Department of Economic and Social Affairs Public Institutions

Friday 08 November 2019

Overcoming Global Digital Divides through a Five-Step Strategy

The world is entering the digital age, with half of the global population online. It is unleashing unfathomable opportunities for sustainable development.  According to a recent estimate by UNCTAD, Global Internet Protocol (IP) traffic, a proxy for data flows, grew from about 100 gigabytes (GB) per day in 1992 to more than 45,000 GB per second in 2017; by 2022 global IP traffic is projected to reach 150,700 GB per second, driven by more people coming online and by the expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT). The global digital economy, including its spillover impact, is already being measured in the trillions of US dollars, and it is outpacing the growth of global GDP, potentially reaching 23 trillion US dollars by 2025.


More than any previous technological transformations, the digital age is one of inter-dependence, calling for international cooperation among governments, industry, scientific and technological communities, as well as civil society groups.  Such inter-dependence is seen across the spectrum of trade and finance, communications, e-government, and cyber security, among others.


Paradoxically, despite the rapid progress in digital technologies, the Global Digital Divides seem to be getting worse. Data from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) suggest that in developed countries, more than 80 out of 100 inhabitants use the internet, while in developing countries, it is 40 out of 100 inhabitants.  ITU data further suggest that in terms of regions, Africa lagged significantly behind, with only some 21 out of 100 inhabitants using internet. Not surprisingly, according to UN E-Government Survey 2018, prepared by UN DESA, most countries scoring low on the e-government development index are from Africa.


Concurrently, we have been witnessing a worrisome spike in cybercrimes and cyberattack. Malicious activities in cyberspace are undermining digital trust, including public trust in governments and between States. It is to be noted that not all governments are well equipped with the knowledge and ability to respond to the digital age - in tapping the vast opportunities or mitigating the inherent risks. The pace and evolution of digitalization are surpassing the speed with which governments can put in place appropriate regulatory and policy frameworks, particularly in developing countries. The multi-dimensional Global Digital Divides are thus getting wider for these countries, putting beyond their reach the potential benefits from digital transformations.


How to halt and reverse these trends and overcome the Global Digital Divides?  I suggest a five-step strategy moving forward.


First, we must invest in digital infrastructure. Governments, multilateral development banks, the private sector, the financing community, foundations, among others, must join hands in scaling up investments in digital infrastructure, including in rural areas and in low-income neighborhoods.  It is likewise essential that we make available affordable and robust broadband services in schools, public libraries, community service centers, etc., to facilitate online access by those who cannot afford it on their own.  It will be a basic step to level the playing field in terms of online access.


Second, we must help develop new, innovative devices that enable access to internet that are affordable and that can meet the needs of vulnerable groups.  This calls for visionary leadership and commitments from the scientific and technological and business communities, working in partnership with governments, and the financial community, to come up with such devices. While perhaps not as sophisticated as some other available hand-held devices, such devices will enable the full potential of these markets to be realized and thus will help to close the Global Digital Divides.


Third, we must invest in digital education and digital literacy training. Recent experience reveals that hardware alone will not close the Global Digital Divides. We must work with educational institutions, the scientific and technological community, local governments and community service organizations to improve access to digital education and promote digital literacy. This includes knowledge of coding and programming, particularly among girls and persons with disabilities. Such training will offer career development and job opportunities, opening the door to the digital world, including in areas such as cybersecurity.


Fourth, we must maintain technical support, whether through physical onsite support or online.  This is essential to troubleshooting and maintaining momentum for progress. To minimize business expenditures, I invite programmers and technicians and other qualified and skilled individuals to volunteer their services.  We need something like Software Engineers without Borders to help keep such initiatives moving.


Fifth, we also need to invest in online content, including local language content, that inspire, inform and educate. Massive open online courses (MOOC) are an inspiring initiative in this direction and is often provided with open access, without limits on participation. Some such courses also feature user forums to support community interactions as well as immediate feedback.   


In all these five areas, the United Nations system has a catalytical role to play, by making available expertise or by providing platforms for mutual learning, capacity building and online training. 


