Tag Archives: UN

COP 27, loss and damage, and the reality of Carbon emissions

The soundbites from the widely acclaimed success of COP 27, especially around the creation of a loss and damage fund (see UNCC Introduction to loss and damage), made me look once more at the realities of global CO2 emissions to see which countries are actually generating the most CO2, which are improving their performance, and which are suffering most. Sadly, this only made me appreciate yet again that the over-simplifications that occur during so many UN gatherings such as COP appear to be more about political correctness and claiming success than they do about developing real solutions to some of the most difficult challenges facing the world.

COP 27 closing ceremony https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/11/1130832

The UN Climate Press Release on 20 November summarised the outcomes relating to the fund as follows: “Governments took the ground-breaking decision to establish new funding arrangements, as well as a dedicated fund, to assist developing countries in responding to loss and damage… Parties also agreed on the institutional arrangements to operationalize the Santiago Network for Loss and Damage, to catalyze technical assistance to developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change”.

Unfortunately, it is not quite as easy as it might seem to validate the claim underlying this that it is the rich countries who do most of the pollution and should therefore compensate the poor countries where the most harmful damages from CO2 occur (see, for example, ThePrint, India; UN News, noting that “Developing countries made strong and repeated appeals for the establishment of a loss and damage fund, to compensate the countries that are the most vulnerable to climate disasters, yet who have contributed little to the climate crisis”; and BBC News, A historic deal has been struck at the UN’s COP27 summit that will see rich nations pay poorer countries for the damage and economic losses caused by climate change”). How should it be decided, for example, which countries should be donors to this fund, and which should be beneficiaries from it? Pakistan, which led much of the discussion around the need for richer countries to fund the poorer ones, was actually the 27th largest global emitter of CO2 in 2019; China was the largest contributor, and India the 3rd largest.

The Table below, drawing on World Bank data (2022), gives the various rankings of the top 30 countries in terms of CO2 emissions per capita in 2019, and CO2 total emissions in 1990 and 2019, as well as the change in ranking of the latter two columns.

RankCountryCO2 metric tons per capita 2019CountryCO2 total emissions kt 1990CountryCO2 total emissions kt 2019Change in rank 1990-2019
1Qatar32.474United States4844520China10707219.7+1
2Kuwait22.022China2173360United States4817720.21-1
3Bahrain20.266Russian Federation2163530India2456300.05+4
4United Arab Emirates19.330Japan1090530Russian Federation1703589.97-1
5Brunei Darussalam16.132Germany955310Japan1081569.95-1
6Canada15.431Ukraine688620Germany657400.024-1
7Luxembourg15.306India563580Iran, Islamic Rep.630010.01+12
8Saudi Arabia15.285United Kingdom561770Indonesia619840.027+16
9Oman15.282Canada538661Korea, Rep.610789.978+6
10Australia15.238Italy532860Canada580210.022-1
11United States14.673France356240Saudi Arabia523780.029+11
12Palau13.888Poland350210Mexico449269.989+2
13Trinidad and Tobago12.323Mexico269580South Africa439640.015+3
14Turkmenistan12.263Australia263630Brazil434299.988+6
15Korea, Rep.11.799Korea, Rep.247680Turkiye396839.996+11
16Russian Federation11.797South Africa247660Australia386529.999-2
17Kazakhstan11.457Kazakhstan237250United Kingdom348920.013-9
18Czechia9.820Spain214950Vietnam336489.99+59
19Japan8.541Iran, Islamic Rep.198470Italy317239.99-8
20Netherlands8.504Brazil197900France300519.989-9
21Libya8.381Romania172630Poland295130.005-9
22Singapore8.307Saudi Arabia171410Thailand267089.996+11
23Belgium8.096Czechia150200Malaysia253270.004+23
24Malaysia7.927Indonesia148530Egypt, Arab Rep.249369.995+10
25Germany7.912Netherlands148380Spain239979.996-7
26Poland7.774Turkiye139200Kazakhstan212110.001-9
27Estonia7.672Korea, DPR123330Pakistan190570.007+15
28China7.606Uzbekistan117770United Arab Emirates188860.001+16
29Iran, Islamic Rep.7.598Belgium109310Ukraine174729.996-22
30South Africa7.508Venezuela, RB101630Iraq174559.998+9

Many important observations can be made from these figures, and I highlight just a few below:

Per capita emissions

  • The highest per capita emitters are generally those in countries with recently developed hydrocarbon-based economies, such as Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Brunei Darussalam, and generally not in the old rich industrial economies of Europe.
  • Surprisingly, quite a few European countries such as the UK, Denmark and Spain (ranked 52nd-54th) actually lie well outside the top 30 highest emitters
  • The twelve lowest per capita emitters for which data are available (not shown here) are all African countries.
  • There are many fewer countries above the world average, at 4.47 metric tons per capita (which would rank 61st) and many more ranked beneath it, implying that the highest emitters are much higher than the lowest are low: Qatar at 32.47, has 28 metric tons per person more than the average; yet, 55 countries have emissions per capita of <1 metric ton.

Total emissions

  • 60% of total CO2 emission are generated by people living in five countries (China, 31.18%, the United States 14.03%, India 7.15%, the Russian Federation 7.15%, and Japan 3.15%). Eleven further countries, all producing more than 350,000 kt CO2 annually account for a further 16.68% of emissions. More than three-quarters of emissions in 2019 were therefore from people in just 16 countries.
  • Those countries with the lowest total emissions are nearly all small island states (SIDS; not shown in the Table), but note that these were not necessarily the lowest per capita emitters.
  • The changes in total emissions since 1990 are also very interesting. The highest increases within the top 30 were Indonesia (+16) and Iran (+12), although much higher risers came into the top 30 from below, including Vietnam (+59), Malaysia (+23), UAE (+16) and Pakistan (+15).

These data do not make easy reading for policy makers, campaigners and the UN system as a whole, all of whom like to have simple answers and short soundbites. The world is unfortunately too complex and messy for these. As the world’s popultion passes 8 billion (2.8 times what it was when I was born), population growth is the dominant factor in determining total country-based emissions, but economic growth (following the US-led carbon-based capitalist mode of production) has also played a significant part. The big risers in total emissions are countries with large populations and/or with high economic growth rates over the last 30 years. Neither of these should be surprising. Poor countries, with low economic growth and relatively small populations are never likely to be amongst the largest consumers of energy. Overall, the biggest factor determining total CO2 emissions over the last century, and especially in the last 50 years, has been human population growth (see my recent post on “climate change”). Moreover, there has for long been an intricate and complex relationships between humans and carbon: the carbon cycle and the production of oxygen are essential for human life, and our economic systems have also been driven by carbon as a fuelfor centuries. These complexities make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to argue that we need to create two groups of countries: one being the recipients of funding (from a loss and damage financial facility), and the other being contributors to it. Instead, we need to work collaboratively together to transform the underying factors causing environmental change, of which CO2 emissions are actually only but a small part.

That is not, though, to say that there should not be much greater global effort to work together to resolve the environmental problems caused by our centuries old carbon-based economy (as well as those caused by so-called renewable energy). It is also completely separate from moral arguments suggesting that there should be a shift in wealth distribution from the rich to the poor. However, these should not be conflated into over-simplistic statements and assertions about responsibililty for climate change, such as those being promoted by UN agencies and mainstream media at the end of COP 27. It is also to reassert that we need to work together with renewed vigour collaboratively across sectors and disciplines to understand better the complex interactions that humans have with the environments in which we live, and then to make wise decisions how to implement them in the interests of all the world’s peoples and not just those of the rich and privileged parts of the world.

The above draft was written on 21 November 2022 (and has been revised slightly subsequently)


In response to the above, Olof Hesselmark kindly asked why I had not added further details also about the spatial distribution of CO2 emissions – something that as a geographer I care greatly about! I responded that I hadn’t wanted to complicate matters further, but also that I guess it was because I am aware in my own mind of these spatial distributions, and the country names (and sizes) are in-built into my consciousness! However, they do add an important additional element of complexity to the discussion, and I am delighted that he has agreed for me to add his slightly cropped map of CO2 emissions per sq km below:

I’m not entirely sure which projection this is, but my preference for such maps is Eckert IV, or other equal area projections such as Gall-Peters or Mollweide that place less visual emphasis on the apparent size of countries in high latitudes. This map nevertheless highlights the varying densities of emissions, with China, Europe and the USA being high, and Africa and Latin America being low. It should also be emphasised that there are enormous differences within countries, as well as between them, with urban-industrial environments generally being much higher in their CO2 emissions than sparsely settled rural ones.

