Geneva Staff Battles UN Chief over Unequal Pay & Illegal Salary Cuts

Credit: United Nations

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 20 2020 – As the United Nations commemorates its 75th anniversary this year, the financially-crippled Organization is also saddled with a rash of administrative problems, plus an ongoing cash crisis, perhaps one of the worst in history.

At a town hall meeting with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last month, UN staffers in Geneva, led by the Staff Coordinating Council (SCC), raised several issues, including the impact of the illegal pay cut on incomes, family life, and staff morale, and the growing number of obstacles to career development.

And they also singled out the harassment and retaliation against whistle blowers, (with harassments apparently going unpunished); the “exploitation” of colleagues on temporary and consultancy contracts; “management abuse” of rules under the new delegation of authority; and the negative impact of administrative offshoring and plans for hot-desking.

And that’s only for starters.

Guterres initially “refused to meet staffers”, according to a message from SCC. The request for a meeting was made when the Secretary-General was in Geneva on Dec 4.

Reacting to the refusal, the SCC pointedly said the welfare of staff should be a prime concern for any organization.

“It’s clear from the huge number of stories we’ve received and responses to our survey that UN Geneva staff are not just angry and disaffected at the injustice of the illegal pay cut they have suffered, there have also been significant consequences for the lives of many of their families.”

“Any decent employer (read: United Nations) should want to listen to the views of their staff, however challenging. Trying to ignore such opinions and experiences hurts employees and is damaging for the wider organization, and that’s just part of why we were so disappointed to learn of the Secretary General’s refusal to meet with UN Geneva staff on the topic of equal pay”, the SCC said.

“This was a missed opportunity, but it is far from the end of the matter. The Staff Council doesn’t take no for an answer”—and it eventually pulled it off.

Perhaps reacting to the SCC attack on him, Guterres agreed to address the town hall meeting during his second visit to Geneva on December 16.

But the SCC said the Secretary General’s response for equal pay was “significant”. Guterres told staffers: “Equal pay is obviously a norm that should be respected everywhere”

“I fully understand that this system of unequal pay is unacceptable and it will have to be solved. I will do everything I can for that to happen. I fully understand how angry you are with this situation that is unfair and I’m interested in solving it,” Guterres added, according to SCC.

The SCC also said: “These are encouraging words and we will hold him to them. Whilst such a commitment is a notable step forward for our campaign, we remain concerned as he also refused to take immediate action to resolve the situation by adding: “I don’t have the power to do what you ask me to do.”

A big test will come when the UN Dispute Tribunal delivers their ruling on the issue. “We are confident they will find in favour of equal pay and, given the Secretary General’s words, staff will expect him to accept the decision and not lodge any appeal”.

“In the meantime, we will watch every move and keep up the pressure, not just on equal pay, but on the other issues that we raised and which he acknowledged,” said Prisca Chaoui, SCC Executive Secretary and Ian Richards, President.

The UN Office at Geneva (UNOG) says it serves as the representative office of the Secretary-General in Geneva, which also houses the Human Rights Council and UN agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization.

A focal point for multilateral diplomacy, UNOG services more than 10,000 meetings every year, making it one of the world’s busiest conference centres. And with more than 1,600 staff, it is the biggest duty stations outside of United Nations headquarters in New York.

Asked about the impact of the cash crunch on UN staffers, Ian Richards, who is also the Geneva-based President of the 60,000-strong Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations (CCISUA), told IPS the General Assembly has ordered that a certain number of posts be kept vacant at any time.

“This basically has the effect of a promotion-and-recruitment freeze despite workload on the rise and the growing dangers for staff in places like Iraq and Afghanistan”.

“Staff are not happy,” he added.

Asked if the UN is in the process of eliminating short term and consultancy contracts, and also replacing overseas assignments with teleconferencing as spelled out by Guterres, Richards said these are being used much less on the regular budget, which has implications for impacted personnel.

Teleconferencing has always been there, he noted, but there are limits to its usefulness.

“You can’t conduct an investigation or research mission on the other side of the world by teleconference. And sometimes you need to get key people around the table for a solid 3 days if you want to solve a particularly complex problem”.

