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).
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.
A week ago, I wrote a post about the potential of crowdsourcing and the use of hashtags for gathering enhanced data on infection rates for Covid-19. Things have moved rapidly since then as companies, civil society organisations, international organisations, academics and donors have all developed countless initiatives to try to respond. Many of these initiatives seem to be more about the profile and profits of the organisations/entities involved than they do about making a real impact on the lives of those who will suffer most from Covid-19. Yesterday, I wrote another post on my fears that donors and governments will waste huge amounts of money, time and effort on Covid-19 to little avail, since they have not yet learnt the lessons of past failures.
I still believe that crowdsourcing could have the potential, along with many other ways of gathering data, to enhance decision making at this critical time. However the dramatic increase in the number of such initiatives gives rise to huge concern. Let us learn from past experience in the use of digital technologies in development, and work together in the interests of those who are likely to suffer the most. Eight issues are paramount when designing a digital tech intervention to help reduce the impact of Covid-19, especially through crowdsourcing type initiatives:
Don’t duplicate what others are already doing
Treat privacy and security very carefully
Don’t detract from official and (hopefully) accurate information
Keep it simple
Ask questions that will be helpful to those trying to respond to the pandemic
Ensure that there are at least some questions that are the same in all surveys if there are multiple initiatives being done by different organisations
Work with a globally agreed set of terminology and hashtags (#)
Collaborate and share
Don’t duplicate what others are already doing
As the very partial list of recent initiatives at the end of this post indicates, many crowdsourcing projects have been created across the world to gather data from people about infections and behaviours relating to Covid-19. Most of these are well-intentioned, although there will also be those that are using such means unscrupulously also to gather data for other purposes. Many of these initiatives ask very similar questions. Not only is it a waste of resources to design and build several competing platforms in a country (or globally), but individual citizens will also soon get bored of responding to multiple different platforms and surveys. The value of each initiative will therefore go down, especially if there is no means of aggregating the data. Competition between companies may well be an essential element of the global capitalist system enabling the fittest to accrue huge profits, but it is inappropriate in the present circumstances where there are insufficient resources available to tackle the very immediate responses needed across the world.
Treat privacy and security very carefully
Most digital platforms claim to treat the security of their users very seriously. Yet the reality is that many fail to protect the privacy of much personal information sufficiently, especially when software is developed rapidly by people who may not prioritise this issue and cut corners in their desire to get to market as quickly as possible. Personal information about health status and location is especially sensitive. It can therefore be hugely risky for people to provide information about whether they are infected with a virus that is as easily transmitted as Covid-19, while also providing their location so that this can then be mapped and others can see it. Great care should be taken over the sort of information that is asked and the scale at which responses are expected. It is not really necessary to know the postcode/zipcode of someone, if just the county or province will do.
Don’t detract from official and (hopefully) accurate information
Use of the Internet and digital technologies have led to a plethora of false information being propagated about Covid-19. Not only is this confusing, but it can also be extremely dangerous. Please don’t – even by accident – distract people from gaining the most important and reliable information that could help save their lives. In some countries most people do not trust their governments; in others, governments may not have sufficient resources to provide the best information. In these instances, it might be possible to work with the governments to ehance their capacity to deliver wise advice. Whatever you do, try to point to the most reliable globally accepted infomation in the most appropriate languages (see below for some suggestions).
Keep it simple
Many of the crowdsourcing initiatives currently available or being planned seem to invite respondents to complete a fairly complex and detailed list of questions. Even when people are healthy it could be tough for them to do so, and this could especially be the case for the elderly or digitally inexperienced who are often the most vulnerable. Imagine what it would be like for someone who has a high fever or difficulty in breathing trying to fill it in.
Ask questions that will be helpful to those trying to respond to the pandemic
It is very difficult to ask clear and unambiguous questions. It is even more difficult to ask questions about a field that you may not know much about. Always work with people who might want to use the data that your initiative aims to generate. If you are hoping, for example, to produce data that could be helpful in modelling the pandemic, then it is essential to learn from epidemiologists and those who have much experience in modelling infectious diseases. It is also essential to ensure that the data are in a format that they can actually use. It’s all very well producing beautful maps, but if they use different co-ordinate systems or boundaries from those used by government planners they won’t be much use to policy makers.