A different perspective once again is thus from the Smithsonian Magazine‘s 2009s map below (carbon emissions from 1997-2010), which does indeed show how a very few areas contribute the largest amount of CO2 emissions.

Update 22 November 2022

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“Climate Change” and Digital Technologies: redressing the balance of power (Part 1)

The Andes from the air between Santiago and Mendoza

“Climate change” causes nothing! Yes, read that again, “climate change” causes nothing. It is a result, not a cause. Yet, as delegates at COP27 continue to bemoan the impacts of climate change, promote ways of limiting carbon emissions, and redress the global balance of power and responsibility – as well as enjoying themselves, feeling important, serving their own interests, and basking in the glory of greenwashing (at last there is something on which I can agree with Greta Thunberg about!) – the adverse environmental impacts of digital technologies go almost un-noticed.

This series of three posts seeks to redress this balance, and argues for a fundamentally new approach to understanding and trying to improve the impacts of digital technologies on the environment. It situates the climate change rhetoric within the wider context of human impact on the environment (of which climate is but one element). The first of these posts provides a critique of much of the rhetoric concerning climate change, the second articulates the case for a new approach to understanding the relationships between digital tech and the environment, and the third provides positive suggestions for the next steps that need to be taken if we are indeed to use digital tech wisely to help manage our human relationships with the environment. Throughout it emphasises the need to understand the interests underlying the present rhetoric and practice around the interactions between digital tech, climate change and the environment.

The rhetoric of climate change: itself part of the problem

Changes in the earth’s climate are very real, and have existed since long before humans could appreciate them. The dramatic impact of humans on the world’s weather patterns and climate that have occurred over the last century, though, have only really been recognised and appreciated more widely in the last 40 years, in large part as a result of the dramatic increase in funding given to scientists working in this field. Climate activism and the UN’s interest in appearing to try to do something about it are relatively recent phenomena (the first COP meeting was held as late as 1995). It is fascinating to recall that ground-breaking works in the 1960s and early 1970s about human impact on the environment, such as Rachel Carson’s (1962) Silent Spring, and the Club of Rome’s (1972) Limits to Growth report, focused on a much more holistic view that paid surprisingly little explicit attention to climate. Five key inter-related concerns with the current dominant rhetoric about “climate change” can be teased out from these basic observations.

Over-simplified rhetoric of “Climate change” hides the significance of human impact

The term “climate change” has become so bowdlerized that is has lost any real value. At best, in common parlance it can be interpreted as being a shortened form of “human induced climate change”, but this shortening hides the fundamental importance of “people” as being the main cause of the changes in climate and weather patterns that are being experienced across the world. The expression “climate change” is actually just a collective observation of a series of aggregated changes in weather patterns across the world. It has no explanatory or causative power of its own. It is we humans who are causing fundamental changes to the environment, and these go far beyond just climate. We still know far too little about the complex interactions between different aspects of the world’s ecosystems to be able to predict how these will evolve with any real certainty. “Keep it Simple Stupid”(KISS) quite simply does not work when discussing human induced climate change.

Externalising “climate change”

The use of the term “climate change” also has much more subtle and malign implications, because it externalises our understanding of impacts and thus the actions that the global community (and every one of us living on this planet) need to take. Rather than human actions being seen as the fundamental cause that they are, externalising the idea of “climate change” as a cause means that the focus is subtly turned to finding ways to limit “climate change” rather than actually to change our underlying human behaviours. The classic instance of this is the focus on reducing carbon emissions by developing renewable energy sources – without actually changing our consumption patterns. The very considerable emphasis within the digital tech community on reducing its own carbon emissions and inventing ways through which digital tech can be used to contribute to “green energy” (typified by the ITU’s emphasis thereon) is but one example of this (see further in Part 2). Moreover, at a very basic level, the emphasis on carbon although important, has tended to reduce the attention paid to other contributors to global warming, such as Nitrous Oxide (N2O) which has a Global Warming Potential (GWP) 273 times that of CO2, or Methane (CH4) which has a GWP of 27-30 times, for a 100-year timescale (USA EPA, 2022).

The focus on climate means that wider environmental impacts tend to be ignored

Focusing on “climate change” in general, and rising temperatures (global warming) in particular, has had a very serious negative impact on the ways in which other environmental parameters are considered and affected. In essence, “climate impact” often trumps most other environmental considerations, even when at a local scale other environmental impacts may actually be very much more serious. In reality, climate is but a part of the wider interconnected world in which we live, and for a more sustainable future it is essential to adopt a comprehensive ecosystem approach to understanding the full environmental impacts of any intervention. But one example of this is the way that batteries are now required to store “renewable” energy from solar panels or wind turbines, and the resultant serious environmental degradation caused by mining for lithium in Chile, Australia, Argentina and China (note too that total global reserves of lithium in 2018 were only 165 times the annual production volume, and demand is increasing rapidly).

Sustainable development, climate change and economic growth.

I have long argued that the term “sustainable development” is a contradiction in terms, and that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) alongside the UN’s Agenda 2030 are deeply flawed, not only in implementation but also in design (see Unwin, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2021 and 2022). In essence, while development is largely defined in terms of economic growth, it is difficult to see how it can be compatible with sustainability when defined as the maintenance of valued entities. A deep flaw in much of the global “climate change” rhetoric about the use of renewable technologies to replace energy based on hydrocarbons is that it still tends to be combined with an economic growth agenda based on technical innovation. It does little, if anything at all, about changing global consumption patterns, the “perpetual growth” model, and the underlying capitalist mode of production (see Unwin, 2019). Indeed, elsewhere, I have often reflected on what a “no-growth” model of society might look like.

One of the core problems with the dominant global rhetoric around climate change (as expressed particularly in COP27, but also in much popular activist protest) is that it does not sufficiently tackle the fundamental challenge of population growth and increased consumption. The two simplified graphs below illustrate the scale of this basic problem.

The broad similarity in these two curves is striking. More than anything else, it has been the overall global growth in population over the last two centuries, enabled in large part by the enterprise associated with the individualistically based capitalist mode of production that has driven the environmental crisis of which “climate change” is but a part. The controversial film Planet of the Humans (Produced by Michael Moore) makes similar arguments, and it is unfortunate that its many critics have tended to focus more on some of its undoubtedly problematic points of detail rather than the crucial message of its overall argument (see Moore on Rising). The “capture”of the UN system by global corporations, exemplified by the large numbers of business leaders attending COP27, seems to confirm one of Moore’s core arguments that these companies are now driving much of the climate change agenda.

If the world’s peoples really want to “mitigate the effects of climate change”, there needs to be a dramatically more radical change to our social, cultural, political and economic systems than has heretofore been imagined, and this needs to begin with a shift to more communal rather than individualistic systems, a focus on reducing inequalities rather than maximising economic growth, and the crafting of a more holistic approach to environmental issues rather than one primarily focussing on carbon reduction to “solve” “climate change”.

Who benefits most: understanding the interests behind “climate change” rhetoric

Social movements, economic practices, cultural behaviours and political systems do not just happen, they are created by those who have interests in making them happen and the power to do so. This is as true of the “climate change” rhetoric and movement as it is of any other. Five particular groups of people have shaped and sought to take advantage of this. First, have been the scientists who have believed in the importance of this issue and have sought to build their careers around it. Academic careers are not neutral, and the story of how they built coalitions and peer networks, influenced research councils and political groups, and helped to forge a global “climate change” agenda that served their own interests is a fascinating one that remains to be told. Second, have been private sector businesses and corporations big and small who have sought to influence global policy and profit from a shift from hydrocarbons to renewable energy. This has been fuelled by the fetish for innovation, and the idea that technological change can inject a new impetus to economic growth. Their lobbying of governments to subsidise many of the start-up costs of renewable energy technologies, to overturn existing environmental legislation to permit the creation of new industrial landscapes in the name of solving”climate change”, and to enable consumers to afford to purchase them through further subsidising their energy costs, has been hugely successful. The global capitalist system, utterly dependent on economic growth, is ultimately leading ever more rapidly to its own environmental catastrophe. Third have been those who enjoy the thrill and camaraderie of political activism who have found in the simple “climate change” mantra something that will unite many of their common interests. Fourth, has been the UN system with all of its distinct agencies, each of which has found a cause around which to promote its identity as contributing in a worthwhile way for the benefit of humanity. Finally, have been the politicians, eaager to be seen to be doing “good”, and to contribute to a worthy international cause, in the interests of enhancing their own political careers.

