Tag Archives: Inequality

Digital-political-economy in a post-Covid-19 world: implications for the most marginalised

Now is the time to be thinking seriously about the kind of world that we wish to live in once Covid-19 has finished its rampage across Europe and North America.[i] Although its potential direct health impact in Africa and South Asia remains uncertain at the time of writing, countries within these continents have already seen dramatic disruption and much hardship as well as numerous deaths having been caused by the measures introduced by governments to restrict its spread.  It is already clear that it is the poorest and most marginalised who suffer most, as witnessed, for example, by the impact of Modi’s lockdown in India on migrant workers.[ii]

This post highlights five likely global impacts that will be hastened by Covid-19, and argues that we need to use this disruption constructively to shape a better world in the future, rather than succumb to the potential and substantial damage that will be caused, especially to the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised.  It may be that for many countries in the world, the impact of Covid-19 will be even more significant than was the impact of the 1939-45 war.  Digital technologies are above all accelerators, and most of those leading the world’s major global corporations are already taking full advantage of Covid-19 to increase their reach and their profits.[iii]

The inexorable rise of China and the demise of the USA

http://hiram1555.com/2016/10/21/presidential-debates-indicate-end-of-us-empire-analyst/

Source: Hiram1555.com

I have written previously about the waxing of China and the waning of the USA; China is the global political-economic powerhouse of the present, not just of the future.[iv]  One very significant impact of Covid-19 will be to increase the speed of this major shift in global power.  Just as 1945 saw the beginning of the final end of the British Empire, so 2020 is likely to see the beginning of the end of the USA as the dominant global (imperial) power.  Already, even in influential USAn publications, there is now much more frequent support for the view that the US is a failing state.[v] This transition is likely to be painful, and it will require world leaders of great wisdom to ensure that it is less violent than may well be the case.

The differences between the ways in which the USA and China have responded to Covid-19 have been marked, and have very significant implications for the political, social and economic futures of these states.  Whilst little trust should be placed on the precise accuracy of reported Covid-19 mortality rate figures throughout the world, China has so far reported a loss of 3.2 people per million to the disease (as of 17 April, and thus including the 1290 uplift announced that day), whereas the USA has reported deaths of 8.38 per 100,000 (as of that date); moreover, China’s figures seem to have stabilised, whereas those for the USA continue to increase rapidly.[vi]  These differences are not only very significant in human terms, but they also reflect a fundamental challenge in the relative significance of the individual and the community in US and Chinese society.

Few apart from hardline Republicans in the USA now doubt the failure of the Trump regime politically, socially, economically and culturally. This has been exacerbated by the US government’s failure to manage Covid-19 effectively (even worse than the UK government’s performance), and its insistent antagonism towards China through its deeply problematic trade-war[vii] even before the outbreak of the present coronavirus. Anti-Chinese rhetoric in the USA is but a symptom of the realisation of the country’s fundamental economic and policial weaknesses in the 21st century.   President Trump’s persistent use of the term “Chinese virus” instead of Covid-19[viii] is also just a symptom of a far deeper malaise.   Trump is sadly not the problem; the problem is the people and system that enabled him to come to power and in whose interests he is trying to serve (alongside his own).  China seems likely to come out of the Covid-19 crisis much stronger than will the USA.[ix]

Whether people like it or not, and despite cries from the western bourgeoisie that it is unfair, and that the Chinese have lied about the extent of Covid-19 in their own country in its early stages, this is the reality.  China is the dominant world power today, let alone tomorrow.

An ever more digital world

https://www.forbes.com/sites/columbiabusinessschool/2020/04/21/how-covid-19-will-accelerate-a-digital-therapeutics-revolution/

Source: Forbes.com

The digital technology sector is already the biggest winner from Covid-19.  Everyone with access, knowledge and ability to pay for connectivity and digital devices has turned to digital technologies to continue with their work, maintain social contacts, and find entertainment during the lockdowns that have covered about one-third of the world’s population by mid-April.[x]  Those who previously rarely used such technologies, have overnight been forced to use them for everything from buying food online, to maintaining contacts with relatives and friends.

