005. There was very little at all new in them, although of course they were presented as being novel and important.[x] Moreover, the roadmap also included the rather bizarre statement that “the United Nations is ready to serve as a platform for multi-stakeholder policy dialogue on…emerging technologies”.[xi] Somehow, the entire effort of UN agencies over the last decade, when the UN was already providing platforms for such dialogue seemed to have been quietly ignored. I have long puzzled over this, but on reflection it is only really intelligible in the context of my earlier discussion with staff at OICT. What it really seems to have meant was that the UN Secretariat under the Office of the Secretary General was now going to take central stage in providing that platform. This was reiterated in the UN General Assembly’s assertion in 2020 (GA resolution 75/1) that “the United Nations can provide a platform for all stakeholders to participate in such deliberations.” This only makes sense if it refers to the central Secretariat of the UN providing the platform.
The UN Secretary General then proceeded with establishing the office of his Envoy on Technology, and in January 2021 appointed the former Chilean diplomat and long-term UN official Fabrizio Hochschild[xii] to the role, despite being aware that complaints had previously been raised about his behaviour. If that was not worrying enough, immediately on his appointment Hochschild acknowledged on Twitter that he did not know much about the interface between digital tech and international development:
Five days after his appointment, Hochschild was placed on leave, pending an investigation into his behaviour, and a year later it was reported that he was no longer employed by the UN. It is very hard to understand how the UN Secretary General could have appointed someone with so little knowledge of the field, and with such a dubious track record of behaviour in the UN to such an important role.[xiv] Either it reflects incompetence, ignorance, or once again the effect of specific interests working behind the scenes within the UN system to achieve both individual and organisational goals.
The Office of the Tech Envoy nevertheless continued its work under the interim leadership of the Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs. In September 2021 the UN Secretary General then produced his next report, Our Common Agenda, which followed on from GA resolution 75/1 a year earlier. This rambling (wide-ranging) and aspirational document was in part an attempt to salvage something from the impending wreckage of Agenda 2030 and the SDGs. As its summary states, “Our Common Agenda is, above all, an agenda of action designed to accelerate the implementation of existing agreements, including the Sustainable Development Goals”.[xv] The seventh of its twelve commitments was on improving digital cooperation, and slimmed down the earlier list of issues in the Roadmap… to seven key proposals forming an agenda for the new Global Digital Compact:
Connect all people to the internet, including all schools
Avoid internet fragmentation
Apply human rights online
Introduce accountability criteria for discrimination and misleading content
Promote regulation of artificial intelligence
Digital commons as a global public good
However, Our Common Agenda says little as to how these are to be achieved. It has been fascinating to watch the activity of senior UN officials and their staff in different agencies scurrying to position themselves in response to these proposals, seeking to protect their existing portfolios of activities and gain advantage over others in delivering these agendas. The initiative has, though, in some instances also led to increased dialogue and positive collaboration between like-minded individuals and agencies.
Our Common Agenda thus provided the foundations for the Global Digital Compact which will be agreed at the ambitiously titled Summit of the Future in September 2024. The important thing to remember about this is the interests that underlie its creation as outlined above. These are primarily global capital, the advocates of neo-liberalism, and the rich and powerful states and para-statal entities, as well as the UN and its agencies. This is all too evident in the language used in Our Common Agenda. Some examples of this include statement such as:
“The Fourth Industrial Revolution has changed the world” (p.62). This is a damaging myth. The so-called 4IR is just a construct developed by those promoting a heroic vision of technological scientism, and it ignores the argument that the current rapid expansion of digital tech is merely a product of the existing logic of capitalism.[xvi]
“The Internet has provided access to information for billions, thereby fostering collaboration, connection and sustainable development” (p.62), largely ignoring the fact that it is also a means through which people are increasingly exploited and harmed (although see below).
The Internet “is a global public good that should benefit everyone, everywhere” (p.62), without recognising that the notion of global public goods is frequently used by those companies that can afford it to extract surplus profit and exploit users for their own corporate gain.
“Reaffirming the fundamental commitment to connecting the unconnected”, without acknowledging the rights of people to remain unconnected.
