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!
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.
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!
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]
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.
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]
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.
[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.
[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.
[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.
[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/.
[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.
[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.
[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.
[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.
[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.
[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.
Recently 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!
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.
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.
One 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!
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!