The future of the UN is revealed!

Each year, the Austrian Ministry of Defense publishes a collection of predictions by various experts on upcoming international developments.  This year, I contributed my thoughts on what will happen to/at the United Nations in 2018.  As it is otherwise only available in German, here is an English version (don’t blame me if it’s all wrong):

2018 will be a year of significant tensions at the United Nations.  The Korean situation, the Syrian war and debates over the Iranian nuclear deal are all likely to create friction in the Security Council.  UN peacekeeping forces face risks of serious violence in cases ranging from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Lebanon.

The Security Council played a leading role in containing the North Korean nuclear crisis in 2017, passing two packages of heavy sanctions against Pyongyang.  China and the US will try to maintain this cooperation.  But if North Korea takes further provocative actions, it may be difficult for the Council to agree on additional serious sanctions.  If Washington edges towards military action on the Korean Peninsula, there could be a serious breakdown in UN diplomacy between China and the US.

The Trump administration is also likely to create divisions in the Security Council if it makes further efforts to undermine the Iranian nuclear deal.  The overall deterioration of the security situation in the Middle East more broadly will be a central issue in UN diplomacy through 2018.  There is a growing possibility of new hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon that would put the long-standing UN peace operation in the area (UNIFIL) at severe risk of casualties.

The UN force on the Golan Heights, which has already been severely constrained by terrorist groups during the Syrian war, could also be caught up in a regional conflict.

The UN may also need to find a new strategy towards Syria itself. Russia and its Syrian and Iranian allies do not want UN peacekeepers or political officers to play a significant role in Syria.  However, Moscow may press European aid donors to support UN civilian reconstruction efforts in the country, arguing that this will limit further refugee flows.

UN agencies could end up effectively working on behalf of the Syrian regime to provide basic services to the population, and possibly facilitate refugee return, although this could leave UN officials at risk of terrorist attacks.

Other UN engagements in the Middle East, such mediation in Yemen, can make little progress while tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia remain high.  UN aid agencies will struggle to find the resources to assist the suffering across the region, especially if there are fresh flare-ups of violence in Lebanon and Iraq to deal with.

In Africa, UN peacekeepers face serious ongoing conflicts in cases including South Sudan and the Central African Republic.  Presidential elections in the DRC, supposed to take place in 2018 after a controversial delay in 2016, could also result in serious violence between supporters and opponents of President Joseph Kabila.   The UN is likely to need military reinforcements in one or more of the cases to contain trouble.

The Trump administration has demanded major cuts to the peacekeeping budget, and will be skeptical of most proposals to expand existing UN forces, or launch new blue helmet operations.  A possible exception is Ukraine: Washington has indicated that it is could support the creation of a UN peacekeeping force in the east of the country to ease tensions with Russia.  While Moscow’s interest in this option is uncertain, it remains possible that the UN will launch a mission in Ukraine in 2018.

In this scenario, European countries (especially those outside NATO, such as Austria and Sweden) could face calls to provide the backbone of a credible UN presence, possibly alongside Russian-speaking troops from states such as Kazakhstan.

Security issues will not be the only source of tension at the UN in 2018.  The US has threatened to withdraw from the Human Rights Council unless the body reduces its criticism of Israel.  While European governments are working hard to persuade the US not to pull out, there is still a good chance that Washington will eventually do so.

A focus of diplomacy in New York will be migration.  UN member states are meant to agree a new compact on improving international migration management in July 2018.  This has the potential to create tensions between European governments and developing countries over how to handle large flows of migrants in cases like Libya.

There will also be negotiations in New York on proposals by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to reform the UN secretariat and development system.  Guterres has secured considerable support from UN members including the US for plans to streamline the organization’s antiquated management structures.  Yet there will be lengthy debates over the budgetary and organizational aspects of these reforms, potentially distracting Guterres and the UN system from broader global problems.

One global theme that Guterres will emphasize throughout 2018 under any circumstances is the need to strengthen the Paris climate change agreement, despite President Trump’s announcement that the US will leave the pact in 2020.

Trump has indicated he is still willing to negotiate over the issue, but real talks on revising the agreement to meet US interests are unlikely in 2018.  Instead, China will play an increasingly prominent role as a leading actor in the fight against climate change.

China is becoming an ambitious player in the UN system overall, acting increasingly assertively to promote its positions on issues including human rights.  Beijing will continue to look for ways to raise its profile at the UN through 2018 – possibly be implementing promises to send thousands of new troops on UN peacekeeping missions – and while most states will welcome this, the US may see it as a challenge.

