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UN preparing for a world of Geospatial Information Management

August 2016:​  On 27 July, in a little noted decision on "Cartography," the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) made a change that will have more impact on the future of Sustainable Development than all the meetings of its High Level Political Forum. 

Acting on  the report of its Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management  (GGIM) established just five years earlier, the Council decided to eliminate all its Regional Cartographic Conferences. In their stead, a much strengthened Expert Committee will streamline all UN work related to geospatial information management, especially in relation to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, the 2015-2030 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Small Islands Accelerated Modalities of Action (SAMOA) Pathway. 

A prime area of focus will be the development of a global geodetic frame of reference necessary for the efficient use of all aspects of GGIM. The expert committee will oversee all UN System efforts to "strengthen coordination and coherence of global geospatial information management, in capacity-building, norm-setting, data collection, data dissemination and data sharing, among others." It will also help strengthen the integration of statistical and geospatial information management, especially in developing countries, in particular the least developed, landlocked and small island developing States. 

With these changes ECOSOC has set in place the integration and harmonization of fundamental geospatial data themes from the national to global levels, building on existing fundamental datasets and identifying strategic priorities.  The knowledge-base for geospatial information management will be continuously updated by all users and make critical and relevant information accessible on the Web. 

The Expert Committee sees land administration as a predominant theme in its future work. It has noted the increased location-based technological developments around the world that could have an impact on the consideration of legal and policy framework issues relevant to the development of authoritative data.  (A "Convention on Geoinformation" proposed by the International Bar Association has been deemed premature.) The framework issues will be important in the collection, use, storage and dissemination of geospatial information.

As usual, the UN has done practically nothing to tell the world about any of this. Young people, especially, should be avidly interested in the prospect that if we don't blow ourselves up in the next few years, the planet will have a living skin of location-specific data accessible from any smart phone. Every phone will also be able to link to the data skin and act as a sensor. We will be a giant step closer to the development of a "global brain" noted in our article on A United Nations for the 21st Century

A  First Century  map telling of the sea route from Mediterranean Europe to India is one of the earliest examples of the use of geospatial information. It puts in perspective the dramatic new uses of such information in a digitally connected world (see article).

​With UN as ineffective as the League of Nations IT IS TIME TO PLAN successor


21 October 2016: The United Nations is now in the same situation as the League of Nations was in the 1930s when power struggles among major nations began to push the world towards the Second World War. Its Charter is badly out of date, its decisions and commands have no real traction and its member States do not engage in cooperative action on anywhwere near the scale necessary to deal with the challenges they face. The Organization's leadership over the past decade has shown no inclination to grapple with any of those issues; worse, in the face of some of the most lurid scandals and corruptions of UN history the Secretary-General has been unresponsive and unaccountable.

That state of affairs is comparable to that of the League of Nations in the lead-up World War II.  Although it was widely obvious that the League had become worse than useless under Joseph Avenol, its fascist toady Secretary-General, no one sounded the alarm or did anything effective to turn things around. Talk of reforming the League continued even after the war had begun. It was not until the Allies were confident of victory that Franklin Roosevelt initiated plans for the United Nations. 

In 2016, with nuclear arsenals distributed around the world, we cannot expect to repeat that experience. Once power struggles develop to the point of direct conflict among major countries – Syria being a perilous case in point – it will be too late to plan anything. If there is to be an effective successor organization to the UN planning must begin now, urgently.

Can’t the UN be reformed? Can’t a new and energetic Secretary-General remedy its faults?

That prospect is unrealistic. The UN’s problems, as with the League in its day, are related to tectonic changes in international relations and the failure of elite groups to deal creatively with critical issues. The following points summarize the situation:

The Charter: Two months after the UN Charter was agreed to in San Francisco in June 1945, the nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki upended the strategic paradigm underlying the Security Council. The Cold War that began in 1946 completely nullified the Council and by the time it became operational in 1989, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the rise of new Powers had made its capacities largely fictional. There is no way those factors can be remedied; we need a new concept of security and a new way of reaching for it.

International Security: The UN’s primary aim is to maintain international peace and security by minimizing use of armaments. Not only has that been impossible, military expenditures today are about 70 per cent higher than at the peak of the Cold War and the permanent members of the Security Council are the world’s largest arms producers and exporters. The UN has been unable to even report on that situation. Its Conference on Disarmament in Geneva has been in a state of suspended animation for two decades. None of this is even on the UN reform agenda.

Economic and Social: Cooperation in solving economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems, and promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are primary aims of the UN. Efforts to those ends have been so problematic for 70 years that nations have grown cynical; the annual debates on those issues are not geared to any meaningful action. The situation now is extreme. There are over 60 million refugees and displaced people in the world today, set adrift by conflict and unbearable economic and social distress. The going price to “buy” a human being from a trafficker is $90. Some of the worst abusers of human rights sit on the UN Human Rights Council for purely defensive reasons. None of this can be “reformed.”

Environmental: The legacy of the industrial era has been a poisoned planet with a growing fever that is projected to melt the polar ice caps and raise sea levels, drowning the coastal areas where most of humanity lives. Current plans to deal with this critical situation are grossly inadequate and deeply conflicted. Even as governments pledge action to transform global production and consumption patterns they are engaged in desperate efforts to revive the world economy in its most destructive configurations. The UN Environment Program cannot even bring this overall picture into perspective, much less mobilize action on the requisite scale.

Institutional: International institutions to deal with this complexity of interrelated problems are relics of a past age. At a time when the greed of a handful of bankers can throw the world economy into crisis, when social media can mobilize public opinion globally, the United Nations System is wedded structurally and procedurally to 19th Century diplomatic traditions. The elite groups in charge of the UN seem to be entirely unaware of this situation even though it is obvious that the Organization has very little traction on world events. In all the talk of “revitalizing” the General Assembly there has been no talk of measuring the effectiveness of its actions outside UN walls. The UN’s idea of outreach to billions of young people is to appoint a “representative” on the issue and occasionally invite a token “youth” into its meetings. In selecting a new Secretary-General this year, the UN did not conduct an active search for someone with the requisite expertise and vision to engage with a newly networked and connected world; it asked the very governments responsible for the current mess to nominate candidates. At the “informal” meeting of the General Assembly at which the S-G designate heard of the concerns of member States, few of the points above found voice. It is clear the UN membership is not adequately cognizant of the dire situation of the Organization.

The Next United Nations

The common problem underlying all the disabilities of the UN is the incapacity of national elites to update their expectations and behavior during a period of transformative change in global realities. A successor organization must be able to deal with that by bringing to life the visionary Preamble to the Charter that begins with the words “We the Peoples of the United Nations;” to that end it must engage a global public and mobilize a supportive democratic groundswell. The existing forums and framework of the UN must be incorporated into the networks of that mobilization.

As the UN itself is incapable of directing this process it must be taken in hand by an independent body led by someone with unquestioned political ability and wide credibility. President Barack Obama should consider heading this effort after he quits the White House.