There is little evidence that the tech sector was prepared for such a windfall in the latter part of 2019,[xi] but major corporations and start-ups alike have all sought to exploit its benefits as quickly as possible in the first few months of 2020, as testified by the plethora of announcements claiming how various technologies can win the fight against Covid-19.[xii]

One particularly problematic outcome has been the way in which digital tech champions and activists have all sought to develop new solutions to combat Covid-19.  While sometimes this is indeed well intended, more often than not it is primarily so that they can benefit from funding that is made available for such activities by governments and donors, or primarily to raise the individual or corporate profile of those involved.  For them, Covid-19 is a wonderful business opportunity.  Sadly, many such initiatives will fail to deliver appropriate solutions, will be implemented after Covid-19 has dissipated, and on some occasions will even do more harm than good.[xiii]

There are many paradoxes and tensions in this dramatically increased role of digital technology after Covid-19. Two are of particular interest.  First, many people who are self-isolating or social distancing are beginning to crave real, physical human contact, and are realising that communicating only over the Internet is insufficiently fulfilling.  This might offer some hope for the future of those who still believe in the importance of non-digitally mediated human interaction, although I suspect that such concerns may only temporarily delay our demise into a world of cyborgs.[xiv] Second, despite the ultimate decline in the US economy and political power noted above, US corporations have been very well placed to benefit from the immediate impact of Covid-19, featuring in prominent initiatives such as UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition,[xv] or the coalition of pharmaceutical companies brought together by the Gates Foundation.[xvi]

Whatever the precise details, it is an absolute certainty that the dominance of digital technologies in everyone’s lives will increase very dramatically following Covid-19 and this will be exploited by those intent on reaping the profits from such expansion in their own interests.

Increasing acceptance of surveillance by states and companies: the end of privacy as we know it.

https://www.wired.com/story/phones-track-spread-covid19-good-idea/

Source: Wired.com

A third, related, global impact of Covid-19 will be widely increased global acceptance of the roles of states and companies in digital surveillance.  Already, before 2020, there was a growing, albeit insufficient, debate about the ethics of digital surveillance by states over issues such as crime and “terrorism”, and its implications for privacy.[xvii]  However, some states, such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Israel, have already used digital technologies and big data analytics extensively and apparently successfully in monitoring and tracking the spread of Covid-19,[xviii] and other coalitions of states and the private sector are planning to encourage citizens to sign up to having fundamental aspects of what has previously been considered to be their private and personal health information made available to unknown others.[xix]

One problem with such technologies is that they require substantial numbers of people to sign up to and then use them.  In more authoritarian states where governments can make such adherence obligatory by imposing severe penalties for failure to do so, they do indeed appear to be able to contribute to reduction in the spread of Covid-19 in the interests of the wider community.  However, in more liberal democratic societies, which place the individual about the community in importance, it seems less likely that they will be acceptable.

Despite such concerns, the growing evidence promoted by the companies that are developing them that such digital technologies can indeed contribute to enhanced public health will serve as an important factor in breaking down public resistance to the use of surveillance technologies and big data analytics.  Once again, this will ultimately serve the interest of those who already have greater political and economic power than it will the interests of the most marginalised.

Online shopping and the redesign of urban centres.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/coronavirus-herd-immunity-meaning-definition-what-vaccine-immune-covid-19-a9397871.html

Source: Independent.co.uk

Self-isolation and social distancing have led to the dramatic emptying of towns and cities across the world.  Businesses that have been unable to adapt to online trading have overnight been pushed into a critical survival situation, with governments in many of the richer countries of the world being “forced” to offer them financial bail-outs to help them weather the storm.  Unfortunately, most of this money is going to be completely wasted and will merely create huge national debts for years into the future.  People who rarely before used online shopping are now doing so because they believe that no other method of purchasing goods is truly safe.