Ensure that there are at least some questions that are the same in all surveys if there are multiple initiatives being done by different organisations
When there are many competing surveys being undertaken by different organisations about Covid-19, it is important that they have some identical questions so that these can then be aggregated or compared with the results of other initiatives. It is pointless having multiple initiatives the results of which cannot be combined or compared.
Work with a globally agreed set of terminology and hashtags (#)
The field of data analytics is becoming ever more sophisticated, but if those tackling Covid-19 are to be able readily to use social media data, it would be very helpful if there was some consistency in the use of terminology and hashtags. There remains an important user-generated element to the creation of hashtags (despite the control imposed by those who create and own social media platforms), but it would be very helpful to those working in the field if some consistency could be encouraged or even recommended by global bodies and UN agencies such as the WHO and the ITU.
Collaborate and share
Above all, in these unprecendented times, it is essential for those wishing to make a difference to do so collaboratively rather than competitively. Good practices should be shared rather than used to generate individual profit. The scale of the potential impact, especially in the weakest contexts is immense. As a recent report from the Imperial College MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis notes, without interventions Covid-19 “would have resulted in 7.0 billion infections and 40 million deaths globally this year. Mitigation strategies focussing on shielding the elderly (60% reduction in social contacts) and slowing but not interrupting transmission (40% reduction in social contacts for wider population) could reduce this burden by half, saving 20 million lives, but we predict that even in this scenario, health systems in all countries will be quickly overwhelmed. This effect is likely to be most severe in lower income settings where capacity is lowest: our mitigated scenarios lead to peak demand for critical care beds in a typical low-income setting outstripping supply by a factor of 25, in contrast to a typical high-income setting where this factor is 7. As a result, we anticipate that the true burden in low income settings pursuing mitigation strategies could be substantially higher than reflected in these estimates”.
This concluding section provides quick links to generally agreed reliable and simple recommendations relating to Covid-19 that could be included in any crowdsourcing platform (in the appropriate language), and a listing of just a few of the crowdsourcing initiatives that have recently been developed.
The following are currently three of the best sourcs for global information about Covid-19 – although I do wish that they clarified that “infections” are only “recorded infections”, and that data around deaths should be shown as “deaths per 1000 people” (or similar density measures) and depicted on choropleth maps.
I was re-reading the introductory chapter of my Reclaiming ICT4D(OUP, 2017) recently just to check that I still agreed with it! Doing so made me think of posting its conclusion here, because this highlights five aspects that make it rather different in approach from many other books on ICTs and development. So, here it is (original manuscript with emphasis added; and including Figure omitted from published book). Hope this makes people want to read more!
“This chapter has summarized the theoretical and practical groundings for the account that follows, and has sought to make clear why this book focuses on five main aspects of the interface between ICTs and development. First, it seeks explicitly to draw on both theoretical and practical understandings of the use of technology in development. It deliberately seeks to build on insights from both theory and practice, and crosses boundaries between different stakeholder communities. This is also expressed in its style and use of language, which consciously seeks to offer different ways of reflecting on these issues.
Second, the book is built on a belief that just describing the changes that are taking place, and how technology has been used in and for development is not enough. We must understand the interests behind such occurrences if we are to change what is currently happening. We must also adopt a normative stance, and be much more willing to say what should be rather than just what is. It is no coincidence that technology is being used to drive economic growth forward as the expense of those who do not have access to it, or the knowledge or interest in how to use it. This book thus has an avowedly practical intent to help poor and marginalized people gain benefits from the use of these technologies, and it does not shy away from making tough policy recommendations as to ways in which this can be achieved.
Third, it emphasizes that there are many different ways in which technology and development interact. I have previously very much championed the notion of ICT for development (ICT4D), but now fear that this has been subverted to a situation where many stakeholders are using the idea of ‘development’ as a means to promulgate and propagate their own specific technologies, or what might be called ‘Development for ICT’ (D4ICT). Hence, I wish to reclaim ICT4D from the clutches of D4ICT. This requires us above all to focus primarily on the intended development outcomes rather than the technology.