The trouble is that it is not “climate change” itself that is the problem. Instead it is these interests, shaping the rhetoric of climate change, that have helped to exacerbate the very real environmental damage that is being caused to this planet. Self-interestedly promoting the rhetoric of “climate change” is of course much easier than it is to tackle the real roots of the problem, which lie in the economic, political, social and cultural processes that they too have crafted over the last half-century.


Part 2 of this trilogy of posts examines how these arguments apply in the context of the digital tech sector, and Part 3 calls for a dramatic new approach to balancing the environmental harms and benefits of the creation and use of such technologies,

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London International Model UN 2022: A new UN for a New World Order

Delegates at the London International Model UN conference, 25 February 2022

It was a real privilege to have been invited to give the keynote address at the 2022 London International Model UN conference held at Central Hall, Westminster on 25th February. After much discussion with the organisers we agreed that I would use the occasion to challenge the delegates with some of the problems I see facing the UN as an organisation, and offer some recommendations as to how these can be addressed. With the invasion of Ukraine by Russia the day before, I considered fundamentally revising what I had intended to say, until I realised that much of what I had prepared was even more relevant following the events of the previous 24 hours.

The event was recorded by the organisers, but for those wishing to have an outline of what I said it is available in .pdf format here (with low resolution images). I was delighted to receive so many questions, and I very much hope that my answers were able to provide further insights into my thinking on these matters.

It was a wonderful opportunity to engage in intergenerational dialogue, and I am most grateful to Luna, Savvas and Siddarth, as well as other members of the Secretariat, for all of their organisation and bringing together so many inspirational young people in London to discuss the important issues facing the world today.

The choice of blue and yellow flowers for my “thank you bouquet” was brilliantly appropriate!

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The advantages of being unconnected to the Internet: a thought experiment

The 2021 ITU Facts and Figures report highlighted that 2.9 billion people, or 37% of the world’s population, have still never used the Internet. Implict in this, as in almost all UN initiatives relating to digital technology, is the ideal that everyone should be connected to the Internet. Hence, many global initiatives continue to be designed to create multi-stakeholder (or as I prefer, multi-sector – see my Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development) partnerships to provide connectivity to everyone in the world. But, whose interests does this really serve? Would the unconnected really be better off if they were connected?

Walking in the Swiss mountains last month, and staying in a place where mobile phones and laptops were prohibited, reminded me of the human importance of being embedded in nature – and that of course we don’t really need always to be digitally connected.

Although I have addressed these issues in many of my publications over the last 20 years, I have never articulated in detail the reasons why people might actually be better off remaining unconnected: hence this thought experiment. There are actually many sound reasons why people should consider remaining unconnected, and for those of us who spend our lives overly connected we should think about disconnecting ourselves as much as possible. These are but a few of these reasons:

  • Above all, we were born to be a part of the physical world in which we live. Virtual realities may approximate (or even in some senses enhance) that physical world, but they are fundamentally different. Those who spend all of their time connected miss out on all the joys of living in nature; those who are unconnected have the privilege of experiencing the full richness of that nature.
  • Those who are unconnected do not have to waste time sifting through countless boring e-mails or group chats to find what is worthwhile, or the messages in which they are really interested.
  • The unconnected cannot give away for free their valuable data from which global digital corporations make their fortunes.
  • Being unconnected means not harming the physical environment through the heavy demands digital technologies place on our precious natural world (see the work of the Digital-Environment System Coalition – DESC)
  • Those who are unconnected do not suffer the horrors of online harassment or digital violence.
  • The unconnected are not forced by their managers to self-exploit by doing online training once they are home after a day’s work, or answer e-mails/chat messages sent by their managers at all hours of the day and night.
  • Those who are not online don’t have to run the risk of online scams or phishing attacks that steal their savings – and the poor suffer most when, for example, their small amounts of money are stolen.
  • The unconnected can largely escape much of the digital surveillance now promulgated by governments in the name of “security” and “anti-terrorist” action.
  • The unconnected do not suffer from digital addictions to online games, gambling, or pornography.
  • Ultimately, being connected is akin to being enslaved by the world’s digital barons and their corporations; if you cannot stop using digital tech for a few days, let alone a week, surely you have lost your freedom?

Despite the fine sounding words of those leading global connectivity initiatives, is it really the poorest and most marginalised who are going to benefit most from being connected? Surely, this agenda of global connectivity is being driven mainly in the interests of the global corporations that will be paid to roll out the tech infrastructre, or that will benefit from exploiting the data that we all too willingly give them for nothing? Does not, for example, digital financial inclusion benefit the financial and tech companies and institutions far more than it does the poorest and most marginalised? This is not to deny that digital tech does indeed have many positive uses, but it is to ask fundamental questions about who benefits most.

I remember visiting a village in Africa with colleagues who couldn’t understand why the inhabitants didn’t want mobile phones. Walking over the hills to see their friends was more important to them than the ease of calling them up. This post owes much to that conversation.

We all need to ask the crucial questions about whose interests our often well-intentioned global digital connectivity initiatives really serve. If we wish to serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised, we must become their servants and not the servants of the world’s rich and powerful; we must be humble, and learn from those we wish to serve.

And the world’s rich and privileged also need to take care of ourselves; if we have difficulty living a day without being connected, surely we have indeed become enslaved? We need to regain our freedom as fully sentient beings, using all of our senses to comprehend and care for the natural world in which we live. May I conclude by encouraging people to think about using the hashtag #1in7offline. Take one day a week away from digital tech to experience the wonders of our world, unmediated by the paltry digital alternative. Or try taking a week away from the digital world every seven weeks. If you cannot do this, ask yourself why!

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Filed under Africa, digital technologies, Empowerment, ICT4D, United Nations

A new UN for a new (and better) global order (Part One): seven challenges

The Untied Nations
Side entrance to the UN in Geneva (slightly altered)

COVID-19 has accelerated the restructuring of the global world order that was already underway in the late 2010s.[i]  If anyone remains in doubt about this, they might ponder the differences between the ways in which China and the USA were able to respond to the pandemic.  They could also reflect on the map of China’s expanding economic reach recently published by the World Government Summit.[ii]  This does not mean that one regime is “right” and the other “wrong”; what it does imply, though, is that this is the reality with which individuals and states need to come to grips.

This post explores the extent to which the UN remains fit for purpose, and whether it has the capacity to adjust appropriately to this evolving political economy in the 2020s.  An earlier draft was shared with people whose views on these matters I respect, and it has been revised substantially in the light of their recommendations.[iii]  A second post will follow focusing on suggestions for how to resolve the issues raised here.[iv]


Context

It is often said that if the UN didn’t exist, the world community would have to create such an organisation, but that it would be very different from the UN we have today.[v]  Although established in the aftermath of the global 1939-45 war, with a commitment to maintain “international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights”,[vi] today’s UN is largely a product of the neo-liberal,[vii] free-market political and economic establishment that has sought to impose its ideologies, will, and “best practices”[viii] on the world since the 1970s.  Few would agree that the (hopefully) noble ambitions of the first 50[ix] countries to sign its Charter on 26 June 1945 have been achieved.  There remains an absence of peace and security in many parts of the world, numerous nations are far from friendly with their neighbours, and global inequalities remain hugely divisive. 

Despite the efforts of large numbers of very committed and able individuals working within UN agencies, it is time for a fundamental rethink of the structures, agendas, practices and rationale of the UN system.[x]  This needs to go well beyond the limited United to Reform agenda launched by the present Secretary General in 2017.[xi]  With nine years to go until the end of the UN’s Agenda 2030, now is the time to consider putting in place very substantial structural changes that can make the UN fit for purpose for the middle of the 21st century.

This reflection addresses seven of the most important interconnected challenges facing the UN.  These vary in relevance across different UN agencies, but they are especially apparent in the context of the promotion of ICTs as a solution to the world’s “development” challenges.[xii]  It is written very much from the perspective of a “critical friend”.[xiii] The comments that follow apply equally to the UN system and Secretariat as a whole, as well as to the practices of its specific specialised organisations, agencies and funds.


Seven Challenges


1. Diversity and power: who runs the UN?

The problem: the UN largely serves the neo-liberal political interests of the USA and its allies

There has long been a commitment within the UN to appointing officials and staff at all levels from as diverse a range of countries and backgrounds as possible. Nevertheless, challenges remain in the range of countries from whom senior officials are engaged.[xiv]  Those with senior roles in the UN do not satisfactorily represent the existing balance of national power or population size in different countries of the world; India and China are considerably under-represented.

