Tag Archives: United Nations

Satellites to the Rescue

Satellite image of Muzaffarabad region of Pakistan showing landslides caused by the 2005 south Asian earthquake. Map created on 13 October 2005

Here’s a piece I wrote for the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation on how satellites and space technology are helping, and might help, in the case of big medical emergencies, from earthquakes to Ebola. It’s a slightly different tack for me and perhaps not the usual fare for loose wire blog, but I thought I’d throw it in here anyway.

When former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was seen leaving a conference in Geneva in November 2005 clutching maps of the south Asia earthquake disaster, it was evidence that satellites – as a key weapon in humanitarian emergencies – had arrived.

In the hours and days after the October 8 quake struck killing more than 73 000 people and injuring some 150 000, experts from France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United Nations scrambled to gather and interpret images data from satellites to assist rescue workers on the ground from local authorities to nongovernmental organizations (NGO), like Télécoms Sans Frontières.

WHO | Space technology: a new frontier for public health

Transparent Blogging: The Pronk Effect

We could learn some lessons about blogging, honesty, accountability and the distinction between public and private views from an unlikely source: the U.N.’s special envoy to Sudan. Jan Pronk, expelled last month for comments on a blog he was writing about the conflict, has replied to an email I sent to him shortly after he was expelled in which he answers some questions about his blog. The full transcript is below. (My original piece about his blog and expulsion is here.)

His experience and attitude, I think, offers some pointers for diplomats, politicians, CEOs and anyone holding an official position. The lessons are actually the same for any person with information that others may find of interest: try to be honest, try to be accurate, and don’t pretend that there’s some distinction between a personal and an official position.

Mr. Pronk’s blog is unusual in several ways. First off, it’s extremely clearly written (unusual, if I may say so, for someone at that elevated level.) Secondly, it pulls no punches. Thirdly, and most interestingly, he sought nor received any official permission from the U.N. bureaucracy to keep the blog. And that brings us to the fourth point: the U.N. was able to make use of his blog to point journalists asked for background about what was going on in Sudan, but at the same time insisted the blog was a personal one [Inner City Press]. Mr. Pronk sees this kind of distinction as “nonsense. First, I said the same in the press conferences which I gave in my official capacity. Second, how could somebody in my position make a distinction between official and private?”

I think Mr. Pronk is right. There is no distinction between a private and personal comment if the person expressing it is known to hold an official position and that position is known. Sorry, that sounds rather pompous. But if it’s done nothing else, blogging has shown us that attempts to make these distinctions fail. We readers are not stupid, and blogs have made us even less so. We can see that Mr. Pronk’s comments about morale in the Sudanese army are not the official U.N. view. Mr. Pronk sees his blog as part of his public accountability — by informing us of the situation in Sudan he is also showing us that his knowledge and understanding of the situation are sophisticated enough to inspire confidence.

Lastly, the argument that Mr. Pronk undermined the process by not being diplomatic enough is nonsense: He may have upset the host government with his comments, but that was not his job. His job was to try to bring peace to the country. To do that he needed to show as many people as possible that he was aware of the situation on the ground, was neutral, and was trying to inform as many people inside and outside the country as possible about the situation. Mr. Pronk is, like blogging, all about transparency, and I believe he’s helped set a new benchmark for public officials which I hope a few choose to follow.

Here’s the full question and answer email:

1) What led you to start a blog?

I had two reasons. First, I like combining my work as a politician with analytical reflections on what I am doing and on the environment within which I am working.. I have always done so, by lecturing, by making extensive notes for myself and by writing articles. It helps me focussing. Blogging for me was just an extension, using another instrument. I had a second reason: to be accountable, not only to the bureaucracy in New York, but broader. I consider myself much more a politician than a diplomat. Politicians have to be accountable and transparent. I have tried to be accountable by giving rather extensive press conferences in Khartoum. However, the press in Sudan is not free to write everything they hear.

2) Did you have to get anyone’s permission or approval beforehand?

No.

3) How did you maintain it? Was it all done by yourself, or did you have someone to help you post your entries and photos?

I wrote everything myself. I send my texts and the pictures which I choose to somebody who puts it on my site. He had designed the site. I am not very skilled in those things, but it is my intention, at a later stage, to do everything myself.

4) How do you feel your blog helped? Was it a personal thing, or something you felt the peace process needed?

In the beginning not many people did read it. But gradually the circle widened. I got mostly positive reactions, though not many, say five each day. (It is different now). I also wrote to inform people in Sudan and neighbouring countries. While much to my regret I do not speak or write Arabic, there are many Sudanese who read English. These people often do only have access to official press propaganda information.

5) Were there any downsides to the blog, do you think?