“You can’t do that by teleconference when people are scattered across time zones,” he declared.

Asked if regular staffers are assured of permanent stay in New York or is it mandatory for them to serve in overseas posts, Richards said the “mobility policy” is currently suspended, pending a new one.

The suspended policy turned out to be cumbersome to administer. He argued that something more simple and less top-down is required while providing staff a reassurance that if they go to the field, their service will be recognized and they have a way back to headquarters, he added.

Meanwhile, the General Assembly has postponed until spring a proposal to move some of the UN offices to Budapest, Kuala Lumpur, Mexico City and Nairobi.

“It’s been under consideration for several years and hasn’t got anywhere,” said Richards, pointing out that, ultimately, it’s not a financially viable project and many managers and member states know this.

“And as the UN’s administrative systems become ever more technology-based, the usefulness of physical service centres goes out the window. We’re in 2020 now, not 2005,” said Richards.

The writer can be contacted at

UN Special Rapporteur Offers Assistance to Indian Supreme Court in Case of Rohingya Deportation

The United Nations on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance has recently offered her assistance to the Indian Supreme Court in a long hearing about India deporting Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. Pictured here are Rohingya refugee women in Jammu, India. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Samira Sadeque
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 20 2020 – University of California professor E. Tendayi Achiume, who is a United Nations Special Rapporteur, has recently offered her assistance to the Indian Supreme Court in a long hearing about India deporting Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.

The hearing, which began in 2017, has this update at a crucial time when the world’s largest democracy is reeling from citizenship rulings that explicitly exclude Muslims from certain neighbouring countries. 

Achiume, who is a U.N. Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, submitted the application to the Supreme Court on Jan. 10, according to local news agency The Wire

“Litigation schedules are long and complex, and the timing of my filing reflects that,” Achiume told IPS this week, in reference to why she made her application at this time. 

According to the Wire, which reviewed the application, Achiume did so in order to “aid the court in upholding India’s obligations under various international law instruments and principles to which it has committed”. 

  • India, although not the most common destination for Rohingya refugees, has a large number of the population, many of whom migrate from neighbouring Bangladesh.
  • At the time of reporting, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had documented 17,911 Rohingyas in India as registered with the organisation. 

In 2017, when the hearing began, the Indian government, responsible for the current crisis in Kashmir as well as the Citizenship Amendment Act, told the court that Rohingyas pose “a threat to national security”. 

Two years later, this sentiment remains relevant given the recent citizenship ruling as well as the crisis in Kashmir have stoked further anti-Muslim rhetoric in India. In the past, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah has used similar rhetoric of “threat” to national security against Bangladeshi immigrants in the country.  

Last week, at the launch of 2020 World Report Human Rights Watch (HRW), the organisation’s head reiterated that the current rulings in the country are discriminatory. 

“We are extremely concerned about the anti-Muslim drift by the Modi government,” Kenneth Roth told IPS at the launch where he also blasted Aung San Suu Kyi for her defence of Myanmar’s practices against the Rohingya population in the country.  

While the recent rulings do not directly affect Rohingyas from Myanmar, the current anti-Muslim sentiment heightened by these rulings adds another layer of complication for a community that is known to be largely Muslim and has their share of challenges already. 

As it is, the Rohingya community already is vulnerable to discrimination in India. India’s decision to deport Rohingyas “raises critical issues as to its compatibility with these instruments and principles of international human rights law,” Achiume wrote in the application. 

“In India, Rohingya face protection risks due to difficulties in obtaining legal documentation and access to basic services,” Kathryn Mahoney, Senior Communications Officer at UNHCR told IPS. “UNHCR is also aware of instances of arrest and detention of Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers at the border.” 

This already festering sentiment against the Rohingya, when viewed under current circumstances, can prove grave for the community. 

“I believe there is strong reason to believe there are heightened concerns for Rohingya and others in the current legal and political climate that is fostering intolerance and discrimination against Muslims,” Achiume told IPS. “India’s judiciary has an important role to play in upholding the country’s human rights commitments.” 

In their statement to IPS, UNHCR reiterated the urgency with which forced repatriation efforts by India must be stopped for the Rohingya community that still remains vulnerable to violence and displacement in Myanmar. 

