Normative Narratives


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Awareness, Self-Interests, People Power, and The End of Poverty

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Inside the Bill and Melinda Gates Visitor Center in Seattle, WA

While finishing up my first business trip in Seattle, WA, I walked by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Due to my studies and interests, I was familiar with the organization’s important work in the related fields of Education, Healthcare, and Poverty Eradication both in the US and abroad. Intrigued, I went in.

While walking around the visitors center, I was struck by something I read. Explaining the origins of the foundation, a plaque stated that Bill and Melinda gates started their mission by providing Internet access to public libraries in America. Then, in the 1990s, Bill and Melinda “learned” of the extreme poverty affecting children around the world (specifically lack of access to medical care), and expanded the scope of their work.

This line took me a while to comprehend. Growing up during the age of globalization and global news coverage, the plight of people in the developing world was something I had always taken as obvious. How could it be that someone, let alone one of the smartest people in the world, would have to “learn” about these injustices later in life?

Then I began to think about what growing up in a hyper-connected world meant. For those who grew-up in previous generations, understanding the plight of people in the developing world required an active and time consuming search for information. Conversely, growing up in generations Y / Z, with globalized news coverage and internet access, not knowing about the existence of extreme poverty requires willful ignorance.

There are many self-interested reasons for wanting to  promote sustainable human development and end poverty, including: stopping violent extremism, stemming the “offshoring” of jobs to lower income countries through economic convergence, and creating new markets for sustainable trade-based growth (the Great Recession was a perfect example of the unsustainability of relying too heavily on financial innovations for growth).

But universal awareness will also play a large role in ending poverty (much like the first step to finding a solution is admitting there is a problem). The “silent majority” of the global community believes in basic rights and human dignity for all. It is in the long run interests of the global community, and resonates with mankind’s central tenets as ethical, social beings. Ultimately, it is this awareness which will galvanize the global effort to end poverty.

The Post 2015 Development Agenda is an important element of the fight to end poverty, as it will help direct trillions of dollars of public and private development resources over the next 15 years. Building on the successes (and learning from the shortcomings) of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Post 2015 Development Agenda is being drafted in an inclusive and consultary manner. Incorporating input from the very people it is intended to help, the agenda recognizes the importance of civil / political rights, good governance, multi-sectoral accountability, and self-determination in ending poverty. With human rights and empowering the world’s most vulnerable people at its core, the Post 2015 Development Agenda is poised to make great strides in poverty eradication.

As the world continues to get “smaller” and more interconnected, the costs of environmental degradation, human rights abuses (in relation to terrorism and protracted social conflict / genocide), and economic inequality will more acutely impact not only to the world’s most vulnerable, but also people in first-world countries (who have historically have considered themselves largely immune to such issues).

While it will not be easy, ours is the generation that must make meaningful strides towards ending poverty and promoting sustainable human development in the worlds least developed countries (LDCs). Failure to do so would gravely affect us all, and this (now) common knowledge is (slowly) creating unstoppable momentum towards positive, sustainable change.

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Economic Outlook: Koding For Kidz

A recent NYT article highlight’s a public private partnership (PPP) aimed at exposing children in computer programming at a young age:

Since December, 20,000 teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade have introduced coding lessons, according to Code.org, a group backed by the tech industry that offers free curriculums. In addition, some 30 school districts, including New York City and Chicago, have agreed to add coding classes in the fall, mainly in high schools but in lower grades, too. And policy makers in nine states have begun awarding the same credits for computer science classes that they do for basic math and science courses, rather than treating them as electives.

It is a stark change for computer science, which for decades was treated like a stepchild, equated with trade classes like wood shop. But smartphones and apps are ubiquitous now, and engineering careers are hot. To many parents — particularly ones here in the heart of the technology corridor — coding looks less like an extracurricular activity and more like a basic life skill, one that might someday lead to a great job or even instant riches.

The spread of coding instruction, while still nascent, is “unprecedented — there’s never been a move this fast in education,” said Elliot Soloway, a professor of education and computer science at the University of Michigan. He sees it as very positive, potentially inspiring students to develop a new passion, perhaps the way that teaching frog dissection may inspire future surgeons and biologists.

But the momentum for early coding comes with caveats, too. It is not clear that teaching basic computer science in grade school will beget future jobs or foster broader creativity and logical thinking, as some champions of the movement are projecting. And particularly for younger children, Dr. Soloway said, the activity is more like a video game — better than simulated gunplay, but not likely to impart actual programming skills.

