The unrest in the Arab world, which has continued for over a year now, implies one important conclusion beyond any ongoing regional struggle for democracy: It is a reflection on the globally important technological, even more about a crucial geopolitical breakthrough – an escape from the logics of the hydrocarbon status quo, which – after Copenhagen 2009 and Durban 2011 – will fail again in Rio (Earth Summit 2012/Rio+20) later this year.
“No one governs innocently” – de Beauvoir noted in her 1947’s The Ethics of Ambiguity. After a lot of hot air, the disillusioning epilogue of the popular McFB revolt is more firearms and less confidence residing in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, as well as a higher (moral and environmental, socio–economic and political, psychological and security) carbon-energy price everywhere else. As if the confrontational nostalgia, perpetuated by intense competition over finite resources, in lieu of a real, far-reaching policy-making has prevailed again. Caught in the middle of its indigenous incapability and the global blind obedience to fossil carbon addiction, and yet enveloped in just another trauma, the Arab world and the wider Middle East theatre remains a hostage of a geopolitical and geo-economic chess-board mega drama. However, all that appears over-determined now was not necessarily pre-determined in the beginning.
A Grand Dilemma and the MENA
The MENA theatre is situated in one of the most fascinating locations of the world. It actually represents the only existing land corridor that connects 3 continents. Contributing some 6% to the total world population, its demographic weight is almost equal to that of the US (4,5%) and Russia (1,5%) combined. While the US and Russia are single countries, the MENA composite is a puzzle of several dozens of fragile pieces where religious, political, ideological, history-cultural, economic, social and territorial cleavages are entrenched, deep, wide and long. However, the MENA territory covers only 3% of the Earth’s land surface (in contrast to the US’ 6,5%, coverage and Russia’s 11,5%). Thus, with its high population density and strong demographic growth, this very young median population (on average 23–27 years old) dominated by juvenile, mainly unemployed or underemployed, but socially mobilized and often politically radicalized (angry) males, competes over finite and scarce resources, be they arable or settlers land, water and other essentials.
Competition in this theatre, that has a lasting history of external domination or interference, is severe, multiple, unpredictable, and therefore it is fluid and unsettled on the existing or alternative socio-economic, ideological, cultural and politico-military models, access, directions and participatory base.
Interestingly enough the recent crisis, pejoratively nicknamed the Facebook Revolution has so far ‘knocked down’ only MENA republics (declaratively egalitarian and secular regimes of formal democracy). For the time being, it has spared the Arab peninsular absolutistic monarchies (highly oppressive theocratic regimes of real autocracy). The modern-day version of Metternich’s Alliance of the Eastern Conservative Courts – the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) club has so far gained considerably from the calamities: (i) strategically – more durable regimes and ideologies, translated into their political and diplomatic offensive; (ii) institutionally – besides dominating the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Counties (OPEC), the GCC theocracies now practically control the League of Arab States (LAS), sets its agenda, political direction and punitive actions; and (iii) geo-economically – huge petro-dollar revenues: enlarged quotas caused by the delivery disruptions and embargoes in Libya and elsewhere, as well as the general crude price increase due to MENA uncertainties – e.g. the Bahrain’s State Information Agency reports nearly 20% economic growth for 2011. Hence, if there was any Spring in the Arab world, it was the budding of (Wahhabi sectarian) ideological and hydrocarbon exports of the GCC autocracies in 2011.
Nevertheless, the announced reductions of the American physical presence in Afghanistan, its limits in (nearly failed, nuclear state of) Pakistan, massive overextensions suffered on the southwestern flank of the Euro-Asian continent, as well as the recent US Army pullout from Iraq, is felt within the GCC (in France, Israel and Turkey too) as dangerous exposure to neighboring (increasingly anticipated as assertive) Iran, as well as Russia and China behind it.
Right now, Syria pays a (proxy war) prize for it: This multi-religious country may end up entirely combusted, creating a dangerous security vacuum in the heart of MENA. Oil, its suppliers and its consumers are resolute to fortify and eventually diversify and intensify their bitter covert and overt fight in maintaining the status quo course.
