UN/UNDP Mongolia Development Portal (www.un-mongolia.mn)
I launched this portal in 1997, in the middle of a major economic crisis in Mongolia. This award-winning (winner in 1998 of the People’s Choice WebSite 500 award and the CyberTeddy Top 500 Website award) and pioneering United Nations Mongolia development web portal was singled out by UN headquarters as an example of what a country office website should be like.
At this time, Mongolia was still recovering from the chaotic and turbulent transition from Communism to free markets and democracy begun at the start of the 1990s, called by some “one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever” (Mongolia’s Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994). There was a thirst for information: access to the Internet was still limited and access to mobile phones was just the preserve of the rich. As a legacy of the past, information, especially that about the outside world and the country’s true economic and social conditions, was restricted. During the years of Communism, even simple travel from one place to the next was strictly regulated.
While today we can take it for granted that the Internet, and mobile and smart phones, deliver the world’s information in seconds, this just was not the case in the late 1990s in Mongolia.
I was head of communications for the United Nations mission in Mongolia from 1997 to 1999. The mission had to primarily tackle three major crises: the country’s turbulent transition from Communism to free markets and democracy, the social and economic crash this caused, and the Asian Financial Crisis (Pomfret 2000) (Quah 2003)*.
Richard Pomfret said in 1994 “In 1991 Mongolia suffered one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever (Mongolia’s Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994).”
Writing in 2018, author John West found, in a chapter titled Mongolia’s Corruption Curse (Transparency International and the World Bank had found corruption worsened in Mongolia after 2001), “In many ways, Mongolia has everything going for it. After being a satellite state of the former Soviet Union for much of the twentieth century, Mongolia regained its independence with the end of the Cold War. A relatively peaceful political revolution in the early 1990s ushered in a multi-party democracy and open society which have remained in place. … And it is blessed with vast reserves of copper, gold, coal, molybdenum, fluorspar, uranium, tin and tungsten deposits. True, Mongolia experienced great upheavals as the breakup of the Soviet Union saw its trade decline by 80%. But Mongolia was also perfectly placed to benefit from the commodity super cycle driven by China, which is now the destination for the vast majority of its exports.
“However, despite much hype about the Mongolian “wolf economy”, this country of so much promise is being dragged down by massive corruption. …
In this role, I pioneered innovative use of the Internet and digital resources to communicate the UN’s work and Mongolia’s unfolding crises. The UN called this work a “role model” for the wider UN and country offices. A survey of United Nations country office websites in 2000 ranked the UN Mongolia website I launched in 1997 and oversaw for two years (1997-1999), third best in the world, saying: “A UN System site. A very nice, complete, professional site. Lots of information, easily accessible and well laid out. The information is comprehensive and up-to-date. This is a model of what a UNDP CO web site should be.” (http://www.scribd.com/doc/274319690/UNDP-Mongolia-United-Nations-2000-Survey-of-Country-Office-Websites)
As part of a strategic plan to raise awareness of Mongolia’s development challenges and to spur action on meeting them, a Communications Office was established for the UN mission in 1997. Acting as a strategic hub, the Communications Office and its dynamic and talented team, were able to leverage the existing budget to spur action on many fronts.
In 2001, the UN won the Nobel Peace Prize for “their work for a better organized and more peaceful world” and its communications innovations, with work such as that in Mongolia being cited as a contributing factor to the awarding of the Prize.
GOSH Child Health Portal (www.gosh.nhs.uk)
In 2001 I undertook a two-year contract to modernise the online resources for the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust (GOSH)/Institute of Child Health (ICH). My strategy was inspired and informed by initiatives encountered while working as a health and medical journalist in 1990s Canada – a time where government austerity spurred a need to experiment and try new ways of doing things.
Having seen the impact first-hand of pilot experiments in Toronto aimed at widening access to information and resources for patients and their families, I applied this knowledge to the GOSH Child Health Portal Project (2001 to 2003). Drawing on the wider NHS Modernisation Plan, and a multi-year consultation process undertaken by the hospital, the Project was launched in three phases.
How far the UK had fallen out of step with global developments with the Internet became clear from the start. The distance that had to be traveled in the span of two years was vast. Essentially, to go from being a web laggard to a web leader.