There are, though, importantly also some positive signs of a more nuanced and balanced approach to these issues in Our Common Future, including recognition that
“Currently the potential harms of the digital domain risk overshadowing its benefits” (p.62), although these harms are all too often ignored by those advocating a belief that digital tech is a solution to all the world’s problems, especially those relating to the SDGs.
“Serious and urgent ethical, social and regulatory questions confront us, including… the emergence of large technology companies as geopolitical actors and arbiters of difficult social questions without the responsibilities commensurate with their outsized profits” (pp.62-63). I would agree with this observation, although it is 20 years too late, and the horse has already bolted.
As well as driving the GDC forward, the Office of the Secretary General’s Envoy on Technology has over the last year also developed its nine areas of ongoing work, based largely on the Roadmap, and working with the ITU produced in April 2022 the new set of targets for universal and meaningful connectivity by 2030 referred to above. In June 2022, The UN Secretary General eventually appointed a new Tech Envoy who was none other than the Executive Director and Co-Lead of his High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, an Indian diplomat with a recent tech background in AI and lethal autonomous weapons systems.[xvii] Several months later in October 2022 Sweden and Rwanda were appointed as co-facilitators to lead the intergovernmental process on the Global Digital Compact,[xviii] and in January 2023 the process of consultation on the Compact began in earnest.[xix] Informal discussions were held with member states, observes and stakeholders in January and February 2023, and stakeholders have been invited to contribute to the online consultation to be concluded at the end of April 2023.[xx] In parallel, a series of eight thematic “deep dives” are being held between March and June 2023 based on the seven GDC proposal areas and a concluding “dive” on accelerating progress on the SDGs. Great emphasis is being placed on an open and inclusive process.
However, the fundamental problem with the Global Digital Compact is in the way that its consultation process is structured. Although respondents can submit supplementary information, the main survey invites comment specifically on the seven proposal areas or themes, focusing on two aspects: core principles that should be adhered to, and commitment to bring about these principles. The focus on these seven themes is deeply problematic because they do not necessarily represent the most important issues that need to be discussed around the future of digital tech and humanity, and largely reflect the interests of those who shaped the lengthy process giving rise to the compact as described in the section above. The entire structure of the GDC thus mainly serves the interests of ambitious (and/or rich) individuals, organisations and countries, that often have little real understanding of, or care for, the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people. Responses within this framing will thus serve to reinforce the power of those interests rather than changing them fundamentally. Every one of the seven areas listed for comment is presented as a positive assertion, and all could be contested. For example,
Why should internet fragmentation be avoided? Whose interests does this mainly serve?
Why should the focus be on the application of human rights online? Surely this should also be matched by a focus on responsibilities?[xxi]
Whose interests does the notion of digital commons as a global common good really serve? Is it not a mechanism through which the rich can access and exploit something that is claimed as a common good, as with the exploitation of space by satellite companies.
Why is there no thematic question about the environmental impact of digital tech? Digital tech causes immense harm to the environment, alongside the positive benefits that its advocates claim it provides.
Why does the theme around connecting people to the Internet only emphasise education? Surely the seven “basic needs” of air, water, food, shelter, sanitation, touch, sleep and personal space are at least as important, as too more simply are health and security?
Why is there no question focusing on the implications of increasing integration between humans and machines that threatens the very nature of human life?
The example of the way in which the interface between digital tech and education is presented in the GDC agenda mirrors the account thereof in Our Common Agenda which provides a classic example of the ways in which very specific interests coalesce:
“Summit preparations will involve governments, students, teachers and leading United Nations entities, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). They will also draw on the private sector and major technology companies, which can contribute to the digital transformation of education systems”.[xxii]
This quotation for example clearly indicates the interest of three UN agencies. It is also aspirational in thinking that it is actually feasible to bring together not only the views of governments but also of students and teachers in any comprehensive, representative and rigorous way. Above all, though, it makes very explicit the positive role of the private sector and especially technology companies. No mention is made of civil society organisations, or other important stakeholders. It represents a vision where the involvement of the private sector is seen as being overwhelmingly positive. It fails to acknowledge that connecting every school will enable private sector companies to expand their markets, to extract huge amounts of data from schoolchildren and teachers to improve their systems, and to increase their profits dramatically.
