ICTs and the failure of the SDGs


Back in 2015 I wrote a short post about the role of ICTs in what I saw as being the probable failure of the SDGs.  Having attended far too many recent international meetings, all of which have focused to varying extents on how ICTs will contribute positively to the SDGs, I am now even more convinced that they have already failed, and will do very little to serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

My 2015 post focused on five main issues.  In summary, these were:

  • There are far too many goals (17) and targets (169).  This has already led to diffusion of effort and lack of focus, not only within the ‘global system’, but also in individual countries.
  • Target setting is hugely problematic.  It tends to lead to resources being directed too much towards delivering measurable targets and not enough to the factors that will actually reduce inequalities and empower the poorest.
  • The SDGs remain largely concerned with absolute poverty rather than relative poverty.  The SDGs will do little fundamentally to change the structural conditions upon which the present world system is based, which remain primarily concerned with economic growth.  Although SDG 10 (on inequality) is a welcome addition, it is all too often ignored, or relegated to a minor priority.
  • These goals and targets represent the interests of those organisations driving the SDG agenda, rather than the poorest and most marginalised.  I suggested in 2015 that these were primarily the UN agencies who would use them to try to show their continued relevance in an ever-changing world, but they also included private sector corporations and civil society organisations
  • The need to monitor progress against the goals/targets will further expand the “development industry”, and consultants and organisations involved in such monitoring and evaluation will benefit hugely.

Subsequently, in 2017 I was part of the ITU’s collective book venture published as ICT-centric economic growth, innovation and job creation, in which I led on the second chapter entitled “ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements”.  This chapter argued that serious issues need to be addressed before there can be any validity in the claim that ICTs can indeed contribute to sustainable development.  The present post seeks to clarify some of the arguments, and to summarise why the SDGs and Agenda 2030 have already failed.  There are in essence five main propositions:

  • Inherent within the SDGs is a fundamental tension between SDG 10 (to reduce inequality within and among countries) and the remaining goals which seek to enhance “development” by increasing economic growth. Most of the evidence indicates that the MDGs, which were almost exclusively focused on economic growth as the solution to poverty, substantially increased inequality, and ICTs played a very significant role in this.  The SDGs are likewise fundamentally focused on economic growth, in the belief that this will reduce absolute poverty, while quietly ignoring that such growth is actually increasing inequality, not only between countries but within them.
  • There is also a fundamental tension between the notions of “sustainability” (focusing on maintaining and sustaining certain things) and “development” (which is fundamentally about change). Although there has long been a belief that there can indeed be such a notion as “sustainable development”, this tension at its heart has been insufficiently addressed.  What is it that we want to maintain; what is it that we want to change?  ICTs are fundamentally about change (not always for the better), rather than sustaining things that are valued by many people across the world.
  • The business models upon which many ICT companies are built are fundamentally based on “unsustainability” rather than “sustainability”. Hardware is designed explicitly not to last; mobile ‘phones are expected to be replaced every 2-3 years; hardware upgrades often require software upgrades, and software upgrades likewise often need hardware enhancements, leading to a spiral of obsolescence. (For an alternative vision of the ICT sector, see the work of the Restart Project)
  • The ICT industry itself has had significant climatic and environmental impacts as well as giving rise to moral concerns: satellite debris is polluting space; electricity demand for servers, air conditioning, and battery charging is very significant; and mining for the rare minerals required in devices scars the landscape and often exploits child labour. We have not yet had a comprehensive environmental audit of the entire ICT sector; it would make much grimmer reading than most would hope for or expect!  In 2017, the World Economic Forum even posted an article that suggested that “by 2020, Bitcoin mining could be consuming the same amount of electricity every year as is currently used by the entire world”.
  • Finally, the SDGs have already failed. In their original conceptualisation, each country was meant to decide on, and set, the targets that were most relevant to their needs and priorities.  As some of us predicted at the time, the number of goals and targets was always going to be a challenge for countries, especially those with limited resources and capacities to make these decisions.  Few, if any countries have actually treated the targets seriously.  Instead, the development industry has blossomed, and various organisations have set up monitoring programmes to try to do this for them (see, for example, UN Stats, OECD,  Our World in Data).  If countries haven’t actually established targets, and do not have the baseline data to measure them, then it will be impossible to be able to say whether many targets have actually been reached.