There is a risk that the Trump administration’s relations with the UN could deteriorate further if current US ambassador in New York, Nikki Haley, stands down.  Haley is a mainstream Republican who has succeeded in moderating President Trump’s strongest anti-UN policies.  She has been tipped as a potential Secretary of State or presidential candidate, and could leave New York in 2018 to pursue higher office in Washington.  President Trump could then nominate a harder line replacement as US ambassador to the UN, reversing Haley’s moderate stance.

Despite the risks of rising tensions at the UN in 2018, however, it is worth noting that the organization continues to play a significant role in managing and containing major potential crises such as that over Korea.  The UN may be an imperfect and fragile institution, but it will be at the center of high stakes diplomacy through 2018.

The Vancouver summit on UN peacekeeping

This week, defense ministers are meeting in Vancouver to talk about UN peacekeeping.  This follows a conference hosted by President Obama on UN operations in New York in 2015 and a follow-up event in London last year.  The idea is that countries with advanced military capacities that would otherwise stay away from blue helmet commitments will pledge units to the UN.  In 2015, for example, David Cameron promised to send British personnel to Somalia and South Sudan.  Despite a bit of a wobble around Brexit, the UK has followed through on both.

In August, Japan hosted a preparatory meeting on training and capacity-building needs for peace operations in Tokyo.  Paul Williams and I wrote a background paper — you can read it at the link below.  We’ll see if any of our ideas get picked up in Vancouver (I’ll report back if they do).

Tokyo PKO Prep Meeting Background Paper

How can technology help the UN improve its effectiveness and reputation?

Ryan Gawn looks at a new report on how emerging technology can help the United Nations reform

The September gathering of world leaders has come and gone, and UN Secretary-General Guterres is now back at his desk. Whilst his attention is likely to be focussed on headlines coming from North Korea, Syria and Myanmar, he is also battling to advance reform of the UN system. As with any large bureaucracy (not least one which has to manage the expectations of 193 member states) the ever present reform agenda can quickly become  all-consuming for a Secretary-General. This leaves very little time to look outside the UN system and its political machinations, and identify challenges and opportunities on the horizon. Such as emerging technologies.

Big Questions

The pace of technological change brings with it extraordinary opportunities and challenges for the UN and its work. A new report looks ahead, shines a spotlight on the future, and makes some practical recommendations for the Secretary-General on how the UN can respond. Authored by former UK Ambassador Tom Fletcher and supported by the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, New York University and the Makhzoumi Foundation, “United Networks – How Technology can help the United Nations Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century” sets out some big questions for the future of the UN:

“How can the UN adapt its methods to the Networked Age without compromising its values? How can technology increase UN effectiveness and efficiency, build public trust, mobilise opinion and action, and weaponise compassion? How to make the sum of the parts more able to deliver on the goals set out so powerfully in the UN Charter seven decades ago?”

20 recommendations

As part of a team of expert contributors (including young people, tech gurus and activists), I led on the public engagement and political issues which emerging technologies can bring. Consulting with innovation leaders, governments, tech companies and NGOs, we were astounded by the many examples where existing technology is already being used to tackle many of the problems which the UN seeks to solve. It also makes 20 recommendations for the Secretary-General to consider, proposing international agreements (e.g. a Geneva convention on state actions in cyberspace, a universal declaration of digital rights, a single digital identity), equipping the UN with the right skills and resources (e.g. a Deputy Secretary-General for the Future, a global crowdfunding platform to fund humanitarian work, machine learning & data modelling to predict migrant and refugee flows, harnessing artificial intelligence and big data to make better decisions), and using the UN’s status to enhance citizenship and reduce extremism (e.g. diplo-bots to reduce online extremism, enhancing internet access and reducing the digital divide, a digital global curriculum).

Reputation & public engagement

A critical factor in the reform agenda and the ability of the UN to effectively innovate and harness technology is its reputation and public engagement – the UN is nothing without public, business, civil society and member state support. Considered by many to be the closest humanity has to world government, many of the criticisms of the UN are borne from the high expectations citizens have of the organisation, particularly regarding transparency, accountability, legitimacy, demonstrating impact, and regaining trust. And so in engaging with its audiences, the UN faces a profound dichotomy in managing expectations – how to balance the aspirational and moral value of the UN with the realist politics of a multilateral organisation within a cumbersome bureaucracy. UK Prime Minister Theresa May highlighted this very issue in her recent address to the General Assembly: …throughout its history the UN has suffered from a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the nobility of its purposes and the effectiveness of its delivery. When the need for multilateral action has never been greater the shortcomings of the UN and its institutions risk undermining the confidence of states as members and donors.”