In this regard, I welcome the upcoming expert group meeting (EGM) convened by DESA at UN Headquarters in New York on 16-17 December.   The EGM aims to bring together a number of experts and decision-makers in relevant digital fields, including digital government, digital economy, cybersecurity, science and technology and innovation (STI), and Internet governance.  They will be requested to share their knowledge and perspectives on the evolving digital trends and make recommendations on how to meet capacity development needs of developing countries. It is time that we all step up our efforts.

Mr. Elliot Harris, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development and Chief Economist


Thursday 24 October 2019

Public Institutions and Poverty Reduction

This October has seen encouraging developments in global efforts to combat the scourge of poverty,  On 14 October, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced its decision to award the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2019 to Abhijit Banerjee of  Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Esther Duflo, also of  Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Michael Kremer of  Harvard University, “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”. The Academy noted that “The Laureates’ research findings – and those of the researchers following in their footsteps – have dramatically improved our ability to fight poverty in practice."


Three days later, on 17 October, the United Nations marked the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, which focused on “acting together to empower children, their families and communities to end poverty."  In his message, the Secretary-General stressed that ending extreme poverty is at the heart of the world’s efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and build a sustainable future for all.  But success in leaving no one behind will remain elusive if we do not target the people who are farthest behind first.


This global setting offered a timely backdrop for spotlighting the contributions of public institutions in fighting poverty, whose role has somehow faded into the background in recent years. This trend should be reversed, if we are to achieve SDG 1 - ending poverty in all its forms everywhere by 2030.  Indeed, according to the Special Edition of the Secretary-General’s Report on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, while the decline of global extreme poverty continues, progress has slowed, and the world is not on track to achieve the target of less than 3 per cent of the world living in extreme poverty by 2030. People who continue to live in extreme poverty face deep, entrenched deprivation often exacerbated by violent conflicts and vulnerability to disasters. Strong social protection systems and government spending on key services often help those left behind get back on their feet and escape poverty, but these services need to be brought to scale.


This is where public institutions should step up to the challenge and scale up services to the poor and vulnerable groups.  Among other steps that could be taken and adapted to country specific situations, I would recommend the following actions:


First, strengthen national legislative and regulatory frameworks for fighting poverty.


This is already happening on the ground. Recent voluntary national reports (VNRs) indicate that more and more countries are integrating the visions and principles of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development into national legislations, with specific mandates to national and local governments to accelerate the progress toward the SDGs.


Second, strengthen inter-ministerial coordination to ensure a holistic, coordinated and coherent strategy for flighting poverty and achieving the SDGs.


Encouragingly, many national leaders have realized the critical significance of this step. With 17 goals, 169 targets, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for changing the conventional silo mindsets, and adopting a holistic, coordinated and coherent strategic approach toward the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.  Many leaders took the forward-thinking decision of leading the national SDG endeavour in person, supported by an inter-ministerial senior coordination group. Interestingly, some countries have also entrusted the coordination role to the Treasury or Finance Ministry to coordinate funding for this endeavour.


Third, equipping public servants with the knowledge, mindset and skillsets to fight poverty and advance the progress toward the SDGs.


This is where implementation challenges emerge on multiple fronts. For some years, investing in public services has been a low priority for many governments.  Public servants who are on the frontline of ensuring access to basic social services, such as education, basic health care, job training, access to water, sanitation and energy, environmental protection, public safety, access to justice, public transportation, public spaces, essential community social services, etc, are often not given the social and economic recognition they deserve. In addition, many national and local governments have failed to take advantage of digital technology to improve public services to the most vulnerable groups.  Empowering public servants with the public recognition and remunerations and skillsets for the 21st century is an imperative that should be given high priority by all governments.


Equally important, putting in place the accountability framework to ensure anti-corruption and transparency in public services, including funding of public services, must go hand in hand with measures to improve public services.


Fourth, strengthening international cooperation on institution-building.


Indeed, this is where the United Nations system can play a catalytic role. To the extent that public institutions often are part of the decision-making process and service providers, there is significant space for mutual learning and exchange of national and local experiences.  The United Nations can provide a useful platform for such exchanges.  For example, the UN system can catalyse mutual learning and training by identifying and offering capacity development opportunities, in partnership with academic, scientific and technological communities, businesses and civil society groups.