Some educators worry about the industry’s heavy role: Major tech companies and their founders, including Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, have put up about $10 million for Code.org. The organization pays to train high school teachers to offer more advanced curriculums, and, for younger students, it has developed a coding curriculum that marries basic instruction with video games involving Angry Birds and hungry zombies.

The lessons do not involve traditional computer language. Rather, they use simple word commands — like “move forward” or “turn right” — that children can click on and move around to, say, direct an Angry Bird to capture a pig…The use of these word-command blocks to simplify coding logic stems largely from the work of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, which introduced a visual programming language called Scratch in 2007. It claims a following of millions of users, but mostly outside the schools.

Then, in 2013, came Code.org, which borrowed basic Scratch ideas and aimed to spread the concept among schools and policy makers. Computer programming should be taught in every school, said Hadi Partovi, the founder of Code.org and a former executive at Microsoft. He called it as essential as “learning about gravity or molecules, electricity or photosynthesis.”

Among the 20,000 teachers who Code.org says have signed on is Alana Aaron, a fifth-grade math and science teacher in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. She heard about the idea late last year at a professional development meeting and, with her principal’s permission, swapped a two-month earth sciences lesson she was going to teach on land masses for the Code.org curriculum.

Computer science is big right now — in our country, the world,” she said. “If my kids aren’t exposed to things like that, they could miss out on potential opportunities and careers.

Introducing kids to computer programming at a younger age is a great idea. The U.S. controls about 40% of the $960 billion global computer software / services market. Furthermore, some of the fastest growing sectors in the U.S require computer programming skills (especially when you consider [non]tradeable goods). As the world becomes more connected via internet penetration–the number of global internet users is set to surpass 3 billion people by years end–computer programming will only become a more important professional skill.

Learning computer programming may well be more effective at a young age. I have had many people try to teach me computer programming, and one common theme between teachers has been comparing  learning coding to learning a foreign language. Many people believe children can more effectively learn foreign languages than adults, perhaps the same is true of coding?

The purpose of early exposure is not, as some dissenters misinterpret, to have children producing complex codes and programs. By making programming more fun and accessible while nailing down the basics, kids will be more confident in their ability to develop advanced programming skills later in life if they so choose.  

Teaching our kids computer programming skills is important for staying competitive in a field that is currently dominated by the U.S. Other countries are teaching computer programming skills; the U.S. cannot afford to sit still or we will be passed by competitors.

In a global economy where many low skill jobs have fled to lower wage countries, the U.S. needs to maintain it’s competitive edge in this growing industry. Leveraging private sector money and expertise should make this important educational reform even more affordable and effective.


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Conflict Watch: Is History Still “Written by the Victors”?

This famous phrase calls into question to objectiveness of history; can we really believe the accounts of those who exterminated their foes? Prior to World War II, the world was a much different place: there was very little economic interdependence, war was a profitable endeavor, and “soft power” (diplomacy, “spotlighting” abuses of power) played a negligible role in international affairs. From the beginnings of modern history through WWII, no one can really question that history was written by those who emerged from conflicts victorious (although, as the quote above argues, this does not necessarily mean it is false).

The tide began to shift towards more objective historic accounting in the decades following WWII. The proliferation of independent media outlets, combined with advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) (the internet, social media, etc.), have made it much more difficult for any one party to dictate history on their own terms, regardless of their ability to exercise “hard power” (I wrote a research paper on this shift for anybody interested in a more in-depth read).

As people around the world have become more educated / empowered (via civil / human rights), we have naturally learned to question conventional wisdom. Have we gotten to the point where this historic adage is no longer applicable? A report by an Egyptian government panel responsible for determining what happened during the August 2013 Cairo massacre seemingly refutes this claim:

A government-appointed panel said on Wednesday that the deaths of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters at a protest camp in Cairo last August was mostly the fault of demonstrators who had provoked the security forces into opening fire.

The findings mainly echoed the military-backed government’s version of events. But in an unusual move, the panel also placed some responsibility for the bloodshed on the security forces and said they had used disproptionate force.

Panel member Nasser Amin accused the Mursi supporters of detaining and torturing civilians at the protest camps…contradicting past official accounts, Amin said security forces did not maintain proportional use of force when confronted with heavy gunfire from protesters.