The SDGs serve the interests of UN agencies, and those who make huge amounts of money from the “development industry” that seeks to support them.  Private sector companies and civil society see the Goals as a lucrative source of profits since governments and international organisation are prioritising spending in these areas.  This is why the original choice of goals and targets for the SDGs was so important; people and organisations can make money out of them.

There is much debate over whether target setting, as in the MDGs and SDGs, serves any value at all.  Despite many claims otherwise, the MDGs failed comprehensively to eliminate poverty.  It must therefore be asked once again why the UN system decided to create a much more complex and convoluted system of goals and targets that was even more likely to fail.  The main reason for this has to be because it served the interests of those involved in shaping them.  They do not and will not serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.  We are already nearly one-fifth of the way from 2015 to 2030, and the SDGs have not yet properly got started.  They have therefore already failed.  It is high time that governments of poor countries stopped even thinking about the SDGs and instead got on and simply served the interests of their poorest and most marginalised citizens.  They could begin to do so simply by spending wisely for their poorest citizens the money that they waste on attending the endless sequence of international meetings focusing on how ICTs can be used to deliver the SDGs and eliminate poverty!  ICTs can indeed help empower poor people, but to date they have failed to do so, and have instead substantially increased inequality, both between countries and within them.  We need to reclaim ICTs so that they can truly be used to empower poor people.

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Chipping children at birth – seen on social media in 2025


Having just received a note from Thames Valley Police about chipping dogs, I just thought I would share this post from 2025:

“Having your child microchipped can make a lot of difference when looking for and trying to identify a missing child. Since April 2025 it has been a legal requirement for all children to be microchipped by 8 weeks of age. In 2020, the Children’s Trust recorded that 9,000 lost children were reunited with their parents due to having a microchip with up-to-date details.

Each microchip has a unique number that must be registered on a Government approved database along with information about your child and you as its parent. If your child is not registered on one of these databases you can be fined. It is important that the information is kept up-to-date so that if your child does go missing, you can be contacted at the correct phone number or address.

Reporting it to the police as soon as possible is also important, including making us aware of the microchip number so we can record this on our database. This will make it easier for us to identify any children that are found, dead or alive, and check to see if they have been reported as missing or attacked.

It is also recommended to record the loss or theft of your child online using sites dedicated to finding lost and stolen children. Often these sites work with police and other organisations, such as local Neighbourhood Watch Groups, hospitals, prisons and General Practitioners, to try and find them.

More information on microchipping your child can be found on the Government website.”

More about the arguments that will be made for chipping children at birth are in my exciting forthcoming report for UNICEF on ICT for education…

[Just to be clear about the genesis of this note, I replaced the word “dog” with “child”, and made one or two other minor changes to the flow of the text from Thames Valley Police so that it made sense – but the vast bulk of this “report” is word-for-word taken from their helpful advice relating to dogs.  I have written this post to make us all think about what the future will hold, whether we want a future like this, and what we should do about the seemingly inevitable path towards all humans becoming cyborgs].

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The UNESCO Chair in ICT4D is not the same as the UNESCO Chair in ICTD


Geo.tv in Pakistan has recently run the following headline “Pakistani computer scientist Dr Umar Saif appointed UNESCO chair for ICTD”, and in the article that follows has claimed that “World-renowned Pakistani computer scientist Dr Umar Saif has been appointed as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Chair for using Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICTD). This is the first international UNESCO Chair in the field of ICTD and will help Pakistan become a centre of excellence in using Information Technology for development, especially use of technology to address the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), said a press release issued earlier.”  Other Pakistani media has run similar headlines, such as the Daily Pakistan Global’s “UNESCO appoints Pakistan’s Dr. Umar Saif as first international chair for ICTD”

Umar Saif has himself posted the following on Facebook to wide acclaim, stating that “Dear friends I have been awarded the UNESCO Chair for using ICT for development.  This is a moment of pride for Pakistan and a recognition of our work in the past 10 years”.