It is difficult to gain overall figures for the nationalities of senior officials across the UN system, but data concerning the nationality of those whose duty station is New York starkly illustrates the scale of this problem.[xv]  Not only is the UN Headquarters located in the USA (New York), but the number of US citizens employed in these roles vastly overwhelms those from other countries.[xvi]  The US has 6.34 places per hundred million people, whereas India has 0.72 and China 0.28.  To be sure, China now has four citizens as heads of specialised organisations and agencies (FAO, ICAO, ITU, and UNIDO) and one research and training institute (ITCILO) based outside New York, but the majority of agency heads and senior staff still represent the policies and practices of the neo-liberal free-market governments that have dominated their home countries over the last 50 years. Some UN agencies have also been criticised overtly for being essentially vehicles for the implementation of US policy.  The President of the World Bank has thus traditionally always been a US citizen nominated by the US government, and UNICEF has also been subject to such criticisms, [xvii] despite the crucially important work that it does, and the strong commitment of many of its staff to improving the lives of the world’s children.[xviii]

In the face of such US dominance, China has been quietly working behind the scenes to increase its representation and influence within the UN, and its contribution to the overall budget had risen to 12% of the total in 2020.[xix]  Feltman has thus suggested that this growing influence of China within the UN is inevitable, and that the US needs to compete actively if it wishes to retain its position as the UN’s most powerful member. [xx]  Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China makes striking reference to China’s role as a “major country” and what it needs to do to ensure that it does indeed serve in this capacity globally.[xxi]


2. Leadership: quality and diversity

The problem: the UN does not appoint the most capable and appropriate people to senior leadership positions

There are very capable and well-intentioned people working within the UN system; many of these are committed to using its reach primarily to make the world a better place.  However, as in any large organisation, this is by no means true of everyone, and both the processes through which people are elected or appointed into positions of leadership, and the calibre of many of them to provide the vision, energy and management required are often lacking.

Processes of election and appointment to high-level roles in the UN vary between agencies, but when elections are involved they are often hot-beds of political intrigue and reflect the complexities of block-voting and garnering international support for candidates.  Whereas some states hold lavish events to support their candidates, others consider that such activities are inappropriate.  I have often felt hugely sorry for very able candidates who have worked hard to try to get elected, but fail through no fault of their own – and often in large part through the failure of their own national governments sufficiently to promote them.  The net result is that the most competent candidates are not always elected or appointed to the top positions in the UN.

A second challenge is that many candidates do not have the appropriate skills or experience for the roles to which they are appointed.  Many are politicians or officials who have not reached the highest positions in their own countries, and yet are still eager to be selected for UN roles so as to find an alternative lucrative way of concluding their own careers.  UN posts at most levels are very well-remunerated, and for those who want the opportunity to travel internationally and build high-level personal networks they are indeed an attractive proposition.  Whilst the level of scandals of the past within the UN has diminished, as when the head of WIPO was forced to step down early in 2008,[xxii] the UN appointments process still does not always get it right.  A classic recent case was the appointment of the first UN tech envoy at the start of 2021.  Not only did he admit in one of his first tweets after he had been appointed that he was “a relative newcomer to the field”,[xxiii] but he was placed on leave almost immediately on appointment following complaints about his personal behaviour while previously serving as a UN Under Secretary-General and Special Advisor.[xxiv]  Regardless of the rights or wrongs of this specific case, it is surprising that the UN could proceed with such an appointment when it was already known within the system that unresolved complaints had been made against him.


3. Scale and role: a big UN or a small UN?

The problem(s): what size should the UN be; should its agencies aspire to be implementers of development interventions themselves, or should they instead provide guidance and good practices for governments to implement?

The UN was not originally created to “rule the world” or to be a body that implemented “international development”.  It was rather intended primarily to maintain peace and security and to enhance friendly relations between nations and their governments. Over time, it has become ever larger, accreting numerous additional activities to its portfolio, and particularly taking on a very wide range of “development” activities, intended to improve living standard and to promote human rights.  As its catalogue of failures has increased, particularly with respect to peace and security,[xxv] it has sought to create for itself an even greater role in implementing “development” interventions (see section 4 on the SDGs below).  

As the UN continues to grow at a time of increasing financial exigency, its core role must be re-examined and justified.[xxvi] A fundamental question is whether UN agencies should be trying to implement initiatives and projects themselves at scale (a “big UN”), or instead be giving guidance, advice and support to governments so that they can better craft initiatives in the interests of their own people (a “small UN”)? To put it very simply, does the share of the taxes paid by citizens across the world to their own governments and then given to the UN represent value for money, and is it used wisely in their overall interests.[xxvii]  Are the transaction costs too high in supporting development interventions through the UN system? In democracies, people can elect new governments; but global citizens cannot elect new UN officials. 

A challenge, though, with recommending that the UN should primarily seek to support governments in implementing their own initiatives, rather than UN agencies delivering such initiatives themselves, is that not all governments are trusted by their citizens.[xxviii]  Here, I adopt Locke’s principle that people have both a right and a duty to overthrow governments that do not serve their interests.  I see the UN’s role therefore as primarily being to help governments indeed improve the services that they offer their people, because neither the private sector nor civil society theoretically have the interests of all of the citizens as their responsibility.  It has to be governments who above all have the responsiblilty for reducing inequalities in the countries that they govern.

The UN and its agencies are mandated to undertake activities recommended and agreed by the governments comprising their membership.  In some instances there are clear needs for global agreements between multiple countries that will hopefully provide potential benefits for all, as with the international maritime regulations (IMO), the treatment of refugees (UNHCR), managing the world’s radio-frequency spectrum (ITU) or reducing changes to the environment resulting from human activities (UNEP).  However, in many other contexts there is not a strong or clear-cut argument for global agreements, and it is not always easy to justify a role for the UN, especially in terms of the implementation of “development” agendas (see section 4 below).  It is fundamentally important, for example, to consider whether UN agencies should themselves design, fund and implement programmes such as teaching girls to code across the world, or should they instead use their resources to help governments to design and implement relevant programmes in their own contexts? Should UN agencies run capacity development programmes to train any- and every-one in digital skills, or should they instead use their limited resources to train governments (both politicians and civil servants) to design and implement their own such national or regional programmes more effectively?  Answers to these questions are in part dependent on ideological positions, but it would seem that UN-designed and implemented approaches tend to lead to (i) greater dependency of governments and thus peoples on the UN, (ii) less contextually relevant initiatives, and (iii) less value for money than were the UN to focus primarily on helping governments develop better programmes of their own.


4. The failed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030

The problem: the SDGs have already failed, but the UN persists in their propagation primarily in its own interests, so that UN agencies can claim they are doing something worthwhile

I have written at length since 2015 about the reasons why the SDGs have already failed, especially in the context of digital technologies,[xxix] and many others are increasingly challenging their rationale and effectiveness.  Three issues are particularly important for this critique of the UN system.

First, the SDGs largely serve the interests of those organisations that have designed and promoted them, rather than the voiceless poor and marginalised.  In particular, they serve to enable as many UN agencies as possible to have a clear role in their implementation, either individually or collaboratively.  Since 2015, most UN agencies have thus prioritised these agendas, and have sought very clearly in their rhetoric to show how they are delivering on specific goals and targets.  This has meant that in some contexts attention has shifted away from very important areas that were considered in insufficient detail, or not at all, in the SDGs.   The SDGs (and SDG17 in particular) have also become a rallying call through which the private sector can contribute to, and some would say subvert, the global development sector.  Once again, the neo-liberal hegemony is serving its own interests in retaining power and influence.

Second, the SDGs focus primarily on increasing economic growth rather than reducing inequalities. They have therefore served the interests of private sector companies, especially large global corporations, more than they have most of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people and communities.  The recent increased attention being paid to inequalities, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic is to be welcomed, but it is too little and has not led to a major realignment of the SDGs themselves.  Moreover, at least half of the 10 SDG10 (inequality) targets have at best tenuous links with actually reducing inequalities.

Third, the SDGs have spawned yet another industry in terms of the data required to be able to tell whether they have succeeded or not.[xxx]  The companies, organisations (including UN agencies) and individual consultants who have developed these tools, created the data, and written numerous reports thereon have certainly benefited from the SDGs.  Whether the poor and marginalised in whose name this work is supposedly being done have benefited as much remains to be seen.


