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

Action/2015 –the official verdict or why coalitions are totally worth it

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On April 22nd, about 160 countries are expected to officially sign the Paris Climate Agreement which was negotiated last year. It was one of the two international deals agreed by Heads of State in 2015 which made it such a critical year for international development and for millions of activists and citizens around the world. The second was the agreement of the new Sustainable Development Goals-  or the Global Goals –  which provide a new and ambitious framework to tackle poverty, inequality and climate change.

The global coalition – action/2015 – was formed because of those two historic deals.  It brought together civil society around the world – from the big organisations like World Vision to small grassroots groups and networks– to campaign together across sectors and geographies.  As Head of the action/2015 campaign for Save the Children, one of the organisations at the heart of the action, I was one of those campaigners.

With the signing of the climate deal this week and the independent evaluation of the campaign concluded (which you can read here), it feels like a pretty good time to step back and reflect on what worked, what didn’t and what we can learn for the future

When action/ 2015 was first conceived, lots of people were sceptical. And there’s no denying it was ambitious. The idea of bringing together diverse sectors from climate and development across hundreds of countries with different cultures, languages and attitudes to campaigning in just under two years seemed pretty unachievable to many – especially those who had worked in coalitions before! I have to admit when I started on the campaign at the end of 2014 I had similar qualms – could we really pull it off?

But, I’m proud to say the campaign proved the sceptics wrong. The official evaluation highlights in its 7 main conclusions that one of the key impacts of the campaign was that global civil society groups learned to work together. I would caveat that to say that action/2015 helped them to work better together but the sense of solidarity that grew across the campaign was undeniable. it worked because of the campaign’s loose, fluid structure that meant individual organisations or national coalitions could take the content and tactics they liked, adapt them to their own contexts and leave the bits that didn’t work for them.  It was also crucial that this was not a campaign with specific policy asks but was  focused on mobilisation.

“The main reason we got involved is because it is a unique campaign. It links global to local, and it aims at mobilising citizens. This was unique meaning that we usually target policy makers, but this was more about masses, numbers, reaching out to everybody. And that attracted me. It was something different.” , Participating organisation, Africa

The other main point that leaps out is the conclusion that ‘action/2015 made meaningful steps towards Southern ownership of a global campaign’. By the end of the campaign 80% of its members were based in the South.  The campaign’s centre of gravity definitely felt like it was much more in the cities, towns and villages of India or the streets of Costa Rica and Kenya than Northern capitals.

Big NGOs did play a driving role in the campaign, but in a different way than in previous campaigning. I’m proud that Save the Children took much more of a backseat, deploying resources and support to help civil society all over the world campaign.

It certainly wasn’t an easy campaign and we didn’t get everything right. In many ways we were building the car as we were driving and there’s no doubt with more resources and time  we could have achieved more but what the campaign did achieve should not be dismissed. Millions of people mobilised to take action, a new generation of activists inspired, some amazing backers from Malala to One Direction, a strong basis laid to ensure the successful implementation of both deals and a new model of campaigning.

So the big question now is what next?  The evaluation sets out 10 lessons. Some of them might sound obvious like leaving enough time for planning and the importance of proper evaluation but these are often the mistakes made again and again.

Tax injustice, the refugee crisis and global health challenges like Zika – these are all issues that have been hitting the headlines. The new frameworks we have could arguably have helped prevent many of the inequalities that lead to and exacerbate s these and similar crises and they can definitely help reduce their likelihood in the future. But that won’t happen unless people know about the deals and are able to hold their leaders to account. That’s why a sustained and concerted campaign building on the momentum and goodwill generated last year is vital.  We need to campaign less about the frameworks themselves but campaign about them through the real life lens of people’s lives.

Campaigning is about trying new things and being prepared for some things not to work.Yes if we were to do action/2015 again I’d do some things differently but I would keep the same level of ambition and the open, inclusive campaigning model. action/2015 has built a huge appetite for campaigning together all around the world which we must harness. I can’t put it any better than one of the action/2015 campaigners from Africa – “I got more friends and when you have more friends you feel stronger.

Which countries can broker a deal on the post-2015 development agenda?

When the High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda was announced, Alex Evans laid out a useful typology of the five kinds of people you find on high level panels. They were:

  1. Visionaries: Those who already know the overall message they want a panel to send and push the process towards that message (whether others buy in or not).
  2. Experts and Problem-solvers: Those who are capable of engaging on almost any issue, even if they don’t want to steer the overall storyline. They can be incredibly useful in brokering deals, challenging lazy thinking, and generally steering the process towards a successful conclusion.
  3. Single-issue evangelists: Those who care about one thing in this agenda, and one thing only.
  4. Blockers: Those who are more focused on their government’s redlines than on what they can bring to the table or what kind of overall story or deal can be crafted.
  5. Dead wood: Those who can’t be bothered to engage.

It strikes me that the typology is equally relevant to categorizing the potential role of UN member states in forging an agreement on the post-2015 development agenda and financing for development. While many activists are interested in identifying influencers and potential spoilers, I am more intrigued by the role that problem-solving nations could play. Who are the nations willing to challenge conventional wisdom, to bring evidence to bear, to do the diplomatic legwork required to understand member state positions and propose ways forward?