The growth agenda, innovation and science
Underlying these issues with the GDC is a fundamental problem with UN agendas around international development and the SDGs more widely. This is the belief that economic growth will eliminate poverty. In recent years, this is turn has been supplemented by what I call the “innovation fetish”, whereby governments and UN agencies alike have become beguiled by the idea of innovation, and particularly innovation in the digital tech sector, to deliver on their economic growth ideology.
In essence, most mainstream development agendas over at least the last 25 years have been driven by the obsession that economic growth is the solution to poverty reduction. This is based largely on a conceptualisation of poverty as being absolute, and that economic growth will necessarily reduce or, as is often claimed, eliminate it. However, economic growth raises the potential for relative poverty actually to increase; the rich get richer and the poorest stay where they are, or are even further immiserated.[xxiii] Aligned with the dominant agenda of neo-liberalism, this has encouraged governments across the world to find ways of fostering economic growth driven primarily by the private sector. In the telecommunication sector, for example, this is expressed clearly in the way in which most regulators focus more on the interests of the telecom companies as drivers of growth than they do on equity issues in terms of delivering services to the most marginalised. The innovation fetish that emerged during the 2010s was conceptualised and implemented largely as an accelerator of this trend, bringing renewed vitality to the idea that science and innovation are crucial for increasing economic growth and thus improving human well-being. This applies as much at the national or local scale as it does at the international. The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) thus produced a new strategy in 2012 for innovation and evidence-based approaches to humanitarian crises,[xxiv] and later in the decade considerably expanded its emphasis on innovation, particularly with respect to digital tech. As DFID’s senior innovation advisor commented in 2019, “We need to acknowledge the increasingly digital world that we live in. It’s not that innovation is synonymous with digital, but it’s making the most of new technologies and the digital economy”.[xxv] Within the UN system, the latter part of the 2010s also saw a dramatic increase in emphasis on innovation, for example through the creation of the UN Innovation Network in 2015. I distinctly remember sitting in a meeting of the HLCP when innovation was being discussed, and almost everyone in the room appeared hugely impressed by it! Perhaps this was in part because the UN leadership was strongly advocating it; perhaps too it was in part because few of them actually understood what was being said. Innovation is inherently associated with good things, even though most innovations fail. Above all, though, it almost inevitably serve the interests of those involved in innovation, especially scientists and the wider system of private sector companies and corporations, particularly in the tech sector.
These interests, full of the optimism of entrepreneurship, have convincingly beguiled governments, civil society organisations and UN agencies more widely that they have the means to solve all of the world’s problems, particularly with respect to economic growth and international development. Yet, all too often they turn out to be solutions in search of a problem, as has classically been the case with blockchain. They are grounded in the widespread belief that “Science” and the dominant current scientific method are not only the best, but also the only way that truth about the world can be conceptualised and expressed. However, while such scientism has proved to be very good at explaining in great detail how things work and how they can be developed, it has led to the creation of a “Science” that does not have the ability to reflect on its own construction.[xxvi] It lacks a moral compass. It is completely unable to address the thought that just because something can be done does not mean that it should be done. With its emphasis on what is (the “positive”) it does not have the ability to address what should be (the “normative). Scientists are fully responsible for the science that they do, both for its potential benefits, but also for its unintended negative consequences. They have a choice. They can serve the interests of global capital, or they can instead address issues of equity and equality, and work to create a fairer and more equal society.
