ICTs and the failure of the Sustainable Development Goals


The euphoria associated with the consensus reached by UN member states on 2nd August on the Sustainable Development Agenda to be signed by World Leaders in New York on 25-27 September is fundamentally misplaced, although not unexpected (for process see UN Post-2015 Development Agenda).  The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will do little to reduce poverty, will continue to propagate a world system based on inequality, and will continue primarily to serve the interests of those in the UN system and practitioners in the “development industry”.

I find it difficult to believe how Ban Ki-moon could really believe the words he said when welcoming the agreement, saying it “encompasses a universal, transformative and integrated agenda that heralds an historic turning point for our world … This is the People’s Agenda, a plan of action for ending poverty in all its dimensions, irreversibly, everywhere, and leaving no one behind. It seeks to ensure peace and prosperity, and forge partnerships with people and planet at the core. The integrated, interlinked and indivisible 17 Sustainable Development Goals are the people’s goals and demonstrate the scale, universality and ambition of this new Agenda”.

Here, I wish to focus attention particularly on the almost complete omission of ICTs from the final agreed SDGs, and why this is a very serious failing.  Back in June 2013, I wrote stridently about the paucity of mentions of ICT in the report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, which provided the initial basis for the agreement reached last Sunday.  Little has changed since then. Although my focus is on ICTs, it is important, though, to begin by noting some of the fundamental structural issues that mean the SDG process has been so flawed, and will fail to address the interests of the world’s poorest people:

  • There are far too many goals (17) and targets (169) – this will lead to diffusion of effort and lack of focus, not only within the ‘global system’, but also in individual countries.  It is much better to do a few things well, rather than try to do too many things, and fail to do any of them well.  The reality is that this list is a compromise of everything that those involved in the formal deliberations could think of that might reduce poverty (and serve their own interests)
  • Target setting is hugely problematic in that it can lead to resources being directed too much towards delivering the targets and not enough to other factors that might actually have greater impact.  This would not be so worrying if goals and targets were treated as flexible aspirations, but the reasons for the failure to deliver on many of the original Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) should have sent a much more powerful message to those planning the SDGs.  The UN’s own 2014 report on the MDGs, for example, stated that “Substantial progress has been made in most areas, but much more effort is needed to reach the set targets”.  If the world could not deliver on 8 Goals in 15 years, how is it going to deliver on 17 goals and 169 targets in the next 15 years?
  • The process remains largely concerned with absolute poverty rather than relative poverty.  Claiming that the SDG agenda will end poverty in all of its dimensions is, I’m afraid, crass (see my now very old paper No end to poverty that explores this further).  The SDGs will do little fundamentally to change the structural conditions upon which the present world system is based, which remain primarily concernd with economic growth rather than reducing social and economic inequality (despite claims that the agenda does indeed address inequality, as in Goal 10).
  • These goals and targets represent the interests of those organisations (UN, civil society, private sector) driving the SDG agenda, rather than the poorest and most marginalised; it is these organisations that are actually likely to benefit most from the SDG agenda.  Perhaps more than anything else, the SDGs have become a vehicle through which the UN and its many agencies can try to show their continued relevance in an ever-changing world.
  • 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 undoubtedly benefit hugely.  Small, poor countries simply do not have the capacity to implement, let alone develop the complex monitoring systems required by, the new SDGs and targets.
  • The SDGs reflect a relatively small set of interests (economic growth, agriculture, health, education, gender, environment and climate, justice and security, urban/industrial development), and focus insufficiently on some of the key issues that require attention if we are to create a fairer and more equal world, notably the role of ICTs, and the relative lack of attention paid to people with disabilities.

Each of the above claims (and indeed the many other reasons why the SDGs will fail) needs justifying at much greater length, but the last point brings me directly to the abject failure of the SDG agenda to pay sufficient attention to the critical role of ICTs in shaping contemporary development.  ICTs are not mentioned directly in any of the SDGs, and are only to be found in but four of the 169 targets:

  • 4b) By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States and African countries, for enrolment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programmes, in developed countries and other developing countries
  • 5b) Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women
  • 9c) Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020
  • 17.8) Fully operationalize the technology bank and science, technology and innovation capacity-building mechanism for least developed countries by 2017 and enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology

Only one of these (9c) has a focus on ICTs as a direct aim.  All of the others merely mention ICTs in an enabling role: for higher education scholarships (4b); to promote the empowerment of women (5b); and for the development of a technology bank and science, technology and innovation capacity-building mechanism (17.8).  In this context, it is quite scandalous that the SDGs, while mentioning the empowerment of women, fail to mention the much more significant use that ICTs can make to the lives of the 10% of the world’s population with disabilities.

