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Is the U.N. ready for Web 2.0?

By Peter Hulm

Is the U.N. ready for the digital revolution, with its fundamental impact on e-democracy and open government?

To judge from a one-day conference organized by the DiploFoundation and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) on 19 June 2013, the answer is: not for a long time yet.

Don’t just count the numbers of people in the room. One Geneva break-out session at the World Meteorological Organization had four or five participants, but thanks to the magic of e-participation, another 49 people were following the discussion on the Internet.

Just as important, you have to get the right people with you in the room, and they may not be numerous at all. Monika Gehner of the World Health Organization revealed that her social media communications department has only two people. The United Nations Development Programme was perhaps the most pioneering U.N. organization present, physically or digitally, with regard to social media. But Silke von Brockhausen of UNDP was alone in her department until recently.

So the participants may have been few, but they were probably some of the most active and influential social media specialists you could have found in Geneva. At the same time, it was an indicator of how little the U.N. bodies are investing in the effort to go beyond traditional media relations.

Experts not targets

Giulio Quaggiotto from UNDP Bratislava, taking part in the DiPLO/GCSP conference remotely, put his finger on another key problem facing UN organizations who want to adapt to Web 2.0, as the interactive Internet has been dubbed.

Citizen engagement in the digital revolution is a matter of design, he argues. “Oftentimes technology is not the major issue.”

Instead, he said, the UN needs to start looking at the people it is seeking to engage with not as targets of programmes implemented from remote offices. We need to treat them as experts on the issues the organization is trying to tackle, he told the conference on “a more open UN”.

Local people often are the “smart sensors” who can tell you what is wrong and what needs to be done. Often, too, they have developed their own solutions. One participant in a recent UNDP Hackathon programming fest was a 75-year-old pensioner who developed his own open-data portal of local government information out of frustration at trying to prise the details from authorities online.

Discover local problem solvers

The international aid community needs to discover what local people have invented to solve their local problems, said the UNDP official. Perhaps they don’t need international experts to fly in and analyse their problems for them. Quaggiotto, a former private sector and World Bank employee, praised Global Giving for its efforts to match up donors with people who are developing local solutions on the ground, and Maker Faire Africa for giving the spotlight to people who have carried out their own R & D. The Council of Europe, with UNDP support, created EdgeRyders as a project gathering together citizen experts to contribute to development solutions, he added.

Quaggiotto is Practice Leader, Knowledge and Information for UNDP’s Regional Centre for Eastern Europe and CIS. He describes his job as leading a team who research the latest trends in technology and citizen engagement and explore ways to turn them into development results “on a cheap budget”.

“We need to rethink our whole approach,” he urges.


Just how difficult this can be for UN organizations participants learned, if they did not already know, from WHO and the International Telecommunication Union.

WHO, with its two-person team for 7000 staff, now flags its Disease Outbreak news on Twitter before posting to the Web, hoping to reach journalists more quickly that way. But the need to speak as a neutral secretariat, rather than as policymakers (its member states), makes the job of disseminating the news more cumbersome. One journalist participant, who followed the SARS virus story through WHO’s media as well as via the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported that he regularly found CDC providing information more quickly than WHO.

Anders Norsker of ITU, working at the coalface of the UN’s promise to make multilingual services a feature of remote participation in meetings, pointed to the importance of physical encounters and networking at conferences: 8220;We need coffee breaks.”

What is difficult to organize is a mixed remote and face-to-face session. The DiPLO/GCSP conference got round some of the difficulties by bundling together questions before giving the microphone to panellists for their answers, and remote participants via Twitter or the Web received precedence over the in-your-face audience. It worked better than it sounds, though sometimes the moderators were not up to handling all the technology. And it wouldn’t fit diplomatic protocols in more official meetings, noted Jovan Kurbalija of DiploFoundation.

Nevertheless, today we have all the technology needed to organize remote meetings, Norsker pointed out. After all, we trust airlines to get us to our destinations using technology and we happily pay bills via the Internet.