A fundamental problem with the Global Digital Compact is thus that it is based on this flawed belief that trying technically to resolve challenges with detailed aspects of how the digital economy operates effectively will actually improve the life experiences of the majority of the world’s people. The seven issues it raises are all concerned with making the digital tech sector more efficient within a neo-liberal framework, so that the owners and shareholders of private sector companies can extract yet further profit and surplus value as more and more people are enslaved within their virtual worlds. It does not address the fundamental questions about the role of science, about the innovation fetish, about the kind of world that most people want to live in, or the false consciousness that has been woven about the good of science and technology,
The co-option of the UN by digital global capital
The last 25 years have seen the gradual permeation (or subversion) of international discourse within the UN system by global capital. This is nowhere clearer than in discussions and practices around the role of digital tech within international development. Having had the privilege of leading one of the early development partnerships between governments, private sector companies, civil society organisations and international organisations specifically using digital tech to achieve development outcomes, I have long been conscious that some of what we did may have contributed to this process. However, I still consider that we had checks and balances in place to ensure that the ultimate beneficiaries were indeed some of Africa’s poorest and most marginalised children.[xxvii] I also like to believe that most of our partners were well-intentioned and altruistic. Nevertheless, it has been remarkable to think back to the end of last century and compare the relatively low extent to which private sector companies were engaged in and with the UN system then, and the very considerable extent to which they are now involved. As I argue above, the entire process leading to the creation of the Global Digital Compact, and especially the Secretary General’s HLPDC, has been very heavily influenced by the private sector. Indeed, it is possible to suggest that it represents one of the very best examples of the co-option of the UN by global capital.[xxviii]
There are at least six main reasons why private sector digital tech companies have become so influential within the UN system:
The UN has insufficient funds to fulfil its ambitions, and is therefore eager to attract external sources of funding for its work, either through donations or partnerships.
Telecommunication companies have been involved in international agencies such as the ITU and the CTO since their foundations in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Close relationships between companies and governments were central to the emergence and growth of the sector, and international agreements were necessary to enable efficient communication between different parts of the world.[xxix]
Most UN agencies do not have the relevant technical and scientific expertise possessed by the private sector to be able sufficiently to understand the creation and use of digital tech to develop appropriate policy guidance and programme implementation.
Digital tech companies feature very prominently in driving forward the economic growth agenda that the UN system has deemed essential for delivering the SDGs.[xxx]
Digital tech has also been pitched by these companies as a highly effective technical solution to many of the most pressing issues facing humankind.
These companies, driven by an apparently inexhaustible desire to expand their markets and develop new ways to extract ever greater surplus value, have identified UN agencies and the Secretariat as a perfect vehicle for achieving these ambitions.
However, In a prescient paper published in 2007, Jens Martens identified eight important risks and negative side effects associated with partnerships between the UN and the private sector:[xxxi]
Growing influence of the business sector in the political discourse and agenda setting.
Risks to reputation: choosing the wrong partner
Distorting competition and the pretence of representativeness
Proliferation of partnership initiatives and fragmentation of global governance
Unstable financing – a threat to the sufficient provision of public goods
Selectivity in partnerships – governance gaps remain
Trends toward elite models of global governance – weakening of representative democracy
All of these have come to pass to a greater or lesser extent. There is no excuse for anyone in the UN not to have been aware of them. The leadership of the UN has therefore been complicit in this process whereby global governance has been co-opted by the private sector. Many might have done so in the belief that this was the only way to deliver the MDGs and the SDGs, but these agendas have failed.
This is not to say that the private sector cannot contribute hugely to international development, and that close relationships between governments and the private sector are not essential for the development of wise policies and practices especially relating to the creation and use of digital tech. However, it is to argue that the balance of power and influence has shifted far too far towards the tech companies and global corporations, whose fundamental interest is to make profits for their owners, staff and shareholders. Companies go bust if they cannot make profits. This is fine, but using digital tech to serve the interests of the poor can never be led by the profit motive. There needs to be a fundamental realignment towards wise government and a streamlined UN system[xxxii] so that the profit-focused drive to rapid economic growth and expansion can be moderated by citizen-focused policies and practices in the interests of all. To be fair, Our Common Agenda does indeed briefly emphasise a commitment to renewing the social contract between governments and their people, and to using measures other than GDP to measure development outcomes, but it is extremely unclear how these ambitions will be delivered, and as long as the private sector (and economists!) retain their power within the UN system this seems unlikely to change substantially in the near future.