“UNHCR is deeply concerned by the return of Rohingya asylum-seekers from India to Myanmar, who may be at risk of serious human rights violations or persecution,” Mahoney told IPS. “UNHCR does not believe that current conditions in Myanmar are conducive to the safe and dignified repatriation of Rohingya refugees.” 

Pro-Growth Demographic Dogma

By Joseph Chamie
NEW YORK, Jan 20 2020 – Whenever the issue of population comes up, pro-growth demographic dogma invariably dominates. Governments, political parties, businesses, the media and many others typically praise population growth and lament population slowdown, stabilization or decline. The demographic dogma basically advocates maintaining robust population growth and a larger and youthful population. 

Population declines, even slowdowns, generally inspire angst among most policymakers, military officials, business leaders, economists and others, as they see them tied to economic, political, social and cultural decline. The dogma foresees financial ruin and a loss of political influence and national power resulting from demographic declines and population aging. 

Fear of population decline and aging is promoted by many groups, especially business leaders who tend to gain the most financially from a growing, youthful population of consumers and workers.

The pro-growth demographic dogma is fundamentally a Ponzi scheme. It is a pyramid scheme that generates more money, power and influence for some by adding on more and more people through natural increase and in some cases immigration. Questions about the sustainability of long-term population growth are typically dismissed or left unanswered

For example, while Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Alibaba founder Jack Ma may disagree on many issues, they are in agreement that the biggest problem facing the world in the future is not enough people.

Although world population is projected to add 2 billion people by midcentury, the two prominent businessmen claim, “The biggest issue in 20 years will be population collapse. Not explosion. Collapse.”

In the United States, the Chamber of Commerce regularly calls for the government to continue importing foreign workers. In a recent interview, Chamber CEO Tom Donohue commenting on the ongoing labor shortage in the country said: “The fundamental issue is that the United States of America is out of people.”  

However, data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics show there is no labor shortage. In addition, automation, artificial intelligence and robots are reducing labor needs in many sectors of the US economy. 

The pro-growth demographic dogma is fundamentally a Ponzi scheme. It is a pyramid scheme that generates more money, power and influence for some by adding on more and more people through natural increase and in some cases immigration. Questions about the sustainability of long-term population growth are typically dismissed or left unanswered.

In an unrelenting public relations campaign, every effort is made to equate sustained population growth and a youthful population with economic prosperity and developmental progress. The dogma warns that population declines, even slowdowns, and demographic aging will lead to serious financial problems and a bleak future by reducing the labor force, hampering productivity growth, contracting the domestic market base, lessening public finances and increasing social costs for the elderly. 

Concerns about the environment, climate change, poverty, gender gaps, socio-economic inequalities, human rights and peace and security are either ignored or considered best addressed by a growing and youthful population. A growing and youthful population, according to the pro-growth advocates, leads to a robust expanding economy, which in turn ensures social wellbeing, cultural dynamism and political and military strength. 

With sustained rates of below replacement fertility and projections showing future population decline and aging, the governments of many countries, including Austria, China, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Singapore, South Korea and Spain, have population policies to address what they consider to be a looming national crisis (Table 1).


Whenever the issue of population comes up, pro-growth demographic dogma invariably dominates. Governments, political parties, businesses, the media and many others typically praise population growth and lament population slowdown, stabilization or decline. The demographic dogma basically advocates maintaining robust population growth and a larger and youthful population.

Source: United Nations Population Division.


Some governments are promoting marriage, childbearing and parenting through public relations campaigns, incentives and preferences. While incentives and family-oriented measures may encourage some couples to have children, those policies are costly and their overall effect on fertility is weak at best. 

The many forces pushing fertility below replacement levels are simply too powerful for governments to overcome. In short, men in power are not able to persuade women to bear more children than they desire.

Most countries experiencing population slowdowns and decline are averse to turning to immigration. While they desire higher rates of population growth, they are opposed to altering the ethnic and cultural composition of their populations through immigration. Recently, for example, Austria’s recently re-elected chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, said that illegal immigrants are as much a threat to his country as climate change. 