Four principles for e-conferencing

That said, the diplomatic system brought into being by the treaty of Westphalia 400 years ago has advantages the technologists have not yet managed to improve on: how do we deal with accreditation, verification of identities, security and authentication of documents? Similarly, how can a digital meeting handle points of order, voting and the question of a quorum of participants? For multilingual conferences, the quality of sound has to be acceptable to translators.

So long as e-meetings are described as being in a pilot phrase, he observed, organizers were given an easy ride. Remote participation can only be a new service, not a substitute for face-to-face talks, Norsker underlined. As a result, he suggested four principles for integrating e-conferencing into organizations:

• Don’t try to force it through (be tolerant).

• Train everyone, get experience in managing discussions.

• Be patient (particularly with technical glitches).

• Protect the integrity of the physical meeting.

Broad aims vs narrow focus

UNDP is trying to decentralize its efforts, von Brockhausen told the meeting. It has staff in 130 countries using social media networks, with a community of 850,000 people, and communications in several national languages. But Twitter analytics show that most of the followers are male, and UNDP still has to roll out a fully developed blog platform.

The Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria takes the opposite approach. Claudia Gonzalez, Head of Marketing at the Global Fund and a star in the social media firmament for her appearances on TED talks and for YouTube videos of bigwig supporters, said her organization emphasizes blogs (through an agreement with the Huffington Post website) and high profile videos. It has put together 400 clips of leading politicians and business executives giving short statements in support of the Global Fund.

The Fund identified 5000 prominent people to target in its campaign to persuade governments and organizations to give money to reach its $15 billion replenishment target this year.

As a result, its campaign known as The Big Push, launched in September 2012, is probably unknown to the general public. The Fund’s strategy is to create a “bubble” for ministers and international leaders to rally support for the fund’s activities and goals. She described it as “opinion leaders reaching out to decision leaders. The number is not as important as the chain of influence.”

Asked how the Fund managed to get celebrities to openly support its goals, Gonzalez saw no mystery. Everyone, even important people, likes to be associated with a good cause. But how to get blogging decision-makers to pass on your message? “Through your vision“, she responded. The Fund’s approach is “Let me talk to your heart as distinct from your head.”

Under attack

No matter how effective and efficient as a means of directing your energies to the places most likely to produce results, it is not a strategy that United Nations bodies can comfortably adopt, since it is easily open to allegations of elitism. Guy Girardet, DiPLO's Head of E-diplomacy, eplained why - e-participation:

• is limited to the connected

• skews results in favour of the online educated

• polarizes, giving undue influence to special interest groups, and

• encourages “clicktivism”: clicking the Like button is all you need to do to feel you have done your civic duty.

Quaggiotto also made this last point. Hackathons are all very well in producing prototype answers to problems. But “the person who is missing is a policymaker,” he said. “If someone does not take action […] your great prototype is not going to have an effect.”

But are all these objections just ways for the UN to avoid tackling the problems? All these questions have a technological answer or benefits that can outweigh any drawbacks. Think of the private initiative that put together read-write online data for tackling Haiti’s problems during its latest environmental disaster, noted Tim Davies of the University of Southampton. In Kenya, a World Bank backed initiative has created an app for finding local schools with details of their performance. The principles of the G8’s Open Data Charter announced the day before are becoming mainstream already in countries like the UK and US. "People aren’t talking. They are doing it now."

The chances are, it seems to me, that some day people will decide the problems are no longer important and simply get on with implementing e-participation. I’ve known a number of international organizations where insuperable obstacles have suddenly vanished with the arrival of a new director and the decision to press ahead with a favourite project. Within a couple of days everyone forgets the previous objections. In international organizations, as British Prime Minister Harold Wilson might well have told us, a week is a long time. Unless the decision is so disastrous or egregious people cannot help but remember its failings.


Full information on the conference, with additional articles, is available at Here you can read Quaggiotto’s mantra: “Today it is safer for most bureaucracies to assume that most smart people work outside of their walls, and most importantly they will never want to work for [you]. You are a) too boring, b) too callous, c) too unrewarding, or d) too irrelevant (or a combination of all of the above).“

As of 25 June, several of the presentations are available at, and videos of most sessions are on YouTube via the program on the DiPLO website. Here's the bitly version:

Why can’t other international meetings give you as good a backgrounding?

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