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 bicycle theory of social change

Something odd is happening on the streets of London. Cyclists are obeying the law in droves. On my daily cycle from home to work, it’s rare now to see anyone jumping a red light, or cycling the wrong way up a one way street, or cutting across a busy pavement.  Not unheard of, of course (so please don’t bother telling me about the exceptions), but rare.

The laws haven’t changed, but the behaviour has. So being a little bored with cycling the same route every day for 3 years, I started wondering why this might be. Two possible reasons. It might just be volume. When there are more people on bikes, they all seem to become more law-abiding. One cyclist on their own at a relatively empty junction will often still jump a red light. But once there are three or four, the power of peer pressure seems to keep those feet off the pedals and encourage almost everyone to stay put until the lights change.

Secondly, I wonder if people are starting to see the laws a bit differently. As cyclist deaths received more publicity, it seemed to me that riding got better. I don’t think it’s just because people are scared – any cyclist knows that crossing a busy junction during the pedestrian wave is much safer than waiting until the lights change and all the cars and lorries are thundering off as well. Instead, I wonder if it’s because cyclists feel that there’s more in it for them to obey the law. They want to be protected from bad and illegal and careless drivers – well, they have to do their bit too. And there seems more point in obeying a law that has something in it for you, rather than one that’s just an irritating inconvenience.

So that’s my theory of social change as demonstrated by London cyclists. Peer pressure and a bit of a tweak to the social contract underpinning a legal system can actually make people obey the law. Any lessons there for tax evaders?

The meanest goddamn debate about the UN ever

Academics and policy wonks are mainly mild-mannered folk.  I know that I am.  But occasionally it’s fun to cut loose and have a really nasty debate with an intellectual opponent.  The New Internationalist gave Phil Leech of Liverpool University and me a chance to do just that by asking us to conduct a debate on abolishing the Security Council for their latest issue.  Our debate quickly and entertainingly turned into the IR academic equivalent of professional wresting.

Phil started off by stating the case for the Council’s abolition:

The UN Security Council (UNSC), in its current form, represents an antiquated approach to international politics.

The original intention behind its creation was for it to be an executive arm of the UN, enforcing the will of the international community against rogue states, ensuring compliance with international norms and promoting world peace. However, in reality the Security Council has proven to be Western-centric, overly concerned with the rights and interests of states – rather than that of individual human beings or human societies – and incompatible with the very urgent need to address many of the key issues and challenges of the contemporary world.

I actually agree with a lot of that, but I wasn’t going to admit defeat so easily..

You are right: the Security Council, like life, is not fair. But it was never meant to be.

Time for me to ramp up the battle!

Let’s pursue your proposal: scrap the Council. What, if anything, would you replace it with? A forum for NGOs? Oxfam and Amnesty International would have more humane and edifying debates than China and the US, but what could they deliver? Perhaps we should select 15 entirely random individuals from around the world to debate war and peace in place of the Council’s current members.

Phil strikes back:

You seem to accept both the inherent unfairness of the system and its inefficacies –which, you concede, constitute the politicization of international norms, sometimes at great human cost – merely because of a poverty of creative thought. I am unconvinced.

Ouch!  Me again:

I may not be thinking very creatively, but your alternative adds up to a couple of slogans.

If you want to find out what Phil had to say to that, read through the full multilateral wrestling-match here.  Rest assured that we made up afterwards!

A UN translator’s tale

The London Review of Books has a nice piece by Lynn Visson, a former UN translator, on the secrets of her trade:

The most important language in most international organisations has no name: it is the institution’s own bureaucratese, its linguistic Esperanto. We never do something, we implement. We don’t repeat, we reiterate and underscore. We are never happy, we are gratified or satisfied. You are never doing a great job: you are performing your duties in the outstanding manner in which you have always discharged them. There is not heft or embezzlement, but rather failure to ensure compliance with proper accounting and auditing procedures in the handling of financial resources. This is a language the interpreter must master very early on.

But sometimes there are surprises…

Some colleagues play tic-tac-toe with each other out of sheer boredom. Delegates too sometimes get bored. Instead of beginning his speech with the usual ‘Thank you, Mr Chairman,’ a Russian delegate for whom I was interpreting launched in with ‘O my lost youth, my lost youth,’ and proceeded to reminisce about the mosaics in the main cathedral in Sofia, including one figure in the cupola that reminded him, as he put it, of ‘Christ in a space suit’. Several delegates turned towards the English booth with puzzled looks, undoubtedly wondering if I had gone mad.

…and sometimes things go horribly wrong:

One unfortunate freelancer announced to an entire room that a Spanish speech he had just finished translating was ‘the stupidest and most boring speech I have ever interpreted in my entire life’. I doubt that he was ever hired again.

Going postal

Dear reader, there is nothing make fun of here.  Nothing.

9 October

World Post Day is celebrated each year on 9 October, the anniversary of the establishment of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in 1874 in the Swiss capital, Berne. It was declared World Post Day by the UPU Congress held in Tokyo, Japan, in 1969.

Awareness

The purpose of World Post Day is to create awareness of the role of the postal sector in people’s and businesses’ everyday lives and its contribution to the social and economic development of countries. The celebration encourages member countries to undertake programme activities aimed at generating a broader awareness of their Post’s role and activities among the public and media on a national scale.

 

OK, a small smile may be permissible…

Why diplomats enjoy the UN General Assembly (hint: it’s not the post-2015 development agenda)

Thank you, New York Post, for finally bursting the UN General Assembly bubble:

Midtown jiggle joint Flashdancers has seen a lot of action thanks to the United Nations General Assembly.

“The place has been so packed with diplomats, they’ve had to turn away people at the door,” says a source.

But when we asked for the names of diplos dining out — and perhaps getting private lap dances on their countries’ cash — we were ­refused.

The source added, “None of the diplomats have been super wild, they’re all enjoying themselves but remaining very low-key.”