ICT: Fundamental to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals


GRETE FAREMO, Under Secretary Gene​ral and Executive Director of the UN Of​fice for Project Services (UNOPS)
Speech at the Swiss IT Leadership Forum,
27 June 2017

Download speech here.


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It's a great pleasure to address you today to discuss how we can work together to solve some of the biggest challenges of our generation.​

My organization, UNOPS, helps implement the Sustainable Development Goals – the 17 universal priorities agreed on by UN Member States. Along with the Paris Agreement to fight climate change and the Addis Ababa agreement on Financing for Development, these fall under the 2030 Agenda. And we have less than fifteen years to accomplish them.​

Behind these global goals are many considerations. Fundamental to all is technology. 

I cannot underscore how crucial this element is. The 2030 Agenda aims to include all people - to leave no one behind. This is an ambitious but achievable goal. 

No one will benefit more from cutting-edge technology than the Least Developed Countries. 

Green growth and affordable social solutions anywhere in the world will be dependent on this agenda. Wherever they live, young people must be offered education, jobs and hope. We cannot continue polluting the world as we do today. 

There will simply not be enough pairs of hands available to deliver welfare the "old fashioned" way. Implementation will require funding well beyond annual ODA of $150 billion – the deficit for infrastructure funding alone is estimated to be around 2 trillion each year.


The need for new solutions

So where do we stand today in the UN? The UN is at a crossroads. We have a new Secretary General, who has set out on an ambitious reform agenda. Beneath the surface of the UN, it's fair to say that many of the processes that underpin operations are antiquated. Many would say this is a generous statement. And many of these processes are driven by ICT. Here is just one area, where there may be a need for new solutions.


UNOPS role

Established some 20 years ago, UNOPS is a unique UN organization. We are the operational arm of the UN and implement around 1000 projects around the world each year.

UNOPS works in conflict-affected areas and in the poorest and most vulnerable countries. We have a strong local presence. Our personnel know what it takes on the ground to implement successful projects. We have experience with policies and regulatory frameworks in around half of the countries of the world. We are also familiar with the banking systems, education levels, logistics, trust levels, and cultural conditions and restraints within the countries where we operate.​

We are fully self-financed and have no core funding. We live off our competence, capacity and reputation. We benchmark ourselves against international best practices. We owe it to those who trust in our ability — the people we serve, to be on par with the best in our industry, and always open to new solutions.

This is why, in an era of UN reform, we are working to translate new technologies into practical solutions. Blockchain, AI, I will come to these later. But they are just the start. What's important is that we have a common vision of a sustainable future - and technology is at the heart of it.

Private partnerships and innovation

To realise this future, we must focus on two key priorities.

Partnerships are fundamental. We need you in order to drive innovation. Only by bringing ever more efficient and effective solutions to the millions of people in need, can we aim to achieve the ambitious Agenda 2030.

Just over 40 percent of our work is for the UN. A quarter is directly for governments. We also work with foundations and increasingly with the private sector. We build roads, schools and hospitals. We improve waste and water management. We help build institutions and local capacity. In 2016, we created 3 million work days for local people.

There are many examples of industry bringing new ideas and innovation in support of sustainable development. From off-grid energy solutions to improving the lives of refugees through better facilities at camps, industry has contributed to more sustainable ways to approach humanitarian emergencies. The world needs rapid responses and solutions that work.

The driver of innovation is the pursuit of solutions to real needs. And in today's increasingly connected world, needs are rarely limited to a local context. It is in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia and the Pacific where innovation and leapfrogging of old technologies could make the most change for good through solutions for clean water, renewable energy, better healthcare and housing.

Increasingly, these are also the parts of the world where the rapid growth markets lie.

And with growth markets comes economic opportunities. There are practically no limits to what we could do to improve the livelihoods of millions who are striving for a better life, and to whom technology could make a huge difference. 

So just imagine how the world will change when we create smart phone apps that can register new AIDS, TB or diabetes patients and monitor their treatments. When we enable rural farmers to get bank accounts through their phones: When easy-to-use computerized tax systems reduce corruption, increase tax revenue and assure tax payers that their money is well spent. Imagine how we can do this not only through isolated examples, but at scale, from local communities to continents. And what is the key to scaling marketable products and services? ICT technology.

