Reflections on ICTs, the SDGs and innovation adoption – Tim Unwin

Former Secretary-General of the CTO shares his views on ‘ the contrast between attending a series of side events around the UN General Assembly in New York immediately following a marvellous two weeks in India has made me reflect again on the rhetoric and reality of using ICTs for development, especially in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised”

The reflections provide interesting figures on ‘Connecting the next billion’  as well as the views of a Maasai chief in Tanzania on why he has no reason to be online.

See ​

On the 2017 General Assembly of United Nations …

A premier at this 2017 United Nations General Assembly was the United Nations Secretary-General live apperance on Facebook and taking questions for his first time

Also, the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General was live on a panel last night to discuss the path ahead for the Global Goals.

Interestingly, when asked about one particular field where the ‘Digital World’ (in other words – ICTs) can specially speed up the attainment of the SDGs, she singles out ‘Digital Finance’  as an investment to the SDGs themselves. (Forward to 3:50 min)

She also gave tips on the inclusion of women and the youth in the Digital World.

Also insightful are the live updates, analysis and highlights of the Wall Street Journal​

Comments on the report- Fast forward progress: leveraging tech to achieve the global goals

A well written report compiled by ITU and a collaborative effort between 29 UN programmes, specialized agencies and international organizations.

While offering insights into the risks and opportunities in using Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, it also cautiously refers to other elements to be considered in effectively embracing the potential of global connectivity to spur human progress.

Another element to be considered in the advancement of ICT services is the issue of democracy, human rights, individual freedom and the right to privacy. Literature is rife with references to dystopian risks associated to the authoritarian control of ICTs (e.g. Huxley, Orwell). But reality has also provided clear examples of wrong-doing as frightening as the nightmares of fantasy. Espionage, manipulation of social media and other malpractices can become systemic risks of this technology. We cannot rule out at a certain point the emergence of a minority refusing to enter into any contact at all with ICTs, as a reaction to any unethical excesses. Time will tell how an open, democratic and liberal society will protect itself from such abuses.

Time will also tell how authoritarian regimes will apply more and more restrictive measures on ICTs and misuse them due to fear of power replacement against some of SDGs.

Track the Progress of AI and Machine Learning

This project of the EFF on measuring the progress of AI Research  (collectively elaborated through a notebook is hosted on Github) collects problems and metrics/datasets from the AI research literature, and tracks progress on them.

It is indeed a promising pilot to answer questions like:

  • What is the ratio of hype to real progress in AI?
  • What kinds of problems have been well solved by current machine learning techniques, which ones are close to being solved, and which ones remain exceptionally hard?
  • And if the project is well followed up in the future : to what extent can such progress be used to foster social and economic development globally?

The pilot is using interesting methodologies that can help in understanding the current state of these technologies and raise meangful debate around the technical, political and legal issues and dilemmas they raise.

A promising start in defining metrics that could be enhanced with additional stakeholders’ perspectives including linkges to ‘AI for development’

Let us not forget that AI and machine learning methods can threaten safety of citizens particularly if in the hands of oppressive regimes which may raise wider and vital concerns than mere violation of privacy.

The Truth About Blockchain

A very insightful​ article on Blockchain on the Harvard Business Review (Jan-Feb 2017 Edition)​ analysing parallels between blockchain and TCP/IP, patterns of Technology Adoption and transformation processes of foundational technologies.

In essence, Blockchain is to Transactions what TCP/IP is to the Data Transport on the Internet.

For those who knew about TCP/IP way before the Internet, the article​ should be an eye opener on the promises of Blockchain.

Also, CryptoCoinsNews announced this week that Bitcoin made History at the beginning of 2017​, surpassing the value of the oldest money on earth: gold.

Walsh’s talk on the UN 2030 Development Agenda

I just watched an interesting 10 minutes talk in TEDx format by Patrick Walsh with an appealing title “Everyday Citizens and the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda”.

He covered in a brief yet comprehensive, attention captivating style important and complex points ranging from the genesis of the UN 2030 Development Agenda to YOU and what YOU can do for the success of its implementation.

I particularly appreciated his novel example of a women, stranded on a desert island, who sets up a company, a household and a government and how she would not knowingly harm herself or the environment around her for her grandchildren. He depicted this fictional instance to illustrate the ‘disconnects’ in the current world we live in and how ‘stakeholder partnerships’ could address these issues as we go along the implementation of the 2030 agenda.

In short, his key message was to recall the responsibility for implementation by the people and to induce successful stakeholder partnership at local, national, regional and global levels.

Comparing and contrasting the federal systems of Ethiopia and Switzerland

Comparing and contrasting the federal systems of Ethiopia and Switzerland
A brief essay by Kitaw Yayehyirad  KITAW (Yayeh Kitaw)
February 2017

Ethiopia and Switzerland have both a political system based on federalism. Through this essay, I will try to discern similarities and differences between the two federal arrangements.

Federal states are associated with large populations, extensive territories, and polities with territorially based fragmentation.  In fact, every single longstanding democracy in a territorially based multilingual and multinational polity is a federal state. (Stepan, 2005)

Despite being at different ends of the democratic and development continuum, both Ethiopia and Switzerland present the characteristics of a multilingual and multinational polity albeit of different sizes[1]. Both have also retained a relatively perennial independence for several centuries.

Switzerland is among the oldest and longstanding federations in the world (1848) while Ethiopia is among the youngest (1995).

If we start looking at these two federal systems in one the prism of the analytical categories of models of federalism developed by Stepan (2005), Ethiopia would fit in the group of Federations “Holding-Together’ while Switzerland would be in the ‘Coming-Together’.

Indeed the formation of the Swiss Confederation is a gradual continuum in history dating back to the middle Ages with the Old Swiss Confederacy (with just 3 states) and culminating with the establishment in 1848 of a new constitution and federal layout (with over 20 states) in the aftermath of the Sonderbundskrieg civil war.

In contrast, Ethiopia has had historically a unitary state for centuries through monarchy until 1974 and a communist period from 1974 to 1991. In 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet-style communist regime, the ruling coalition established a federal system creating largely ethnic-based territorial units aspiring to achieve ethnic autonomy and equality while maintaining the unity of the state (Habtu, 2003). As such, unlike the Swiss federation, the Ethiopian federal system would fit under “Holding-Together’ by origin, among the analytical categories forwarded by Stefan (2005).

In the Swiss political system, the concept of direct democracy (closely linked with democratic federalism) gives citizens the right to submit a federal initiative and a referendum as long as they gather enough signatures in a period predefined by law. The federal constitution sets a political system including the direct democracy which includes a set of instruments for citizens to pass or overturn executive decisions at all jurisdictional levels (the municipality, the cantons and the federal). In this regard, Switzerland remains a rare example of a country with solid instruments of direct democracy embedded in its federal structures.  Today, Ethiopia is far from having a democratic federation, let alone direct democracy for its nearly 100 million inhabitants (compared to the 8 million Swiss).

Despite both being multiethnic, multilingual and multiconfessional, the relationships between state and religion as well as degree of tensions between various ethnic, linguistic and religious groups have varied differently in the two nations over the centuries.

For example, in Switzerland, longstanding religious divisions were replaced by linguistic ones in the wake of mid-nineteenth century revolutionary upheavals and nationalism (Calhoun, 1993, p. 220). As late as 1848, Catholic territories made Protestantism unlawful (and vice versa). In this older regime, language was a matter of voluntary personal choice with little political significance. After mid-century, the pattern was reversed. Territories were divided on linguistic lines and religion was a matter of personal preference with markedly reduced political consequence (Anderson 199 1: 138). Yet, federal arrangements in Switzerland were not organized along linguistic territorial lines.

In contrast, the coalition that took control of state power in Ethiopia in 1991 opted for an ethnic federalism (an exception to the general African pattern) which has resulted in rising ethnic tensions in the past years and invites ethnic conflicts and risks state disintegration according to its opponents.[2]

Finally, in terms of analytical categories developed by Stepan (2005), Switzerland is a democratic multinational federation “coming-together,” “demos-constraining,” symmetrical federalism while Ethiopia fits as a multinational federation “holding-together”, “demo-enabling” (to some stretched extent) and asymmetrical but does not function yet as a democratic federation.

While there are some similarities in aspirations of the federal arrangements of Ethiopia and Switzerland, there are significant differences in their nature (democratic and non-democratic), forms and effectiveness of their institutionalization and practices as summarized in the table below.

Similarities Differences
Federation Type In theory, they both are federal republics with parliament: the Swiss one being democratic and the Ethiopian not.

Ethiopia is a federal parliamentary republic while Switzerland is a democratic federal republic. They both have two chambers.

