U.N.'s millennium man battles Y2K
(IDG) -- When the United Nations issued a brief resolution proclaiming 2000 as the International Year for the Culture of Peace, Ahmad Kamal realized that a massive job lay before him. Kamal, Pakistan's ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations and chairman of the organization's Working Group on Informatics, had to convince his colleagues that the peacefulness of the year 2000 could be shattered by computer failures, not only for the U.N. organization itself, but for each of the 185 countries the U.N. represents.
So Kamal transformed himself into the U.N.'s point man on Y2K, launching what he calls "a personal jihad" against complacency. His working group, which has broad responsibilities for the U.N.'s information management strategy, turned its energies to Y2K problems inside the United Nations and its many subgroups, such as the International Telecommunications Union, the International Court of Justice and UNICEF.
Kamal organized symposia to educate member states about Y2K dangers facing their governments and societies, and he invited speakers from private industry to bring ambassadors and their staffs up to speed.
Last July the U.N. adopted a resolution sponsored by Kamal that recognized "the potentially serious impact [of] the year 2000 problem."
The resolution also warned that the millennium bug could affect power supplies, telecommunications, financial systems, public health, food supplies, emergency services, utilities and the organization of social welfare, and advised "coordinated efforts by governments and private, public and international organizations...to address the year 2000 problem."
But Kamal didn't consider his job done. While progress within the U.N. organization was satisfactory, he was still concerned that member states weren't taking the issue seriously enough. In December 1998 he organized the first summit of national Y2K coordinators from around the world to share advice and gauge progress.
Freelance writer Scott Kirsner spoke with Kamal in his stately office on Manhattan's Upper East Side last October.
CIO Enterprise: What is your background with technology?
Kamal: I'm just a self-taught missionary. I was in Korea about 20 years ago as an ambassador, and at the U.S. base in Seoul they used to run orientation classes on computers. Just to occupy myself, I joined those classes and got introduced to computers. It was basic computer literacy.
When did the Working Group on Informatics become aware of the Y2K problem?
Over the past 10 years I have been involved in a campaign to bring the U.N. and the member states into the 21st century. It has not been easy because it's a conservative group of countries and a conservative organization. Unlike industry, which woke up early to computers, governments by and large have been late in understanding the importance of computers.
So our first effort—through informal groups and also through the formal working group that I chair, which was set up about four years ago—has been to introduce computer literacy to everybody that we can lay our hands on. We taught everyone how to use e-mail, we gave them free connections, free training, and we ran the system.
While we were working on Internet literacy, Y2K came onto the scene. My attention was drawn to it by Sen. [Bob] Bennett [of Utah] in 1996. We immediately latched onto it. It was something that was obviously important, and something that we had not considered before.
What was your plan of attack?
We analyzed the problem and very quickly found that there were two aspects. One was the work to be done within the Secretariat of the U.N. Then there was the work that had to be done by each of the member states within their countries. These are two separate types of actions. We have control within the U.N. system—it's easy to order compliance, set up task forces and then run simulations and checks. In the case of the member states, you can only urge them, you can't control them. So through force of example, argument and persuasion, you try to tell people how you want them to confront Y2K.
In the U.N., we ran a quick assessment and found that a lot of things were said to be compliant. We did not take that at face value; we did a second check, and it turned out we were not quite compliant. But now we're on track to have everything compliant in time—that includes the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Telecommunications Union, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund. That's mostly being done by U.N. employees, with some contractors assisting.
In the case of member states, it's much more complicated. Some countries are very highly computerized, and others are not. But the Y2K problem is like a virus—everyone is interconnected. The weakest link of the chain can affect the integrity of the chain as a whole. So the effort has been made everywhere with equal force, to make sure that all the links become compliant in time. That was a difficult task. We started out with letters that I addressed to the ambassadors of member states. [We did that] for about three months, but we weren't quite sure that we were making a breakthrough. So we upgraded our efforts, and we put some steel claws into the effort. That was done through a General Assembly resolution, which was passed in July 1998.