Award-winning (http://www.scribd.com/doc/35249271/Childnet-Awards-2003-Brochure), the GOSH Child Health Portal was called by The Guardian newspaper one of the “three most admired websites in the UK public and voluntary sectors,” and a UK government assessment called the overall GOSH child health web portal a role model for the NHS. At the time, Prime Minister Tony Blair (whose wife, Cherie Blair, was an early supporter and champion of the project) had this to say: “Making sure that your child has helpful, easy-to-read information will make a significant difference to their time in hospital. I am sure that this website will prove very useful for children and their families.”
The project was delivered in three phases. At every stage, progress was communicated to the wider public and colleagues in various ways, via in-house media and through constant engagement with British news outlets. Screen grabs and other resources from the project can be found online here:
The Cable and Wireless Childnet Award called Children First “an outstanding example of how a hospital can create quality, authoritative information on issues relating to health in a fun, child-centered and accessible way.”
This groundbreaking Mongolian Human Development Report – the country’s first – went beyond just chronicling Mongolia’s state of development in statistics and graphs. It placed the story of the Mongolian people during the transition years (post-1989) at its heart, using photographs, stories and case studies to detail the bigger narrative at play.
Designed, laid out and published in Mongolia, the report broke with the practices of many other international organisations, who would publish outside of Mongolia – denying local companies much-needed work. The report’s costs helped to kick-start a publishing boom in the country and significantly raised standards in design and layout. The foundations laid down by the project producing the report ushered in a new age in publishing for Mongolia.
The report’s launch was innovative, not only being distributed for free across the country, but also part of a multimedia campaign including television programming, public posters, town hall meetings and a ‘roadshow’ featuring the report’s researchers and writers.
The initial print run of 10,000 copies was doubled as demand for the report increased. To the surprise of many, once hearing about the free report, herders would travel to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to pick up their copy. The report proved people cared passionately about the development of their country and that development concepts are not to be the secret domain of ‘development practitioners’.
27 Years Contributing as a Health and Human Development Communicator | 1991 – 2017
Whilst studying at the University of Toronto in the 1980s, the seeds were sown for much of the work that followed in the 1990s and 2000s. And what came together was the ability to undertake innovative communications initiatives using media and the latest digital tools. I had a strong interest in what constituted a modern, healthy society, and this eventually led my studies from psychology to sociology to history and eventually medical history. Along the way, I further developed my keen interest in communicating, writing for student media and broadcasting on student radio. I also organised various student organisations, from Erindale College’s first Peace Club, to its Amnesty International chapter, and eventually ran on a reforming ticket for the Students Adminstrative Council (SAC) at U of T. I undertook primary research for a history professor (Sidney Aster) working on a book, looking into the British Government’s efforts to organise food supply shipments during World War II (the biography of Lord Salter, Power, Policy and Personality: the Life and Times of Lord Salter, 1881-1975), and catalogued the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) collection for the University of Toronto (Robarts Library). Being U of T, I also had the privilege of making amazing contacts and meeting some of the brightest Canadian minds of the time (for example, Professor Edward Shorter, co-author of Shock Therapy: A History of Electroconvulsive Treatment in Mental Illness).
The 1990s were an exciting time because it was possible to blaze new trails with emerging digital technologies. And this led to highly influential work with the United Nations and the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). This included an opportunity to head up the communications office for the UN in Mongolia just at the moment in the late 1990s when the Internet was coming online, and undertaking an influential role heading the launch of a child health portal for the prestigious Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital (GOSH)/Institute of Child Health (ICH), just as the NHS was undertaking its Modernisation Plan in the early 2000s.
1985/1989: Graduate from the University of Toronto with a BA Honours in History (including medical history) and Political Science. One of my final year papers addressed medical quackery involving the drug laetrile as a cancer cure and how the medical establishment and regulatory authorities, in their attempts to prevent its use, in fact played into the prevailing anti-establishment political climate and distrust of institutions and the government.
1989/1991: Begin work as a Unit Coordinator for a chemotherapy ward of the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre (previously Princess Margaret Hospital/Ontario Cancer Institute) in Toronto. First training in health informatics and witness first-hand new computer initiatives to quantify workload on the ward to better allocate resources.