Representations of each state of different population sizes
While the chambers representing the people are similar, the composition of the Federal Chambers are substantially different. The Ethiopia Council of Federation has one member for each nationality and one additional representative for each one million of its population while the Swiss Council of state has 2 councilors per state irrespective of their population size.Constitutional Freedom to secede
Ethiopia’s federation is marked on the texts by the presumption of freedom of exit. Article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution permits in principle self-determination up to and including secession.Secession of a canton from the Swiss federation will require a constitutional change.Democratic federal
Switzerland is democratic and while Ethiopia is ruled by a regime that displays most of the characteristics of authoritarianism, but is often labeled as semi-authoritarian regime.
Federating Units The variety in terms of population size of each state. Ethiopian Federal states are Ethnic/language based territorial units while Swiss Cantons are not as they historically were existing states that joined gradually the confederation.
Executive Branch In Ethiopia, the Executive power is exercised by the Prime Minister (head of the government) chosen (not elected) by the parliament

In Switzerland, a Federal Council composed by seven power-sharing Federal Councilors are elected by the Federal Assembly has the executive power.

Legislative Branch Parliaments with two Chambers
In Switzerland, legislation is vested to the two chambers of the Federal Assembly, the National Council (representing the people) and the Council of States (representing the states). Similarly, legislative power is exercised by the Federal Parliamentary Assembly that has two chambers: the Council of People’s Representatives and the Council of the Federation
The degree to which policy-making authority is constitutionally allocated to each states and other subunits
Judicial Branch
Political Parties In Switzerland, none of the political parties strictly represents any one linguistic or religious group while in today’s Ethiopia, the absolute dominant party (and significant others) are ethnic-based or a collation of parties representing different ethnic/linguistic group. In total contrast with Switzerland, the current Ethiopian political system encourages political parties to organize along ethnic lines
Direct Representation Ethiopia is far from being a democratic federation. In Switzerland, direct democracy includes a set of instruments for citizens to pass or overturn executive decisions at all jurisdictional levels (the municipality, the cantons and the federal)
Ethnicity and
Both Ethiopia and Switzerland are multiethnic and multilingual. Ethiopia has over 77 languages and 1 official federal language (Amharic) while in Switzerland all 4 main languages are official languages of the federation.
Religion An important concomitant of state-building and an autonomously significant trend is religion depolitization (Calhoun, 1993, p. 220).

Both Ethiopia and Switzerland are multi confessional (Orthodox Christians/Muslims and Catholic/Protestant respectively) and federal arrangements not crafted along religion lines. Both do not have any state religion and adhere to the principle of the separation of state and religion. (Notwithstanding the degree of depolitization is arguably much higher in Switzerland than Ethiopia today). Relationships between state and religion have varied over the centuries in both countries.

[1] Ethiopia is 10 times more populated than Switzerland. Ethiopia’s population was estimated to be 86,613,986 (2013 est.) while Switzerland’s stood at 8,121,830 (July 2015 est.)

[2] Ethnic Federalism in Ethiopia: Background, Present Conditions and Future Prospects – Alem Habtu (2003),%20Alem.pdf

Y. Kitaw

MBA in Management of Technology from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). PhD Fellow in Governance and Policy Analysis at UNU-MERIT Maastricht University
Personal website: | LinkedIn  | Twitter

Critical thoughts about the Chinese Judicial Reform

Kitaw Yayehyirad KITAW (Yayeh KITAW) – 11 February 2017

The recent article on Judicial Reforms in China describes the reforms undertaken by the regime to restructure the judiciary branch. It argues that the reforms have strengthened the Chinese Communist party and solidified ‘rule by law’ rather than ‘rule of law ‘and reaffirms the regime’s rejection of the principle of judiciary independence.

The principle of judicial independence is respected in all liberal democracies.(Heywood, 2003, p. 35). Only in the last few decades, developing nations have been in a position to independently criticize such principles and closely related concepts such as the free market, secular liberal democracy and the nation-state framework in international relations (Fuller, 1995, p. 5)

Indeed, over the past decades, the Chinese leadership for instance, has been strongly underlining its distance from the principles of separation of powers. They tend to wrongly attribute these principles as being a ‘Western value’ (presumably inferred from their original proprietorship) when they are, in essence, applicable and inherently acceptable to all societies.

As Fuller asserts, all people ultimately desire a voice in the decisions that determine their fates and lives (Fuller, 1995, p. 4) and such a desire a fortiori  includes the quest for fair and independent justice.

The question is whether Fuller’s assertion is truly universal and if so, why have the Chinese authorities (and others) been unwilling to unconditionally adhere to its universality beyond labeling it as Western thinking as reflected by the Chinese Chief of Justice blatant declaration that ‘Chinese should not fail into the trap of the Western erroneous thinking and the independence of justice’.

As the article points out, there is an announced intent by the Chinese authorities to improve accountability and transparency by undertaking the Judiciary reforms. They remain, however, limited mainly to procedural reforms that do not question the overall absolute power of the ruling party over the judiciary and other branches.