But the resolution was just urging people to take action, and we thought that might not be enough. So we prepared a set of guidelines that literally handed people a list of the actions they needed to take—what are the time lines, how do you approach exactly what needs to be done. We have the resolution, the guidelines and a special section of the U.N. Web page. We also held symposia on Y2K. And the action continues. We discuss Y2K every two weeks and see what the targets are for the next two weeks. We're going to set up a meeting of national coordinators. All of this is creating awareness about the problem and possible solutions. None of it, however, gives you the certainty that the problem will be resolved.
What else would you like to see done to make sure that the member nations of the U. N. are doing enough?
This problem can't be solved by governments alone. It requires cooperation between government and industry and civil society. We've been warning governments that they must involve business, industry and educational institutions. The government's role in developing countries is more important because usually it controls the media—television, newspapers and so on. Government there is a pump-primer. In developed countries, industry has the larger role.
Let's say I'm the CIO at a private-sector company. What should I be doing?
You need to organize and participate in seminars that bring people together from [government, industry and civil society]. The World Bank has set up a trust fund, funded first by the United Kingdom with 10 million (about $16.7 million). The United States has promised $13 million. This is not a large fund, but it can be used to run seminars around the world. The World Bank is doing that under a program called InfoDev. It's extremely successful, because it's fanning out, organizing regional seminars and creating awareness, and teaching techniques for addressing Y2K.
If I'm a businessperson in the United States, what's a good way to find out about how a country is doing on Y2K?
Say I want to be sure that I can fly a plane there in January 2000 or make an international call. Most [countries] have national coordinators who can give you a fair idea of where they are. They should be the focal point, and they should have good reports about their progress to date.
What about the financial issues?
When you ask Y2K analysts what parts of the world are most susceptible to Y2K, a lot of them say that Latin America and Asia have big problems, and they're the ones with the biggest financial woes right now. I think it would be self-defeating to try to identify the worst parts of the world. Everybody is in the worst part of the world. All of us are responsible.
But for a country that's in the midst of a financial crisis—
This is not something that costs money. It costs effort. It means you have to sit down, take an inventory and examine your computer systems. You have to look for embedded chips and test everything one by one. Then, either you replace the hardware or you rewrite the software.
But in the United States, the federal government has said this problem will cost $5 billion to fix. What about countries that, because of a financial crisis, don't see Y2K as such a high priority and don't want to spend all that money?
Well, I would put it this way: Put in the effort, and you'll be compliant. Don't put in the effort, and in 2000 you're going to be back to clay tablets. That's fine. But it removes you from the global market, and it sets you back.
With everything that private sector companies and governments are thinking about, is it almost a luxury to look at links and relationships between countries?
The problem is all about priorities. When you have poverty alleviation as a priority, computers go low on your scale; the main thing is food for hungry people. But poverty is there and probably will continue for hundreds of years and even millennia. Y2K will hit us like a sledgehammer on a fixed date.
But it would be a real challenge to bump Y2K above poverty, hunger and civil wars.
Then the answer is clay tablets. It has to be a priority or else.
What's the U.N. agenda for Y2K in 1999?
In 1999 we'll begin to focus on those countries where we think work is not going at the correct speed. We'll encourage them to step up their progress. As far as the U.N. is concerned, we will ensure that our organization will be compliant.
When it comes to U.N. assistance, will a developed country like Japan take precedence over a less-developed country?
No. Everybody is in it together.
Will speeding up progress take a financial form?
It may, but most governments are very responsible and should be able to find the resources to solve the problem, which is after all their own problem.
Your best-case scenario for January 2000?
I would not like to work on a best-case scenario, but on a worst-case scenario. A crisis will occur, and we have to have crisis management in position.
So it's not realistic to say, "The best case is that nothing happens."
No, no, no. Something will happen. What it is, I don't know. But something will happen.
Scott Kirsner is a Boston-based writer who has written a series of articles for CIO on the Y2K problem.
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