Erik (HASH) Hersman

Can The UN Change How The World Thinks About Digital Cooperation?

Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals requires a fundamental re-thinking of how the world approaches digital cooperation and digital inclusiveness.

This is the key takeaway from the first-ever UN report on the Digital Cooperation, released yesterday at the United Nations.

The report was written by a commission c0-chaired by the tech and philanthropy giants, Melinda Gates and Jack Ma. But the commissioners also included a diverse array of technologists, civil society activists and government officials who convened one year ago to launch a special “High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation,” which they defined as “ways we work together to address the social, ethical, legal and economic impact of digital technologies in order to maximise their benefits and minimize their harm. ”

What is perhaps most interesting about this report is how it seeks to move the conversation beyond what is known as closing the “digital divide,” which refers to populations who are excluded from access to digital technologies. To be sure, the panel acknowledges the value and urgency of improving access to digital technologies. But they also demand that we move beyond that framework to a broader agenda of inclusiveness and equity.

“Access is a necessary, but insufficient, step forward,” says the report. “To capture the power of digital technologies we need to cooperate on the broader ecosystems that enable digital technologies to be used in an inclusive manner. This will require policy frameworks that directly support economic and social inclusion, special efforts to bring traditionally marginalised groups to the fore, important investments in both human capital and infrastructure, smart regulatory environments, and significant efforts to assist workers facing disruption from technology’s impact on their livelihoods.”

It is from the fundamental insight that digital technology must be a force for equality that much of the report’s recommendations follow. This includes creating new modes and new platforms for multi-lateral, and what the report calls “multi-stakeholder” cooperation.




Why a Report Like This Matters

Digital technology clearly has huge potential to facilitate social and economic development among historically marginalized communities. But what sets this report apart is that it guards against a kind of techno-optimism that  might exaggerate the potential of digital technology to advance well-being. Rather, the report approaches digital technologies as an almost neutral force, one that could either contribute to growing inequality or be harnessed to promote inclusiveness.

In the launch of the report, the Secretary General alluded to this when he referenced his own time as Prime Minister of Portugal in the mid-1990s, a time when discussions and debates about the inevitable creation of wealth around “globalization” dominated policy discussions.  “Twenty years ago, I was in government and we had a naive optimism about globalization,” he said in an interview on UN TV.  “We thought that globalization would not only generate enormous wealth — which it did — but that it would trickle down and benefit everybody. But it was not true. Inequalities have grown.”

Preventing the ever-expanding role of digital technologies in the global economy from being a catalyst for inequality, and designing ways that global digital cooperation can be harnessed to not just improve people’s lives, but reduce inequality is a key focus of the report. The challenge, now, is for policy makers and stakeholders from various sectors to follow through with these recommendations.