Petro-retro Status Quo: Petrodollars and petro-security
The US has a lasting geo-economic interest in the Gulf of a rather extensive agenda, which is inevitably coupled with its overarching global security concerns. As is well known, oil is the most traded commodity in the world– roughly 12% of overall global trade. By far the largest portion of internationally–traded crude originates from the Gulf. Thus, the US imperatives in the Gulf are very demanding: (i) to support the friendly local regimes with their present socio-political and ideological setups; (ii) to get, in return, their continued approval for the massive physical US military presence and their affirmative vote in international fora; (iii) to maintain its decisive force in the region, securing unhindered oil flows from the Gulf; (iv) to remain as the principal security guarantor and tranquilizer, preventing any hostile takeover – be it of one petrol-exporting state by another or of internal, domestic political and tribe/clan workings; (v) to closely monitor the crude-output levels and money flow within the Gulf and to recycle huge petro-dollar revenues, usually through lucrative arms sales and other security deals with the GCC regimes; (vi) will not enhance, but might permit (calls for) gradual change of the domestic socio-economic and politico-ideological frames in the particular Gulf state, as long as it does not compromise the US objectives in the region as stated above, from (i) to (v).
On the other side of Hormuz, Iran is a unique country that connects the Euro-Med/MENA with Central and South, well to the East Asia, so as it solely bridges the two key Euro-Asian energy plateaus: the Gulf and Caspian. This gives Iran an absolutely pivotal geopolitical and geo-economic posture over the larger region – an opportunity but also an exposure! No wonder that the US physical presence in the Gulf represents a double threat to Iran – geopoli- tically and geo-economically. Nearly all US governments since the unexpected 1979 Shah’s fall, with the G.W. Bush administration being most vocal, have formally advocated a regime change in Teheran. On the international oil market, Iran has no room for maneuver, neither on price nor on quotas. Within OPEC, Iran is frequently silenced by cordial GCC voting.
The US hegemony in the Gulf, a combination of monetary control (crude is traded exclusively in US dollars, predominantly via the New York-based NYMEX and London-based IPE) and physical control (the US Navy controls all transoceanic oil transports), is the essential confirmation as well as the crucial spring of the overall US global posture. In exchange for the energy inflow security, the US anchors loyal bandwagoning in many places around the globe. As long as oil remains priced in USD, it will represent the prime foreign reserve currency (some 68% of global reserves is held in USD), as the functional tie between the major currencies’ exchange rates, (economic and politico-military) security and fossil-fuel energy cannot be derailed and delinked. Finally, this hegemony is not only based on the exclusivity of oil currency, but also on the exceptionality of the very policy of pricing.
Throughout most of oil’s short history, the price for ‘black gold’ was high enough to yield profits (via the 7-Sisters, mostly for Wall Street – besides the US military, another essential pillar of American might), still without pricing it overly high, which would in return encourage sustained and consequential investments in alternative energy sources. Basically, the main problem with Green/Renewable (de-carbonized) energy is not the complexity, expense, or the lengthy time-line for fundamental technological breakthrough; the central issue is that it calls for a major geopolitical breakthrough. Oil and gas are convenient for monopolization (of extraction location and deployed machinery, of intl. flows, of pricing and consumption modes) – it is a physical commodity of specific locality. Any green technology (not necessarily of particular location or currency) sooner or later will be de-monopolized, and thereby made available to most, if not to all. Therefore, the overall geopolitical imperative for the US remains preservation – not change – of the hydrocarbon status quo.
Ergo, oil (and gas) represents far more than energy. Petroleum (be it a finite biogenic mineral or not) is a socio-economic, psychological, cultural, financial, security and politico-military construct, a phenomenon of civilization that architectures the world of controllable horizontalities which is currently known to, possible and permitted, therefore acceptable for us.