In this regard, there also exist specific guidelines and strategies for implementation. For example,  the United Nations Economic and Social Council, during its 2018 session, endorsed a set of 11 principles and 62 related strategies prepared by the UN Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA). These principles and strategies apply to all public institutions, including the administration of executive and legislative organs, the security and justice sectors, independent constitutional bodies and State corporations.


Joint UN-African Union workshop


I am delighted to share an upcoming event that aims to strengthen public institutions – a joint workshop co-organized by UN DESA and African Union’s African Peer Review Mechanism, which is taking place on 30 October to 1 November 2019, in Pretoria, South Africa. The workshop aims to enhance capacity of public servants in Africa to develop reform policies that strengthen institutions for implementation of the SDGs at all levels.  You are welcome to follow the discussion at this website: (

Ms. Maria-Francesca Spatolisano, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs


Monday 7 October 2019

Effective governance for sustainable development

The full realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) depends on a common understanding of the basic principles of effective governance for sustainable development. Adherence to these tenets of governance underpins progress in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.


In this context, the United Nations Economic and Social Council, during its 2018 session, endorsed a set of 11 principles prepared by the UN Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA). The 11 basic principles are intended to clarify the governance agenda, taking into account different governance structures, national realities, capacities and levels of development, while respecting national policies and priorities. They have been developed to help interested countries, on a voluntary basis, build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels, with a view to achieving the shared vision for the people and the planet embodied in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.


As basic principles, they apply to all public institutions, including the administration of executive and legislative organs, the security and justice sectors, independent constitutional bodies and State corporations.


The basic principles comprise: (a) competence, sound policymaking and cooperation under the rubric of effectiveness; (b) integrity, transparency and independent oversight under accountability; and (c) leaving no one behind, non-discrimination, participation, subsidiarity and intergenerational equity under inclusiveness.


In the spirit of SDG 16, we need to focus especially on the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable, on women and children, and to heal and protect our planet for the future of humanity. This calls for major changes in governance in all countries and in resource allocation towards development goals. There can be little doubt that resources are currently channelled disproportionately to the top ten percent of the world's population and to purposes contributing to the perpetuation of war. The net result is growing instability, fragility and fragmentation in vast swaths of the world which, in turn, generate continuing waves of refugees and migrants desperately attempting a perilous journey to distant lands because they see no future closer to home. It is no accident that endless wars contribute to massive corruption in government.

Operationalizing the principles and undertaking related strategic actions that are known to be effective in particular contexts is essential to taking the work on principles to the next level. To be helpful, associated practices will need to be clearly relevant, feasible to implement, and based on sufficient empirical evidence of their impact on the achievement of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals. To that end, ECOSOC has encouraged CEPA to identify and review related technical guidelines and assess the evidence of their impact on SDG-related outcomes, including from sectoral perspectives. The elaboration of such guidance is the next challenge for CEPA and the relevant United Nations organizations, regional organizations and professional and academic communities engaged in this evolving work.


Importantly, CEPA has already identified 62 strategies, each associated with one of the 11 principles of effective governance (to access full text of the principles and strategies, click here). The CEPA Secretariat is now in the process of coordinating the preparation of the technical guidance covering each of these strategies based on global expert advice.


Concurrently, CEPA members and the CEPA Secretariat have been working with Governments and regional organizations and UN system entities to provide capacity building support for the operationalization of the principles.  In this regard, I am especially pleased to have the opportunity to initiate a joint UN-African Union workshop specifically designed to support countries in assessment of gaps in the institutional application of each of the 11 principles of effective governance with a view to strengthening institutions for implementation of the SDGs at all levels.


The objective of this joint workshop (30 October to 1 November 2019, Pretoria, South Africa) is to enhance capacity of public servants in Africa to develop reform policies that strengthen institutions for implementation of the SDGs at all levels. In particular, the workshop is expected to lead to:


- A common understanding among senior public officials of African countries of principles of effective governance for sustainable development and methods of analyzing gaps in their institutional application;


- Enhanced collaboration between the United Nations and African Union in building strong institutions for achievement of the 2030 Agenda and Agenda 2063; and


- Sharing of knowledge among senior public officials in Africa on approaches to building strong institutions for achievement of the SDGs at all levels in different development contexts.