All in all, my personal believe is that the principles of separation of powers (including the independence of the judiciary) are inherently universal principles (not exclusive Western values albeit their origins attributed to Aristotle, Montesquieu etcetera). They are applicable to and acceptable in all societies as human will ultimately seek a voice, impartiality and independence in decisions that affect their fate. Yet, the pace and forms of institutionalizing such principles is inevitably prone to variations and subject to many cultural and historical conditions. What remains critically important is that the reforms trend towards the independence of the judiciary as such principles will ultimately build societies benefiting from an impartial, fair and equitable justice for its inhabitants.

Y. Kitaw
PhD Fellow in Governance and Policy Analysis at UNU-MERIT Maastricht University
Personal website: | LinkedIn  | Twitter

My comments on the Freedom on the Net 2016

The annual survey and analysis of internet and digital media freedom around the world ‘Freedom on the Net 2016’ reveals yet another decline of Internet freedom around the world.
Using a methodology that includes several ITU figures (in particular for the index on ‘Obstacles to Access’ assessing to what extent infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet), the report entitled ‘Silencing the Messenger: Communication Apps Under Pressure‘ concludes with the following key findings:
    • Internet freedom around the world declined in 2016 for the sixth consecutive year.​
    • Two-thirds of all internet users – 67 percent – live in countries where criticism of the government, military, or ruling family are subject to censorship.
    • Social media users face unprecedented penalties, as authorities in 38 countries made arrests based on social media posts over the past year. Globally, 27 percent of all internet users live in countries where people have been arrested for publishing, sharing, or merely “liking” content on Facebook.
    • Governments are increasingly going after messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, which can spread information quickly and securely.​

​​​Interestingly, the report displays a chart showing Internet Freedom vs Internet Penetration and GDP without providing any ​comment.

The chart triggers a variety of questions ranging from the linkages​ between Internet Freedom and GDP up to the correlations between ICT growth, development and democracy.

Indeed, the Internet presents the ‘Dictator’s dilemma’ for authoritarian regimes.

On one hand, shutting it down can hurt their economy. On the other, leaving it open and unrestricted can threaten their power grip as it facilitates their citizens’ ability to access and share political information and engage collectively.

Most often respond to this dilemma through sophisticated and opaque ways, taking advantage of the tool,  by for example promoting e-government as a means to strengthen their authoritarian rule while tightening control and surveillance. (see figure from the World Development Report 2016 – Digital Dividends​)

Source: World Development Report 2016
While there is abundant ICT4D literature on the linkages between Information Technologies and International Development in general, much more remains to be explored on the correlation/causal linkages between ICT penetration, Development and Democratization at a global level as well as specific case studies including cultural and historical insights.

Trump, the United Nations and ITU

​​The United States presidential campaign has polarised positions around many issues (including some global ICT related ones).

While it is difficult to have a comprehensive assessment of all statements referring to technology, read ‘between the lines’ and discern clear positions, here are some interresting quotes from the candidates relating to ICTs and the UN that may affect ITU and its work.
Most of them are important in the United States national context but some ICT related statements related to Internet governance policy, Cyberwarfare and Cybersecurity, reduced commitment to Climate Change, balance between security and liberty, have international importance, will impact the United Nations and global ICT matters (hence ITU)
Here are some quotes (with links) and other related resources.
  • ​”The election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president was met with disbelief and despondency among some United Nations officials and diplomats” writes Michelle Nichols for Reuters.
  • senior Security Council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity ‘Many are assuming a Trump administration will be less engaged with UN than Obama’s administrat​ion, which was more committed to working for collective solutions than previous U.S. administrations

  • One big question is whether Trump will moderate his position on climate change“, said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert who has written on what a Trump administration could mean for the United Nations.
  • Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, stated “It is difficult to press other countries to respect human rights when your own government is sometimes ignoring them.”
  • U.N. officials, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein, have spoken out against Trump, saying he would be “dangerous from an international point of view.”​
  • An article at DemocracyNow states that “Trump Climate Denial Threatens U.N. Climate Change Agreement and  that many delegates to the U.N. talks are expressing panic over the election of Donald Trump, saying the outcome threatens the future of any international agreement to slow catastrophic climate change. The Republican president-elect has said he will “cancel the Paris climate agreement and stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to U.N. global warming programs.”

