The COVID-19 pandemic and the virtual limitations of development governance

March 18, 2020

Javier Surasky

March 18, 2020

On April 15, 2019, Andrés Ortega published his article’ Digital governance: towards a new utopia?’ in the Fundación Telefónica´s blog, focused on promoting a more democratic and participatory governance by using modern information and communication technologies. However, the blog entry includes some elements that can also be applied to the challenge of keeping sustainable development governance processes in motion through the use of virtual tools. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this issue becomes critical. 

We should start by analyzing the availability of ICTs (information and communication technologies). It is not necessary to make emphasis on the existing vast options of Communications tools and technologies that, in their most basic form, are globally disseminated and affordable (WhatsApp, Skype, Google meeting, Webex are some well-known examples). So, what is keeping governance for development from using them? A first possible answer is that governance for development has been using these technologies to comply with functions and processes still guided by logics anchored to traditional working formats. This anachronism helps to explain why even institutions such as the United Nations, at their global and regional levels, are facing the obstacle of not having pre-established mechanisms and tools to replace their face-to-face meetings with virtual gatherings.

Of course, the responsibility is not only of the institutions. Another key element could be underlined: there are no “virtual diplomacy” rules, as “aisle meetings” do not have their counterpart in virtual fields, nor do other informal negotiation schemes. As it is well known by negotiators, no-structured meetings are essential to close agreements.

Also, “social safeguards” to move towards an extensive use of technologies were not established. Just to mention an example, the current technological inequality around the world, would also increase if we move towards completely remote/virtual working methods. Therefore, raising the potential risk of excluding “techno-laggard” and “techno vulnerable” (1) groups. 

Foto: ExpoAndina 2020

How much work has been done regarding these groups at “risk of being left behind” since the 2030 Agenda adoption?  Frankly, little. As Ortega tells us in the blog post mentioned before, the ‘utopia of digital governance’ must incorporate “technological and social inclusiveness” (2). Inequality, then, is another obstacle to advance a socially inclusive digital governance. Moreover, as Ortega’s text reminds us, although the closing of inclusion gaps is a necessary but not sufficient condition: “other elements such as human rights, a strong democracy, the rule of law, the end of some platforms of massive information monopolies and the prevention of transforming big data States (into big brother States)’ are critical.

The recognition of the important role and agency of youth in the construction of the future world, blurs due to development governance ways of work. This, as a consequence of its lack of adaptation to virtual technologies, through which the youth performs, communicates, and makes decisions.

There are already enough elements to identify ‘good practices’ for a virtual development governance. For example, regarding virtual meetings, based on  the proposal of Lara Donaldson, Director of Regulatory and Industrial Affairs of Computershare, in her work ‘How Technology is Changing the Governance Landscape?’, we can highlight the following:

To develop and communicate working rules before each meeting using the dissemination channels. 

To replicate, as much as possible, the working practices established in the face-to-face meeting (for example, simultaneous translation availability, major groups engagement, use of time).

To widely communicate the information about the meeting and the ways to register. 

To provide instructions to participants on how they can ask questions and request to speak.

To make available to the participants the relevant information that they must read before the the meeting (previous documents).

To have an independent moderator, or leave that role to an all participant groups recognized person.

To make sure that selecting some questions should not imply deleting the ones that were not selected.

To post all questions and answers after the meeting, including those that were not presented due to time constraints.

To be prepared to make decisions. The virtual decision-making mechanism and the ways in which participants must express their adherence, rejection, or abstention to each proposal must be clear from the outset. Participants’ understanding and capacity to operate these mechanisms (taking into account, for example, visual, hearing, and mobility restrictions) should be ensured.

To be transparent and accountable regarding all previous steps and those that will be taken because of the decisions made and the debates held at the virtual meeting.

Moving forward to a virtual development governance is nowadays a basic need. Even more when the world is facing a pandemic as the COVID-19. This, could also open new participation opportunities for government and no-government stakeholders, democratize governance, reduce the environmental damage of massive international meetings (one of whose most brutal expressions is the environmental damage caused by air transportation), and innovate to make the SDGs Decade of Action and Delivery a reality for all.

(1) According to UNDP, 2.6 billion people in developing countries lack permanent access to electricity, and more than 4 billion people do not have access to the Internet; 90% of them are in the developing world.

(2) Target 9.c, ‘Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020,’ a target that should be reached this year. 

Of the countries reporting cases in the region up to yesterday, 18 of them reported an additional 961 cases in the past 24 hours for a total of 4,538 cases.

The United States continues to report the highest number of cases and deaths in the region, 77% of the total cases and 89% of total deaths in the region“.

PAHO, March 16, 2020.

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