1994/1996: Editor-in-Chief for Watch Magazine, an innovative youth culture and media start-up partly funded by the Government of Canada. Watch Magazine played an important role in Toronto’s recovery from the economic collapse brought about by the combination of the late 1980s crash and government austerity policies. By engaging youth (high school-aged writers, editors and creatives), Watch Magazine showed their energy and perspective could jolt the city back to life, despite the negative media portrayal of youth at the time.
“As one of those high school kids and the guy who wrote (most of) this article, I’d like to say thanks to David [South] for all his hard work on Watch magazine! I learned a lot from him and it was a great experience.” William White
In 1995 I worked as a Senior Media Reporter for the Financial Times‘ newsletters New Media Markets and Screen Finance. I covered the rise of new media, including the Internet and cable and satellite television channels. Also covered new film-financing schemes funded by the European Union and the rise of new media in the Nordic countries. Stories included:
Whilst working for a UK-based international development consultancy, I prepared papers for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AMFAR), the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID), for various UN agencies including UNCTAD and UNAIDS, and coordinated the preparation of the report and launch strategy for the World Bank’s Task Force on Higher Education and Society (2000).
2001/2003: Project Manager in charge of Web Strategy for the GOSH Child Health Portal at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust/Institute of Child Health.
2001: Begin work on the development of the award-winning GOSH Child Health Portal for the National Health Service (NHS). As part of the NHS’ Modernisation Plan, it was called a “role model” for the NHS and one of the “three most admired websites in the UK public and voluntary sectors,” and was developed and launched under heavy public and media scrutiny. Each stage of the Portal’s development would coincide with a high-profile media launch. For example, the Hospital’s 150th birthday celebrations included Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and pop star Madonna.
“The GOSH/ICH web site to date has been a notable success. Not only has it met a majority of its objectives … and achieved recognition as ‘exemplary’ among NHS resources, but it has also generated a number of spin-off projects, including Children First (as a successor to GOSHKids) and The Virtual Children’s Hospital. …
“In a context in which less than 25% of all projects realise even 50% of their benefits, the satisfaction of 75% of the original objectives .. must rank as a significant achievement.” Consultant’s evaluation of the GOSH Child Health Portal in 2003.
2003/2004: Live and work in Jerusalem, Israel. Travel extensively around the country during the hudna.
2007/2017: Consultant and Editor and Writer for the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC) (formerly the Special Unit for South-South Cooperation). Both an e-newsletter (Development Challenges, South-South Solutions) and a magazine (Southern Innovator) are produced chronicling the impact of mobile and information technologies on the global South, and the rise of a 21st-century innovator culture as a result. Both media substantially raise the profile of the global South, Southern Solutions, and the 21st-century global innovation culture, while also being cited as an influential resource in the UN’s adoption of an innovation and South-South Cooperation agenda for its programming and priorities.
The thinking behind this work can be found in two sources:
1) Innovation: Applying Knowledge in Development by The UN Millennium Project, “commissioned by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to develop a practical plan of action to meet the Millennium Development Goals. As an independent advisory body directed by Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, the UN Millennium Project submitted its recommendations to the UN Secretary General in January 2005. The core of the UN Millennium Project’s work has been carried out by 10 thematic Task Forces comprising more than 250 experts from around the world, including scientists, development practitioners, parliamentarians, policymakers, and representatives from civil society, UN agencies, the World Bank, the IMF, and the private sector” (Innovation: Applying Knowledge in Development, UN Millennium Development Library, Taylor & Francis, 17 June 2013).
2) Two editors for the e-newsletter and magazine, Cosmas Gitta and Audette Bruce, authored a paper jointly with Professor Calestous Juma (a well-known scholar and leading figure in the study of innovation at the Belfer Center) in 2005 for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs titled, Forging New Technology Alliances: The Role of South-South Cooperation.
2007: David South Consulting begins work on the e-newsletter Development Challenges, South-South Solutions for the then-Special Unit for South-South Cooperation (SSC) at the United Nations. The e-newsletter is distributed by email to an influential global subscriber audience working in international development and the United Nations, as well as distributed online via various platforms.
2008: Reader response experiment begins with crowd-powered news website NowPublic. Initial proposal for the development of book or magazine on innovation. Awarded grant for Cuba study tour by BSHF.