Following several comments and enquiries from colleagues in the field of ICT4D who have questioned the veracity of these claims, I write here just to clarify not only the nature of UNESCO Chairs, but also to make it very clear that the first UNESCO Chair in ICT4D was created at Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2007, long before the university that Umar Saif founded in Punjab in 2013 was even created; interestingly that university is named the ITU University (Information Technology University), which itself raises confusion with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).  It is also important here to note that ICT4D and ICTD are very different!

UNESCO Chairs are created as an agreement between a university and UNESCO, and they are the term given for a community of researchers working in a particular academic field.  This can be confusing, because no individual is actually a UNESCO Chair, but rather they are appointed as a Chairholder.  While there are no restrictions on the number of Chairs in any one field, it is usual practice for chairs to be clearly differentiated, so that the majority do not have the same names.

In the light of this, when I was approached by staff at the International Technology University in Pakistan about the procedure for acquiring the status of a UNESCO Chair in 2017, I was happy to offer them some advice about how to proceed.  I had no idea that they would be applying for a Chair in exactly the same name to our own.  On discovering that such a duplicate application had been made to UNESCO, I wrote to colleagues at the Information Technology University in Pakistan suggesting that it might be useful to change the proposed name of their new Chair from ICT4D to something else, so that there would not be confusion.  They wrote back accepting a very minor change from ICT4D to ICTD.

It is up to readers of this post to judge the motives of those involved in applying for a UNESCO Chair in such a similar name to that of a long-established Chair, those on the National Committee in Pakistan who nominated such an application to UNESCO, and those who supported such an application.

To summarise and clarify for the record:

  • The first UNESCO Chair in ICT4D was established at Royal Holloway, University of London, more than a decade ago in 2007; and
  • Umar Saif has recently been appointed as the Chairholder of a UNESCO Chair at the Information Technology University in Pakistan, and is not the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D, or in ICTD.

I fear that this confusion sadly does not reflect well either on the political establishment in Pakistan who approved this nomination, nor on the professionalism of those involved in the nomination itself.  I would hope that the Pakistani press and those on social media will recognise this and respond accordingly.  I am sure they will agree that this is not a matter of pride for Pakistan, but actually sadly reflects rather badly on them.

I am somewhat saddened by this and only write to clarify the confusion that has already arisen and has been pointed out to me by colleagues.  It will not make the slightest difference to the ongoing work that my colleagues continue to do in this field.   I should also emphasise that I have many dear friends in Pakistan, and it is a wonderful and beautiful country.  I like and respect very many people in Pakistan, ranging from senior government officials to the many Commonwealth Scholarship Commission alumni who it has been my privilege to know.  The UNESCO Chair in ICT4D has worked with long established research-led universities in Pakistan, such as COMSATS IIT which has a world-renowned reputation unlike some other provincial universities in the country, and it has been an honour to undertake research with them and to promote the effective use of ICTs to support and empower the poorest and least privileged in the world.

Tim Unwin (Chairholder, UNESCO Chair in ICT4D)

 

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Sidi Bou Said: the tourists return


When I last visited Sidi Bou Said, just to the north of Tunis, in November 2015 it was almost deserted, with tourists from across the world having largely chosen to go elsewhere following the shootings near Sousse in June of that year.  I remember being saddened about the very visible loss of income for the many small traders who had previously made their livings selling souvenirs from the numerous small shops that lined its main streets. Revisiting the village yesterday on a beautiful warm, sunny day, with a cool breeze freshening the air, it was good to see the lively buzz of visitors filling the streets.  It is a beautiful village, with the blue doors and shutters (reputedly to thwart mosquitoes) contrasting starkly with the whitewashed walls of the buildings.