To do this, it is very important that this book concentrates on both the positive and the negative, intended and unintended, consequences of the use of ICTs in development. There has been far too much euphoric praise for the role of technology in development, and although the recent UNDP (2015) and World Bank (2016) reports go some way in pointing to the failures, they do not go anything like far enough in highlighting the darker side of technologies and particularly the Internet (although for a darker view of ICT in general see Lanier, 2011). To be sure, ICTs have indeed transformed the lives of many poor people, often for the better, but they have not yet really structurally improved the lot of the poorest and most marginalized.
Finally, as I hope the above has shown, this book argues that development should not be focused on economic growth, nor about the modernising power of technology. Rather, development is fundamentally a moral agenda. ICT4D is about making difficult choices about what is right or wrong. It is about having the courage to be normative, rather than just positive, and it holds on to the belief that we can still use technology truly to make the world a better place.”
The contrast between attending a series of side events around the UN General Assembly in New York immediately following a marvellous two weeks in India has made me reflect again on the rhetoric and reality of using ICTs for development, especially in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.
My latest book, Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development (OUP, 2017) provides an overview of the interests underlying the use of ICTs for “development”, and what needs to be done so that the poorest and most marginalised can indeed benefit from ICTs. However, working in India, and then listening to the rhetoric of the rich and famous in New York makes me wonder whether I was sufficiently vehement in what I wrote in that book. It also makes me return to thinking about the research I did 30 years ago on innovation adoption by farmers. This convinced me that Rogers’ well accepted theoretical arguments around innovation adoption, the S-shaped curve (see below), and the classification of people into categories (innovators, early adopters, really majority, late majority and laggards) is fundamentally flawed.
There was very widespread agreement amongst the world’s leaders meeting in New York last week – and most other people as well – that ICTs can contribute very significantly to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and that these will eliminate poverty. The challenge, according to them, is how to connect the “next billion” to the Internet (mobile broadband), or in Rogers’ terminology the “late majority”. As I have argued elsewhere, this will actually further increase global inequality, and most attention should instead be paid to connecting the “first” (because they are most important) billion, or what Rogers termed the “laggards”.
The interests underlying connecting the next billion
The global focus on rolling out broadband to deliver the SDGs (even if that was possible) is not primarily in the interest of the world’s poorest people. Instead it is mainly driven by:
private sector corporations and companies, from ISPs and mobile operators to the powerful multi-service giants such as Facebook and Google, who are all primarily interested in expanding their markets and profits;
national governments, eager to reduce costs through the use of digital technologies (although this is often a flawed assumption), as well as to control “their” citizens;
UN agencies, keen to have a role to play in delivering the SDGS; and
NGOs, wanting to publicise their work more widely, and continue to receive project funding for their ICT-based initiatives.
These have little to do with the real interests and needs of the poorest and most marginalised. The language of global corporations and governments is nearly always about providing access and creating demand for digital services. But why should poor people necessarily want to go online?
Reasons not to be online…
I recall a wonderful conversation a couple of years ago with a Maasai chief in Tanzania. He was speaking with a group of techies about the use of mobile devices, and they were trying to persuade him of the value of mobile phones, even just to call his friends in a village the other side of the hills. He, wisely, remained unconvinced. For him, walking across the hills, enjoying the landscape, spending time experiencing the physicality of nature, and just thinking about life, were a crucial part of going to, and speaking with, his friend in the next village.
For the wise poor and marginalised, there are many reasons for not being connected:
they remain outside a world where increasingly all human actions are monetised by profit seeking corporations who use digital technologies to track their users and generate profit from selling such information;
they remain free from the prying eyes of governments, whose actions may not be in their interests;
there is little of interest to them in solving their real needs on the Internet;
they do not have to spend large amounts of their very limited cash on paying for digital services that they do not really need;
they do not suffer from the increasing amount of online abuse and harassment from trolls and others seeking to make them suffer;
their small amounts of cash are not subject to online theft from hackers of mobile money systems;
they do not become entrapped in a social media world, where every tweet or blog can adversely influence their thoughts and senses of well-being;
they do not suffer from endless messages or e-mails, the senders of which increasingly expect an immediate response; and
they can enjoy being truly human in the analogue physical world (of all the senses), rather than trading this for the synthetic, and much less adequate digital virtual world (of mainly the two senses of sight and sound).
