Home | Interview | UNU-IIST celebrates its 20th anniversary: Making Macau an “international showcase for e-governance”

UNU-IIST celebrates its 20th anniversary: Making Macau an “international showcase for e-governance”

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image Peter Haddawy

Situated in the rustic Casa Silva Mendes, for the last 20 years the United Nations University International Institute for Software Technology (UNU-IIST) has been carrying out projects in research, education, policy support, and capacity building with the aim of “serving the needs of mankind in terms of addressing some of the most pressing development issues in the world.” Established in 1992 as one of the 15 UNU institutes that exist in 13 countries, at the time of its 20th anniversary, it comprises 44 staff members, post-doctoral and project-connected fellows, and PhD students. MDT met Prof. Peter Haddawy, UNU-IIST’s director, and learnt how information technology can help to facilitate sustainable development in poorer countries as well as how Macau has become an “international showcase” for the institute’s work.

MDT - The United Nations may be familiar to many people. However, UNU and it’s concept may not. Can you explain its role?
Peter Haddawy - United Nations University (UNU) was established in 1973 as the academic arm of the United Nations (UN) with the idea of globalizing higher education and of having a university serving its needs. UNU has its headquarters in Tokyo. The Macau-based UNU-IIST is one of four in Asia. Each institute has a global mandate with a different focus. Ours is focused on information technology. Being a university, but at the same time an organ of the United Nations, we don’t just have academic activities. We have activities in four different areas. One is the research, which tends to be need-driven by the developing countries. So rather than looking at what would be the interesting problems in information technology - the way a computer science department of a university might look at it - we look at how technology can serve needs. Additionally, we have post-graduate education programs and capacity building. This is, for example, the running of short courses, mostly in developing countries, or bringing fellows into the institute and providing them with training, and then they go back to their countries. The fourth area is policy support. So we function as a think tank for the United Nations. We also serve the needs of other organizations and governments. At the same time we have freedom to carry out research that we think is important globally but may not directly match the needs of any government.

Macau is a very good location for an institute of this kind. Because as an SAR it provides a bit more openness and flexibility than if we were located directly in mainland China

- Prof. Peter Haddawy, UNU-IIST director

MDT- The institute was opened in Macau for being the “door to China”. Did it serve its purpose?
PH - It did. Macau is a very good location for an institute of this kind. Because as an SAR it provides a bit more openness and flexibility than if we were located directly in mainland China. At the same time, being part of China gives us access to academic institutions in China. We collaborate with quite a number of universities.

MDT- Where does UNU-IIST get its funding from?
PH - It’s a complicated picture. UNU does not receive funds from the UN. Part of that reason is that it functions as a think tank, so it may be critical of UN policy. It wouldn’t work very well if we were financially dependent. The way it works is that the host country has to provide funding. When this institute was originally established, the governments of mainland China, Macau and Portugal provided funding for an endowment fund. It is managed by the UN and we are not allowed to touch this capital. In addition, the local government provides us with primacies and some contributions, as well as housing for the trainees and fellows. In addition, we receive funding for projects. Now, more than one third of our funding comes through research and other projects. Some of that money comes from Macau, for example the Science and Technology Development Fund, which is a competitive research grant. But an increasing amount comes from outside Macau: from industry, the European Union and other sources.

MDT- What have been the main achievements of the last 20 years?
PH - The institute has made very strong contributions in the area of fundamental research in computer science. It’s about 700 publications. In 2004 the institute established a program in electronic governance, which was oriented on the applications of information technology to assist the functioning of government. UNU-IIST also carried out a lot of capacity building between masters and PhD, and also post-docs. We’ve had over 500 fellows here from about 50 countries. Many have become leaders in the field of computer science. We’ve offered roughly 200 short-courses mostly in developing countries. And we’ve had a series of international conferences - they now run every year.

MDT - Is there any project with a main focus on Macau?
PH - Most of our projects involve researchers at universities in Macau. There are a number of collaborators at UM, IPM and MUST.
We have been working with hospitals and the dialysis center recently, developing an electronic medical records system. We have a long history of contributing to the Macau government through the e-Macau program. That’s the work program in electronic governance. e-Macau started in 2004 and is now in its third phase. It includes other universities as well. The idea is to help the government build capacity, introduce information technology into the running of government, and also to help them develop strategy plans and to do the implementation. Carrying out that work, we try to extract the lessons learnt and then disseminate those globally to other governments and to the academic community. So Macau, in this sense, becomes an international showcase for electronic governance.