Even in countries with a tradition of immigration, such as Australia, Canada and the United States, opposition to additional immigration is increasing, especially from countries having very different cultures. The United States government, for example, has reduced its annual number of immigrants and imposed a travel ban restricting the entry into the country from certain countries. 

Population declines and slowdowns are frequently entangled in political, social, religious and ethnic concerns. Demographic downturns are typically perceived as losses of power, influence and standing by particular groups of individuals. 

In democratic societies population numbers are closely linked to political power, financial assistance, social influence and cultural traditions. Elections and representation in legislative bodies and the distribution of government monies, in particular, are closely tied to population numbers. 

Also increasingly in societies with serious ethnic, language, religious and cultural cleavages, population numbers and proportions are critical matters. The fear among many, especially nativist and far-right groups, is becoming a minority in their own homeland. Their primary demographic concern boils down to tribalism or  “more of us and less of them”. 

In Europe, for example, le grand replacement, or the great replacement, is a proposition originated by French author Renaud Camus that concerns the replacement of one population with another one. In this particular instance, white Christian Europeans in France are seen being replaced by non-white non-Christian immigrants and their descendants. 

The proposition in its various forms has spread among some right-wing groups, in particular white nationalists throughout Europe and in Northern America and beyond. Driven by fear over the loss of white primacy, white nationalists believe that white identity should be the organizing principle of Western society with some calling for white ethno-states.

Tapping into le grand replacement, Hungary’s prime minister, Victor Orbán, at a recent demography summit held in Budapest aimed at promoting policies to encourage procreation not immigration said: “There are political forces in Europe who want a replacement of population for ideological or other reasons.” 

Orbán’s remarks were supported by the former Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, who added that dying populations, not climate change, were the biggest threat to western civilization. Another summit participant, Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić said: “Serbian people have one expression for negative population growth: the white plague.”

World population is expected to reach the 8 billion in 2023, 9 billion in 2037 and 10 billion around midcentury. Most of the nearly 2 billion addition to the world’s population over the next three decades will be taking place in the poorer countries of Africa and Asia, 60 and 33 percent of the increase, respectively (Table 2).


Whenever the issue of population comes up, pro-growth demographic dogma invariably dominates. Governments, political parties, businesses, the media and many others typically praise population growth and lament population slowdown, stabilization or decline. The demographic dogma basically advocates maintaining robust population growth and a larger and youthful population.

Source: United Nations Population Division.


Recognizing the serious consequences of this expected population growth, growing numbers of people and organizations are rejecting the pro-growth demographic dogma. For example, recently some 11,000 scientists declared unequivocally that the planet Earth is facing a climate emergency and among their six urgently needed actions included: “Stabilize a global human population that is increasing by more than 200,000 people a day, using approaches that ensure social and economic justice.”  

So, be advised: whenever the issue of population comes up, don’t be taken in by the pro-growth demographic dogma. A world soon reaching 8 billion people and an additional 2 billion in a few decades is seriously challenging humanity’s sustainability on planet Earth, which is enduring an array of human-induced calamities, including climate change, environmental degradation, fresh water depletion, deforestation, pollution and loss of biodiversity.

Slovak Journalist’s Trial a Fundamental Moment to Prove if Country can Punish Crimes Designed to Silence Journalists

A protester in the Slovak capital, Bratislava holds up a picture of murdered journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in protests across the country in the weeks after the killing, eventually forcing the resignation of the Prime Minister and Interior Minister. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS

By Ed Holt
BRATISLAVA, Jan 20 2020 – As four people appear in court in Slovakia over the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova, both 27, the trial is being seen by many as a historic moment for not just press freedom in the country but public faith in its justice system.

Miroslav Marcek, Tomas Szabo, Alena Zsuszova, and Marian Kocner have all been charged with Kuciak’s murder. A fifth person, Zoltan Andrusko, was last year sentenced to 15 years in jail for being an intermediary in the murder after agreeing a plea bargain.

On the first day of the trial last week, Marcek, a 37-year-old former soldier, admitted shooting the pair at Kuciak’s home in Velka Maca, 40 miles east of the Slovak capital Bratislava, in February 2018. Szabo, Zsuszova and Kocner have denied the charges against them.