We currently operate three global innovation centres in China, where for example, we connect farmers to regional and international markets. A successful innovation centre is, of course, based on local needs. For instance, a local or national government wants to create jobs for its own population and tax revenue for itself. ​

This model is popular – we are exploring the potential to roll out this model in places like Dubai, Japan, Canada, Nepal, even in Caribbean island and Pacific island states.


ICT solutions

You may ask, what could the transformational power of ICT bring to a country like Somalia.

In that case I can provide an example. In Somalia, we have been working to help establish a first-of-a-kind electronic payment system for the Somali police. Reducing fraud and enhancing peace and security is the big picture, but if you can't do that in a transparent way that eliminates corruption, your attempts will be undermined.

In Nepal is another example. The country is rebuilding following the 2015 earthquake that destroyed the lives of millions. We want to make sure rebuilding happens based on the most comprehensive and up to date dataset available. So here, we carried out detailed field assessments to survey over a million houses. The technology we use works on-line and offline from mobile phones and in any language, and we are running pilots with different partners across construction, health, water and sanitation projects. We use it in highly detailed geo-hazard assessments for the government, and for daily monitoring of our construction projects. The initial exercise alone resulted in more than 8 million images - an enormous volume of data. Is this a situation where AI and machine learning could organize and analyze the information with even greater levels of efficiency and insight?

However, for all this progress we must not forget that in many parts of the world – there is still no network coverage. 

Why did Ebola get so out of control? Before it reached the cities, the answer is as simple as it may be surprising: a lack of basic infrastructure.  

  • ​No system of local health centres in the countryside; 

  • No passable roads to bring medical teams to villages and the sick to hospital, and 

  • No network coverage to enable health workers to share information and get vital messages out to the population through their mobile phones. ​

Future ICT

Further afield, I mentioned both blockchain and AI technologies are on our radar. With blockchain, many opportunities surround efficiency and transparency. Could we eliminate the duplication of aid? Could we bypass inefficiencies, which lead to wasted resources, through a technological solution? ​

During his tenure, the last Secretary General lamented the fact that 30 percent of all development assistance failed to reach its final destination. The public sector has yet to fully explore the potential of this revolutionary technology. But, the potential is truly immense. We cannot ignore this – and it's why we are leading UN blockchain investigations in the field of international assistance.

This potential of new technologies was not only on the mind of our former Secretary General. Earlier this month Antonio Guterres called on governments, industry and civil society to consider how AI will affect our future, citing its potential to accelerate progress towards a dignified life, in peace and prosperity, for all people.

The implications of AI are boundless. Today there are solutions that literally aim to predict poverty. Remote sensing data can predict future crop yields, which in turn can help anticipate food shortages. Or health: Can we diagnose diseases much earlier? Can we understand malnutrition at a societal level from photo and video data? These solutions are being explored as we speak. Climate change is another area. Could AI provide greater clarity on the uncertainties our planet faces? Could we use our collected resources to help clean up the world oceans?

As you hear we are not short of ideas. But we must be clear that the implications are not merely positive. When the power of AI increases, so do the risks that this technology is exploited. Governments and corporations may devote ever-increasing resources to cybersecurity, but those wishing to exploit these technologies, only redouble their efforts in response. Should there be a possibility to exploit security loopholes - we are in serious trouble and it can get worse. Yet if governments can coordinate on global issues as complex and far reaching as climate change, then surely they can coordinate to address issues related to international cybercrime.

In the UN, we are looking at how AI can be better deployed to support the UN mission. 

As a recent summit on the topic noted, this revolution has yet to offer much to the 3 billion people globally who live in poverty.

Over the course of this forum, we will have the opportunity to discuss these issues. We see a vast potential for building on ICT to deliver meaningful solutions to address the very real challenges of millions of people in desperate need. Innovative ICT solutions could revolutionize the UN and its impact. It is our duty to explore this potential.

Thank you.