Frontier issues



UN Secretary General António Guterres


Sanjana Hattotuwa


Or as a colleague from the United Nations recently quipped, more like front-door issues. The new UN Secretary General António Guterres is an engineer and academic. The second helps him understand complexity. The first makes him want to fix things. It’s a good combination. For the first time in many years, the UN is under-going a comprehensive, systemic reboot. It will take many years and will invariably frustrate even the best laid plans, but the optimism around revamping the institution is palpable. The thrust is twofold – one, to make the UN system better able to understand and respond to contemporary challenges; two, to inject institutional agility to a degree that enables the UN system proactively deal with contours of conflict, instability and disparities in the years to come. Combined with this is a desire to better understand the opportunities that new technologies bring to the mandates of UN agencies and departments.


I’ve had this in mind over the past two weeks, which have been unusually hectic. Over the previous weekend, I moderated a discussion on the future of digital conversations in Sri Lanka, looking at how new technologies are changing the way society sees and organises itself, and as a consequence, the political fabric of the country. I spoke on a UNESCO organised panel on fighting impunity against journalists in Sri Lanka, which also flagged how digital surveillance impacts the freedom of expression. I have on three occasions and in very different fora, including with diplomats based in Colombo, dealt with the growing challenges faced by Maldivian activists and independent journalists in their country and the need to create virtual networks of solidarity and content sharing resilient enough to withstand infiltration, disruption or systemic corruption. I’ve meet with several leading agencies in the United Nations system in New York and Geneva, including individuals at the cutting-edge of thinking around issues like Big Data, artificial intelligence, business intelligence, predictive analytics, data visualisation, ethics, data governance, human rights, change management and future scenario development. In an hour-long interaction with the Build Peace Summit held in Bogota, Colombia over Skype video, I dealt with how new technologies and social media, including the so-called ‘fake news’ phenomenon, will deeply impact peace negotiations, especially in the future.


Two things are worth noting. It’s when you leave Sri Lanka that you realise what a small island we are, and how what we are so completely consumed by when in the country, pales into insignificance when travelling outside of it. On the other hand, what we have endured in Sri Lanka and continue to live with is also ahead of the curve in many domains. What the West now considers a threat to democracy and electoral processes – fake news – is the same propaganda on steroids that we have suffered under for many years, under successive governments. What we did around the creation of sophisticated and secure digital communications networks to combat violence, illiberal governance and authoritarian rule are now templates for others, around the world, to follow and learn from. The innovation as a consequence of necessity, the resilience as a consequence of adversity, the challenges as a consequence of corruption, systemic failure of government and bureaucratic dysfunctionality – these are all things we are used to and take in our stride. Our insights now have trans-national value and application.


Which brings me to the UN Secretary General’s interest in what he terms ‘frontier issues’ – things that will define the operational context for the UN in the years to come, as both threats and opportunities. Artificial Intelligence (AI) features heavily in these discussions and at first glance, isn’t all that relevant in Sri Lanka. But take how 18-34-year olds in our country engage with the world and consume news and information. Anyone with a Google or Facebook account linked to their smartphone now can automatically get context-aware, location-sensitive, individually tailored messages in a timely manner – ranging from reminders to travel times, incorporating traffic congestion. AI already helps power rapid fire responses to emails and instant messages, based on their actual content. We all inhabit invisible cocoons that are generated by algorithms that now monitor and track our every mouse-click, glance and thumb press and swipe. Almost every aspect of our lives – actively generated or passively captured – now generates raw data, which is aggregated, commodified and sold to bidders which include governments. That can and does lead to more effective and efficient governance. It can also contribute directly to a degree of authoritarianism that binds those under it to a surveillance so pervasive, even opting out by disconnecting completely from everything would mark them out as miscreants. In a short span of time, what we see as photos, what we hear as sound, and what we consume as moving visuals can and will all be digitally manipulated in real time, in a manner indistinguishable to the human eye and comprehension. Imagine this future, with the sophisticated misinformation campaigns already conducted over social media in Sri Lanka using news feeds and social media accounts to mobilise a young demographic to rally, vote or violently react against something. And yet, there is rich opportunity here as well, to use the same algorithms to strengthen, secure and sustain dignity, diversity and democracy. The question is whether government and civil society are aware of what these opportunities are, and how to leverage them.


What binds the new UN Secretary General’s vision for a revamped UN with the discussions I’ve had with so many is, in the main, a global as well as local trust deficit around institutions, which are failing citizens. The resulting void is filled by commercial entities and solutions that often make us products, stripping us of basic rights even as we enjoy the convenience of technologies that respond to the way we live, think and work. There is no easy technocratic solution to what is essentially a growing democratic deficit, even in peacetime. Disenchantment with and distrust of political institutions continues even under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. Promises made in international fora, the 2025 economic vision, the technocratic bias – these only appeal to and stick mostly with those who are already benefitting from an architecture that alienates the vulnerable, the traditional farmer, the soldier, the ex-combatant, pockets of extreme poverty in the South, and entire communities in the North. How can AI help governments comprehend what they aren’t plugged into or cognisant of? How can citizen generated data like mobile reloads help us understand the impact of socio-economic policies? What impact does misinformation have on socio-economic progress, if left unchecked and allowed to grow amongst a population who cannot distinguish between fact and fiction? What investments are those who seek power making in the domain of social media that allows them to influence first time voters in ways they cannot easily identify as partisan propaganda? How are we protecting the privacy of citizens, even as we embrace the potential of enabling them with ID cards that allow them easier access to basic goods and services?


Small countries like Sri Lanka are a hotbed of conversations, tensions, fault lines as well as innovation, opportunities, ideas and experience that allow us to see beyond the obvious, including in envisioning the future. Maybe that’s where the UN also needs to start – to recognise that the frontier issues already identified are already old hat for many around the world, and that to truly reform, the UN needs to actively listen to those outside its usual concentric circles of advisors.


The Global South writ large has much to offer in this regard. Will the UN listen?


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