In a broader historical, more vertical or philosophical sense, the hydrocarbons and its scarcity phychologization, its monetization (and related weaponization) is serving rather a coercive and restrictive status quo than a developmental incentive. That essentially calls not for an engagement but compliance. It finally reads that the fossil fuels’ consumption (along with the policy of prizing it) does not only trigger one CC – Climate Change (repeated failure in Durban), but it also perpetuates another global CC – planetary Competition and Confrontation (over finite resources) – to which the MENA calamities are only a tip of an iceberg. Therefore, this highly addictive construct logically permits only a (technological) modernization which is defensive, restrictive and reactive. No wonder that democracy is falling short.
Anything terrific between Arctic and Pacific?
“…bold Russian Arctic policy is (yet) another signal that the Federation… will increase its (non territorial leverage and geopolitical) projection as a major energy supplier of the world throughout the 21st century…” – I noted in 2009. To clarify: Neither Russian territorial size and historical passions, nor pride and socio-economic necessity will cause Moscow to sink down to a second-rank power status. How will the Federation meet its strategic imperative? We have already discussed the two important pillars of the US strength (the so-called ‘East Coast twin might’: the Pentagon and Wall Street). Well, there is the ‘Pacific Coast twin might’ too. The post-Soviet Russia has neither the ideology – global soft power appeal of the US entertainment industry and its ravenous (Hollywood), nor has it the vibrant, world-leading and highly lucrative High-Tech and IT sector (Silicon Valley) that the US possesses.
Let us generously assume the quantitative and qualitative parity between the US and Russia’s armed forces. Still, military modernization requires constant cash injections. How to maintain that? Moscow holds a big advantage: the US imports hydrocarbons while the Federation exports it. Nevertheless, Wall Street controls the international (petrodollar) monetary flow – even the post-Soviet republics are not trading oil in Rubles, but in US dollars. Hence, to meet and finance its strategic imperatives, as well as to respond to the growing international energy demands and to the domestic pressures, Moscow has only non-high tech exports – fossil-fuels – at convenient disposal (no Silicon Valley, no Hollywood). Ergo, Russia is more exposed and vulnerable than the US, and therefore it is an even stronger supporter of both current international market conditions and the hydrocarbon status quo.
On the eastern, ascendant flank of the Eurasian continent, the Chinese vertigo economy is overheated and too-well integrated in the petrodollar system. Beijing, presently, cannot contemplate or afford to allocate any resources in a search for an alternative. The Sino economy is low-wage- and labor intensive-centered one. Chinese revenues are heavily dependent on exports and Chinese reserves are predominantly a mix of the USD and US Treasury bonds. To sustain itself as a single socio-political and formidably performing economic entity, the People’s Republic requires more energy and less external dependency. Domestically, the demographic-migratory pressures are huge, regional demands are high, and expectations are brewing. Considering its best external energy dependency equalizer (and inner cohesion solidifier), China seems to be turning to its military upgrade rather than towards the resolute alternative energy/Green Tech investments – as it has no time, plan or resources to do both at once. Inattentive of a broader picture, Beijing (probably falsely) believes that lasting containment, especially in the South China Sea, is unbearable, and that – at the same time – fossil-fuels are available (e.g., in Africa and the Gulf), and even cheaper with the help of warships.
Opting for either strategic choice will reverberate in the dynamic Asia–Pacific theatre. However, the messages are diametrical: An assertive military – alienates, new technology – attracts neighbors. Finally, armies conquer (and spend) while technology builds (and accumulates)! At this point, any eventual accelerated armament in the Asia-Pacific theatre would only strengthen the hydrocarbon status quo. With its present configuration, it is hard to imagine that anybody can outplay the US in the petro-security, petro-financial and petro-military global playground in the following few decades. Given the planetary petro-financial-tech-military causal constellations, this type of confrontation is so well mastered by and would further only benefit the US and the closest of its allies.