5. Duplication, overlap and reinventing the wheel

The problem: the UN system is beset by duplication of effort, overlap, and reinvention of the wheel between agencies, and even in larger agencies between the various silos within them

Despite the opportunities provided by the SDGs for collaboration, all too often agencies compete with each other for “ownership” thereof, and the central UN Secretariat is also increasingly competing with the agencies mandated with specific responsibilities.  In summary, the UN suffer from three man challenges around these issues: it is riven by competition and overlap of effort between agencies, in part driven by the personal agendas of their leaders; there is increasing competition in certain fields between the aspirations of the central UN Secretariat and the UN’s many separate agencies;[xxxi] and all too often these agencies themselves seek to take on activities that others outside the UN system are already doing, often actually much better than the UN could ever do in its present format.

A classic example of this was the work of the UN Chief Executives Board for Co-ordination (CEB) and the High Level Committee on Programmes in 2018 and 2019 to develop and reach agreement between agencies on system-wide strategies for the future of AI, the future of work, and the future of education.  UNICEF and UNESCO brought together 21 UN agencies to develop a cogent approach to what the UN needed to do at a system-wide level to enhance the delivery of appropriate and relevant learning and education, and their report was welcomed by the CEB in May 2019.[xxxii]  Very shortly thereafter, though, the relatively new DG of UNESCO launched a high-profile initiative on the Futures of Education: Learning to Become, with a “distinguished” Commission to consider inputs received from the various consultation processes.[xxxiii] This was a clear attempt to place the organisation once again very much at the centre of UN work in education, and made no mention of the recent UN system-wide efforts to co-ordinate efforts between agencies more closely.  Most of the effort and good will generated in trying to reach a UN system wide approach to the future of learning was dissipated and lost. One cannot but ask “what was the point” of the HLCP and CEB’s work to this end?

Another classic case of duplication and re-inventing the wheel was the creation in 2018 by the UN Secretary General of the High-Level Panel of Digital Cooperation, co-chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, whose recommendations ultimately led to “his” Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.[xxxiv] The full stories of the machinations behind the creation of the panel and roadmap, as well as the subsequent bizarre appointment process of the Secretary General’s Digital Champion remain to be told (see also section 2 above).  Despite the best efforts of the panel’s Secretariat, though, many of the consultations largely repeated discussions that had been held many times before by those involved and added little new to global understanding.  Much of the report contains well-known platitudes, and although civil society was involved in the consultations upon which the recommendations were based, the dominant voices were largely those of governments, UN agencies and the private sector.  Paradoxically, whilst its overt aim was to enhance digital co-operation, in practice it also served as a means through which different UN agencies could claim primacy in various areas of the digital agenda, not least as expressed through their roles as “Champions” in the Roundtable discussion (as with the ITU and UNICEF on global connectivity, UNICEF and UN Global Pulse on Digital Public Goods, UN Women on digital inclusion and data, or OHCHR on digital human rights).  It remains to be seen whether the emerging architecture of this agenda will indeed enable greater co-operation or instead lead to greater division within the UN system on matters digital, but six months after the newly appointed technology envoy was put on administrative leave there remains little leadership and direction. Perhaps its main outcome will have been its efforts to revitalise the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) as something other than merely the talking shop that it was originally designed to be.


6. Scale and Finance

The problem: the UN’s ambitions go well beyond the budget available to fund them

The increasing aspirations of UN agencies come at a time when budgets are tight and many donors are reluctant to increase funding because they believe that other organisations can deliver better results, especially with respect to development outcomes.  The UK Multilateral Development (formerly Aid) Review thus warned in 2016 that funding for the FAO, IOM and UNESCO was at risk unless their performance improved, having already ceased core funding to UNIDO, ILO, UNISDR and UN Habitat as an outcome of its previous review in 2011.[xxxv]

Consequently, UN agencies have increasingly turned to other sources of funding, particularly from private sector companies and global corporations, but also in some instances from individual donations, as with UNICEF.  Some of the implications of this are addressed in section 7 on partnerships, but it is important here to note that all too often staff in UN agencies see the private sector primarily as a source of funding the initiatives that the agency wants to implement, rather than truly benefitting from a company’s specific industrial or technological expertise, their business acumen, or their management strengths.  This is particularly so in initiatives linked to digital technologies.  If a company’s business model is not sustainable, then it will go bust; companies therefore have much to contribute to an understanding of sustainability within the context of the SDGs.  The private sector of course has immense value in driving economic activity, and can contribute hugely to appropriate development interventions.  It is just that its real strengths are rarely appreciated by most of those working in and for UN agencies.

The increasing need for funding to boost the aspirations of the leadership of UN agencies, linked in part to their own personal ambitions, but also the mandates that they negotiate with their member states, gives rise to potential conflicts of interest for the UN.  Many governments also see the involvement of private sector companies in their own countries that have been developed through liaison with UN agencies as a way to deliver their own agendas, which are not always exclusively in the interests of their people, and especially the poorest and most marginalised.  Governments also do not always fully appreciate or account for the financial risks in taking on large loans for “development” projects be they from China, the World Bank, or the USA. 

It must therefore be asked whether the UN and its specialised agencies should actively be seeking to increase funding through sources other than national government regular member contributions, or whether they should cut their coats to suit their cloth?  After all most UN agencies were never intended in origin to be implementers of development interventions.  A strong argument can therefore be made that if UN agencies were indeed truly serving the needs of member states, then members should indeed fund them to deliver those needs. 


7. Partnerships and the restructuring of global governance

The problem: the SDG agenda, the lack of UN funding, and the opportunistic behaviour of many global corporations mean that the private sector has been able to subvert the UN’s global governance structures in its own interest.  

I have written much previously about the potential and challenges of partnerships with the private sector and civil society in international development,[xxxvi]  and I remain committed to their positive potential. The reality, though, is all too often that they work primarily in the interests of private sector companies, despite their usual claims that they are intended to benefit the poor and marginalised.

In a comprehensive and hugely prescient 2007 review of the potential of partnerships in the context of the UN, Jens Martens highlighted seven governance concerns relating to its growing trend of partnerships with the private sector:[xxxvii]

These predictions have all come to pass to a greater or lesser extent, and what is of most concern is that few global leaders seem to consider any of them to be a real problem.  The advocates of neo-liberalism and those promoting the ever-increasing role of the private sector in national and international governance, at the expense of states, seem to have achieved their objectives, subtly and surreptitiously behind the scenes.  The rise to power of the private sector within the UN system over the last 20 years is quite remarkable, and this is especially so with respect to digital technologies and the pharmaceutical sectors.

The prominent emphasis on partnerships within the UN system has also had practical problems, notably the lack of transparent and effective partnership structures, and confusion over the concept of mutistakeholderism.  On the first of these, it is remarkable how many, often widely-acclaimed “partnerships” or coalitions within the UN are based on at best flimsy partnerships structures.  The UN Global Compact[xxxviii] can claim to provide a mechanism through which companies can support the UN, but it remains voluntary, and few individual agencies have their own internal structures and agreements about how they should engage systematically and rigorously with partners.  It is well known, not least through some of the excellent work of the World Economic Forum,[xxxix] that a rigorous and comprehensive framework must be created early on for a partnership to have any chance of success.  Sadly, failure to design such comprehensive frameworks beforehand means that all too often UN partnership do not achieve what they set out to do, and even sometimes what they claim to have done.

There are also fundamental problems with the notion of multistakeholderism,[xl]  since different people and organisations define it in varying ways. While it is usually taken to mean partnerships that in some way involve governments, the private sector and civil society, the word itself only really means that many stakeholders are involved.  Frequently, this is little more than subterfuge, moving away from the increasingly discredited notion of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), but still focusing mainly on the interactions between the private sector and governments, through co-opting favourable others (from civil society or academia)[xli] within them.  Partnerships that combine civil society on equal terms with governments and companies, are much better termed “multi-sector” (reflecting the three sectors).[xlii]


In conclusion

Most people in the world have little if any understanding of what the UN is, have never heard of most of its agencies, and are completely unaffected by its actions.[xliii]  The arguments for a small, efficient and highly focused UN system would seem to be powerful in the face of such criticisms.[xliv] The diversity of interests represented by national states and regional blocks requires a competent, and highly professional organisation for mediation and the sharing of good practices in the interests of global peace, harmony and well-being.