The new reality will be that most people will have become so used to online shopping that they are unlikely to return in the future to traditional shopping outlets. Companies that have been unable to adjust to the new reality will fail.  The character of our inner-city areas will change beyond recognition.  This is a huge opportunity for the re-design of urban areas in creative, safe and innovative ways.  Already, the environmental impact of a reduction in transport and pollution has been widely seen; wildlife is enjoying a bonanza; people are realising that their old working and socialising patterns may not have been as good as they once thought.[xx]  Unfortunately, it is likely that this opportunity may not be fully grasped, and instead governments that lack leadership and vision will instead seek to prop up backward-looking institutions, companies and organisations, intent on preserving infrastructure and economic activities that are unfit for purpose in the post-pandemic world.  Such a mentality will lead to urban decay and ghettoization, where people will fear to tread, and there is a real danger of a downward spiral of urban deprivation.

There are, though, many bright signs of innovation and creativity for those willing to do things differently.  Shops and restaurants that have been able to find efficient trustworthy drivers are now offering new delivery services; students are able to draw on the plethora of online courses now available; new forms of communal activity are flourishing; and most companies are realising that they don’t actually need to spend money on huge office spaces, but can exploit their labour even more effectively by enabling them to work from home.

We must see the changes brought about by responses to Covid-19 as important opportunities to build for the future, and to create human-centred urban places that are also sensitive to the natural environments in which they are located.

Increasing global inequalities

https://gulfnews.com/photos/news/indian-migrants-forced-to-walk-home-amid-covid-19-lockdown-1.1585394226024?slide=2

Source: Gulfnews.com

The net outcome of the above four trends will lead inexorably to a fifth, and deeply concerning issue: the world will become an even more unequal place, where those who can adapt and survive will flourish, but where the most vulnerable and marginalised will become even more immiserated.

This is already all too visible.  Migrant workers are being ostracised, and further marginalised.[xxi]  In India, tens of thousands of labourers are reported to have left the cities, many of them walking home hundreds of kilometres to their villages.[xxii] In China, Africans are reported as being subjected to racist prejudice, being refused service in shops and evicted from their residences.[xxiii]  In the UK, many food banks have had to close and it is reported that about 1.5. million people a day are going without food.[xxiv]  The World Bank is reporting that an extra 40-50 million people across the world will be forced into poverty by Covid-19, especially in Africa.[xxv]  People with disabilities have become even more forgotten and isolated.[xxvi]  The list of immediate crises grows by the day.

More worrying still is that there is no certainty that these short-term impacts will immediately bounce-back once the pandemic has passed.  It seems at least as likely that many of the changes will have become so entrenched that aspects of living under Covid-19 will become the new norm.  Once again, those able to benefit from the changes will flourish, but the uneducated, those with disabilities, the ethnic minorities, people living in isolated areas, refugees, and women in patriarchal societies are all likely to find life much tougher in 2021 and 2022 even than they do at present.   Much of this rising inequality is being caused, as noted above, by the increasing role that digital technologies are playing in people’s lives.  Those who have access and can afford to use the Internet can use it for shopping, employment, entertainment, learning, and indeed most aspects of their lives.  Yet only 59% of the world’s population are active Internet users.[xxvii]

Looking positively to the future.

People will respond in different ways to these likely trends over the next few years, but we will all need to learn to live together in a world where:

  • China is the global political economic power,
  • Our lives will become ever more rapidly experienced and mediated through digital technology,
  • Our traditional views of privacy are replaced by a world of surveillance,
  • Our towns and cities have completely different functions and designs, and
  • There is very much greater inequality in terms of opportunities and life experiences.