MDT - Before coming to Macau you were vice-president of the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Thailand. Why did you take this position?
PH - Good question, I had a good position. AIT has a similar profile to UNU-IIST, it’s very much development oriented. It’s an affiliate institution of UNU. We had collaborations and as vice-president I was in charge of at least one of the major collaborations. So through that work I got to know UNU very well and I’ve always admired it as an organization. When this position opened up, it was ideal for me, because this institute is focused on information technology and that’s my field. And I came in with a mandate to shift the focus of the institute to one that would be application-oriented and focused on issues of sustainability, which was something that I had become very interested in.

The Internet connectivity in developing countries is moving forward very rapidly. So you can be in areas that have no paved road, no public running water, no power lines coming in, no fixed telephone lines, but people are using mobile phones to access the internet

MDT - How can you achieve sustainability with information technology?
PH - Information technology is a tool that can help amplify efforts and capabilities. It doesn’t necessary provide the solutions in itself. First you have to look at the needs of developing countries, of marginalized, poor populations. The sustainable aspect means looking at how you can do this in a way that doesn’t damage the planet, that doesn’t depend on resources that are finite. Information technology can help you to solve problems in much more efficient ways. We have issues of eradicating poverty and extreme hunger. How can IT help with that? One thing is it can help to build capacity at the grassroots level. You can provide information much more effectively and spread ideas if you can link people up. People in rural communities have often been very isolated because the infrastructure is not good. IT is a way to surmount that problem. One of the biggest obstacles is a lack of capacity down at the grassroots level to be able to implement poverty reduction programs. You can increase the access to quality education. It’s very well known that we don’t have enough teachers to do this. Again IT has a key role to play there, opening up new kinds of learning opportunities. And there are many examples.

MDT - What if a project doesn’t work?
PH - Some of the projects are long-term focused; others have short-term impacts. It would not work well if we would just sit here in Macau and craft a solution and then come and say, “Here it is.” They key is to work in a participatory manner. We bring the people in to the process as much as possible. You have a meeting with them, understand what they need, then do a bit of work and have the next meeting, and so on. You have to stay in touch with them to see when things are shifting or to see if some of the assumptions that you had initially were perhaps wrong. You really do have to understand the social and institutional context, in which the solutions you are going to create are going to be used.

MDT - What if the countries do not have enough infrastructure for IT?
PH - We look for places where infrastructure exists. It’s too resource-intense if we go in and say we help to develop infrastructure, that’s really not our role. We may work with the governments and show them the benefits of what they could obtain if the infrastructure was there and convince them to start to develop it. To some extent we’ve done this in Laos. But actually, the infrastructure for IT is developing very rapidly worldwide. This is primarily driven not by governments but the private sector. It’s expected that in only three years, every rural area in the world will have mobile phone coverage. The Internet connectivity in developing countries is moving forward very rapidly. So you can be in areas that have no paved road, no public running water, no power lines coming in, no fixed telephone lines, but people are using mobile phones to access the internet. For electricity, one of the things they do is to use solar panels. They can charge up a car battery during the day, their mobile phones, they can watch television at night. It’s enough.

MDT - What kind of qualities does somebody need to have to work here?
PH - We have different projects and put together teams for them. So we have people who are more in the social science area, people who are more technology-oriented and domain experts - for example, a physician in our team working on healthcare systems. At a higher level, the people who are managing a program have to be quite broad in terms of their thinking. They need a deep understanding of the technology, but also of the application areas, and they must communicate with people in those areas. In the education you need to communicate with experts in pedagogy. If it’s healthcare, you have to work with healthcare practitioners. If it’s electronic governance, you have to be working with officials and government agencies and national organizations. If it’s our project in poverty reduction, we work with development professionals. And we work directly with rural communities, so you must have people who feel comfortable going into a village - which maybe doesn’t have electricity - and spending some time there with people. You also need to have a bit of cultural flexibility.

UNU-IIST headquarters at Casa Silva Mendes

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Treasure 18/12/2012 02:56:36
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