To be sure, there are many advantages of being connected, but the above list (and there are numerous other reasons that could be added) emphasises that there are also many negative aspects of Internet use, especially for the poor and marginalised.
The poor are not ignorant laggards who need to be convinced to go online…
One of the fundamental flaws of the widely accepted innovation adoption model proposed by Rogers is that it classifies people into “heroic” innovators and “ignorant” laggards; it is something about the people that influences whether or not they adopt an innovation, such as mobile broadband. Such a view is held by many of those who seek to promote the global roll-out of the Internet: those who use the latest technologies are seen as being wise, whereas those who do not are seen as being lazy, ignorant laggards.
Rogers’ formulation is fundamentally problematic because it suggests that it is something about the people themselves that determine whether or not they are leaders or laggards. This largely ignores the structural factors that determine whether people adopt something new. With the adoption of agricultural innovations, for example, many poor people act perfectly rationally, and choose the option that they consider suits them best. Poor people often make very rational, wise decisions not to adopt an innovation, often because the innovation increases the risks of crop failure, and they cannot afford this risk. Moreover, if they do not have access to innovations it is scarcely surprising that they do not adopt them; the spatial distribution of outlets for herbicides, hybrid seeds or inorganic fertilizers is the main factor influencing whether people adopt them, rather than something about their propensity to innovate. In the ICT sector, it is hardly surprising that people living in areas without electricity, let alone connectivity, do not see the need to have the latest generation of smartphone connected to the Internet.
If progress is to be made in helping poor and marginalised people benefit from the Internet, it is essential to do away with this flawed model of innovation adoption, and understand instead the structural factors and interests underlying why wise poor people, who know the contexts of their poverty very well, do not choose to adopt such technologies. The rich elites of the world could begin by trying to understand the real conditions of poverty, rather than simply believing that ICTs can eliminate poverty through the SDGs.
Development in the interests of the poor
ICTs will never deliver on reducing inequalities in the world unless there is a fundamental sea-change in the attitudes of those leading the global private sector corporations that currently shape the world of the Internet. It is perfectly logical for them to sign up to the SDGs formulated by the UN system, and to seek to show that expanding their digital empires will necessarily deliver the SDGs. This is a powerful additional weapon in their armoury of market expansion and profit generation. The problem is that these agendas will continue to increase inequality, and as yet remarkably little attention has been paid to how ICTs might actually help deliver SDG10. Until corporations and governments really treat the link between ICTs and inequality seriously, peoples of the world will become every more divided, and if poverty is defined in a relative sense then poverty will actually increase rather than decrease as a result of roll out of the Internet.
It is always exciting to have finished the page proofs and done the index of a book, especially when this has to be completed between Christmas and the New Year as it was with Reclaiming ICT4D at the end of 2016! However, when the cover has been agreed and it appears on the publisher’s website, then one knows that it is actually going to appear in several months time!
Combines understanding of both theoretical and practical aspects of ICT for development (ICT4D)
Challenges existing orthodoxy and offers alternatives that can make a practical difference in the field
Addresses the interests underlying the use of technology in development
Wide ranging in coverage, including discussion of regulation, partnership, technological innovation, and the darker side of ICTs
I like being involved in the design of different aspects of my books, and I am so grateful to OUP for agreeing to publish Reclaiming ICT4D in two fonts, one to represent theory and the other practice. I am also immensely happy that they were willing to use one of my pictures on the cover to represent much of what the book is about. In case it is not immediately obvious, this picture taken a year ago in Murree (Pakistan) represents many things: a hope for the future, with the young boy vigorously hitting the ball way over his friends’ heads; cricket itself acknowledges the complex heritage of colonialism and imperialism; in the background is a telecommunications mast, providing the connectivity that has the potential to be used to reduce inequalities, but all too often increases them; the electricity so essential for powering ICTs is very visible; and women are absent, representing another dimension of inequality that is addressed in the book. It is also much more than this. My father visited Murree 71 years ago, and may have walked along this street; I went there with friends, and the book is very much a personal story of how I have learnt from them and the many people who have shared their wisdom and experiences with me over the years; it is above all about how people like these boys, playing on the street, can use ICTs to transform their lives for the better, rather than becoming the cyborg cannon-fodder that global capitalism seeks to devour for the benefit of the rich and powerful.