To complete the picture, both Russia and China are supporting the hydrocarbon status quo. Other major theaters are all too dependent geo-economically: on a supply end (Central Asian republics, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Norway, Venezuela, etc.) and on a receiving end (India, Australia, South Africa, etc.) – none is geopolitically emancipated enough to seriously consider any significant tilt towards de-carbonization.
EU-genic or Dynamic?
Less explicitly, the EU (as the post-Westphalian concert of 4 Europes – conglomerate of the Atlantic, Central, Eastern and Scandinavian Europe) will turn consensual to the hydrocarbon status quo, too. If taking a closer look at any of the previous and current Brussels’ transportation and energy policy initiatives, it would clearly show us that the notion was primarily driven by the closest common security consideration denominator – as an attempt to decrease the external vulnerabilities, that includes those of an energy dependency (e.g. energy efficiency initiatives: EEP, Europe 2020, EUFORES, etc.).
Hence, the Union was first and still is most of all a peace treaty for the post WWII Europe recovery. Therefore, both settings (ECSC and EuroAtom) served the confidence building purpose, not as energy-related clearing house/s. The energy policy (suppliers for and composition of the primary energy mix, taxation, etc.) as well as the transportation (means and modes) strictly resides in the individual competence of the Block’s Member States (MS). Any change in the present status quo would assume the common platform of the MS via the Council of the EU (and the subsequent formalization of such a position, at least through the EU Parliament’s promulgation). The absence of such a commonly agreed policy means more of the hydrocarbon status quo. Lastly, it is not only that Atlantic Europe and Central Europe manage their respective energy inflow, its composition and external dependences differently (and selectively). The issue of the hydrocarbon status quo is closely related to the very question of the Euro (and the US dollar-alternate/reserve currency: the British Pound).
For the severely exposed Euro-zone (unsettled global financial crisis), it is a bitter choice between a petrol-pampered dollar (as a stability pillar) and the return to gold (meaning to the pre-Nixon Shock times, before the Bretton Woods consensus was renounced). Brussels and the European Central Bank (ECB) believe they can exercise an influence on the American dollar, via the US Federal Reserves, while nowadays gold resides everywhere – least of all in the US or EU reserves or their mines. Simply put, the post-Nixon currency/ies is/are negotiable; gold is a solid, non-corrosive metal. Also, one should never forget that the politically most influential segment of the Union – Atlantic Europe – shares the same ocean with the US, and all that comes with it (including the ‘monetary nationalism/exceptionalism’).
However, besides Japan, Brussels will remain a main promoter of the “Kyoto II” mechanism. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with its protocol from Kyoto of 1997 placed China and India in the “emissions tolerant” Annex II, so both subsequently ratified the Instrument. The US and Russia were situated in the much less forgiving Annex I. Past the collapse of the Soviet Union and contraction of the post-Soviet economy and demographics, Kremlin knew it could easily meet the pre-1990 emissions target. Still, it was bargaining until the end of 2004. With the 17% pollution allocation, Russia’s ratification was sufficient enough to activate Kyoto, which eventually entered into force shortly after, in 2005.
The EU’s formal support to the Kyoto protocol and “spirit of UNFCCC/IPCC” has several reflex levels. Without ambition to elaborate it all in detail, let us just note that the Union’s reasons are of political (declared principles) and economic (pragmatic) nature. As the conglomerate of states committed to the supranational principle rituality, it is natural for the Block to (at least declaratively) support any multilateral endorsement, which assumes the supranational notion as well as the full horizontality of implementation and monitoring of compliance mechanism.
The Kyoto provisions of the late 1990s were in perfect harmony with the two grand strategy roadmaps of the EU: the Lisbon (2000) and Goteborg (2001) – hence, the EU’s voluntary self-endorsement via the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). This virtue out of necessity was clear: in the globalized competitive world, the Union of modest economical and of no demo-graphic growth has only the option to become a knowledge based economy, re-architectured as the fair and balanced post-industrial society. Both strategies were gradually abandoned, the Block enlarged (to Eastern Europe, mostly the states whose economies also contracted past the breakup of the Warsaw Pact lager countries – meaning, who are able to meet the Kyoto targets), and the Union’s post-industrial Green-tech renewal waits for better days.