In dealing with these changes, it is essential to remain positive; to see Covid-19 as an opportunity to make the world a better place for everyone to live in, rather than just as a threat of further pain, misery and death, or an opportunity for a few to gain unexpected windfall opportunities to become even richer.  Six elements would seem to be important in seeking to ensure that as many people as possible can indeed flourish once the immediate Covid-19 pandemic has dissipated:

  • First, these predictions should encourage all of us to prioritise more on enhancing the lives of the poorest and the most marginalised, than on ensuring economic growth that mainly benefits the rich and privileged. This applies at all scales, from designing national health and education services, to providing local, community level care provision.
  • This requires an increased focus on negotiating communal oriented initiatives and activities rather than letting the greed and selfishness of individualism continue to rule the roost.
  • Third, it is essential that we use this as an opportunity to regain our physical sentient humanity, and reject the aspirations of those who wish to create a world that is only experienced and mediated through digital technology. We need to regain our very real experiences of each other and the world in which we live through our tastes, smells, the sounds we hear, the touches we feel, and the sights we see.
  • Fourth, it seems incredibly important that we create a new global political order safely to manage a world in which China replaces the USA as the dominant global power. The emergence of new political counterbalances, at a regional level as with Europe, South Asia, Africa and Latin America seems to be a very important objective that remains to be realised.  Small states that choose to remain isolated, however arrogant they are about the “Great”ness of their country, will become ever more vulnerable to the vagaries of economic, political and demographic crisis.
  • Fifth, we need to capitalise on the environmental impact of Covid-19 rapidly to shape a world of which we are but a part, and in which we care for and co-operate with the rich diversity of plant and animal life that enjoys the physical richness of our planet. This will require a comprehensive and rigorous evaluation of the harm caused to our world by the design and use of digital technologies.[xxviii]
  • Finally, we need to agree communally on the extent to which individual privacy matters, and whether we are happy to live in a world of omnipresent surveillance by companies (enabling them to reap huge profits from our selves as data) and governments (to maintain their positions of power, authority and dominance). This must not be imposed on us by powerful others.  It is of paramount importance that there is widespread informed public and communal discussion about the future of surveillance in a post-Covid-19 era.

I trust that these comments will serve to provoke and challenge much accepted dogma and practice.  Above all, let’s try to think of others more than we do ourselves, let’s promote the reduction of inequality over increases in economic growth, and let’s enjoy  an integral, real and care-filled engagement with the non-human natural world.


Notes:

[i] For current figures see https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ and https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6, although all data related with this coronavirus must be treated with great caution; see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/04/11/data-and-the-scandal-of-the-uks-covid-19-survival-rate/

[ii] Modi’s hasty coronavirus lockdown of India leaves many fearful for what comes next, https://time.com/5812394/india-coronavirus-lockdown-modi/

[iii] Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter and Square, might well be an exception with his $1 billion donation to support Covid-19 relief and other charities; see https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/7/21212766/jack-dorsey-coronavirus-covid-19-donate-relief-fund-square-twitter

[iv] See, for example, discussion in Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  I appreciate that such arguments infuriate many people living in the USA,

[v] See, for example, George Parker’s, We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken, The Atlantic, June 2020 (preview) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/.

[vi] Based on figures from https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ on 15th April 2020.  For comparison, Spain had 39.74 reported deaths per 100,000, Italy 35.80, and the UK 18.96.

[vii] There are many commentaries on this, but The Wall Street Journal’s account on 9 February 2020 https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-china-trade-war-reshaped-global-commerce-11581244201 is useful, as is the Pietersen Institute’s timeline https://www.piie.com/blogs/trade-investment-policy-watch/trump-trade-war-china-date-guide.