A final point that also needs to be made is that although some of the intended outcomes of the GDC may be desirable for many stakeholders, they will be very complex to deliver, and there is little evidence that the UN Secretary General or the Office of his Envoy on Technology have the capacity or support to be able to deliver them sufficiently comprehensively and rigorously in the time scale envisaged. The Summit of the Future is only 17 months away. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is still continuing, tensions between the USA and both China and Russia are increasing, and new political configurations are emerging in the eastern Mediterranean and South-West Asia. This makes it extremely difficult to imagine global agreement on the issues that the GDC aspires to address. Moreover, discussions on subjects such as whether we should have multiple Internets or a single global internet, how to ensure good ethical use of new technologies such as AI, or how to get the balance right over digital privacy concerns have been ongoing for many years and involve fairly intractable positions. Now does not seem to be a good time to try to resolve them.
Constructive alternatives: a ten point plan
As mentioned earlier, I am surprised that so many people and organisation seem to be signing up to the UN Secretary General’s Global Digital Compact Agenda (or at least the agenda that staff in the UN Secretariat have given him to front up), especially when so many conversations I have had in private with individuals in government, the private sector, civil society and various parts of the UN over the last year seem to consider it to be deeply problematic. Clearly, part of the agenda for UN agencies is that they need to be seen to be being supportive of the Secretary General, and this is entirely understandable, especially when they have strong interests in the outcomes. However, national governments, companies, and civil society organisations can indeed opt out. If, as I surmise, the GDC process is not going to produce anything new or of value – it simply cannot do so in the time available – then there is little to lose by not participating. To be sure, there is a natural fear of being left out of the decision making process (but most of the world’s population is already left out), and of not being able to influence something that could perhaps have some value, but if enough entities indeed choose not to contribute then this would not only be a reflection of what they really think about the process, but it would help to ensure that it cannot be seen to have legitimacy as a representation of global opinion.
It is easy to be critical, but much harder to implement wise policies and practices. To conclude constructively, though, I offer the following as an alternative set of propositions about how we can move towards a more substantial and sustainable future for global deliberations around the future of digital tech:
First, it is much better to try to do a few things well, than to fail in trying to do too much. Few of the 169 SDG targets and 232 unique indicators,[xxxiii] for example, seem likely to be achieved by 2030, not least because there are just too many for them to be realistically addressed.[xxxiv] Likewise, the recently agreed digital targets[xxxv] already seem to be unachievable; it is no excuse that they are merely called “aspirational targets”. Instead we need to identify two or three of the most important issues relating to digital tech, and ensure that they are appropriately considered, that binding wise agreements are reached about them, and that practices are implemented to deliver on them.
Second, for me, the most important issue is how to achieve equity in the impact of digital tech, so that rather than increasing inequalities digital tech can be appropriately used by the poorest and most marginalised to enhance their lives. My views on this have changed little since I helped to draft the paper on the role of ICTs in the post-2015 development agenda agreed by the CTO’s members in 2014. Yet the untied world community has made little headway over the last decade in achieving this.
Third, there are enormous chasms of trust between governments in different parts of the world, between governments and UN agencies, and between UN agencies (including the UN Secretariat) themselves.[xxxvi] One way in which this can be reduced is to begin with areas where agreement is most likely to be achieved, and then move on to more intractable areas. The example most often given about an area of common agreement concerning digital tech is on the harms caused by child online pornography. Yet despite numerous global initiatives, and the work of individual organisations such as the Internet Watch Foundation,[xxxvii] the scale of this problem seems to have become worse rather than better. If we cannot make progress on this small area of deep concern, how can the UN Secretary General’s ambitious GDC be expected to have an impact.
Fourth, it needs to be realised that some of the most difficult issues around the future of digital tech require many long discussions held privately and confidentially between the most powerful global players, be they governments or corporations.[xxxviii] People of good will – and they exist in most governments and companies that I have worked with – must be given the time and space to build trust, and work collaboratively to achieve outcomes in the interest of us all. It might be that these need to take place between representatives of the leadership of regional groupings of states rather than trying to reach agreement between every state within the UN. However, realistically, it is the most powerful players who will have to commit to resolving these issues in the interests of all.
Fifth, those engaged in these global deliberations around the future of digital tech need to be realistic rather than idealistic. There is far too much posturing and over-ambitious rhetoric in much of the present work of the UN Secretary General and those working most closely with him on this issue. Naïve gestures help no-one, least alone the world’s poorest and most marginalised people.
Sixth, those involved in these discussions must stop trying to reinvent the wheel, and instead learn from the wealth of existing knowledge that has been built up in the 20 years since the first gathering of the World Summit on the Information Society held in Geneva. The ongoing GDC consultation is highly unlikely to add anything new, and what matters most is the process through which agreement can be gained on what needs to be done collectively to address the future of the machine-human interface.
Seventh it is crucial that we abandon the naïve belief in technological determinism that dominates so much rhetoric and practice in the GDC discourse. Digital tech is not a solution to the world’s problems, but their use is often the cause of many of them. It is essential to shift the balance of discussion to one which recognises that the design, construction and use of digital tech serves very specific interests, and that they cause both negative harms and positive benefits. Emphasis needs to be on identifying and mitigating the harms so that the benefits can be enjoyed by all.
Eighth, there needs to be a fundamental restructuring of the UN system, so that its decisions are informed by, but less influenced by, the private sector.[xxxix] As this paper has suggested, the GDC process is part of the problem not its solution.
Ninth, rather than centralising control of the digital dialogue within the central UN Secretariat, and a specific office for a Tech Envoy,[xl] it would seem to make far more sense to situate discussion and debate within and through existing UN mechanisms and agencies that have very real and well established expertise.[xli] This would require resourcing them appropriately to deliver sensible outcomes. Surely the CEB and HLCP, with appropriate resourcing, could have been tasked with taking this agenda forward? After all, the HLCP was established to be responsible to the CEB specifically “for fostering coherence, cooperation and coordination on the programme dimensions of strategic issues facing the United Nations system”.[xlii] Furthermore, the UN should seek to reduce the plethora of its events and conferences around digital tech, to reduce the very considerable overlap and duplication of effort.
Finally, everyone involved in these processes needs to place much more evidence on learning from the past rather than failing through adherence to the innovation fetish. There is a vast wealth of collective knowledge about the interface between technology and human society, and increasing amounts of relevant research are being produced at an ever increasing pace. All we really need is the will actually to do something wise about it, in the interests of the many rather than the few.
[i] Throughout this piece, I have deliberately avoided naming individuals partly because I am more concerned in the structural aspects of the processes surrounding the emergence of the Global Digital Compact, but also because some of what I write is conjecture and I do not want to appear in any way to be criticising the actions of individuals, some of whom remain good friends.
[ii] Interestingly, the remit and role of the Chief Information Technology Officer today is summarised as follows on the OICT site: “All Secretariat entities report to Mr. Bernardo Mariano Jr., Chief Information Technology Officer, Assistant Secretary-General, on issues relating to all ICT-related activities, resource management, standards, security, architecture, policies, and guidance. The Office is headquartered in New York City”.
[x] I cannot help but wonder how many of the panel had attended the original WSIS Summit Meetings in Geneva and Tunis, or had followed the existing processes noted earlier in this paper.
[xi] See https://www.un.org/techenvoy/content/about: “The United Nations Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation responds to the report of the High-Level Panel, setting out the Secretary-General’s vision and noting that ”the United Nations is ready to serve as a platform for multi-stakeholder policy dialogue on…emerging technologies”.”
[xv] Our Common Agenda, p.3 https://www.un.org/en/content/common-agenda-report/assets/pdf/Common_Agenda_Report_English.pdf. Note my strong belief that the failure of the SDGs was built into their creation, and that they have significantly harmed the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised by their emphasis on economic growth rather than equality and equity. To be more positive, Our Common Agenda does address some of these issues, and to that extent its commitment to renewing the social contract between governments and their people, and to using measures other than GDP to measure development outcomes are to be welcomed.
[xxvi] See Unwin, T. (1992) The Place of Geography, Longman which draws heavily on the work of the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas, and especially his books Theory and Practice and Knowledge and Human Interests (English translation titles).
[xxxi] Martens, J. (2007). Multistakeholder partnerships: Future models of multilateralism? Berlin, Germany: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung; see also 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 (93 pp.)
[xxxvi] But one indication of the moribund state of the UN is the observation that the Presidency of the UN Security Council is currently held by a country that has invaded another sovereign state and in so doing has committed heinous atrocities at a scale not often witnessed in recent years.