Government-led assessments featured at the workshop may serve as a precursor to more specific in-depth reviews, as appropriate, and/or lead directly to formulation of Government/public sector-led reform policies in priority institution-building areas. The workshop is also expected to foster policy coherence by encouraging alignment of institution-building efforts related to the 2030 Agenda with the Agenda 2063 objectives of the African Union.


I invite all interested partners and practitioners to follow the discussion of the workshop and to work with CEPA members and the CEPA Secretariat in advancing the operationalization of the principles of effective governance.

Ms. Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, CEPA Chairperson


Friday 4 October 2019

We need more focus on institutions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

Whether we achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will ultimately depend on the fitness of our institutions to deliver the necessary public services and functions. The 2030 Agenda prominently features institutions, both as a cross-cutting issue and as a standalone goal, Goal 16, which aims to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” 


Goal 16 highlights several institutional principles, including: effectiveness, access to information, transparency, accountability, anti-corruption, inclusiveness of decision-making processes, and non discrimination. These principles can help all stakeholders in different sectors assess how institutions are delivering for sustainable development. 


In our 2019 edition of the World Public Sector Report, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) reveals many positive trends at the national level that give reasons for optimism.
A majority of countries now legally guarantee the right to information. As of 2018, 139 countries had implemented open government data initiatives that make data available to the public through central portals, as compared with only 46 in 2014. 


Over the past decade, we have witnessed rapid developments of anti-corruption institutions, both at the international and national levels. Since 2015, at least 21 countries have passed national anti-corruption laws, 39 have adopted national anti-corruption strategies, and 14 have created new anti-corruption agencies.

Participatory mechanisms have been developing rapidly from the local to the national level. The Internet is dramatically changing the ways citizens can participate in government. A growing number of countries are using e-consultations and other channels for electronic participation. 


National initiatives in all these areas have been supported by a growing body of international instruments, both binding and voluntary. 


At the same time, barriers to institutional effectiveness remain, with few signs of progress in recent years. Effective oversight of governments by parliaments and supreme audit institutions often remains elusive.
Efforts to align national budget systems with the SDGs have so far been limited, both in developed and developing countries. 


Discrimination is still rampant across the globe, even though international norms in this area have been steadily growing and have been increasingly reflected in national legislation, judicial systems and administrative practice. Women remain underrepresented at all levels of public decision-making. Some measures to increase women’s representation in politics have been effective but progress is slow. 


Crucially, the UN DESA report also found that we do not know nearly enough about the effectiveness of our institutions. For example, little is known about the effectiveness of national anti-corruption reforms. The same could be said about the effect on performance and accountability in public service reforms that have emphasized the use of performance frameworks, performance-based pay and reporting. 


Initiatives to improve transparency, accountability and participation yield widely differing results. Their effectiveness largely depends on a country’s wider accountability system. In many cases, the presumed links between institutional reforms and their broader benefits to society do not materialize. For instance, transparency reforms can fail to increase citizens’ trust in government. 

Country context is crucial and institutional instruments proven successful in one country may not be replicable elsewhere. 


Going forward, we need to become better at measuring institutional effectiveness. Beyond the complexity of the topic itself, the measurement frameworks put more emphasis on processes than on outcomes and broader impacts for citizens. 


This is starting to change. For example, the Open Government Partnership or the Global Financial Transparency Initiative are starting to look at public institution reforms through the lens of their final beneficiaries – the public. 


At the national level, we could make better use of the information already produced by institutional processes such as reforms of the justice system, reporting under international treaties, internal monitoring by government agencies, and reports of oversight bodies. Goal 16 and its institutional targets can provide a unifying platform to support such efforts. 


As I have pointed out on a number of occasions, the 2030 Agenda has recognized the fundamental role of institutions in the quest to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. As we kick off the final decade of action to achieve these ambitious objectives, we should pay closer attention to the institutions that we are trusting with its delivery.


Mr. Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs.