Tag Archives: UN

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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