[xxxviii] Note the wording here, focusing on “powerful” rather than “important”. We need to recognise existing power structures, and work within them while at the same time trying to change them for the better.
[xl] The Tech Envoy, Amandeep Singh Gill’s personal background is primarily as an Indian diplomat (having joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1992, and serving thrice at headquarters in New Delhi in the Disarmament and International Security Affairs Division, 1998-2001, 2006-2010 and 2013-2016; https://www.crunchbase.com/person/amandeep-singh-gill). Although his bio on the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envy on Technology says that he is “A thought leader on digital technology” (https://www.un.org/techenvoy/content/about), the experience he has in this field is primarily in digital health and AI, alongside his interests in nuclear disarmament. His role as Project Director and CEO of I-DAIR only began in 2021, and built on his work as one of the two co-leads of the HLPDC process (2018-19).
[xli] In the interests of transparency, it would be useful to know how much the UN Secretary General’s entire digital exploration has cost, and how this money might have been spent better to achieve more desirable outcomes..
Note: The UN SG’s new publication “Our Common Agenda Policy Brief 5 A Global Digital Compact — an Open, Free and Secure Digital Future for All” was published in May 2023 and is available at https://www.un.org/…/our-common-agenda-policy-brief… – much of the content is deeply worrying (for the reasons outlined above) – and indeed some of it harmful to the interests of the world’s poorest and most marginalised.
The soundbites from the widely acclaimed success of COP 27, especially around the creation of a loss and damage fund (see UNCC Introduction to loss and damage), made me look once more at the realities of global CO2 emissions to see which countries are actually generating the most CO2, which are improving their performance, and which are suffering most. Sadly, this only made me appreciate yet again that the over-simplifications that occur during so many UN gatherings such as COP appear to be more about political correctness and claiming success than they do about developing real solutions to some of the most difficult challenges facing the world.
The UN Climate Press Release on 20 November summarised the outcomes relating to the fund as follows: “Governments took the ground-breaking decision to establish new funding arrangements, as well as a dedicated fund, to assist developing countries in responding to loss and damage… Parties also agreed on the institutional arrangements to operationalize the Santiago Network for Loss and Damage, to catalyze technical assistance to developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change”.
Unfortunately, it is not quite as easy as it might seem to validate the claim underlying this that it is the rich countries who do most of the pollution and should therefore compensate the poor countries where the most harmful damages from CO2 occur (see, for example, ThePrint, India; UN News, noting that “Developing countries made strong and repeated appeals for the establishment of a loss and damage fund, to compensate the countries that are the most vulnerable to climate disasters, yet who have contributed little to the climate crisis”; and BBC News, “A historic deal has been struck at the UN’s COP27 summit that will see rich nations pay poorer countries for the damage and economic losses caused by climate change”). How should it be decided, for example, which countries should be donors to this fund, and which should be beneficiaries from it? Pakistan, which led much of the discussion around the need for richer countries to fund the poorer ones, was actually the 27th largest global emitter of CO2 in 2019; China was the largest contributor, and India the 3rd largest.
The Table below, drawing on World Bank data (2022), gives the various rankings of the top 30 countries in terms of CO2 emissions per capita in 2019, and CO2 total emissions in 1990 and 2019, as well as the change in ranking of the latter two columns.
CO2 metric tons per capita 2019
CO2 total emissions kt 1990
CO2 total emissions kt 2019
Change in rank 1990-2019
United Arab Emirates
Iran, Islamic Rep.
Trinidad and Tobago
Iran, Islamic Rep.
Egypt, Arab Rep.
United Arab Emirates
Iran, Islamic Rep.
Many important observations can be made from these figures, and I highlight just a few below:
Per capita emissions
The highest per capita emitters are generally those in countries with recently developed hydrocarbon-based economies, such as Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Brunei Darussalam, and generally not in the old rich industrial economies of Europe.
Surprisingly, quite a few European countries such as the UK, Denmark and Spain (ranked 52nd-54th) actually lie well outside the top 30 highest emitters
The twelve lowest per capita emitters for which data are available (not shown here) are all African countries.