But it is Kocner, a powerful local businessman with alleged links to organized crime and whom Kuciak had written about, who has become for many the central figure in the trial and a symbol of deep-rooted corruption at the highest levels of the state.

And the outcome of the court case is being seen as a test of not just whether the media will in future be free to hold the wealthy and powerful to account, but also whether the judiciary can do the same now.

Adam Valcek, an investigative reporter with the Slovak daily newspaper Sme, told IPS: “In terms of what this trial means for Slovakia, [what happens now] is absolutely fundamental. This what we journalists have been saying for a long time – that the state had been taken over and was being run by an elite. Also, Kocner was able to control the organs of the state.”

The killings of Kuciak and Kusnirova shocked the nation and prompted the largest mass protests in the country since the fall of communism.

Prime Minister Robert Fico and Interior Minister Robert Kalinak were forced to resign, and the head of the police service later stepped down.

Police said that the murders were related to Kuciak’s work as an investigative journalist – Kuciak’s last story had exposed alleged links between Italian mafia and Fico’s Smer party – and the subsequent investigation uncovered alleged links between politicians, prosecutors, judges, and police officers to the people involved in the killings.

Soon after the murders it also emerged that Kuciak had been threatened by Kocner.

There have been rumours of Kocner’s connection to organized crime for decades and it is alleged that his links to politicians and state officials at the highest levels, including Fico, Prosecutor General Dobroslav Trnka, and other judicial figures, meant that he could act with impunity.

He also allegedly used contacts to obtain information on people which he could then use to blackmail them.

Prosecutors in the Kuciak murder trial have argued that he did the same with the journalist. They said Kocner eventually ordered Kuciak’s killing to stop him reporting on the businessman after he had failed to uncover any information he could use to discredit the journalist.

The trial, which is set to run at least until February, has made international headlines and is being closely followed by press freedom watchdogs and international media groups.

Among the local journalism community, though, some have spoken of both hope and fear over what it could mean for their future work.

“It is alarming,” said Lukas Fila, publisher of the Slovak daily Dennik N.

He told IPS: “Government members, top prosecutors, judges, and police officers were involved in one way or another with the alleged perpetrators of these crimes. Journalists were being spied on by former members of the intelligence services. A former policeman and soldier carried out the murder. We could go on. It is now evident that working as a journalist in Slovakia is not safe.

“On the other hand, the trial provides some hope. We have learned things that we cannot unlearn. If anything can return a feeling of safety, it is only severe punishment for all those involved not only in the murder, but also all the other crimes that have surfaced as a result of the investigations.”

The court hearings are in their early stages and those following them are so far reluctant to speculate on the outcome.

In an editorial just before the start of the trial the Sme daily suggested that Kocner would probably not be found guilty. But some journalists who spoke to IPS said that the proceedings over the initial few days of hearings had led them to believe he may actually be convicted.

Whatever happens, the outcome of the trial will be, one way or another, a watershed in Slovak history.

“This is a fundamental moment which will show whether the country can clearly deal with and punish crimes designed to silence journalists uncovering the truth based on facts and whether journalists can freely do their work without fear for their lives,” one Slovak journalist told IPS.

Underlying the reticence some journalists have speaking openly about the threats to their community, the journalist, who has more than two decades of experience in Slovak media, added: “After a series of scandals and the exposure of links between dubious individuals and judges, prosecutors and police, trust in the judiciary is weak.

“For this reason, this is an equally important trial for the judiciary. We need to know that justice exists in Slovakia, and that the justice system is capable of, and determined to, act against ‘big fish’.”

Others expressed concern about what might happen if Kocner is not found guilty.

Fila said there could be “a real threat to the lives of journalists, police officers, and prosecutors, and a degree of public outrage, which could have enormous political consequences”.

“It remains to be seen which way history will go. It may be remembered as a moment when the country gained new hope, or when frustration rose to previously unseen levels,” he said.

Valcek pointed out, though, that even if Kocner was not convicted, he might not escape punishment for other crimes. He is currently also on trial over alleged forgery of promissory notes and is facing separate allegations of tax fraud.