As a matter of act, no. I was told that many in he UN bureaucracy did not like this, but I did not consider that important. SG Kofi Annan never mentioned the blog, until a day before I was declared persona non grata. In writing my blog I tried to be clear, but even-handed and honest, not making up stories, but providing information which had been checked. Of course it is always difficult to combine, in one text, news with commentaries. That is the eternal dilemma for a journalist. However, I am not a journalist. I am a politician. It is the duty of a politician to provide opinions on the basis of facts. In my position I had to combine a political approach with the attitude of a diplomat. Some may say that I was not successful. However, that has nothing to do with blogging. I had to combine the two approaches also in press conferences. (By the way, it has been said that my blog only reflected my personal opinion. This is nonsense, for two reasons. First, I said the same in the press conferences which I gave in my official capacity. Second, how could somebody in my position make a distinction between official and private? I have always maintained: ‘’It is not important where you say something, but what you say. If you want to criticize, don’t criticize the channel, but the message”.)   

6) Did anyone ask you to close down the blog prior to the recent fracas?

No.

7) What are your plans for the blog?

My strength was that I could write on the basis of my experiences from the field, as a direct witness. I do not have that opportunity anymore. Moreover, after 1/1/2007 I will no longer be Special Representative of the SGUN. That would make anything I write less authoritative. However, I do intend to continue blogging, writing about issues which I consider important and about which I have gathered some expertise: international relations, foreign policy, UN, climate policy, human rights policy, peace keeping, international development cooperation. But I will do so in a different capacity, say, as an academic.

An Unlikely Blogger Expelled

Although it’s not good for Sudan, I think it’s good for blogging: CNN reports that 

The government of Sudan on Sunday gave the top U.N. official in the country three days to leave, marking the latest hurdle in international efforts to bring peace to the nation torn apart by civil war.

Sudan expelled Jan Pronk, the top U.N. envoy to Sudan, who has openly criticized Khartoum as well as rebel groups on his Web log.

Pronk has been running a blog for nearly a year and while it doesn’t look like your average blog (really long posts, no external links, no comments, blogs numbered as if they were official UN documents) it’s an impressively direct account of the Sudanese conflict. His third post started as follows: 

This week the seventh round of the Abuja talks between the Government of Sudan and the rebel movements will start. Will it be the last one, producing a peace agreement before the end of the year? The chances are diminishing.

Not the sort of mealy-mouthed stuff we’re used to from senior UN officials. And it’s probably upset the UN as much as it’s upset the Sudanese government. But if so why had the UN not closed him down earlier? Pronk, according to UPI, did not offer any disclaimers, but the UN has since made clear he was writing in a personal capacity. The UN has “no rules barring blogging specifically, though employees face restrictions when publishing articles and participating in interviews.” It seems Pronk was probably senior enough, and his comments uncontroversial enough, for no one to mind too much. Until last week.

What I like about it is that reporters tend to meet these kind of people in the field, and it’s great to hear them sounding off about the situation, but rarely are their words captured in sufficient quantity for their great background knowledge and high level involvement in such diplomatic processes to be read by a wider audience. I’ve not followed the tragedy in Darfur much beyond what I read in the papers, but Pronk’s year-long posts are a diary of immense and satisfying detail about the process, peppered by great photos, that are worthy of more than the word blog. 

Take this one, for example, from June 28

There is a significant risk that the Darfur Peace Agreement will collapse. The agreement does not resonate with the people of Darfur. On the contrary, on the ground, especially amongst the displaced persons, it meets more and more resistance. In my view it is a good text, an honest compromise between the extreme positions taken by the parties during the negotiations in Abuja. That is why the UN, like all international partners, has endorsed the agreement. However, in politics objective rational calculations will always be confuted by subjective emotional perceptions and aspirations. And those perceptions are that the agreement does not meet the expectations of the people in Darfur, has been forced upon them and, rather than meeting the interests of all parties somewhere halfway, only strengthens the position of the government and a minority tribe, the Zaghawa.

That too me is very clear writing, reflecting his knowledge of the situation on many levels. Not every situation could allow a senior figure involved deeply in the political process to write so frankly and openly, but wouldn’t it be great if they could? This to me is the real potential of blogs and citizen reporting. Someone who really knows what is going on telling us about it.

PS: Jan Pronk has a reputation of sorts in Indonesia, my current abode. He earned the lasting enmity of then president Suharto by

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Being A Reporter And Being A Columnist: The ‘Good Story’ Trap

I’m a journalist. You probably knew that. But since focusing on being a columnist (rather than a reporter) I’ve tried to avoid the journalist crowd. Not because they’re not interesting, dedicated, very smart people, many of whom I count my friends. It’s just that journalists have a certain way of thinking, and I’m not convinced, at least as a columnist, that that is the best way to think. Last night, back in Hong Kong, I think I was able to pin down another reason why.

I was hanging out with some old former colleagues. Nice guys, all of them. We were talking about stuff, and I couldn’t help noticing the habit that all journalists tend to have. They’ll share stuff, anecdotes, things they’ve done, heard or seen, and all the others will be assessing the information in terms of whether it constitutes a story. The biggest compliment one journalist can pay another is to mutter, at the end of a tale, ‘good story’. It doesn’t just mean, of course, that the narrator has spun a good yarn. It means he or she has imparted enough juicy material for the other journalists to realise they’re working on something good. It’s a natural way to think — after all, we’re only as good as our next article — but is it the best way?