There are many fewer countries above the world average, at 4.47 metric tons per capita (which would rank 61st) and many more ranked beneath it, implying that the highest emitters are much higher than the lowest are low: Qatar at 32.47, has 28 metric tons per person more than the average; yet, 55 countries have emissions per capita of <1 metric ton.
60% of total CO2 emission are generated by people living in five countries (China, 31.18%, the United States 14.03%, India 7.15%, the Russian Federation 7.15%, and Japan 3.15%). Eleven further countries, all producing more than 350,000 kt CO2 annually account for a further 16.68% of emissions. More than three-quarters of emissions in 2019 were therefore from people in just 16 countries.
Those countries with the lowest total emissions are nearly all small island states (SIDS; not shown in the Table), but note that these were not necessarily the lowest per capita emitters.
The changes in total emissions since 1990 are also very interesting. The highest increases within the top 30 were Indonesia (+16) and Iran (+12), although much higher risers came into the top 30 from below, including Vietnam (+59), Malaysia (+23), UAE (+16) and Pakistan (+15).
These data do not make easy reading for policy makers, campaigners and the UN system as a whole, all of whom like to have simple answers and short soundbites. The world is unfortunately too complex and messy for these. As the world’s popultion passes 8 billion (2.8 times what it was when I was born), population growth is the dominant factor in determining total country-based emissions, but economic growth (following the US-led carbon-based capitalist mode of production) has also played a significant part. The big risers in total emissions are countries with large populations and/or with high economic growth rates over the last 30 years. Neither of these should be surprising. Poor countries, with low economic growth and relatively small populations are never likely to be amongst the largest consumers of energy. Overall, the biggest factor determining total CO2 emissions over the last century, and especially in the last 50 years, has been human population growth (see my recent post on “climate change”). Moreover, there has for long been an intricate and complex relationships between humans and carbon: the carbon cycle and the production of oxygen are essential for human life, and our economic systems have also been driven by carbon as a fuelfor centuries. These complexities make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to argue that we need to create two groups of countries: one being the recipients of funding (from a loss and damage financial facility), and the other being contributors to it. Instead, we need to work collaboratively together to transform the underying factors causing environmental change, of which CO2 emissions are actually only but a small part.
That is not, though, to say that there should not be much greater global effort to work together to resolve the environmental problems caused by our centuries old carbon-based economy (as well as those caused by so-called renewable energy). It is also completely separate from moral arguments suggesting that there should be a shift in wealth distribution from the rich to the poor. However, these should not be conflated into over-simplistic statements and assertions about responsibililty for climate change, such as those being promoted by UN agencies and mainstream media at the end of COP 27. It is also to reassert that we need to work together with renewed vigour collaboratively across sectors and disciplines to understand better the complex interactions that humans have with the environments in which we live, and then to make wise decisions how to implement them in the interests of all the world’s peoples and not just those of the rich and privileged parts of the world.
The above draft was written on 21 November 2022 (and has been revised slightly subsequently)
In response to the above, Olof Hesselmark kindly asked why I had not added further details also about the spatial distribution of CO2 emissions – something that as a geographer I care greatly about! I responded that I hadn’t wanted to complicate matters further, but also that I guess it was because I am aware in my own mind of these spatial distributions, and the country names (and sizes) are in-built into my consciousness! However, they do add an important additional element of complexity to the discussion, and I am delighted that he has agreed for me to add his slightly cropped map of CO2 emissions per sq km below:
I’m not entirely sure which projection this is, but my preference for such maps is Eckert IV, or other equal area projections such as Gall-Peters or Mollweide that place less visual emphasis on the apparent size of countries in high latitudes. This map nevertheless highlights the varying densities of emissions, with China, Europe and the USA being high, and Africa and Latin America being low. It should also be emphasised that there are enormous differences within countries, as well as between them, with urban-industrial environments generally being much higher in their CO2 emissions than sparsely settled rural ones.
A different perspective once again is thus from the Smithsonian Magazine‘s 2009s map below (carbon emissions from 1997-2010), which does indeed show how a very few areas contribute the largest amount of CO2 emissions.
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.