“Kocner could end up like Al Capone – not convicted of murder, but eventually jailed for economic crimes,” said Valcek.

From Digital Diplomacy to Data Diplomacy

By Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts, Jan 20 2020 – The digital revolution arrived late at the heart of ministries of foreign affairs across the Western world. Ministries latched on to social media around the time of Tahrir Square and Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution, beguiled by a vision of the technology engendering a networked evolution toward more liberal societies.

Foreign ministries scrambled to make ‘Twitter-Diplomacy’ part of their push-strategy in strategic communication and began, though arguably too slowly, to analyse US-based digital platform-generated data to inform foreign policy decisions. ‘Tech for Good’ was the universal assumption a decade ago.

Since then, the impact of hyper-connectivity and its effect on hierarchically organised, slow-moving Western foreign and development policy organisations has become clearer and far less simple.

Unbridled by legal barriers or democratic institutional control, China practices a brand of digital colonialism abroad and sells wide-scale surveillance in Africa and Asia. Russia has gone on the offence, unleashing troll armies and hacker collectives upon Europe and the United States as the new face of Moscow’s international power.

Unregulated, expressed positive intent notwithstanding, US-based tech titans end up enabling the digital amplification of human rights abuses. Deep social and political impacts are unfolding.

And yet, foreign ministries are still comparatively under-equipped with the diagnostic capacity to identify, analyse and act in an anticipatory way on the waves of information rolling through the digital realm.

How diplomacy has been changing

This digital deficit is bound to become a true Achilles heel as technological progress forges steadily ahead. Addressing the foreign policy consequences of platform action was one thing.

Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook

Now, the advent of 5G systems and the capacity to run larger volumes of data across them, to develop greater applications for artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things, will not only have deeply disruptive impacts on our societies and the way we work — from manufacturing to services but it will also present steep challenges to how our bureaucracies manage big data and how — in the case of ministries of foreign affairs — they harness capacities for anticipatory foreign policy making.

To be sure, the advent of greater data capacities holds promises — not just challenges — for diplomacy. Well-cultivated, big data will radically improve the consular process, bolster the preparation of diplomats for complex, multi-level negotiations on trade and sanctions and boost the ability to forecast humanitarian crises linked to climate change effects from drought to flooding.

Big data aggregation could also help identify disinformation campaigns targeted against a certain country more quickly and accurately. Chat bots are already improving the more tedious aspects of consular affairs, supporting registration processes or legal aid for refugees.

Much as geo-coding and social media mapping is already helping Global Affairs Canada and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office understand where their messages resonate most effectively, in the near-term future a bigger volume of data and increased interpretation capacities might be used to locate citizens in need and to monitor social media to predict possible consular crises.

For the core work of diplomacy — negotiation — the capacity to engage big data analytics could serve to remove bias, aggregate data on possible negotiation impacts (i.e. on large groups of national or foreign citizens or corporations) and pull together geospatial and sensor data for more objective, fact-based information gathering and generally support better, evidence-based decision making. To realise the advantages of these data streams, the data will have to be harnessed and interpreted by trained analysts and diplomats.

The financing asymmetry of AI development

So, while progress has been made on the diagnostic front and EU-internal coordination on AI in limited areas is improving, staffing and budgetary resources remain dangerous vulnerabilities in the West — both for R&D and industry, to say nothing of the bureaucratic architecture.

While China invests USD 150bn in AI development in its current five-year plan, the largest comparative player — the US with a new tripled commitment (to USD 4.9bn) — cannot even remotely compete with that kind of cross-sectoral investment. Plus, China wields strong state-control, has the Great Firewall and data harvesting capacities across the globe to power rapidly evolving AI.

Above all, a real financial commitment is needed. Until the numbers add up to building true capacity, taxpayers must assume that European (and even the US government) isn’t sufficiently serious about all elements of their national security in light of the deeply disruptive forces AI and quantum computing will bring.

Rotational tech and STEM talent placements in US and European foreign ministries help in identifying key strategic challenges but they are little more than a band-aid. For real change to occur, pressure is needed from the leadership of individual ministries, from the urgency generated by the inter-agency process (intelligence, defense, development and economic ministries together) and increasingly by the supranational level.