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Reactions to the Secretary-General’s synthesis report

UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon

UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon

The post-2015 synthesis report was never going to be an easy task. No one can envy UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon his responsibility, mandated by UN member states last September, of writing a synthesis report of the many strands of the post-2015 development agenda. He certainly had his work cut out for him in bringing together the proposal from the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, the Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing, the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons, the Independent Expert Advisory Group, and the many other inputs, consultations and discussions on post-2015 over the past couple of years.

The report is a fine effort in the face of these challenges, but fails to effectively deliver key messages. The criteria for a successful SG report at this stage are that it: 1) bring everyone together around an inspirational narrative; 2) galvanize support around the message that it is time to roll up our sleeves, because the work is far from done; 3) bring technical expertise or conceptual clarity to a complex process; 4) move the process forward. While the synthesis makes progress on some fronts, notably in starting to piece together an inspirational narrative, it largely fails to accomplish these aims. Partially that is because the report is too lengthy, thus mixing a few more solid, thoughtful messages with other, seemingly hastily constructed ones. At times it is more of a list than a synthesis. Continue reading

Ending poverty through climate action in the Post-2015 development agenda

The post-2015 development agenda offers an extraordinary opportunity to tackle the world’s two most pressing challenges—poverty and climate change. A recent report from the Center for American Progress outlines a practical strategy for policymakers to ensure the new framework tackles both.

While it is sometimes tempting to despair that countries around the world are incapable of crafting multilateral solutions that are equal to the world’s most pressing challenges, there are tremendous opportunities for international agreements to bring about real change and accelerate progress.

In 2015, a pair of international summits – one to agree on a set of sustainable development goals, the other a new climate agreement – present a tremendous opportunity. These efforts can and should complement one another.

Where countries failed to fully integrating environmental concerns into the Millennium Development Goals, they have an unprecedented opportunity now to ensure that the new goals complement and mutually enforce global development and climate solutions.

In a new report from the Center for American Progress, a couple of colleagues and I outline specific, measurable targets to be incorporated into future development goals. These targets focus on specific actions that fight poverty and reduce the catastrophic effects of climate change, and support sustainable agriculture and food security, economic growth and infrastructure, sustainable energy, ecosystems, and healthy lives.

If adopted as part of the post-2015 development agenda, these targets would help drive investments and sensible actions by local and national governments, multilateral development banks, international organizations, and the private sector to end poverty and build a more resilient and sustainable future for generations to come.

Implementing the Post-2015 Development Agenda in the United States

In a new report from the Center for American Progress, we explore the implications of implementing the post-2015 development agenda in the United States.

Given the massive changes in the world since 2000, when the Millennium Development Goals were adopted the United Nations headquarters, it should come as no surprise that the post-2015 development agenda is shaping up to be quite different from the MDGs. One of the most profound shifts is that the post-2015 will be a universal agenda.

To echo the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (HLP), a universal agenda is based upon true global partnership, a joint endeavor to end poverty and promote sustainable development. Universality signals a transition away from the North-South dynamic that has defined development policy for decades.Though the specifics are still unclear – in particular how best to accommodate varying national circumstances and contexts – the basic idea is that every country would have work to do, both at home and as members of the global community, in order to achieve the post-2015 development agenda.

While an incredible amount of energy is focused on the what of the post-2015 development agenda, relatively less attention has been paid to the all-important question of how it will be implemented.

In this new report, John Norris, Casey Dunning, and I explore what implementing the post-2015 development agenda might look like from the perspective of the United States. The result of our analysis is a report, Universality In Focus. We use the illustrative set of goals and targets set out by the HLP as our starting point, identifying the achievability, measurability, and merit of each target, and as appropriate, the potential level of ambition for the U.S. in meeting such targets.

Rather than a definitive analysis of a very broad and complicated set of issues, it is our hope that this report is the start of a more specific and focused conversation on implementation and the practical implications of universality in the post-2015 development agenda. We would hope that others undertake similar analysis in different countries, to further inform the ongoing conversations among diplomats in New York.

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Sustainable development goals, targets and…clusters?

The UN’s Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG) will meet next week to discuss potential goals and targets to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire in 2015. The OWG and its co-Chairs deserve praise for making significant progress in an incredibly complex process involving an overwhelming number of issues and actors.

The OWG co-Chairs have admirably attempted to reduce a long list of development priorities into 8 “clusters” for discussion (issued last week), following reactions to the 19 “focus areas” they released last month. Many asserted that 19 is too many, compared to the 8 goals of the MDGs. Though the co-Chairs are careful to caution that the focus areas are not goals – and that the clusters are simply for discussion – these caveats are generally ignored. The co-Chairs themselves have indicated they would like to have a better sense of the sustainable development goals and targets by the end of next week. Under considerable pressure to provide structure, producing the 8 clusters is a natural attempt to meet these demands. But any clustering of issues at this point will inevitably raise questions.

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