[viii] For a good account of his use of language see Eren Orbey’s comment in The New Yorker, Trump’s “Chinese virus” and what’s at stake in the coronovirus’s name,  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/whats-at-stake-in-a-viruss-name

[ix] China’s massive long-term strategic investments across the world, not least through its 一带一路 (Belt and Road) initiative, have placed it in an extremely strong position to reap the benefits of its revitalised economy from 2021 onwards (for a good summary of this initiative written in January 2020 see https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative)

[x] Kaplan, J., Frias, L. and McFall-Johnsen, M., A third of the global population is on coronavirus lockdown…, https://www.businessinsider.com/countries-on-lockdown-coronavirus-italy-2020-3?r=DE&IR=T

[xi] This is despite conspiracy theorists arguing that those who were going to gain most from Covid-19 especially in the digital tech and pharmaceutical industry had been active in promoting global fear of the coronavirus, or worse still had actually engineered it for their advantage.  See, for example, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/17/technology/bill-gates-virus-conspiracy-theories.html, or Thomas Ricker, Bill Gates is now the leading target for Coronavirus falsehoods, says report, https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/17/21224728/bill-gates-coronavirus-lies-5g-covid-19 .

[xii] See, for example, Shah, H. and Kumar, K., Ten digital technologies helping humans in the fight against Covid-19, Frost and Sullivan, https://ww2.frost.com/frost-perspectives/ten-digital-technologies-helping-humans-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, Gergios Petropolous, Artificial interlligence in the fight against COVID-19, Bruegel, https://www.bruegel.org/2020/03/artificial-intelligence-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, or Beech, P., These new gadgets were designed to fight COVID-19, World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-covid19-pandemic-gadgets-innovation-technology/. It is also important to note that the notion of “fighting” the coronavirus is also deeply problematic.

[xiii] For my much more detailed analysis of these issues, see Tim Unwin (26 March 2020), collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response/

[xiv] For more on this see Tim Unwin (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press, and for a brief comment https://unwin.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/dehumanization-cyborgs-and-the-internet-of-things/.

[xv] Although, significantly, Chinese companies are also involved; see https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/globalcoalition

[xvi] For the work of the Gates Foundation and US pharmaceutical companies in fighting Covid-19 https://www.outsourcing-pharma.com/Article/2020/03/27/Bill-Gates-big-pharma-collaborate-on-COVID-19-treatments

[xvii] There is a huge literature, both academic and policy related, on this, but see for example OCHCR (2014) Online mass-surveillance: “Protect right to privacy even when countering terrorism” – UN expert, https://www.ohchr.org/SP/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15200&LangID=E; Privacy International, Scrutinising the global counter-terrorism agenda, https://privacyinternational.org/campaigns/scrutinising-global-counter-terrorism-agenda; Simon Hale-Ross (2018) Digital Privacy, Terrorism and Law Enforcement: the UK’s Response to Terrorist Communication, London: Routledge; and Lomas, N. (2020) Mass surveillance for national security does conflict with EU privacy rights, court advisor suggests, TechCrunch, https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/15/mass-surveillance-for-national-security-does-conflict-with-eu-privacy-rights-court-advisor-suggests/.

[xviii] Kharpal, A. (26 March 2020) Use of surveillance to fight coronavirus raised c oncenrs about government power after pandemic ends, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/27/coronavirus-surveillance-used-by-governments-to-fight-pandemic-privacy-concerns.html; but see also more critical comments about the efficacy of such systems as by Vaughan, A. (17 April 2020) There are many reasons why Covid-19 contact-tracing apps may not work, NewScientist, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2241041-there-are-many-reasons-why-covid-19-contact-tracing-apps-may-not-work/

[xix] There are widely differing views as to the ethics of this.  See, for example, Article 19 (2 April 2020) Coronavirus: states use of digital surveillance technologies to fight pandemic must respect human rights, https://www.article19.org/resources/covid-19-states-use-of-digital-surveillance-technologies-to-fight-pandemic-must-respect-human-rights/ ; McDonald, S. (30 March 2020) The digital response to the outbreak of Covid-19, https://www.cigionline.org/articles/digital-response-outbreak-covid-19. See also useful piece by Arcila (2020) for ICT4Peace on “A human-centric framework to evaluate the risks raised by contact-tracing applications” https://mcusercontent.com/e58ea7be12fb998fa30bac7ac/files/07a9cd66-0689-44ff-8c4f-6251508e1e48/Beatriz_Botero_A_Human_Rights_Centric_Framework_to_Evaluate_the_Security_Risks_Raised_by_Contact_Tracing_Applications_FINAL_BUA_6.pdf.pdf