I try to think a bit differently as a columnist. For me, the lead in a story — the meat, the point, the angle of the story — doesn’t cross well to a column. Think ‘lead’ in a column and all you get is a bad news story. Writing a story is building an inverted triangle. The meat is at the top, and then you throw in as much other stuff as you can before you run out of space. Sure, you could try to come up with a good bottom — what’s called a kicker — but only if you have a good editor who won’t lop it off because of lack of space.

Writing a column for me is like layering a cake. You have all these different audiences you want to try to capture, so you need to add each layer carefully, not leaving behind those less than interested in the topic while not boring those who already know the background. You need to have a point, of course, but it’s not always going to be the ‘newsworthy’ bit a journalist would focus on — the ‘good story’. You need to put it in perspective, just a like a news piece. But you also need to throw it forward, and not in the way news stories usually do (‘the revelation is bound to cause concern in the market/cabinet/UN etc’) but in terms of what the users might expect to see around the corner, up the road, or over the horizon. As a columnist too you need to pronounce judgement on the trend/product/statement/issue, a luxury journalists don’t have. Your opinion, for once, counts.

I suppose my worry about the ‘good story’ thing is that journalists don’t, or won’t go much beyond that. Calling something a ‘good story’ implies that the angle has already been pinned down, the incremental step forward that the ‘good story’ will push the issue as a whole. But by defining ‘a good story’ journalists also tend to draw a line around the discussion, the issue, the debate, and thereby limit their thinking. There’s no point, journalists know, of taking the discussion further forward because until that incremental ‘good story’ is written, the issue — the bigger story — will stay stuck at that point. News is about angles, what is ‘new’, not necessarily what is really important. To journalists ‘good story’ is a way of saying, ‘interesting. Next subject, please’.

What I’m saying is not new, and it’s been much better expressed elsewhere. Neither am I criticising journalists, who know their ‘good story’ is the one that will pay the bills and please their boss. And, interestingly, journalists not covering the topic they’re talking about will happily debate the ins and outs of the subject till the dawn. The ‘good story’ bit only really applies to topics that might be within the beat of the reporters having the chat. But I consider myself very fortunate to have been given the chance to write a column, not least because it’s forced me to think outside what constitutes a ‘good story’ into thinking about the issue from a much greater distance, and to try to find a way to make it as relevant as possible to the reader. I don’t think I’ve done a very good job, but I think I’m beginning to understand what is required of one as a columnist, as opposed to being a reporter.

Under the Wire

Under the Wire

The Latest Software and Hardware Upgrades, Plug-Ins and Add-Ons

from the 29 May 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Slow Upgrade Uptake

Have you upgraded yet from Windows 98 to XP? If not, you’re not alone. According to a survey by on-line-statistics analyst WebSide Story (http://statmarket.com/), XP has taken three times longer than its predecessor to reach the same portion of the market. Windows XP first reached 33% global usage share in late March 2003, nearly 18 months after its launch in October 2001. Windows 98, on the other hand, reached the same benchmark in January 1999, only six months after its launch. My thoughts: While XP is a lot better than 98, users are showing that they’re not just going to blindly follow upgrades any more: While a third of them now run XP, a quarter don’t. Still, it’s not all rosy on the other side of the fence either: Apple is running into some familiar problems with its music-download service. According to WinInfo newsletter (www.winnetmag.net), people have figured out how to use a software service that Apple built into its music player to illegally download music over the Internet from Macs running iTunes.

My column on MessageTag, a program that allows you to check whether folk have read the e-mail you sent them, elicited some interesting mail [Are You Being Read Or Completely Ignored, May 22, 2003]. One user of a similar, but more limited, feature that comes with Microsoft Outlook points to one pitfall of the process: Knowing more than you really want to know about what happened to your e-mails. Steven A. Gray, from the United States, e-mailed his governor, Mitt Romney, complimenting him on a recent TV appearance, only to receive the following message, triggered by Outlook: “Your message to Goffice (GOV) . . . was deleted without being read on Mon, 24 Mar 2003 12:39:52 -0500.” OK, so MessageTag may not work for politicians. Other concerns were raised: Patrick Machiele, from the Netherlands, reckons the service won’t work well for those who, like him, dial in to grab their e-mail, but read it off-line. The guys from MSGTAG say this is true, but that overall the percentage of such users is very low. While Patrick has definitely pointed to a weakness in the system, I have to agree with MSGTAG: I’ve noticed very few mismatches where an e-mail is read but registered by MSGTAG as unread.

Finally, Nigerian scammers have judged on-line shopping to be a rich seam of inspiration. Here are excerpts from an e-mail from El-Mustapha, who claims to be the ex-personal aide to the Iraqi minister of education and research, Dr. Abd Al-khaliq Gafar (“that died in the war”). Before the war, he says, they travelled to France to negotiate a contract for educational materials and components for the ministry. UN sanctions forced them to pay cash. “In gust [sic] of this he had cleverly diverted this sum ($28.5m) for himself and secured it properly with a security vault in Spain for safekeeping,” he says. He did ask me to keep the whole thing top secret, but I’m still reeling from the last scam I fell for, so anyone interested in helping him recover the loot should e-mail him at mustapha_el@mail2guard.com.