A little more formally, this is how OUP describe the contents of the book on their website:
“The development of new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) has transformed the world over the last two decades. These technologies are often seen as being inherently ‘good’, with the ability to make the world better, and in particular to reduce poverty. However, their darker side is frequently ignored in such accounts.
ICTs undoubtedly have the potential to reduce poverty, for example by enhancing education, health delivery, rural development and entrepreneurship across Africa, Asia and Latin America. However, all too often, projects designed to do so fail to go to scale, and are unsustainable when donor funding ceases. Indeed, ICTs have actually dramatically increased inequality across the world. The central purpose of this book is to account for why this is so, and it does so primarily by laying bare the interests that have underlain the dramatic expansion of ICTs in recent years. Unless these are fully understood, it will not be possible to reclaim the use of these technologies to empower the world’s poorest and most marginalised.”
Its seven chapters are entitled as follows:
1: A critical reflection on ICTs and ‘Development’
2: Understanding the Technologies
3: The International Policy Arena: ICTs and Internet Governance
4: Partnerships in ICT4D: Rhetoric and Reality
5: From Regulation to Facilitation: The role of ICT and Telecommunication Regulators in a Converging World
6: Reflections on the Dark Side of ICT4D
7: …in the Interests of the Poorest and Most Marginalized.
It is also being made available as an Ebook, and publication date is estimated as 25th May 2017.
To request a review copy, do contact OUP directly using their request form.
Continuing digitizing the slides from my research and travels in India in 1976 and 1977, I share here some pictures of small towns and villages in what was then South Bihar (now Jharkhand) and West Bengal. These include pictures of the towns of Chaibasa and Chakradharpur, as well as several villages in this beautiful part of India. I remember particularly the paintings on the walls of the houses in the villages, and some of the writing on them as well, not least the slogan “Fight for malaria”! The pictures here also show the sadness of smallpox, with the solitary gravestone, and also other such stones which I was told marked village boundaries. There are also images of tile and brick making, and the sequence closes with a village school, which I had forgotten about but now makes me think of all of the other schools, particularly in Africa, that I have visited in the last 15 or so years. Other rural, agricultural scenes will follow in a future post!
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.
I 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
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.
Despite limited digital connectivity, I just thought I would upload a short summary of my upcoming keynote at the Commonwealth of Learning’s Seventh Pan-Commonwealth Forum this afternoon to encourage productive debate! Its central argument is that we are not delivering as effectively as we could in using ICTs for education at all levels, because of very explicit interests that are serving to limit this effectiveness. (Later on 17th December: the slides that accompanied the keynote have now been made available by COL)
I begin with a short overview of ten good practices that need to be in place to ensure effective use of ICTs in education:
It’s the learning that matters, not the technology
Teachers must be involved from the beginning
Sustainability built in from the start
Supporting infrastructure must be in place
Appropriate content must be developed
Equality of access for all learners
Continual monitoring and evaluation
Appropriate maintenance contracts
Using the technology 24/7
Good practices, rather than best
So, why are these not done?
I focus here first on the observation that ICTs generally increase inequalities unless very specific actions are taken to ensure that the poorest and most marginalised are able to benefit.
I then explore the various interests that tend to limit delivery of the above ten practices, focusing especially on the activities of the private sector, and especially hardware and software companies, connectivity companies and content developers.
In so doing, I also draw on some of the increasing amount of empirical evidence that the use of computers in education is actually damaging learning.
Implications for innovation
In the final section, I explore some of the implications of these trends for innovation and creativity, paying specific attention to five themes:
Language and literacy
Privacy and failure
In drawing these reflections to an end, I argue that one way forward is to work towards new and effective models of multi-stakeholder partnerships for education, that address education as something much more important, much more complex, and much more exciting than merely as a vehicle for economic transformation.