Speech minister Zijlstra on digital diplomacy

Speech by minister Zijlstra about digital diplomacy in The Hague, 2 February 2018

Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

I’m delighted to be kicking off The Hague Digital Diplomacy Camp.

This is no ordinary event. It’s what is known as an ‘unconference’.

An approach that’s as unusual as it’s necessary.

Unusual, because we have no fixed programme. Instead, you determine the programme yourself. All the expertise you need is here, in this room: from foreign affairs to digitalisation; from international law to communication and technology.

And it’s necessary because we live in a networked age. Power and knowledge is increasingly diffuse. Traditional, hierarchical organisations still have an important role to play. But they must exploit the power of new networking possibilities.

That’s why we’re all here today.

When governments and networks join forces towards a common goal, wonderful things can happen. 

Let me give you some examples:

  1. The World Food Programme is always looking for ways to deliver aid more effectively, to work faster and more securely in challenging circumstances. It now uses blockchain technology to achieve this goal. Refugees can get food at participating shops using an iris scan, linked to a blockchain. This allows the Programme to deliver aid more precisely. And to better identify shortages of specific supplies.
  2. My second example goes back to 2010, when Haiti was hit by a giant earthquake. A community of coders helped emergency responders deliver aid to desperate people. By adding detail from satellite images and first-hand accounts, they enhanced the quality of the OpenStreetMap of Haiti. An information-poor environment became an information-rich one. Their efforts attracted widespread admiration, including from the US marines.
  3. Five years later, after an earthquake in Nepal, a bunch of ‘tech nerds’ set up satellite communications in the country, greatly helping emergency efforts.
  4. Lastly, with Dutch government help, the World Resources Institute created an interactive map of the relationship between water scarcity and conflict. All based on open source data generated by others.

These are just four examples.

I could cite many more, also directly related to the work of this ministry. From protecting human rights defenders in conflict, to addressing gang violence in Central America.

In each case, we have used modern tools like ‘hackathons’ to provide platforms for NGOs, companies, and others to work with diplomats on various problems.

Of course, there are also dilemmas and risks.

The World Food Programme case, for example, raises some difficult questions. How do we prevent the biometric data from falling into the wrong hands? What about refugees’ right to privacy? Do governmental organisations have the necessary skills to work with tech companies? Can we devise legal frameworks that continue to protect citizens in cyberspace?

These are the kind of questions we need to talk about here today. In an open and inclusive manner. And that’s exactly what this ‘unconference’ allows us to do.

So, please: host a session if you have a pressing issue, visit a discussion where you can add value. Share your knowledge, your skills and your inspiration.

We have so many challenges to solve. Migration-flows, climate change, any of the 17 SDGs, disinformation, to name but a few.

They are all issues that no country can solve alone, as the Netherlands is very aware. Nor can governments provide all the answers. It’s crucial that we combine our efforts with other organisations, tech-companies and civil society.

So I’m delighted to see companies like Siemens, Microsoft, Facebook and Google here. I’m equally delighted to see organisations like Open Knowledge Foundation, Oxfam, PeaceTechLab and Open Society.

We need all of you if this is going to work.

Together, let’s make sure technology remains a force for good.

I wish you a productive day. Have a great unconference!

Thank you.