Statement to Ministerial Finance Dialogue 4

FfD Forum 2019

Statement to Ministerial Finance Dialogue 4 – “Harnessing new technologies for financing the SDGs” on behalf of Civil Society FfD Group (including the Women’s Working Group on FfD)

Delivered by Elenita Daño, Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group)

16 April 2019

Look Before We Leap

We need to look before we leap. It is very clear in the discussions of the panel with regards to fintech that the UN plays a crucial role in horizon scanning, which is clearly in the mandate of the Task Force on Digital Finance.  The world should not just embrace new technologies without assessing the potential impacts on society, our readiness and capacities, and how society can cope with resulting disruptions.  It is prudent for society to stop and look before leaping into something new, learn from our past and present to inform our future, rather than expecting to fix the problems as we go. In order to have a comprehensive view of the horizon, our view should not just be top-down, but bottom-up, anticipatory and inclusive. Horizon scanning should inform our decisions on governance of new technologies, and governance is not just about regulations but more about understanding what is before us and taking steps to ensure that new technologies will not undermine our collective vision of Leaving No One Behind.

Inclusiveness is not automatic in any technology. The design, development and processes in new technologies should be inclusive, and it is the key role of UN to ensure that not just governments, institutions and businesses are on part of the conversation, but equally,  civil society and grassroots movements –  not as an afterthought, not later, but NOW. “Consultations and diversity” must not be limited to financial experts and players but should actively involve those who are envisioned as “recipients” and those whom we do not want to leave behind. Decisions on fintech is not just a dialogue/conversation between innovators and regulators, but must involve consumers, users and target beneficiaries who will actually use these innovations and technologies and will be impacted by them. For new technologies to be inclusive, the fundamentals need to be addressed:

infrastructures, education, affordability, access and protection of basic rights and human rights such as privacy, security, etc. Social protection is critical, to ensure that those who will be displaced and impacted will not be further left behind, beyond re-skilling.

Horizon scanning does not just look at the future, but learn from the past and the present. we need to name and confront the big elephants in the room that are not even mentioned in the euphoria over the promises of new technologies as “manna from heaven” that will take us out of our problems in financing for development:

The energy requirement and environmental footprints of new technologies in finance need to be part of the discussed now, not later when society has to deal with wastes and environmental damages. While all new technologies claim to be a solution to climate crisis and resource pressure, let’s look at the  ecological and energy realities, and resource requirements of bitcoin mining, smart phones, supercomputers, cloud storage and AI. while supposed benefits to society are often heralded, we should not overlook the often invisible costs to society and the environment which are only felt and named when the damage is already serious, often irreversible.

Who controls and owns these new technologies? The control of Big Data, algorithms and the foundation of digital technologies in finance are in the hands of Big Tech and the world’s multi-billionaires and giant corporations, guarded by patents, copyrights and trade secrets. Tech players are even training their sights on non-conventional sectors such as food and agriculture (think Amazon buying Whole Foods, and Google investing on moonshot projects in developing robot-farmers and lab meat), even pharmaceutical retailing (think of Microsoft partnering with Walgreens, Amazon buying Pillpack). The trend toward vertical integration, and the growing role of asset managers and investment houses behind mergers and acquisitions, will lead the world towards more concentration of corporate wealth and power.

Fixation on high-tech and to technological solutions run counter to the aim of building resilient societies.  It is the role of the UN to provide governments with technology OPTIONS that include “low-tech”, towards building “wide-tech” menu. There should in fact be a whole spectrum of options – not just embracing technological solutions, but should promote and encourage social innovations on old technologies, and advancing structural solutions to structural problems.           

“Leaving no one behind” is not just about expecting everyone to follow a path set from the top, but more meaningfully about recognizing broad sources of knowledge, technology and innovation. We should be talking about respecting, promoting and supporting indigenous and local knowledge systems and innovation that have built community resilience over centuries and have made a difference in peoples’ lives such as agroecology, instead of this obsession over high-tech and digital innovations that distracts resources and political will.

Let us not lose sight that new technologies do not make the old questions on inequality and injustice go away which should be at the heart of the discussions in UN forums such as this. History tells us that new technologies result to displacement, marginalisation and exacerbation of existing inequalities. How not to repeat the errors of the past in this era of rapid technological pace should be the core of the UN’s work in order to realise the mission of Leaving No One Behind by 2030.

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