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It was also great to find that my favourite restaurant in the village, Au Bon Vieux Temps, was still there, and serving food as good as it has always done.  The only sad thing was that the traders seemed very much more aggressive than I recall even in the dark days of 2015.  A well-traveled friend and colleague reckoned it was the worst hassle he had ever experienced in a tourist resort!  I had to agree, which is sad, because they would achieve very many more sales if they were a little bit less aggressive.  Be warned, but go and enjoy Sidi Bou Said nonetheless.

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Labour, Corbyn and Brexit


I have long struggled with understanding why Labour under Corbyn has not been more forthright in supporting the Remain campaign. To be sure, such ambivalence must in part be because of the diversity of views within Labour’s membership, but they risk losing many of their younger supporters once the harsh economic, social, political and cultural realities of leaving the EU hit home.

The sacking of Owen Thomas from the shadow cabinet for his principled stand in favour of a second referendum, and for highlighting the risks of Brexit, emphasises the deep divisions within Labour and the power that the leader holds.

The most plausible reasons for Corbyn’s approach would seem to be that:

  • He has long been suspicious of the European project, seeing it as a means through which the owners of capital have been able to exploit labour more effectively;
  • He sees the EU as a threat to his ambitions fundamentally to restructure Britain, especially because he thinks that membership of the EU would limit his intentions to renationalize many of the utility industries that were privatized over the last half century; and
  • Because he wants to be seen as the leader who made Britain great again.

However, his logic, if indeed that is what it can be called, is deeply problematic.

Corbyn’s recent statements on the EU and Brexit have indeed shown a more conciliatory approach to Europe, perhaps as a sop to those Labour voters who wish to remain, but many of his previous statements leave little doubt that he is highly critical of both the European project, and of the EU institutions that are seeking to deliver it:

  • He voted to leave the EEC  in 1975;
  • In 1993, he spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty because it took “away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers who will impose the economic policies of price stability, deflation and high unemployment throughout the European Community”;
  • He voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008; and
  • In 2016 he asserted that he wanted “a Europe that is based on social justice and good, rather than solely on free-market economics”.

To be sure, some people can grow wiser with age and change their minds.  After winning the election in 2017 he said clearly that he wanted the UK to remain a member of the EU, but most of his recent actions would run counter to this assertion.  Most importantly, he has done very little to put this aspiration into practice, and seeks to penalize any of his MPs who support a second referendum and express a desire to remain within the EU.

Corbyn’s criticisms of the EU fail to acknowledge the very considerable support that it has given to workers’ rights and social welfare across Europe.  Workers in Britain have benefited considerably from this, and it is unlikely that they would have done so had the UK not been part of the EU over the last 45 years.

The scenario that Corbyn seems to be hoping for is that:

  • May and the Tories will make a disaster of the Brexit negotiations, and will become unelectable at least for the next quarter of a century ;
  • The British economy will swiftly plunge into decline as a result of Brexit;
  • This will make his renationalization policies seem much more  plausible than they do at the moment; and
  • He will then be seen as the glorious saviour of a Britain that will indeed be made great again as a result of his actions.

For this to succeed, he cannot in any way be seen as supporting any of the present government’s policies towards the EU, he must continue to advocate that the EU serves the interests of the owners of capital rather than the workers, and he must encourage the collapse of our economy and society so that his policies can be seen as restoring our (and his) greatness again.

It seems so sad that on these critical issues he has failed to see the very considerable benefits that being part of the EU gives to Britain.  Instead of simply leaving the EU, we should remain at its heart and change it from within.  Outside the EU, Britain has little voice, little power, and none of the benefits that belonging to it can bring to all of our citizens.

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ITU and UNESCO Chair in ICT4D session at WSIS Forum 2018: International decision-making in ICT – where are the women?


The ITU is strongly committed to achieving gender equality across its organisational structures, and has been one of the driving forces for achieving gender equality in and through ICTs across the world, not least through its involvement in creating the EQUALS initiative.