The report presents this expectation / impact gap with 21st century digital twist – emerging technologies in public engagement will only exacerbate citizens’ demands for information, evidence of impact, authentic engagement, and compelling narratives on the value the UN brings. This is coupled with the rapid pace of technological change, media consumption and marketing shifts (voice, mobile, AR & VR), changes in attention spans, information expectations and social media echo chambers.

Nevertheless, emerging technologies can also help solve some of these challenges. The report provides some practical recommendations in this area, with a common thread involving harnessing technologies to provide both wider and deeper engagement – empowering audiences to both input into and communicate the UN’s work and mission. Examples include a digital first strategy, stronger authentic social media engagement by officials, a more transparent process for S-G selection, crowd sourcing of solutions, digital platforms for policy debate, chat-bots to enhance audience engagement and democratisation of user generated content to empower citizens, activists and campaigners in the digital space.”

More opportunities than challenges

An inherently optimistic report, it does not see emerging technology as a panacea to solve all the UN’s many challenges. It won’t always be as empowering and enlightening as Silicon Valley tech gods may opine, and will inherently be somewhat limited by our mere human use (or misuse) of it. Nevertheless, it recognises that there are opportunities, and that the UN must innovate with urgency or face a slow slide into under resourced decline and irrelevance. More importantly, it highlights the need for the UN to be ahead of the curve – looking outwards, partnering and engaging, and setting the agenda – just as it has already achieved in many other areas. A stronger reputation and public engagement can only help in making this aspiration a reality. As Fletcher concludes:

“If digital information is the 21st century’s most precious resource, the battle for it will be as contested as the battles for fire, axes, iron or steel. Between libertarians and control freaks. Between people who want to share ideas and those who want to exploit them. Between those who want more transparency, including many individuals, companies, and governments. And those who want more secrecy. Between old and new sources of power.”

Update – 27/09/17: United Nations opens new centre in Netherlands to monitor artificial intelligence and predict possible threats

The Global Goals – 43 countries, lots of info and some promising progress

It’s a good moment to reflect on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.  In July each year, Governments come back to the United Nations in New York to report on the progress they have made at the catchily named ‘High level Political Forum’ or HLPF for short. Ok so the name might not sound that exciting but it’s a really important moment to hold Governments to account for the promises they made when they signed up to the Global Goals just 2 years ago.

Each year a different set of Goals are in the spotlight – this year it was:

  • Goal 1. No Poverty
  • Goal 2. Zero Hunger
  • Goal 3. Good Health and Wellbeing
  • Goal 5. Gender Equality
  • Goal 9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure
  • Goal 14. Life below Water

These reviews are voluntary so there is absolutely no obligation on countries to report. Nevertheless, this year 43 countries signed themselves up (which in addition to the 22 from last year brings us up to 65 )– not bad given we’re only two years in.  The other challenge is that there is still no consistent reporting format so it’s difficult to actually compare countries. There is a huge amount of information on the HLPF website. However,  it can be a frustrating progress to figure out what is actually going on and get beneath the jargon. So, having just returned from the HLPF, here’s 5 things that jumped out at me:

  1. We should be optimistic about progress 

It’s easy to feel down about the state of the world what with the cataclysmic political changes of the last few years. There are many naysayers who think we simply can’t achieve the aspirations of the Global Goals. But there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Each year the UN releases a progress report to coincide with the HLPF. It highlights some of those reasons for optimism – from the fact that extreme poverty and the number of children dying from preventable diseases have halved in a generation to increased access to clean fuels and technology . As the brilliant Nick Kristof has pointed out, that means that every day

  • Another 250,000 people graduate from extreme poverty
  • 300,000 people gain access to electricity
  • and 285,000 get their first access to drinking water.

That’s pretty amazing right?

2.  There’s some pretty cool stuff happening nationally:

As well as the big picture, there is some impressive stuff happening on the ground. You can read every country’s review on the UN Website and if you’re a bit of a policy wonk there’s lots to dig into. Here’s a few things that caught my eye both from the HLPF and other things announced this year:

  • Innovative policy solutions to fight poverty: like India’s huge financial inclusion programme which has already reached over 300 million people. Or how about the installation in Nairobi of water ATMs enabling city dwellers to pay for water using mobile technology.
  • Donors stepping up: at the HLPF, Japan announced it would commit US$1 billion in aid in by 2018, and this year Germany became one of the few countries to meet the UN’s 0.7% aid target
  • Action on women’s empowerment: This year Canada unveiled what it called its first feminist international-assistance policy to ensure that at least 95% of the country’s aid will help improve the lives of women and girls. There’s also progress on getting more women into politics. In Kenya the High Court has ruled that at least one third of parliamentarians must be women. Let’s see what happens in this month’s election. And even though we have a long way to go in the UK the fact that we now have more women MPs than ever is a great step forward.
  • Countries are taking SDG implementation seriously: On the wonkier side many countries are really prioritising SDG implementation from Nigeria’s appointment of a presidential adviser on the SDGs to the Netherlands establishment of a high-level working group with representatives from each Ministry.

3. Leave No One Behind is getting a bit well ‘left behind’:

The commitment to Leave No One Behind was one of the most ground-breaking elements of the Global Goals. Yet whilst this was the theme of last year’s HLPF there is no stipulation to report on this. There were some countries who did emphasise the importance of this agenda like Botswana who spoke about their flagship poverty eradication programme. Civil society is also trying valiantly to keep a spotlight on the issue – including  through the Leave No One Behind partnership which Project Everyone is part of. But more needs to happen and countries should be obligated to include a report back on this element each year

4. We need better data

Data was a big topic at this year’s HLPF and whilst there’s lots of great work in this area like the work being carried out by the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data we need to step up the pace as the SDG progress reports. After all, if we don’t know what’s happening we can’t address the gaps or maximise the opportunities.

5. The Goals really are for everyone:

As mentioned, this year 43 countries reported to the UN on progress. They ranged from the rich like Denmark to some of the poorest like Afghanistan. From tiny states like Monaco to giants like Nigeria. The breadth of countries reflects the universality of the agenda. And for the richer countries – this isn’t just about what they do as donors (although this is clearly important) but also reporting on their own progress to achieving the Goals. That’s because the fight against inequality and environmental damage is relevant wherever you live. The only way we can defeat them is together.

So what’s next?

2030 is not that far off – in fact we’ve got about 1000 days till we hit the 5 year mark of 2020 and as the UN has emphasised we need to ramp up action if we’re going to have any chance of reaching those targets. It’s important that we continue to join forces – governments, business, civil society, the UN – to keep the pressure up.

For our part, Project Everyone is working with the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to bring together leaders from around the world (young and a bit older!) during the UN General Assembly for a new event called Goalkeepers. The aim is to put a spotlight on progress, delve into what needs to happen next and help galvanize action towards the Goals.

Roadmap for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies – HLPF side event

Every time I read the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, I am struck again by the magnitude of the task of delivering them. The agenda hails itself as “supremely ambitious and transformational,” which is all well and good, but only if there is equivalent ambition in implementation.

At the Center on International Cooperation, our focus is on the targets for peaceful, just and inclusive societies – not just those in SDG16, but in all Sustainable Development Goals.

We started with violence against children, helping create the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. With the partnership, we contributed to the INSPIRE strategies, the first time the international community has united behind clear recommendations to policymakers on how these forms of violence can be prevented.

Over the past year, we have supported the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a group of member states, international organizations, global partnerships, and other partners that has been convened by the governments of Brazil, Sierra Leone, and Switzerland.

Based on existing country leadership and best practice, the Pathfinders have developed a roadmap for 36 targets for peaceful, just and inclusive societies (SDG16+). For the first time, this tracks a way forward for turning the ambition of the SDG targets for peaceful, just and inclusive societies into reality.

You can read the roadmap here.

Today, the draft roadmap was presented at a side event at the High-level Political Forum in New York. Here’s what the UN Deputy-Secretary General, Amina Mohammed, had to say about the roadmap:

YouTube Preview Image

The roadmap proposes three cross-cutting strategies:

  • Invest in prevention so that all societies and people reach their full potential.
  • Transform institutions so that they can meet aspirations for a more prosperous, inclusive and sustainable future.
  • Include and empower people so that they can fulfill their potential to work for a better future.

It sets out nine catalytic actions: on violence against women, children and vulnerable groups, building safer cities, prevention for the most vulnerable countries, access to justice, legal identity, tackling corruption and illicit flows, open government, empowering people as agents of change, and respecting rights and promoting gender equality. around a common agenda.

The roadmap is the result of an extensive process of consultation and debate, and will be finalized in the coming weeks. We will then launch it in September, at the High-level week of the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly.

The Pathfinders will then continue their work as a platform for action. The group will not displace existing activity, but will act as a ‘docking station’, bringing partners from across the world together around a shared vision.

The focus is on the High-level Political Forum in 2019, when Presidents and Prime Ministers will gather for a summit on the 2030 Agenda and ask ‘what have you achieved over the past four years?’

Will we have a good answer to that question?

Page 1 of 508123...102030...Last »