How swift is the shift?
Brussels is well-positioned, but it will not be a global frontrunner in any technology shift. For such a (hydrocarbon de-psychologization) turn, it has neither an inner coherence, visionary strength, nor an external posture. The EU’s economic growth is very symbolic, despite all the huge territorial enlargements of the past decade. Actually, the Union’s growth could be portrayed as negative in many categories. It always serves as a good reminder that a Europe of (economic and demographic) growth was a Europe of might. Europe without growth is a Europe of principles (or to say: of administrative frameworks’ colonialism). The Eastern enlargement of the EU was this very virtue out of necessity: a last territorial expansion, exceptionally based not on coercion but on an ‘attraction’ of the EU’s transformative power.
Within the OECD/IEA grouping, or closely; the G-8 (the states with resources, infrastructure, tradition of and know-how to advance the fundamental technological breakthroughs), it is only Japan that may seriously consider a Green/Renewable-tech U-turn. Tokyo’s external energy dependencies are stark and long-lasting. After the recent nuclear trauma, Japan will need a few years to (psychologically and economically) absorb the shock – but it will learn a lesson. For such an impresive economy and considerable demography, situated on a small landmass, which is repeatedly brutalized by devastating natural catastrophes (and dependent on yet another disruptive external influence – Arab oil), it might be that a decisive shift towards green energy is the only way to survive, revive, and eventually to emancipate.
An important part of the US–Japan security treaty is the US energy supply lines security guaranty given to (the post-WWII demilitarized) Tokyo. After the recent earthquake-tsunami-radiation armageddon, as well as witnessing the current Chinese military/naval noise, Japan will inevitably rethink and revisit its energy policy, as well as the composition of its primary energy mix. That indicates the Far East as a probable zone of the Green-tech excellence and a place of attraction for many Asians in the decade to come.
(Based on the public lecture “Asia – Pacific: The Hydrocarbon Status Quo and Climate Change”, Chulalongkorn University, Mahachulalongkorn/MEA Think-Tank; Thailand, Bangkok 04 OCT 2011)
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From nanotechnology to solar power: Solutions to drought
While the drought has intensified in Iran and the country is facing water stress, various solutions from the use of solar power plants to the expansion of watershed management and nanotechnology are offered by experts and officials.
Iran is located in an arid and semi-arid region, and Iranians have long sought to make the most of water.
In recent years, the drought has intensified making water resources fragile and it can be said that we have reached water bankruptcy in Iran.
However, water stress will continue this fall (September 23-December 21), and the season is expected to be relatively hot and short of rain, according to Ahad Vazifeh, head of the national center for drought and crisis management.
In such a situation, officials and experts propose various solutions for optimal water management.
Alireza Qazizadeh, a water and environment expert, referring to 80 percent of the arid regions in the country, said that “Iran has one percent of the earth’s area and receives only 36 percent of renewable resources.
The country receives 250 mm of rainfall annually, which is about 400 billion cubic meters, considering 70 percent evaporation, there is only 130 billion cubic meters of renewable water and 13 billion cubic meters of input from border waters.”
Referring to 800 ml of average rainfall and 700 mm of global evaporation, he noted that 70 percent of rainfall in Iran occurs in only 25 percent of the country and only 25 percent rains in irrigation seasons.
Pointing to the need for 113 billion cubic meters of water in the current year (began on March 21), he stated that “of this amount, 102 billion is projected for agricultural use, 7 percent for drinking and 2 percent for industry, and at this point water stress occurs.
In 2001, 5.5 billion cubic meters of underground resources were withdrawn annually, and if we consider this amount as 20 years from that year until now, it means that we have withdrawn an equivalent of one year of water consumption from non-renewable resources, which is alarming.”
The use of unconventional water sources can be effective in controlling drought, such as rainwater or river runoff, desalinated water, municipal wastewater that can be reused by treatment, he concluded.