This reflection has highlighted seven of the most pressing and interconnected challenges affecting the ability of the UN system to function effectively, especially in serving the interests of the vast majority of the world’s people, and also particularly in the context of the use of digital technologies.  In summary, these are:

  • The UN does not serve the interests of the majority of the world’s people, and needs to be restructured so that it does.
  • It has grown haphazardly and surreptitiously in its own interests so that it is now far too big and ambitious, but has neither the funding nor the capacity to deliver its agendas effectively.
  • The SDG project and Agenda 2030 largely serve the UN’s own interests, has already failed, and will achieve little in reducing the inequalities that are all too prevalent across the world.
  • There is an immense amount of waste within the UN system, with an excess of duplication, overlap and reinvention of the wheel; the world’s poor can ill-afford such excess.
  • A large UN is living beyond its means, and has thus increasingly had to turn to other sources, and especially the private sector, for funding.
  • The consequent loosely defined “partnerships” that have been constructed, subvert the UN’s governance structures and have increasingly led it to serve the interests of the rich and powerful against the poorest and most marginalised.
  • Finally, with some notable exceptions, the quality, experience, expertise and diversity of leadership within the UN system are not appropriate for the tasks that it has taken upon itself.

In essence, the neo-liberal hijacking of the UN system has made the UN part of the problem rather than part of the solution. It is time for change.  Part Two suggests some of the radical changes that need to be made for the UN to become the sort of organisation that many of its employees hoped that it could be when they joined it, and that the 7.9 billion people of the world urgently need to avoid the many crises that continue to beset us all.


Endnotes

[i] Unwin, T. (2020) Digital-political-economy in a post-COVID-19 world: implications for the most marginalised, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/04/23/digital-political-economy-in-a-post-covid-19-world-implications-for-the-most-marginalised/.

[ii] World Government Summit in collaboration with Kerney National Transformations Institute (2021), Map of China’s expanding economic reach, https://www.worldgovernmentsummit.org/docs/default-source/publication/2021/21-priorities-for-governments-in-2021-english.pdf?sfvrsn=e1d5c576_2

[iii] Among the many piece of helpful advice were suggestions: to shorten it; to tighten the argument around fewer key issues; to refer overtly to “corruption” (a word with which I have problems as discussed in this piece); to tone down some of the language, so that the audiences it is intended for may be more prepared to listen (my earlier suggestion that the UN was bloated did not go down too well; however, I had not even referred to the USA as being neo-imperial in the first draft); to clarify use of terms such as “neo-liberal”; and to justify the focus on governments, when many of these are seen to be problematic.  I have tried to do all of these, and remain grateful for everyone’s comments.

[iv] Parts one and two will be available to download separately in.pdf format once completed.

[v] See, for example, https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/climate-change/the-un-if-it-didnt-exist-we-would-have-to-invent-it/

[vi] https://www.un.org/un70/en/content/history/index.html

[vii] By the term neo-liberalism, I refer to market-oriented reform intended to enhance free-market capitalism and the reduction of state influence in the economy and society.  While this is a term that I deliberately continue to use to refer to changes that took place initially in the USA and Europe from the 1970s onwards, I recognise that it is less popular among many academics and politicians in the USA.  I use the term explicitly to argue that neo-liberalism should be replaced by greater state control and regulation in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised, so that global inequalities fostered by neo-liberalism can be reduced.

[viii] For my critique of the notion of best practices see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/icts-for-education-initiatives/ written in 2013, and expressed more strongly in 2018 https://unwin.wordpress.com/2018/06/29/interesting-practices-in-the-use-of-icts-for-education/.

[ix] https://research.un.org/en/unmembers/founders

[x] I have many hugely able and committed friends who work within the UN system, and have great admiration for the work that they do.  This commentary should in no way be seen as a personal criticism of them, but is rather an account of the structural challenges that they face in trying to fulfil their aspirations of a better world.

[xi] United to Reform, https://reform.un.org/.

[xii] My observations are all grounded in practice, and friends and colleagues will recognise the details of some of our shared experiences, although they are presented here in a generalised form so that specific institutions or individuals can usually not be identified.  I hope that they are taken in the constructive sense in which they are intended. Where relevant, references to other works that have referred to the matters addressed are also included in footnotes.

[xiii] Although, as although as Chairholder of a UNESCO Chair some might say that I have indeed been within the system since 2007! 

[xiv] While some recent progress has been made with respect to gender, the UN is also poor in terms of the inclusion of people with disabilities within its constituent bodies.  It was thus a very real pleasure to meet some years ago with W Aubrey Watson, who was appointed in 2014 as Antigua and Barbuda’s Permanent Representative to the UN, the first ever person with a declared disability to hold such a role. See https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/94/2/16-030216/en/.

[xv] UN (2021) Senior Officials of the United Nations and Officers of Equivalent Rank whose Duty Station is New York, 3rd May 2021, https://www.un.org/dgacm/sites/www.un.org.dgacm/files/Documents_Protocol/listofunseniorofficials.pdf.

[xvi] The scale of this problem is reinforced when countries with smaller populations are also included, and it is salient to note that many European countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Norway each have four such officials, with Sweden having five and the UK seven; Canada has ten such officials.

[xvii] See Lieberman, A. and Saldinger, A. (2017) Former USAID chief Henrietta Holsman Fore possible pick for top UNICEF job, Devex, https://www.devex.com/news/former-usaid-chief-henrietta-holsman-fore-possible-pick-for-top-unicef-job-91490, and Alyson, S. (2021) UNICEF values diversity. Except at the top, Karma Colonialism, https://karmacolonialism.org/unicef-values-diversity-except-at-the-top/. An interesting report from the Brooking’s Institute also shows that there is a statistically significant correlation between trust in the US and trust in the UN: the more people mistrust the US government, the more they mistrust the UN.  The Brookings Institute report goes on to suggest that this association “is driven by respondents’ view of the UN as a tool of intervention by its dominant member, the United States” (Call, C.T., Crow,D. and Ron, J. (2017) Is the UN a friend or foe, Brookings Institute, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2017/10/03/is-the-un-a-friend-or-foe/.

[xviii] https://www.unicef.org/public-partnerships/united-states-america. Moreover, the National Committee of the USA contributes a further US$ 286 million, https://www.unicef.org/partnerships/funding.

[xix] Cheng-Chia, T. and Yang, A.H. (2020) How China is remaking the UN in its own image, https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/how-china-is-remaking-the-un-in-its-own-image/ (although this article contains several important errors), and Fung, C.J. and Lam, S-H. (2020) China already leads 4 of the 15 UN specialized agencies – and is aiming for a 5th, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/03/03/china-already-leads-4-15-un-specialized-agencies-is-aiming-5th/.

[xx] Feltman, J. (2020) China’s expanding influence at the United Nations-and how the United States should react, Brookings Institute, Global China, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/FP_20200914_china_united_nations_feltman.pdf.

[xxi] Xi Jinping (2014-2020) The Governance of China, 3 volumes, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

[xxii] See report in Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-un-wipo-chief-idUSL152966620071115 and https://news.un.org/en/story/2005/12/163542-major-accounting-firm-clears-un-intellectual-property-body-corruption

[xxiii] Tweet on 23rd January 2021.

[xxiv] Kirkpatrick, L.E. (2021) The new UN Tech Envoy is put on leave pending an investigation, Passblue, https://www.passblue.com/2021/01/27/the-new-un-tech-envoy-is-put-on-leave-pending-an-investigation/.

[xxv] Some might seek to claim otherwise, but the continuation of widespread war and violence into the 21st century, from the Gulf Wars, to Afghanistan, Syria, North Africa, Yemen, Mozambique and Ethiopia suggests that whilst there have indeed been no major global wars to compare with the 1939-45 war, the UN has failed to bring peace and security to many millions of people.

[xxvi] A limited survey or people in only 34 countries in 2019 by the Pew Research Centre suggest that the UN is generally perceived positively https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/23/united-nations-gets-mostly-positive-marks-from-people-around-the-world/.

[xxvii] The UK’s Multilateral Aid Review of 2016 provides one comparative overview of agencies’ performance (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/573884/Multilateral-Development-Review-Dec2016.pdf) indicating considerably variability in terms of organisational strength and alignment with UK objectives;  UNESCO scored particularly poorly).

[xxviii] I dislike using the word “corruption”, which commentators on an early draft suggested I should raise here.  Often, the word “corruption” seems to be used to disparage others, when actually it refers merely to a different moral framework to that of the person using the word.  Many bankers and government officials in north America and Europe are in this sense as corrupt as officials in other parts of the world who believe it is right to give their family members jobs once they are in positions of power.  This probably reflects my antipathy towards universalism, and my celebration of diversity and relativism.

[xxix] Unwin,T. (2015) ICTs and the failure of the sustainable development goals; Unwin,T. (2017) Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development, Oxford: OUP, Unwin, T. (2018) (2018) ICTs and the failure of the SDGs.