One of the key international gatherings convened by the ITU has been the series of World Radiocommunication Conferences held periodically to reach international agreements on Radio Regulations, with new and revised Resolutions and Recommendations.  Traditionally, these have been very male dominated, and the ITU has therefore taken steps to encourage greater involvement of women at all levels in its decision-making processes.  One aspect of this has been the creation of the Network of Women for WRC-19 (NOW4WRC19), led by Dr. Hanane Naciri, which aims to encourage increased participation of women in the conference being held in 2019.  Its main objectives are to have a better gender balance among delegates, to prepare women for key roles in WRC-19, and to grow the women’s community capacity and contribution.

As part of this process, the ITU and the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D convened Session 113 at the WSIS Forum 2018.  This began with a lively panel discussion, opened by Dr Hanane Naciri (Radiocommunication and Software Engineer, Radiocommunication Bureau, ITU), with Sahiba Hasanova (Vice-Chairman, ITU-R Study Group 4 / Leading Adviser, Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies, the Republic of Azerbaijan), Caitlin Kraft-Buchman (CEO/Founder Women@theTable, Geneva, Switzerland) and Brigitte Mantilleri (Director of the Equal opportunities office of the University of Geneva).  The speakers shared some of their experiences of leadership in the field of ICT, commented on the challenges facing women who wish to participate in such events, and suggesting what needs to be done to involve more women at all levels in such processes (summary).

workshop

Building on these inspirational introductions, participants then shared their experiences, insights and suggestions for what still needs to be done to ensure that women contribute fully and appropriately to international ICT decision making, and especially to WRC-19.  Twelve themes were identified, and these were captured in a mind map which is available on the ITU and UNESCO Chair for ICT4D sites:

  • Top leadership and champions: it is essential that top leadership supports the increased participation of women, and that champions are identified who can promote such participation;
  • Ensuring that women are in powerful positions: women need to be supported throughout their lives, and particularly encouraged to take leadership roles;
  • Building and promoting networks: it is essential that we work together in intergenerational networks that can support and advise women participating in such decision-making activities;
  • Involving men: we must have male feminists as well as female ones who are willing to help change attitudes and cultures of oppression;
  • Training: more effective training programmes are necessary, particularly ones that help men to understand the relevant issues;
  • Organisational structures: addressing elements of organizational culture is key, and it is important to equip women to survive and flourish in the environments where they work;
  • Awareness and communication: the need to provide much more information about how women can contribute to such decision-making gatherings, and to confront people who have negative behaviours;
  • Changing norms: the need to address and revisit many underlying assumptions;
  • Incentivisation: the need to provide incentives to organisations and individual women to participate in such events;
  • The role of recruitment: recruitment agents can play a key role in ensuring balanced interview panels and processes, and in supporting a charter code of practice on gender;
  • Remember that inclusion is not the same as diversity: diversity is not enough and we need to be inclusive to ensure that women feel comfortable in whatever environment they find themselves; and finally
  • Recognising it may not happen overnight: given how slow change has been so far, we need to recognize it may not happen swiftly, but we must develop the momentum so that it will happen as quickly as possible.

Participants were committed to supporting EQUALS and working with the ITU to ensure that there is much greater involvement of women at all levels in WRC-19.

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Images from Old San Juan, Puerto Rico


Friends suggested that if I was able to take any time off from the North American School of Internet Governance meeting, and ICANN 61 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I should try and visit Old San Juan (Viejo San Juan).  So, on a warm, sunny March afternoon I set about exploring the old part of the city, which was a fair walk from the Convention Centre!

San Juan was founded by the Spanish in the early 16th century, around a fine natural harbour, and until the 19th century almost all of the settlement was contained within the impressive walls and fortifications of the city.  However, by the late-1940s the physical and social fabric of the old city was in a state of disrepair, with buildings decaying and prostitution widespread.  There was strong pressure to demolish much of the old fabric, and construct new buildings with modern architectural designs.  Instead, thanks largely to local activism, especially by the anthropologist Ricardo Alegria, it was agreed to remodel the old city using traditional Spanish motifs and design elements.  In 1949 the San Juan Historic National Site was established, and this became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.  It is now a lively place with numerous restaurants, shops and historic sites, and I hope that the pictures below capture something of the bright colours, impressive situation, and considerable diversity of Old San Juan.  Thanks so much to everyone who suggested I should visit it!

 

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