Rasoul Sarraf, the Faculty of Materials at Shahid Modarres University, suggests a different solution and states that “To solve ease water stress, we have no choice but to use nanotechnology and solar power plants.
Pointing to the sun as the main condition for solar power plant, and while pointing to 300 sunny days in the country, he said that at the Paris Convention, Iran was required to reduce emissions by 4 percent definitively and 8 percent conditionally, which will only be achieved by using solar power plants.
Hamidreza Zakizadeh, deputy director of watershed management at Tehran’s Department of Natural Resources and Watershed Management, believes that watershed management can at least reduce the effects of drought by managing floods and extracting water for farmers.
Amir Abbas Ahmadi, head of habitats and regional affairs of Tehran Department of Environment, also referring to the severe drought in Tehran, pointed to the need to develop a comprehensive plan for water management and said that it is necessary to cooperate with several responsible bodies and develop a comprehensive plan to control the situation.
He also emphasizes the need to control migration to the capital, construction, and the implementation of the Comprehensive Plan of Tehran city.
While various solutions are proposed by officials and experts to manage water and deal with drought, it is necessary for the related organizations to work together to manage the current situation.
Mohammad Reza Espahbod, an expert in groundwater resources, also suggested that while the country is dealing with severe drought due to improper withdrawal of groundwater and low rainfall, karst water resources can supply the whole water needed by the country, only if managed.
Iran is the fifth country in the world in terms of karst water resources, he stated.
Qanats can also come efficient to contain water scarcity due to relatively low cost, low evaporation rates, and not requiring technical knowledge, moreover, they proved sustainable being used in perpetuity without posing any damages to the environment.
According to the Ministry of Energy, about 36,300 qanats have been identified in Iran, which has been saturated with water for over 2,000 years.
In recent years, 3,800 qanats have been rehabilitated through watershed and aquifer management, and people who had migrated due to water scarcity have returned to their homes.
Water resources shrinking
Renewable water resources have decreased by 30 percent over the last four decades, while Iran’s population has increased by about 2.5 times, Qasem Taqizadeh, deputy minister of energy, said in June.
The current water year (started on September 23, 2020) has received the lowest rain in the past 52 years, so climate change and Iran’s arid region should become a common belief at all levels, he lamented.
A recent report by Nature Scientific Journal on Iran’s water crisis indicates that from 2002 to 2015, over 74 billion cubic meters have been extracted from aquifers, which is unprecedented and its revival takes thousands of years along with urgent action.
Three Iranian scientists studied 30 basins in the country and realized that the rate of aquifer depletion over a 14-year period has been about 74 billion cubic meters, which is recently published in Nature Scientific Journal.
Also, over-harvesting in 77 percent of Iran has led to more land subsidence and soil salinity. Research and statistics show that the average overdraft from the country’s aquifers was about 5.2 billion cubic meters per year.
Mohammad Darvish, head of the environment group in the UNESCO Chair on Social Health, has said that the situation of groundwater resources is worrisome.
From our partner Tehran Times
Technology and crime: A never-ending cat-and-mouse game
Is technology a good or bad thing? It depends on who you ask, as it is more about the way technology is used. Afterall, technology can be used by criminals but can also be used to catch criminals, creating a fascinating cat-and-mouse game.
Countless ways technology can be used for evil
The first spear was used to improve hunting and to defend from attacking beasts. However, it was also soon used against other humans; nuclear power is used to produce energy, but it was also used to annihilate whole cities. Looking at today’s news, we’ve learned that cryptocurrencies could be (and are) used as the preferred form of payments of ransomware since they provide an anonymous, reliable, and fast payment method for cybercriminals.
Similarly, secure phones are providing criminal rings with a fast and easy way to coordinate their rogue activities. The list could go on. Ultimately, all technological advancements can be used for good or evil. Indeed, technology is not inherently bad or good, it is its usage that makes the difference. After all, spears served well in preventing the extinction of humankind, nuclear power is used to generate energy, cryptocurrency is a promise to democratize finance, and mobile phones are the device of choice of billions of people daily (you too are probably reading this piece on a mobile).