He said some protesters also carried arms and shot at security forces, causing them to fire back.

But most of the protesters were peaceful and some had been used as human shields by the gunmen, he said.

The Interior Ministry has said that authorities did not use excessive force to scatter the camps and that Mursi’s supporters fired first.

It is particularly telling that a commission tasked with assessing blame for 1,200+ murders took up the issue of “detaining and torturing”. The commission found that deaths were not the fault of the Egyptian military, but rather Mursi supporters who used protesters as “human shields”, apparently quite effectively.

Admission of disproportionate use of force by Egyptian forces is a sign that the Egyptian government cannot simply whitewash over this past August’s bloodshed. Instead, it has to rely on distraction (don’t worry about the murders which undeniably took place, worry about alleged torture), and absurd scapegoating (it was not the fault of those who fired on protesters, but of terrorists using people as human shields).

The wounds of the Morsi ouster and crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood are still very fresh. Morsi currently stands accused of capital crimes, and the MB was just designated a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia, marking a larger regional crackdown against the group. Eventually, the truth will be recognized. Unfortunately for members of the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no specific date when this will happen. It is, however, important to remember that history is not written in a matter of months.

Eventually, liberal politicians will wrestle power from the Egyptian military. In order to build up the broad based support needed to do so, liberal politicians will have to embrace some form of a “truth and reconciliation commission“, uniting all factions of Egyptian civil society under the banners of pluralistic democracy, economic populism, and human rights. To what extent the Egyptian military will be held legally accountable under such a commission is uncertain; military leaders will likely use immunity as condition for agreeing to hand over power in the first place. However, just having official recognition of grievances fosters unity, trust, and reconciliation–all important aspects of peaceful and prosperous societies.

We have come to a point in history where eventually the truth prevails, which is in itself a huge victory for social justice / deterrent against nefarious actors. It can certainly be argued that currently “crime still pays”, as accountability for social injustices is often incomplete, disproportionately lenient, and not timely in nature. However, as trends in governance and technology continue to empower people, we will one day reach an age of true social accountability.


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Transparency Report: Notification, You Have 5 Billion New FB Friends; The Human Right To Internet Access

At the beginning of my internship at the UNDP, I was lucky enough to get the chance to volunteer at and then attend the ECOSOC Partnerships forum. I was assigned to write a few blogs for the event, among a number of other blogs I have written about events at  the UN which for some reason I have never shared on NN. Perhaps someday I will release the rest of the “lost UNDP blogs”, but that day is not today. Here are notes from the event Policy Dialogue: “The Changing Face of Technology and Innovation” (full blog):

The second policy dialogue at the ECOSOC youth forum focused on how technological innovations in recent years have helped bridge the “digital-divide” between developed and developing countries. While the gap has not been fully closed, partnerships between the private sector, governments, non-governmental organizations and civil society groups have helped identify challenges and opportunities in the developing world. By creating differentiated products at lower costs, private companies can gain access to new markets while simultaneously empowering the people in those markets.

Internet access is considered one of the great technological advances of our time. Internet access empowers people; the possibilities are constantly evolving and literally endless. It is an essential component of “E-Governance”, which includes the dissemination of information and a more inclusive and democratic government agenda-setting process. With a greater push for accountability and inclusiveness mechanisms in the Post-2015 Development Agenda, internet access, bolstered by innovations in mobile technology, has become an increasingly important tool for achieving sustainable human development.

But not enough has been done to make internet access affordable for a large portion of the world’s population. According to Mr. Tuli, 3 billion people have mobile phones but no internet access. This is not because of a lack of electricity or communication networks (as evidenced by the fact that they do have cell phones), but because they are priced out of the market. Mr. Tuli went on to call basic internet access a “human right”, to resounding applause from the hundreds of participants in the ECOSOC chamber.

While mobile technology was originally thought of as an educational tool, it has since evolved beyond that (although mobile education is still a proposed root for overcoming education deficits in Least Developed Countries (LDCs)). E-Governance can help disseminate information and promote inclusive governance, creating an enabling environment for sustainable human development. Healthcare providers can connect to information and expert advice in ways that can save lives. E-Finance can help provide capital in a much cheaper and convenient way to previously isolated groups, unlocking the entrepreneurial spirit in the developing world (and making such endeavors potentially much more profitable). Even people who are off traditional power grids (the least developed places in the world without basic infrastructure), mobile renewable energy generators and wireless internet capabilities can help bring ICTs virtually anywhere in the world.