There is widespread agreement that ICTs have been one of the major factors that have transformed the world over the 15 years of the MDGs.  They have driven extraordinary economic growth, have opened up entirely news ways of delivering education, health and rural development, have transformed the relationships between governments and citizens, and have created an interconnected world of communication and knowledge sharing.  It is not an exaggeration to say that they have been one of the most significant changes to humanity over the last 20 years.  Yet, those determining the SDG agenda for the next 15 years barely give them any recognition at all.  This would not be so worrying if ICTs had not also created some of the greatest inequalities that the world has ever seen; the differences in life experience between someone connected through mobile broadband to a 4G network, and someone with only 2G connectivity, let alone without a smartphone or equivalent digital device, is extraordinary (for a wider discussion see some of my recent papers).  ICTs have the capacity to be used for great good, and to transform the lives of poor people; but they also have the capacity to be used to create vast inequality, and to do much that is negative.

Hence, those involved in crafting the SDGs should have paid very much greater attention to the transformative role of ICTs.  The single target (9c) “Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020” is indeed to be welcomed, but as one of only 169 targets there is a real danger that it will be lost in the plethora of other competing aspirational targets for governments across the world.  As it is, there is little indication of what “significantly increase” actually means, or indeed of how best this target can be achieved.  The dominant rhetoric in the “global community” is still of how to reach the “next billion”, rather than how to serve the needs of the poorest and most marginalised, what most people call the “bottom billion” but which should better be termed the “first billion” to focus our attention on it being the most important!

The failure of ICTs to be mentioned more substantially within the SDGs provides a salutary example of how such goals are formulated, and the politics of the UN and international development system.  Looking back, it is remarkable that ICTs were mentioned explicitly within the sixth target of Goal 8 of the original MDGs in 2000: “In cooperation with the private sector, make available benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications”.  Yet, from this highpoint the role of ICTs within the SDG agenda of 2015 can be seen to have diminished almost to insignificance.  In large part this reflects the failure of international organisations with interests in ICTs to realise the significance of the SDG agenda early enough, and then to engage sufficiently actively in the discussions surrounding their formulation.  In this context, I was delighted that under my leadership the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) did indeed reach agreement in 2014 on a statement about the role of ICTs in the SDGs, but sadly this fell on rather deaf ears in the wider international community. Interestingly, during informal discussions with several multilateral and bilateral donors in recent years, during which I have personally sought to promote the crucial role of ICTs in development, I have regularly been told that the relevant UN organisations (such as the ITU) and other donors have insufficiently promoted the need for a goal on ICTs.  This, I am sure, is correct, but it is also important to understand why this might be the case.  At least four reasons seem relevant:

  • First, the UN system is one of strict hierarchy, with some agencies being seen as much more powerful and dominant than others.  Despite dramatic enhancements in the efficacy and role of the ITU in recent years under the leadership of Hamadoun Touré and now Houlin Zhao, it still seems to lack the clout at the wider international table of some of the other more powerful UN organisations and lobbies, for example, in the fields of health, gender and climate change.
  • Second, despite their being some young brilliant Ministers for ICTs/Telecommunciations across the world, more often that not these ministers are relatively low down the national hierarchy of ministerial responsibility, and were therefore unable effectively to influence national delegations who contributed to the crafting of the SDGs about the importance of ICTs.
  • Third, many bilateral and multilateral donors remain unconvinced of the power of ICTs to transform development in the interests of the poor and marginalised. This reflects badly both on the ICT for Development (ICT4D) community who have failed to provide enough evidence of the real development benefits of ICTs, but also on the ignorance, self-interest and bigotry of many of those working for donor agencies.
  • Fourth, when push comes to shove, individuals and institutions will usually focus on their own core areas, rather than on cross-cutting or collaborative initiatives.  Hence, the WHO and the powerful international health lobbies focus primarily on delivering health, UNESCO and the educational industry will focus on education, and the FAO and rural development lobby will focus on agriculture and rural development.  The ICT for Development field is relatively new, and remains insufficiently robust to compete against these powerful existing entities.

Building on this last point, it is highly salient that at the May 2015 WSIS Forum held in Geneva, the UN agencies involved explicitly recognised that the battle had been lost to have one of the SDGs with an explicit focus on ICTs, and instead developed a matrix to show how ICTs as represented in the WSIS Action Lines could contribute to each of the emerging SDGs.  While this goes some way to indicate how different UN agencies can indeed use ICTs to deliver their wider SDG commitments,  it fails comprehensively to tackle the deep structural issues that mean that ICTs are continuing to contribute to greater global inequality.

Without much greater focus on ensuring that the poorest and most marginalised, including people with disabilities, can use ICTs effectively to lead enhanced lives, the SDGs will inevitably lead to a more fractured and unequal world.