However, what is new with respect to the past (recent and distant) is that technology is nowadays much more widespread, pervasive, and easier to manipulate than it was some time ago. Indeed, not all of us are experts in nuclear material, or willing and capable of effectively throwing a spear at someone else. But each of us is surrounded by, and uses, technology, with a sizeable part of users also capable of modifying that technology to better serve their purposes (think of computer scientists, programmers, coding kids – technology democratization).
This huge reservoir of people that are capable of using technology in a way that is different from what it was devised for, is not made of just ethical hackers: there can be black hats as well (that is, technology experts supporting evil usages of such technology). In technical terms, the attack vector and the security perimeter have dramatically expanded, leading to a scenario where technology can be easily exploited for rogue purposes by large cohorts of people that can attack some of the many assets that are nowadays vulnerable – the cybersecurity domain provides the best example for the depicted scenario.
Fast-paced innovation and unprecedented threats
What is more, is that technology developments will not stop. On the contrary, we are experiencing an exponentially fast pace in technology innovation, that resolves in less time between technology innovations cycles that, while improving our way of living, also pave the way for novel, unprecedented threats to materialize. For instance, the advent of quantum computers will make the majority of current encryption and digital signature methods useless and what was encrypted and signed in the past, exposed.
The tension between legitimate and illegitimate usages of technology is also heating up. For instance, there are discussions in the US and the EU about the need for the provider of ICT services to grant the decryption keys of future novel secure applications to law enforcement agencies should the need arise –a debatable measure.
However, technology is the very weapon we need to fight crime. Think of the use of Terahertz technology to discover the smuggling of drugs and explosives – the very same technology Qatar has successfully employed. Or the infiltration of mobile phone crime rings by law enforcement operators via high tech, ethical hacking (as it was the case for the EncroChat operation). And even if crime has shown the capability to infiltrate any sector of society, such as sports, where money can be laundered over digital networks and matches can be rigged and coordinated via chats, technology can help spot the anomalies of money transfer, and data science can spot anomalies in matches, and can therefore thwart such a crime – a recent United Nations-sponsored event, participated by the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS) Qatar and the College of Science and Engineering (CSE) at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) discussed the cited topic. In the end, the very same technology that is used by criminals is also used to fight crime itself.
Don’t get left behind
In the above-depicted cybersecurity cat-and-mouse game, the loser is the party that does not update its tools, does not plan, and does not evolve.
In particular, cybersecurity can help a country such as Qatar over two strategic dimensions: to better prevent/detect/react to the criminal usage of technology, as well as to advance robustly toward a knowledge-based economy and reinforce the country’s presence in the segment of high value-added services and products to fight crime.
In this context, a safe bet is to invest in education, for both governments and private citizens. On the one hand, only an educated workforce would be able to conceptualize/design/implement advanced cybersecurity tools and frameworks, as well as strategically frame the fight against crime. On the other hand, the same well-educated workforce will be able to spur innovation, create start-ups, produce novel high-skill products, and diversify the economy.
In this context, Qatar enjoys a head start, thanks to its huge investment in education over the last 20 years. In particular, at HBKU – part of Qatar Foundation – where we have been educating future generations.
CSE engages and leads in research disciplines of national and global importance. The college’s speciality divisions are firmly committed to excellence in graduate teaching and training of highly qualified students with entrepreneurial capacity.
For instance, the MS in Cybersecurity offered by CSE touches on the foundations of cryptocurrencies, while the PhD in Computer Science and Engineering, offering several majors (including cybersecurity), prepares future high-level decision-makers, researchers, and entrepreneurs in the ICT domain – the leaders who will be driving the digitalization of the economy and leading the techno-fight against crime.