Mobile technology penetration can be very rapid. Competition between private sector actors can drive prices down to affordable levels, and in some cases subsidies can help. Mr. Ogutu told the story of mobile phone penetration in Kenya; 5 years ago there were 20,000 users, today there are over 30 million users. This was made possible by M-Kopa, a company that utilized E-finance to provide pay-as-you-go mobile solar powered electricity to poor people who are not on a conventional power grid. Financing—secured through PPPs—allowed the founders of M-Kopa turn their vision into reality.

The narrative on bringing internet access to the least developed areas of the world continues a few months later. Not surprisingly, behind the initiative is a large-scale public-private partnership, with publicity magnet Facebook at its core (original article):

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, announced the launch of Internet.org Wednesday, a project aimed at bringing Internet access to the 5 billion people around the world who can’t afford it. The project is the latest initiative led by global-communications giants to combat market saturation in the developed world by introducing the Internet to remote and underprivileged communities.

“The goal of Internet.org is to make Internet access available to the two-thirds of the world who are not yet connected and to bring the same opportunities to everyone that the connected third of the world has today,” Zuckerberg said.

“There are huge barriers in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy,” he added. “Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges.”

The project will develop lower-cost, higher-quality smartphones and deploy Internet access in underserved communities, while reducing the amount of data required to surf the Web. Other founding partners include Samsung, Qualcomm, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia and Opera.

Facebook and other tech giants, of course, have a significant financial stake in expanding in the developing world. With tech companies reaching market saturation in the United States, countries in Latin America and Africa, for example, offer a big opportunity to attract a steady stream of new users, whose data can be mined by advertisers.

Connecting more people globally has important implications for how people organize their lives, said Patrick Meier, co-founder of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning. Social media has become a lifeline to people affected by earthquakes, floods and conflicts in the developing world, he added.

In places where the state is limited, Meier added, the Internet becomes a way to make up for services the government fails to provide. “When the state is not there, when you talk about limited statehood, you get a void,” he said.

In addition to acting as a substitute for the state in the context of “bad governance” / conflict / crisis environments, mobile technology should be a tool utilized by the state to promote inclusive and indiscriminate human rights based governance for sustainable human development. ICT connects people, enabling social accountability (people claiming their rights) by overcoming collective action problems. There are also myriad standard of living benefits associated with bringing ICT in the developing world–micro-financing, healthcare, education, media, etc. (OK maybe I am a little biased, I want those 5 billion readers too 😛 ).

Furthermore, by utilizing open-source technology and the collective will and creativity of 5 billion people facing similar problems, innovations in one part of the developing world can be adapted to the local needs of other developing regions. This would further expedite the global development process–open-source technology should be a core feature of the global internet connectivity push.

The possibilities are literally endless, as the utility and functions of the internet continue to evolve at ever faster rates. It should also be noted that new technological capabilities in LDCs will necessitate new policies, laws and oversight mechanisms to ensure gains are shared fairly. However, since these technologies are only new to certain regions, digital accountability mechanisms already exist for these regions to build on.   

I cannot stress enough how important bringing mobile ICTs to least developed countries is for sustainable human development, nor can I know how the technology will evolve in the future. Providing access to mobile information and communications technology empowers people, creating an enabling environment for a multitude of interrelated development objectives. These positive forces will naturally synergize, empowering people to challenge power-imbalances and hold powerful groups accountable for their human rights obligations.

ICTs are a natural fit for a large scale public-private-partnership (PPP). Companies can provide most of the start-up capital and technical know-how. Governments can create an education campaign about the benefits of ICTs and how to use them, while also guaranteeing companies market access and security of any capital / infrastructure installations (extremist groups will not like this idea as closing government service gaps will restrict their ability to buy goodwill and recruit new members). As ICTs help sustain the development process, new markets will emerge for communications companies to sell their products and services. This means more profits for companies, more tax revenue for governments, and a higher standard of living for people in LDCs. Not to suggest vested interests will not try to play spoiler (my regular readers by now know this is not the case), but overall a this is a win-win-win partnership.

Due to the indisputable importance of ICTs for sustainable human development, internet access should become an internationally recognized human right. Human rights obligations are primarily the responsibility of the state; in this case however, it seems that states have a willing and capable partner in the private sector. I will continue to keep the NN community up-to-date on this potentially-world-changing initiative.