[xx] See, for example, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200326-covid-19-the-impact-of-coronavirus-on-the-environment, https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/the-environmental-impact-of-covid-19/ss-BB11JxGv?li=BBoPWjQ, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/life-after-coronavirus-pandemic-change-world, and https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-affecting-co2-emissions/.

[xxi] See The Guardian (23 April 2020) ‘We’re in a prison’: Singapore’s million migrant workers suffer as Covid-19 surges back, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/23/singapore-million-migrant-workers-suffer-as-covid-19-surges-back

[xxii] Al Jazeera (6 April 2020) India: Coronavirus lockdown sees exodus from cities, https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2020/04/india-coronavirus-lockdown-sees-exodus-cities-200406104405477.html.

[xxiii] Financial Times (13th April) China-Africa relations rocked by alleged racism over Covid-19, https://www.ft.com/content/48f199b0-9054-4ab6-aaad-a326163c9285

[xxiv] Global Citizen (22 April 2020) Covid-19 Lockdowns are sparking a hunger crisis in the UK, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/covid-19-food-poverty-rising-in-uk/

[xxv] Mahler, D.G., Lakner, C., Aguilar, R.A.C. and Wu, H. (20 April 2020) The impact of Covid-19 (Coronavirus) on global poverty: why Sub-Saharan Africa might be the region hardest hit, World Bank Blogs, https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/impact-covid-19-coronavirus-global-poverty-why-sub-saharan-africa-might-be-region-hardest

[xxvi] Bridging the Gap (2020) The impact of Covid-19 on persons with disabilities, https://bridgingthegap-project.eu/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-people-with-disabilities/

[xxvii] Statista (Januarv 2020) https://www.statista.com/statistics/269329/penetration-rate-of-the-internet-by-region/

[xxviii] For a wider discussion of the negative environmental impacts of climate change see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/digital-technologies-and-climate-change/.

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Interview with Teledifusão de Macau on ICT4D

It was so good to be in Macau and Shenzhen recently in my role as a member of the Advisory Board of the United Nations University Computing and Society Institute.  During my visit, colleagues at the Institute had arranged for me to participate in Teledifusão de Macau (TDM)’s prime time Talk Show with Kelsey Wilhelm.  This was a great opportunity to share some of my current thinking about the interface between digital technologies and humans, and Kelsey made sure that it was a lively and fun half hour discussion – really grateful to him for this!

The show is now available on YouTube, and begins with an overview of the current state of ICT for development, before going on to discuss

  • ways through which people with disabilities can be empowered through the use of technology,
  • the importance of new technologies being inclusive, because otherwise they lead to new inequalities,
  • working “with” the poorest and most marginalised rather than for them,
  • the role of new technologies such as AI and blockchain in serving the interests of the rich rather than the poor,
  • cyborgs and the creation of machine-humans and human-machines, and finally
  • some of the ethical issues that need to be discussed if we are to balance the benefits of new technologies whilst limiting their harm.

I very much hope that what I have to say is thought-provoking and interesting.  We need much wider public debate on these issues!

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Filed under ICT4D, Inequality, poverty, United Nations, Universities

ICTs and the failure of the SDGs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under ICT4D, ICTs, SDGs, United Nations

EQUALS Research Group Meeting in Macau

EQUALS 5is a global initiative committed to achieving gender equality in the digital age.  Its founding partners are the ITU, UN Women, UNU Computing and Society (UNU-CS) institute, the International Trade Centre, and the GSMA, and it has been a real privilege to work with colleagues from these organisations and other partners over the last 18 months to try to help forge this partnership to reduce the inequalities between men and women in the digital age.   There are three partner Coalitions within EQUALS: for Skills (led by GIZ and UNESCO); Access (led by the GSMA); and Leadership (led by the ITC).  These are supported by a Research Group, led by the UNU-CS. The picture above shows the first Principals meeting held in September 2017 at the edges of the UN General Assembly in New York.