2009: Adjust e-newsletter content based on reader responses. Begin posting content on Twitter platform.
2010: Begin development of the new global magazine Southern Innovator with the then-Special Unit for South-South Cooperation (SSC) at the United Nations and a design team in Iceland led by Solveig Rolfsdottir, one of Iceland’s top graphic designers and illustrators.
The magazine was produced to the UN’s design standards, as well as abiding by the UN’s Global Compact. With production in Iceland, the magazine could be designed and laid out using 100 per cent renewable energy sources.
Launch David South Consulting as Senior Partner working with talented global professionals.
It is called “a terrific tour de force of what is interesting, cutting edge and relevant in the global mobile/ICT space…”. Launch www.southerninnovator.org website (now www.southerninnovator.com) and social media including Twitter account @SouthSouth1.
To avoid censorship and interference, Southern Innovator‘s editorial operations were based in London, UK and its design studio was based in Reykjavik, Iceland (a high-ranking country in the World Press Freedom rankings and a former top place holder in the UNDP Human Development Index). Using a women-led design studio, it developed a design vision that could communicate across borders using clear graphic design and high-quality images. For example, when it launched in 2011, infographics were rare in development publications and at the UN; now they are commonplace. It also tried to be as ‘green’ as possible. The studio was powered on 100 per cent renewable energy (in particular, geothermal energy); the hard copy of the magazine is printed on paper from sustainable forests.
2012: Launch second and third issues of Southern Innovator Magazine at the GSSD Expo in Vienna, Austria.
Called a “Beautiful, inspiring magazine from UNDP on South-South innovation.”
With 201 Development Challenges, South-South Solutions stories posted on the NowPublic platform, a total of 336,289 views by 2012 had occurred, according to the NowPublic counter (Closed in December 2013, the stories published on NowPublic were able to reach a large, global audience, receiving 201,109 views as of 27 June 2010, and reaching 420,151 views by 31 July 2013. The stories were cited in many other media resources and also in books. This includes Export Now: Five Keys to Entering New Markets by Frank Lavin and Peter Cohan (2011) and The Canadian).
2013: Launch fourth issue of Southern Innovator Magazine at the GSSD Expo in Nairobi, Kenya.
Called “fantastic, great content and a beautiful design!” and “Always inspiring.”.
2014: Launch fifth issue of Southern Innovator Magazine at the GSSD Expo in Washington, D.C. U.S.A. The Twitter account @SouthSouth1 called “ one of the best sources out there for news and info on #solutions to #SouthSouth challenges.” Final issues of e-newsletter Development Challenges, South-South Solutions published.
The two publications proved influential on a number of fronts, being early to draw attention to the following: the rising use of mobile phones and information technology in development, the world becoming an urban place, innovative food solutions including the nascent insect food sector (now a big thing), altering perspectives on what is possible in Africa, the use of data science to innovate development, and tracking the growing number of technology hubs and the fast-growing start-up culture in the global South. The publications were cited for shaping the new strategic direction adopted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (the UN’s leading development organisation) and its first youth strategy, and the development of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As the world’s first global innovator magazine, Southern Innovator’s design had to be appropriate for a diverse audience. It has drawn praise for being both “beautiful” and “inspiring”, while its use of sharp, modern graphic design and infographics inspired others in the UN to up their game when it comes to design.
2015: Develop scale-up plan for Southern Innovator Magazine. The UNOSSC was promoted from being a Special Unit to an Office. It also had its budget increased.
South-South cooperation and innovation have now become the key methodology for the UN’s delivery of its programmes and projects. In 2015, China pledged US $2 billion to “support South-South cooperation” and called for the international community to “deepen South-South and tripartite cooperation”. In development parlance, they have been “Mainstreaming South-South and Triangular Cooperation” in their plans.
The current policy vogue for innovation in developing and developed countries can trace its roots back to some of the early work done by these two publications (and which was further amplified by the annual Global South-South Development Expo (GSSD Expo), which often would feature innovators from the two publications, spreading the innovation message around the world). Both publications had set out to inspire and “champion a global 21st century innovator culture”. And they have done this, as can be seen from concrete evidence and anecdotal responses from individuals and organizations alike.