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Jenny and Al making a speedy ascent of Mont Ventoux


24I drove up Mont Ventoux years ago, and thought it then to be one of the bleakest drives I had ever been on.  Little did I think then that my daughter and son-in-law would actually cycle up the mountain in the early hours of the morning some 20+ years later. It was actually great fun being their support vehicle, offering water and encouragement along the way!  An early start shortly after six enabled them to be on the mountain just after seven in the morning on a day when the temperatures reached the high 30s. I very much hope that the images below capture some of the  beauty and energy of this amazing HC mountain climb.  Mind you, I am sure that using Pinarello Dogma bicycles helped them achieve their target in such an amazing time.

13Jenny’s next cycling adventure is the 100 mile Ride London event at the start of August.  As she says, Mont Ventoux was “Just some “light” hill training for my 100 mile cycle, Ride London, in less than two weeks time. Please help spur me on by providing some extra motivation and sponsor me riding for War Child here https://www.justgiving.com/Jenny-Bowe/ or come cheer along on 2 August”

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Auberge du Cellier, Montner


Occasionally I come across amazing hidden away restaurants, where the skills of the chef turn a meal into something very special.  One such restaurant is the Auberge du Cellier in Montner, some 30 kms to the west of Perpignan in south-west France, where Pierre Louis Marin has created somewhere to enjoy the highest quality local produce, prepared and presented with great skill and panache. Everything about the restaurant is special, from the single green chair at each table, to the welcome of the staff, to the way in which the food is presented, to the excellent list of local wines, and above the the quality of the food.

We went there last night for a very special meal, and one of our party has an allergy to cow’s milk.  Instead of just showing the items on the menu that she could eat, the chef Pierre Louis Marin, discussed various options with her, and concocted beautiful dishes especially for her to enjoy.

As well as “La Carte” there were menus priced at €32, €46, €55 or €69, all of which represented really excellent value for the quality of the food.  We particularly enjoyed:

  • a wonderfully textured melon gazpacho, with crispy pieces of ham and seeds on top
  • rich and tasty Foie gras mi-cuit maison, herbes folles, huile de noisette, truffe tuber aestivum et parmesan
  • Un tiramisu de tomates, aux variétés anciennes, tomates séchées et mascarpone – perhaps with a touch too much mascarpone
  • Fine Filet d’agneau catalan, houmous, aubergine, jus corsé au romarin
  • Mignon de porc « tirabuixo », en croûte de pain aux noix, fenouil braisé et purée riche
  • beautifully prepared Saint Honoré aux fruits de saison

The wine list was quite extensive, focusing mainly on wines from the region, with a dominance of AOC Roussillon and Côtes Catalanes.  For an aperitif, we had a local Muscat and an amazingly rich, intense and well-balanced Grenache Noir doux from Domaine Victor in Maury – am determined to visit Maury and purchase some of this most unusual and delicious wine.  And then we were recommended to try the very reasonably priced Domaine Seguela Les Candalières 2012 – which was full of delicious ripe fruit (60% Carignan, 20% Syrah and 20% Grenache), soft tannins, and of good length and depth – perfect with the lamb and pork.

The Auberge du Cellier is definitely to be recommended (1, rue de Saint-Eugénie, 66720 Montner – 04 68 29 09 78).

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Animals at Nakuru National Park, Kenya


Thanks to the generosity of friends, I had an amazing opportunity to drive up to Nakuru National Park from Nairobi for a few hours, circumnavigating the lake and seeing some wonderful wildlife. I hope that the pictures below capture something of the beauty of the place.  It was interesting to see, in particular, how the lake has increased in size in recent years, leading to many acacia trees being flooded and consequently dying.  The decrease in alkalinity of the lake has also been blamed for a reduction in the number of flamingoes, and so we were especially fortunate to see them, as well as a group of lionesses!

The park has been hit heavily by tourist concerns over potential terrorist activity, as have all of Kenya’s tourist destinations.  This is so sad for the Kenyan economy, and all those people who earn a living from tourism.  However, it did mean that there were very few people there, and so we were able to get some excellent views of the wildlife.

Thanks Juma, Peter, Mika and Robert for a great – albeit tiring – day!  Peter – you were a fantastic driver – thanks so much for being behind the wheel for so long!

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Jesus College Women’s Second Boat wins Blades in May Bumps


Today was the final exciting day of the May Bumps on the Cam in Cambridge, with many crews vying to win their blades by bumping the crew above them each day, and others hoping not to get the wooden spoon!

Undoubtedly one of the most exciting races was the Women’s First Division, with the performance by Jesus College’s Women’s Second Boat (W2) being just amazing – OK, I have a special interest in this boat, but…   They started in second position in the Second Division, and then bumped every day to win their blades. As a result, Jesus were the only College to have two women’s crews in the First Division.