[xxx] See, for example, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2014/sep/24/gathering-data-sustainable-development-crippling; Jerven, M. (2016) How much will a data revolution in development cost?, Forum for Development Studies, 44(1), 31-50, Jütting,J. and Badiee, S. (2016) Financing SDG data needs: what does it cost?, Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Goals.

[xxxi] This is also a notable problem within the Commonwealth, where the Commonwealth Secretariat instead of collaborating constructively with the leading Commonwealth Associated Organisations, often seeks to compete with them, frequently reflecting the personal agendas of staff in the Secretariat.

[xxxii] https://undocs.org/en/CEB/2019/1/Add.4.

[xxxiii] https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/initiative.

[xxxiv] https://www.un.org/en/content/digital-cooperation-roadmap/; https://www.un.org/en/content/digital-cooperation-roadmap/assets/pdf/Roadmap_for_Digital_Cooperation_EN.pdf; see also the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation (2019) The Age of Digital Interdependence, https://www.un.org/en/pdfs/HLP%20on%20Digital%20Cooperation%20Report%20Executive%20Summary%20-%20ENG.pdf.

[xxxv] DFID (2016) Raising the Standard: the Multilateral Development Review 2016, London: DFID, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/573884/Multilateral-Development-Review-Dec2016.pdf

[xxxvi] See,for example, Unwin, T. (2015) Multistakeholder partnerships, in: Mansell, R, and Ang, P.H. (eds) The International Encyclopedia of Digital Communication and Society, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, and Unwin,T. (2017) Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development, Oxford: OUP.

[xxxvii] Martens, J. (2007) Multistakeholder partnerships: Future models of multilateralism? Berlin, Germany: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung; see also more recently Adams,B. and Martens, J. (2016) Partnerships and the 2030 Agenda: Time to reconsider their role in implementation, New York: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

[xxxviii] Global Compact, https://www.unglobalcompact.org; its ten principles are at https://www.unglobalcompact.org/what-is-gc/mission/principles.

[xxxix] Unwin, T. and Wong, A. (2012)  Global Education Initiative: Retrospective on Partnerships for Education Development 2003-2011, Geneva: World Economic Forum

[xl] See my Multistakeholderism and consensus decision making in ICT4D,  https://unwin.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/multistakeholderism-and-consensus-decision-making-in-ict4d/

[xli] Given that most universities are now in effect businesses, I prefer to see them as falling within the private sector rather than as separate sector.

[xlii] Although within the UN system (such as UNESCO) the term sector is often used to describe the different parts of an agency and is thus deemed to be inappropriate to be used to refer to partnerships.

[xliii] With reference to the UN’s flagship SDGs for example, a 2020 survey by YouGov in the UK suggested that 56% of people in Britain were not at all aware of the targets, while 27% had heard of them but were unfamiliar with what they involve.

[xliv] The UN’s own survey in 2020 for UN75 (https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/un75report_september_final_english.pdf) suggested that 60% of respondents believed the UN has made the world a better place, but more than half see is as remote from their lives.  Although more than a million people across the world contributed, the survey design itself was problematic.

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Thoughts on “Education and digitisation in development cooperation”

Children Forum Naz 6 smRecently I was asked by the GFA Consulting Group to provide some short comments and reflections (just a few sentences) in response to four questions, the answers to which will be incorporated as part of a final chapter in an important new Toolkit on Education and Digitisation in Development Cooperation being developed by them together with GIZ (Sector Programme Education) and BMZ (Division 402, Education), and due to be published in April 2020 [as: BMZ, Toolkit – Education and Digitalization in Development Cooperation, to be published in 04/2020].  It is always interesting to try constructively to answer questions that contain inbuilt assumptions with which I don’t necessarily agree!  They have kindly agreed that I can share them here for wider commentary and feedback.  This is how I responded:

1)   How can digitalization contribute to achieving the educational objectives of the Agenda 2030?

“Digitalization by itself contributes little to enhancing education, and can often actually cause more harm than good.  The introduction of digital technologies into educational systems must be undertaken in a holistic and carefully planned way.  It needs to be designed and implemented “at scale”, beginning in the poorest and most marginalised contexts: in isolated rural areas, for people with disabilities, for out of school children, and for girls in patriarchal societies.  Only then will it begin to reduce the inequalities in learning provision, and help to provide children and adults alike with the skills they need to empower themselves”.

2)   Which digital technologies will bring about revolutionary changes in the education sector in the future?

“Digital technologies by themselves cannot bring about any changes, let alone revolutionary ones!  To claim otherwise propagates the damaging reductionist myth of technological determinism.  Technologies are designed by people who have specific interests and for particular purposes.  We need to begin with the education and not the technology.  Hence, people with exciting ideas about how to improve education – particularly in the most challenging circumstances – should be encouraged to develop new technological solutions to the most pressing problems that they identify.  These challenges include enabling teachers to have the right skills and understanding to help children learn, ensuring that relevant content is available in the optimal formats to enable children to live fulfilled lives, and creating systems to ensure efficient resource use in educational systems”.

3)   What will be the most pressing challenge in the educational development cooperation sector in the future and how can the use of digital technologies help to overcome it?

“The most important challenge in educational systems is to ensure that there are sufficient well-trained and committed teachers and facilitators employed to inspire new generations of learners.  It is estimated that around 69 million new teachers are needed if the educational objectives of Agenda 2030 are to be reached.  We must ensure therefore that digital technologies are used efficiently and effectively to support in-service and pre-service training for educators, to provide effective learning resources for them to use with learners, and to enable them to be supported by efficient administrative and assessment schemes.  This is without doubt the most pressing challenge”.

4)   What needs to happen in order to utilize the potential of these digital innovations for education in partner countries?

“Four simple things are needed:

  • Partner countries (and indeed donors) must give education the highest priority in their development programmes. Many people talk about the importance of education, but it is only rarely given sufficient emphasis and resources.  We need to reiterate over and over again that ignorance is far more expensive than education!
  • We need to put in place effective mechanisms through which good practices in the use of digital technologies in education can be shared and implemented. We must stop reinventing the wheel and repeating the mistakes made with digital technologies in the past.  Far too many resources are wasted in developing pilot projects that will never go to scale and will not enhance learning opportunities for the most marginalised.
  • We must begin by implementing effective systems of using digital technologies in teacher training. Only once teachers and learning facilitators have been effectively trained should digital systems be rolled out across schools.
  • Finally, we need to ensure that we also minimise the harm that digital technologies can be used for in education and learning. The benefits of digital technologies can only be achieved if systems are put in place to mitigate the harm that they can be used for”.

I think it is likely that these were not the sort of answers that they were expecting, but I very much hope that they provoke discussion that may lead to changes in the way that governments, companies and civil society organisations seek to implement the use of digital technologies in education.  Not surprisingly, they are very much in line with the work that I had the privilege of helping 21 UN agencies develop for the UN’s Chief Executive Board last year entitled Towards a United Nations system-wide strategic approach for achieving inclusive, equitable and innovative education and learning for all.  It is so important that we all work together to develop sound policies and practices that do not reinvent the wheel or duplicate other onoging initiatives.  Above all, we must begin with the education and learning, and not with the technology!

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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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ICTs and the failure of the Sustainable Development Goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Multistakeholderism and consensus decision making in ICT4D

ICANNOne of the fundamental challenges facing ICANN, and regularly articulated at its recent 49th meeting in Singapore, is how to reach consensus amongst the many different stakeholders with interests in the future of the Internet.  Having been doing research over the last 15 years on how to ensure success in multi-stakeholder partnerships (see for example my recent 2013 post, and an older 2012 post on partnerships in education) as well as working with a range of groups on consensus decision making, I find these discussions fascinating, not least for their theatrical quality but also for the apparent lack of knowledge exhibited on the very extensive research that has already been done on managing multi-stakeholder partnerships.