The German Armed Forces’ new encrypted messenger service is a perfect example: Following the close observation of the development of a similar secure, closed communications system based on Open-Source software in France (Tschap is now used in over 30 French government institutions), the German Ministry of Defense announced the implementation of its own messenger system in December 2019.

Based on the type of tech platform chosen, the system’s design could foreseeably be extended or copied such that it might facilitate the creation of similar capacities to support a seamless inter-agency process between the foreign ministry, the armed services and intelligence sources in crisis communication.

The example proves that a combination of pressure from the top, inter-European knowledge exchange and a functional dedication of resources can create digitally sovereign tools in what might seem a staid, slow-moving system.

While pooled resources in systems architecture are critical, software advances like these – though arguably late – shouldn’t be maligned. Imagine the degree of functional progress that could be possible, if the EU-27 were able to more systematically aggregate and recombine and redeploy, say, the knowledge acquired by its digital diplomats in Silicon Valley (i.e. Denmark and France), even in an environment of fiscal austerity and insufficient R&D investment.

A new transatlantic dialogue

Even though the 5G debate threatens to further fray already weakened cross-Atlantic ties, a transatlantic digital policy dialogue (beyond cyber defence) on bureaucratic systems adaptation is essential. A European — or even a transatlantic collaboration platform — could help individual EU27 systems make critical decisions with respect to design, knowledge management, personnel structure and cultural transformation and recruitment.

Here are the priorities: First, there is systems architecture. Mere data collection capacities will not allow the crafting of anticipatory foreign policy. A ‘whole-of-government’ approach is necessary.

As newly minted EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen points out, where national and supranational bureaucracies still work on a siloed, ‘need to know’ basis, current and future challenges of connectivity require a ‘need to share’ architecture: greater inter-ministerial exchange to be able to use information generated digitally.

That was a combination of on-the-ground sensor data, satellite imagery and diplomatic intelligence could forecast the next migration wave or humanitarian crisis.

On the digital front, ministries will need systems that are safe, European-sourced, internally controlled and fit-for-purpose. The inclusion of Huawei parts in the telecoms infrastructure in Germany is causing a major rift between the Chancellory and the Bundestag, while the example of mass-scale spying through Chinese technology in the African Union building stand as vivid examples of why just this type of debate is essential to a democracy in the big data age.

Who will build the diagnostic dashboards foreign ministries need to have in-house? Who will populate them with critical data flows? The annual GovTech conference in Paris, where tech developers are confronted with public policy problems points in the right direction, though more of these ‘tailor made’ solutions will be needed.

Second, there is the personnel issue. Diplomatic careers now are built on experience, on knowledge and interpretative capacity honed over time across cultural, linguistic and historical barriers. The advent of AI in diplomacy can put knowledge that takes an entire career to craft at the disposal of a relative novice.

These shifts will begin to put systems of internal evaluation, promotion, meritocracy into question: how to create foreign policy desks in HQ and in embassies abroad that best utilise the changing skills capacities of different generations of diplomats?

How to recruit the best and brightest technology-savvy minds into foreign service when they could work at triple their salaries outside of public policy? How to integrate, promote and retain top-tier talent even on short-term contracts while preventing the risks of compromise and espionage?

Here, collaborating with graduate schools of public policy in Europe and the US that focus on institutional transformation, and creating appropriate coordinating forums on the European and transatlantic level could be a critical asset, as Western, liberal foreign ministries grapple with the same issues.

This links directly to a third issue: A new ethos for public service in the digital world is needed. Where China and Russia can command next generation tech talents for their data-weaponised power-projection, Western countries cannot.

To maintain societal systems that drive an even deeper global integration and connection while bearing the hallmarks of liberal democratic order, government institutions will need to attract the best and brightest into their ranks. A new culture of the techno-talented for public service in the digital age is needed.

It is high time for the acceleration to begin.

This article first appeared in *International Politics and Society (IPS) which is published by the International Political Analysis Unit of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Hiroshimastrasse 28, D-10785 Berlin.