Jesus W2’s five bumps were as follows:

  • Wednesday: bumped Trinity Hall W1 and Murray Edwards W1
  • Thursday: bumped Selwyn W1
  • Friday: bumped St. Catharine’s W1
  • Saturday: bumped Peterhouse W1

The pictures below hopefully capture something of the excitement and energy of their final race today when they bumped Peterhouse!  It was a really great performance, and it was a privilege to watch the race surrounded by people from other Jesus crews.

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Ten things not to do when developing national cybersecurity policies


The Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation held its 2015 Cybersecurity Forum on 22nd-24th April at the BT Centre in London.  During this, several of us thought it would be an interesting idea to draft a set of ten “not-to-do” things relating to various aspects of cybersecurity, and the first to be prepared (by Stuart Aston, Mike St. John-Green, Martin Koyabe and myself) is on ten things not to do when developing cybersecurity strategies.

We have deliberately focused on the “not-to-do” approach because we feel that such lists can serve as very useful simple reminders to people. As a check-list of negatives, they act as salient caviats for all those involved in developing cybersecurity strategies.

Our “don’ts” should be easy to remember:

  1. Don’t blindly copy another’s Cybersecurity strategy
  2. Don’t expect everything in your strategy to be under your control
  3. Don’t expect to remove all risks
  4. Don’t delegate your strategy to the IT experts
  5. Don’t focus your team only on the threats and the technology
  6. Don’t develop your strategy in a security bubble
  7. Don’t develop your strategy in a government bubble
  8. Don’t overlook the needs of your diverse stakeholders, particularly your citizens
  9. Don’t cover just the easier, tactical quick wins
  10. Don’t expect to finish after the first year

The full version of the recommendations, which includes the positive things that need to be done alongside the negatives, can be downloaded by clicking on the image below:

Ten things not to doDo print this off and share with colleagues you know!  I very much hope that it will act as a useful checklist for all those involved in cybersecurity policy making.

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Thoughts on mobile learning for the EFA GMR 2015


GMRI was delighted to have been asked by UNESCO to write an overview of the evolution of mobile devices and their uses in learning (m-learning), focusing especially on the fifteen-year period of the first Millennium Development Goals, as a background paper for the 2015 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, and it is great that this has now been published.

I thought it might be useful to summarise some of the key points here. The paper highlights eight emerging good practices, and six significant policy implications. The emerging good practices are:

  • Focusing on learning outcomes not technology
  • Involving teachers and users at all stages from design to implementation and review
  • Involve participatory approaches in design so as to ensure that adoption of technology is user-centric
  • Consider sustainability, maintenance and financing right at the beginning
  • Think holistically and systemically
  • Ensure that all relevant government departments are involved
  • Ensure equality of access to all learners, especially those who are marginalised
  • Appropriate and rigorous monitoring and evaluation must be in place

The policy implications identified are closely linked to these and can be summarised as:

  • Joined up approaches across Governments
  • Sharing of effective and rigorous monitoring and evaluation findings
  • Ensuring affordability
  • Providing connectivity
  • Effective multi-stakeholder partnerships
  • Development of relevant content

Four case studies drawn from different parts of the world and at different scales were used to illustrate the considerable success that can be achieved through m-learning. These were:

  • BBC Janala in Bangladesh;
  • Red UnX: a mobile learning community for entrepreneurship in Latin America;
  • Learning on the Move in Singapore; and
  • Worldreader: making books available to primary school children in low-income countries

However, the paper also illustrates clearly that unless very considerable efforts are made to ensure that the poorest and most marginalised people and communities have access to appropriate devices, connectivity and electricity, any increased attention on digital technologies is likely to increase inequalities rather than reduce them.

It concludes that to date, great strides have been made in using the very rapid expansion of mobile devices for the benefit of education, and for those companies involved in exploiting this. However, as a review of delivery on the past EFA goals and MDGs, it is apparent that much remains to be done in using such devices to help achieve universal primary education and gender equality in education.  Looking to the future, as more and more people gain possession of, or access to, mobile devices, they will have the opportunity to use the Internet to access an ever more innovative array of learning tools and content. The challenge, particularly for governments, is how to pay for and use this potential to enable universal access, and thus equality of opportunity within the education sector. Given the central role of teachers and administrators within education, an important concluding recommendation is that much more attention should be paid to providing training, resources and support to them in the use of mobile devices. A well-equipped, knowledgeable and inspired cadre of teachers, capable of using mobile ‘phones effectively in their classes, is a crucial first-step towards delivering m-learning for all. Sadly, all too often, even in the richest countries of the world, children are told to switch off their mobile ‘phones before entering the classroom. M-learning has much potential, but we are still a long way from using it to benefit the world’s poorest and most marginalised.

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