Two  intersecting themes seem relevant, not only to ICANN, but also more widely to the many other ongoing international debates on global governance, particularly with reference to ICTs. These are hugely complex issues, far too challenging to resolve in a simple blog post, but what I want to do here is summarise what I see as being the main issues that require resolution:

  • Multi-stakeholderism representation.  I have to admit hugely to disliking the term multistakeholderism, despite the fact that I frequently plead for people to use the term “multi-stakeholder” rather than “public-private” to refer to the kinds of partnership that are necessary to deliver effective ICT for development initiatives.  “Multi-stakeholder” is preferable because it emphasises that such initiatives require a more diverse set of stakeholders than just the private and public sectors, and that they particularly need to involve civil society. Most research on multi-stakeholder partnerships has focused on how to bring partners together to deliver particular initiatives at a national or local scale, and far less in the context of reaching international agreements (although see Jens Martens’ important work on the latter). The use of the term “multi-stakeholder” has nevertheless been clearly recognised by ICANN (albeit defining it in a very particular way, as treating “the public sector, the private sector, and technical experts as peers”), but a fundamental challenge is to identify the means through which each group can, or should, be represented in international discussions on critical ICT issues.  Four issues seem particularly problematic and pertinent:
    • Defining multi-stakeholders groupings.  Most work on multi-stakeholder partnerships recognises a triadic typology of  “states”, the “private sector” and “civil society”.  However, there are additional types of entity over and beyond these that might be involved under these headings, including international organisations, foundations, and indeed user groups.  These are sometimes treated as sub-sets of civil society, but on other occasions as distinct entities in their own right that could be grouped into additional categories.
    • Numbers and scale.  In global bodies concerned with international treaties, such as UN bodies including the ITU, governments usually have the dominant say, albeit that this say is increasingly being challenged. It is relatively easy to choose the entities that represent governments – they are, after all, finite in number – but for the private sector and especially civil society it becomes much more problematic.  UNDESA’s integrated Civil Society Organizations (iSCO) System thus currently maintains a database of more than 24,000 entries (see also the UN Global Compact’s list).  How can representation from this diversity of stakeholders be included, especially when it is often unclear who exactly these civil society organisations represent?
    • Representative democracy.  Invariably it is only the larger and richer companies and civil society organisations that are able to participate in major international gatherings – often quite simply because of the cost of so doing – although many UN bodies do indeed welcome civil society participation once they have been recognised in some way as members.  In crafting such partnerships, and in line with the notion of representative democracy, there can be value in seeking to involve some kind of representative mechanism, whereby stakeholders elect from their membership people or institutions to speak on their behalf. This prevents the decision making process becoming too unwieldy, but those not elected onto the “Board” can feel aggrieved and not-represented.
    • Governance structures.  The mechanisms for selecting representatives also depend heavily on the kinds of governance structure that are deemed to be appropriate for the purpose in hand. Even here there are difficulties because someone has to determine these criteria in the first place.  At a simplistic level, it would be possible to imagine a multi-stakeholder decision making body made up of a set number of members from each of the three key sectors of “governments”, “companies” and “civil society”.  Within this, there would then need to be mechanisms for determining how the elections would take place, and what the constituencies should be.  In the ITU, for example, members of the Council and the Radio Regulation Board are elected based upon regional groupings.
  • Consensus decision making and democratic representation.  One of the most fascinating aspects of seeking to reach global agreement on particular issues is the choice of the process that is used to seek consensus. When combined with representative mechanisms, most consensus building models use an aggregative process, whereby agreement is sought at one level (for example the “local”), and then representatives from that level  meet at a higher level (such as the “regional”) to seek wider consensus.  This can be a very effective mechanism for reaching consensus, but the ways in which the governance of such structures operate can lead to very different outcomes.  This is highly pertinent to discussions about governance of the Internet and ICTs. Six main principles and issues seem particularly pertinent here:
    • Consensus building requires good will on behalf of all of those involved.  Put simply, if there is not a desire to reach agreement on the part of some of those involved, then no amount of skilled negotiation will reach a successful outcome.  The first stage of any consensus building process must therefore be the need to convict all participants of the benefits of reaching a consensus.  Ultimately, those not willing to commit to this need to be excluded in the interests of reaching agreement among those who are willing to engage in the process.
    • Generally speaking, it often makes sense to try to reach agreement on the most contentious issues at the lowest/local scale, because most time can usually be devoted to reaching consensus here.  For example, if it is expected that different ethnic groups have very different views on a subject, then it makes sense for the difficult issues to be resolved at the lowest scale that can combine these multiple different ethnic perspectives.  However, this does not always work, since unexpected disagreements can emerge later in the process, which can prevent the final reaching of a consensus.
    • Moderation of the consensus building process requires great skill and patience.  All too often, inexperienced chairs or moderators are charged with seeking to reach agreement among a particular constituency, and this can rapidly lead to dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement with the entire process.
    • The choice of representatives to carry forward the discussion at a higher level is critical.  Such people need to combine excellent negotiation skills with empathy for the different perspectives that they need to represent.  They also need to be trusted by their constituencies.
    • Despite a tendency to wish to return to the lowest level to get final agreement on the principles agreed at a higher level, this often leads to the unraveling of the process.  This is largely because consensus decision making requires skillful bargaining, and not everyone involved at the earliest stages of a process may be aware of the issues that emerge later in the process that require resolution.  It is, though, particularly useful if the higher level discussions are open to participation from anyone who wishes to be an observer from the lower levels in the process, since this can serve as a useful check on the probity of the representatives and negotiators.
    • Ultimately, those involved in building consensus need to adhere to the fundamental negotiating principle that they should focus particularly on “What can’t you live with; what can’t you live without“!

If, and it is a big if, the global Interent governance agenda is seen as being concerned with reaching agreement amongst “governments”, “private sector companies” and “civil society”, then drawing on the above two main alternative model structures can be conceptualised:

  • Model A – initial consensus building at a national level
    • The lowest level discussions take place in national forums that bring together representatives of governments, the private sector and civil society
    • National representatives (not necessarily drawn from governments) then meet to reach regional consensuses, such as for East, North, Southern and West Africa.
    • Finally, representatives from these global regions meet to thrash out global agreements.
  • Model B – initial consensus at a sectoral level
    • The lowest level discussions take place in regional sector-specific global forums one in each region (such as East, North, Southern and West Africa) for representatives of governments, another for the private sector and a third for civil society.
    • Representatives from each of these regional sector meetings (or indeed subdivisions within them) then meet to reach a global consensus.  For example, there would be a global private sector meeting bringing together regional private sector representatives, and similar fora for governments and for civil society.
    • Finally, representative of each of the three main groupings meet at a global meeting to bring together the three broad swathes of governments, the private sector and civil society.

To date, it would seem that Model B has often been the preferred modality of consensus building in discussions about Internet and ICT governance. The ITU, for example, holds regional meetings in advance of its major conferences, where it seeks to reach agreement on key issues.

Significantly, most of the major international bodies working in the field of ICTs and the Internet claim in some way to be multi-stakeholder. However, the driving force for each entity usually tends to be from one or the other sectors, be they governments, the private sector or civil society.  Against this context, broadly speaking, ICANN (a private sector, non-profit corporation) has tended to focus on the interests of the private sector, the IGF as a multi-stakeholder policy dialogue (purportedly supporting the UN Secretary General) is widely seen as being the main vehicle for civil society participation, and the ITU is the UN agency generally accepted as being a predominantly governmental body (although defining itself as a “public-private partnership”).  A real challenge is how to bring these together – or whether indeed there is actually real interest in so doing.  Attempts to create a truly global forum, including the ill-fated Global Alliance for ICTs and Development (GAID) have largely failed, although the WSIS+10 process led by the ITU and involving other UN agencies continues to strive to bring a wide range of participants together.

This post is already too long, and barely scratches the surface of these complex issues!  However, we have to find a way to stop holding the same conversations in different circles, and actually create structures and consensuses that serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised!

 

 

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ICT4D Students at World Economic Forum

The final year undergraduate students studying ICT4D at Royal Holloway, University of London, have to do a formal presentation on some aspect of the course as part of their assessment (along with annotated bibliographies and a website – this year on Healthy Homes).

For 2010, we had the privilege of being able to convene these presentations at the World Economic Forum‘s offices in Cologny, Geneva on Thursday 8th April, on the themes of:

  • Why have mobile phones become so popular in Africa? (Alex Hamilton)
  • Education in Post-Conflict Zones: Pathways to Peace? (Helen Blamey)
  • Internet Access and Usage in Africa (Michael Hart)
  • What is really innovative about ICT4D? (James Huntley)
  • ICTs, Climate Change and Sustainable Development (Elizabeth Coulter)
  • Freeplay Energy: education and health solutions (Rickesh Patel)

Alex Wong (Senior Director, World Economic Forum), Joanna Gordon (Associate Director responsible for the ICT sector at the World Economic Forum) and Daniel Stauffacher (Chairman ICT4Peace Foundation) also gave short presentations on their work, as well as providing feedback on the student presentations.

Being in Geneva provided an opportunity to see various UN buildings in the City, and some of the group also went on a six hour walk in the vicinity of Mont Salève (down from the Télépherique du Salève, through the villages of Mounetier and Mornex, and back to Veyrier) – a great opportunity to discuss ICT4D in the French countryside!

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