Despite all of the efforts to achieve increasing female participation in STEM subjects, in employment and leadership positions in the ICT sector, and in the use of ICTs to help towards women’s empowerment, most of the indicators show that gender digital inequality is increasing.  At the broadest level, this means that most of the initiatives undertaken to date to reduce these inequalities have failed.  Business as usual is therefore not an option, and the EQUALS partnership is intended to encourage committed partners to work together in new ways, and on new initiatives, to help deliver Sustainable Development Goal 5,  to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. 

The first face-to-face physical (rather than virtual) meeting of the Research Group was convened by the UNU-CS in Macau from 5th-6th December (official press release), and it was great that both Liz Quaglia and I were able to represent the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D (at Royal Holloway, University of London) at this meeting, which was attended by researchers and policymakers from 21 universities and organizations around the world. This meeting established the group’s research agenda, drafted its work plan for 2018, and finalized the content and schedule of its inaugural report due to be published in mid-2018.  In particular, it provided a good opportunity for researchers to help shape the three Coalitions’ thinking around gender and equality in the  areas of skills, access and leadership, and also to identify ways through which they could contribute new research to enable the coalitions to be evidence-led in their activities.

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Huge thanks are due to Araba Sey, who convened the meeting with amazing enthusiasm, insight and professionalism, and all of the other staff at UNU-CS who contributed so much to the meeting.  It was a great occasion when some of the world’s leading researchers in gender and ICTs could meet together, not only to discuss EQUALS, but also to explore other areas of related research, and to build the trust and openness necessary to increase gender equality both in the field of ICTs, and also through the ways that ICTs influence every aspect of people’s lives.  The BBQ and dancing on the last night ensured that memories of this event will last for a long time in everyone’s minds!

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Filed under Gender, ICT4D, ICTs, Inequality, ITU, United Nations, Universities

“Reclaiming ICT4D” – conclusion to the first chapter

1.4I 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.”

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Filed under Development, ICT4D, ICTs, Inequality

Information and communication technologies: resolving inequalities?

It was great to be invited to give a lecture in the Societat Catalana de Geografia in Barcelona on the subject of “Information and Communication Technologies: resolving inequalities?” on Tuesday 4th October in the Ciclo de Conferencias Programa Jean Monnet convened by my great friend Prof. Jordi Marti Henneberg on the theme of Los Desafîos de lintegración Europea.  This was such an honour, especially since I had the privilege of following the former President of the European Union Josep Borrell’s excellent lecture earlier in the day on El Brexit y sus consequencias en la goberabilidad de la Unión Europea.

lectureThis was an opportunity for me to explore the relevance to the European context of some of my ideas about ICTs and inequality gleaned from research and practice in Africa and Asia.  In essence, my argument was that we need to balance the economic growth agenda with much greater focus on using ICTs to reduce inequalities if we are truly to use ICTs to support greater European integration.  To do this, I concluded by suggesting  that we need to concentrate on seven key actions:

  • working with the poor rather than for the poor
  • pro-poor technological innovation – not the “next billion” but the “first” billion
  • governments have a  key role to play through the use of regulation as facilitation in the interests of the poor and marginalised
  • crafting of appropriate multi-sector partnerships
  • managing security and resilience against the dark side
  • enhancing learning and understanding, both within governments and by individuals
  • working with the most disadvantaged, people with disabilities, street children, and women in patriarchal societies

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Filed under Europe, ICT4D, ICTs, Inequality, Uncategorized