Enhancing poverty measurement through big data
Authors: Jasmina Ernst and Ruhimat Soerakoesoemah*
Ending poverty in all its forms is the first of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While significant progress to reduce poverty had been made at the global and regional levels by 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic has partly reversed this trend. A significant share of the population in South-East Asia still lacks access to basic needs such as health services, proper nutrition and housing, causing many children to suffer from malnutrition and treatable illnesses.
Delivering on the commitments of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and leaving no one behind requires monitoring of the SDG implementation trends. At the country level, national statistics offices (NSOs) are generally responsible for SDG data collection and reporting, using traditional data sources such as surveys, census and administrative data. However, as the availability of data for almost half of the SDG indicators (105 of 231) in South-East Asia is insufficient, NSOs are exploring alternative sources and methods, such as big data and machine learning, to address the data gaps. Currently, earth observation and mobile phone data receive most attention in the domain of poverty reporting. Both data sources can significantly reduce the cost of reporting, as the data collection is less time and resource intensive than for conventional data.
The NSOs of Thailand and the Philippines, with support from the Asian Development Bank, conducted a feasibility study on the use of earth observation data to predict poverty levels. In the study, an algorithm, convolutional neural nets, was pretrained on an ImageNet database to detect simple low-level features in images such as lines or curves. Following a transfer learning technique, the algorithm was then trained to predict the intensity of night lights from features in corresponding daytime satellite images. Afterwards income-based poverty levels were estimated using the same features that were found to predict night light intensity combined with nationwide survey data, register-based data, and geospatial information. The resulting machine learning models yielded an accuracy of up to 94 per cent in predicting the poverty categories of satellite images. Despite promising study results, scaling up the models and integrating big data and machine learning for poverty statistics and SDG reporting still face many challenges. Thus, NSOs need support to train their staff, gain continuous access to new datasets and expand their digital infrastructure.
Some support is available to NSOs for big data integration. The UN Committee of Experts on Big Data and Data Science for Official Statistics (UN-CEBD) oversees several task teams, including the UN Global Platform which has launched a cloud-service ecosystem to facilitate international collaboration with respect to big data. Two additional task teams focus on Big Data for the SDGs and Earth Observation data, providing technical guidance and trainings to NSOs. At the regional level, the weekly ESCAP Stats Café series provides a knowledge sharing platform for experiences related to the impact of COVID-19 on national statistical systems. The Stats Café includes multiple sessions dedicated to the use of alternative data sources for official statistics and the SDGs. Additionally, ESCAP has published policy briefs on the region’s practices in using non-traditional data sources for official statistics.
Mobile phone data can also be used to understand socioeconomic conditions in the absence of traditional statistics and to provide greater granularity and frequency for existing estimates. Call detail records coupled with airtime credit purchases, for instance, could be used to infer economic density, wealth or poverty levels, and to measure food consumption. An example can be found in poverty estimates for Vanuatu based on education, household characteristics and expenditure. These were generated by Pulse Lab Jakarta – a joint innovation facility associated with UN Global Pulse and the government of Indonesia.
Access to mobile phone data, however, remains a challenge. It requires long negotiations with mobile network operators, finding the most suitable data access model, ensuring data privacy and security, training the NSO staff and securing dedicated resources. The UN-CEBD – through the Task Team on Mobile Phone Data and ESCAP – supports NSOs in accessing and using mobile phone data through workshops, guides and the sharing of country experiences. BPS Statistics Indonesia, the Indonesian NSO, is exploring this data source for reporting on four SDG indicators and has been leading the regional efforts in South-East Asia. While several other NSOs in Asia and the Pacific can access mobile phone data or are negotiating access with mobile network operators, none of them have integrated it into poverty reporting.
As the interest and experience in the use of mobile phone data, satellite imagery and other alternative data sources for SDGs is growing among many South-East Asian NSOs, so is the need for training and capacity-building. Continuous knowledge exchange and collaboration is the best long-term strategy for NSOs and government agencies to track and alleviate poverty, and to measure the other 16 SDGs.
*Ruhimat Soerakoesoemah, Head, Sub-Regional Office for South-East Asia
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