  • Trump: “We invented Internet but ISIS is beating us at our own game. How do we fight a cyber attack?” during the First 2016 Presidential Debate at Hofstra Univers​ity in Sep 26, 2016
  • Question and answer with Trump
    Q: You recently suggested “closing that Internet up,” as a way to stop ISIS from recruiting online. Some say that would put the US in line with China and North Korea.
    TRUMP: ISIS is recruiting through the Internet. ISIS is using the Internet better than we are using the Internet, and it was our idea. I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody. I don’t want to let people that want to kill us use our Internet.
    Source: 2015 CNN/Salem Republican two-tier debate , Dec 15, 2015

And finally, a well summed up article entitled ‘US Presidential Elections – and the candidates’ stance on digital policy​‘ by the Geneva Internet Platform with the digital policy stances of both candidates.

Internet shutdowns cost countries $2.4 billion a year

Around the world, digital technology is seen as vital for economic development. In the U.S. alone, the internet accounts for about six percent of the entire e​conomy. Digital technology has expanded its role in the global economy in recent years, as both developed and developing nation​s have become increasingly reliant on the internet.

The centrality of the internet to social and economic life recently led the United Nations to enact a resolution supporting the “promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet.” The resolution specifically condemns state efforts to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to information online.

Yet powerful forces continue to threaten the vitality of the internet. In recent years, a number of countries have blocked particular applications, shut down specific digital services, turned off mobile telecommunications services, or disrupted the entire internet. Government officials give many reasons for ordering these disruptions, such as safeguarding government authority, reducing public dissidence, fighting terrorism, maintaining national security, or protecting local businesses.

Those actions separate people from their family, friends, and livelihoods, undermine economic growth, interfere with the startup ecosystem, and threaten social stability by interrupting economic activity, says Darrell West in a new paper​. In “Internet shutdowns cost countries $2.4 billion last year,” West analyzes the economic impact of temporary internet shutdowns. He examines 81 short-term shutdowns in 19 countries over the past year and estimates their impact on the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of those nations. Based upon this analysis, West finds that between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016, internet shutdowns cost at least US$2.4 billion in GDP globally. Economic losses include $968 million in India, $465 million in Saudi Arabia, $320 million in Morocco, $209 million in Iraq, $72 million in the Republic of the Congo, $69 million in Pakistan, $48 million in Syria, $35 million in Turkey and $9 million in Ethiopia​, among other places. These are conservative estimates that consider only reductions in economic activity and do not account for tax losses or drops in investor, business, and consumer confidence.

Clearly, internet disruptions are creating significant detrimental impacts on economic activity in a number of nations around the world. And, as West writes, “As the digital economy expands, it will become even more expensive for nations to shut down the internet. Without coordinated action by the international community, this damage is likely to accelerate in the future and further weaken global economic development.”​​

Read full report here ​


I strive to advocate that multilateral organizations engaged in Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) should pursue their missions with a deeper understanding of nuanced issues beyond technology advancements; and this by driving thinking and advocating practices so that innovation and technology advancements are informed by their social and human impacts when addressing developmental challenges.

– Interested on themes at the intersection of Technology and Political Governance demonstrated through evidence-based doctoral research on Information and Communication Technologies’ linkages to democratic governance and sustainable development in the context of authoritarian regimes to obtain a PhD in Governance and Policy Analysis at the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance.

– Holder of an MBA in Management of Technology from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) with an educational background in computer engineering and over 15 years of experience related to Information Technology with solid business understanding

– Served ITU, the United Nations’ specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the Information Services as Project Lead, Web and Internet Specialist and also as Strategy and Policy Analyst in the Corporate Strategy Division.

– Interested in a broad range of issues at the intersection of Technology and Society in particular E-governance, ICT-enabled Innovation and Societal Transformations.

– Written (often quoted) paper on E-government in Africa, multilingualism on the Internet.

– ​Led authoring of a business plan for seed funding a start-up​, a web-based cost effective way to send remittance as part of Entrepreneurship & Innovation of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL).

– Founded and directed with a vision to valorize locally relevant content in Amharic (Ethiopian language) and promote ICT4D. Launched in the early years of the World Wide Web (1995), the impactful community portal won the first prize of the African Information Society Initiative in 2005 and was quoted among ICT success stories in Africa at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)​.

Since May 2006, the most popular Ethiopian web sites (including CyberEthiopia) and several blogs have been blocked across the nation. The apparent objective was to prevent the dissemination of information that is critical of the regime. Following the political protests which have swept the nation since November 2015, the then regime in Ethiopia had routinely shutdown the Internet, restricted access to Social Media and indicated its keenness to control Social Media.

On 22nd June 2018, the new Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed, hailed as the ‘Gorbachev of Ethiopia’, announced that his government has unblocked 264 websites including after 12 years of blockage .This was attested by the OONI’s thorough verifications of our website’s unblocking and reflected in Freedom on the Net 2019 where Ethiopia recorded the largest gains following the loosened restrictions by the New Prime Minister.