Davos Agenda

Achim Steiner of UNDP on empathy, tech policy and the ‘power of one’

Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, shares how tech could enable solutions to tackle top global wealth inequality, the Ukraine crisis and more - and how policy can make those innovations possible.

Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme Achim Steiner, shares how tech could enable solutions to tackle top global wealth inequality, the Ukraine crisis and more - and how policy can make those innovations possible. Image: Photo by Sebastian Derungs

Linda Lacina
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Davos Agenda?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Leadership is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Subscribe to Meet The Leader on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
  • Meet The Leader is the podcast from the World Economic Forum that features the world’s top changemakers, showcasing the habits and traits effective leaders can’t work without.
  • Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme Achim Steiner, shares how tech could enable solutions to tackle top global wealth inequality, the Ukraine crisis and more - and how policy can make those innovations possible.

The pandemic made a host of bad problems worse. But technology, carefully executed, could act as a multiplier to address multiple challenges simultaneously. In fact, research from the World Economic Forum's 2030Vision initiative found that 70% of the Global Goals – the United Nation targets for peace and prosperity by 2030 – can be directly supported by advanced technologies.

With 2030 just a few years away, the need for action is urgent. Podcast Meet The Leader caught up with United Nations Development Programme Administer Achim Steiner to talk about the role technology and digital inclusion will play. He shared special solutions that will move us forward, including a new tool from the Edison Alliance, a World Economic Forum initiative that aims to increase affordable digital access to healthcare, finance, and education, all to improve the lives of 1 billion people by 2026.

This new tool, a digital policy navigator, will provide policymakers, regulators, and businesses across the world with a one-stop shop for case studies, best practices and other one of a kind resources.

Steiner explains how that effort can support larger goals in this critical moment of change.


Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Can you kick us off by defining digital inclusion and why it is so important?

Achim Steiner: Digital inclusion is really about deliberately wanting to ensure that those less likely to be able to be early adopters or users are actually catered for in the United Nations. We often refer to this as ‘leaving no one behind’ and the UNDP’s human development report in 2019 found digitalization and climate change are potentially the greatest drivers for inequality or greater equality.

And digitalization certainly is all about how do we design digital ecosystems that allow, for example, young people to have access where cost is not an excluding factor or women have access to technology that in traditional contexts may not have been allowed access to use these. So all of this is an intentional approach to ensuring that everybody can benefit because by virtue of not being included, you will create greater inequality as our future is digital. If you're not part of it, you’re out of it.

"Our future is digital. If you're not part of it, you’re out of it."

Achim Steiner, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: When you talk about people not being included, how are people’s lives held back?

Achim Steiner: Across the world, COVID-19 was a very clarifying moment. If you were a parent and your child could not connect via internet to some form of educational institution you've essentially lost a year or two of education. And there were many, many children across the world who essentially lost a year or two of their education during the pandemic.

But it's also about access to our financial system. For instance, digital banking and digital finance has been a revolution in enabling people who traditionally would never have been considered in a formal banking system to be viable account holders to suddenly be able to transact, to trade to get access to information. And suddenly we have seen hundreds of millions of people who are not wealthy people that are poor people, being able to, for example, even borrow money in the morning now on their smartphone in order to buy, perhaps, the produce in the wholesale market, take it to their local market, sell it and repay that loan in the evening, all done on smartphones where financial inclusion has created an entirely different economic universe.

So these are just two examples. I think that speak to the power of technology, but also to the way that you design this. And Kenya was very famous for the M-pesa platform, but the actual decision to allow that platform to come alive, then with a cell phone company to operate a financial platform, was it deliberate decision by the Central Bank of Kenya at the time to say that this could be a revolution in inclusive finance. So just a few illustrations of how real this is in terms of people’s lives.

Have you read?

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: People can get desensitized. How can people pay attention and realize that this isn't just someone else's problem?

Achim Steiner: Let me take a very contemporary example in the Ukraine. The war in Ukraine right now has caused extraordinary displacement. First of all, 5 million people have already become refugees and have fled the country, but 7 million people have been essentially forced to leave their homes and are internally displaced people. Just in the last three weeks, we have worked with Swedish funding and our Ukrainian counterparts in quickly developing an app that would allow people to rapidly connect directly to the government services, facilities, the means of support that are available to these people. And to just as of yesterday, 270,000 people have registered on that. Something that would have taken us months, maybe years or could never have been done 10 years ago can actually now be done in a matter of weeks. And I think this is an example where, you know, sometimes disaster strikes. It may be a war such as we are seeing. It may be a natural disaster. Even in the world of let's say wealthier countries, digital technology is very much also something that can exclude or include.

"Even in wealthier countries, digital technology is very much also something that can exclude or include."

Achim Steiner, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What don't people understand about sort of making a change what's needed to sort of close this gap.

Achim Steiner: Particularly in UNDP, we have spent the last three years trying to become a digitally literate organisation that is first of all, to understand the technology and how it informs our own working, but then also to understand what it means to, in a country on the African continent, Latin America, or indeed anywhere in the world, that this is not just a matter of infrastructure.It's not just a fibre optic cable. It's not just the numbers of subscribers. It is how you build a digital ecosystem. And a lot of that has to do with access. Um, but also with fundamental rights, data privacy. We've also seen that in this digital universe and the Internet and that ubiquitous access to information, it gives rise to things that we often find very difficult to tolerate.

And one of the interesting things that the Secretary General’s high-level panel on digitalization also highlighted is we have spent 70 years developing fundamental human rights legislation, protecting children, protecting people from human trafficking or political radicalization in the sense of hate speech. And we are still struggling with the fact that, in the analog world, we set those rules for ourselves and we put boundaries also on what people could do to each other. And somehow in the digital world, there has been this underlying sense that these rules don’t apply. I think we have to relearn that data privacy is something that actually has to do with a fundamental right of an individual.


But also, children that leave school. If your curriculum is not deliberately empowering them to be digitally literate, they enter a labor market and are often at a great disadvantage. Education is still, in many parts of the world a privilege in terms of either quality or even access. So a very deliberate design into, for instance, school leavers, having the digital skills to perform in this new economy is critical.

And then you go further in the digital ecosystem. You look at startups. Usually, young people who want to start businesses are not very credible people in the banking system. So access to finance, which is critical for all of these wonderful startup enterprises. It’s extremely difficult to obtain. So we work with financial institutions to develop particular programs that allow these credit lines to be accessible to a startup universe.

These are all elements of building a digital ecosystem rather than just building an infrastructure or in a sense, counting the number of people who own the cell phones and smart phones.


EDISON Alliance: What is the Forum doing to close the digital gap?


Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: The UNDP’s strategic plan talked about building new capabilities that drive digital transformations. Can you talk a little bit about those unsung capabilities that need to be built to make inclusion possible?

Achim Steiner: I think, first of all, it is to recognize that we, you know, in shaping a digital ecosystem, it's not only the company that is offering a platform. It's not only the consumer or the service user, but also the service provider who defines this. We are really talking about all actors coming together. Regulatory frameworks can either enable or disable certain things from happening.

They can accelerate investments or they can simply ignore the fact that some people don't have the resources. Similarly, companies are looking - particularly with the advent of artificial intelligence - I think we can all sense that that need to quickly agree on what is justifiable in terms of artificial intelligence. We know about biases that are in in the algorithms.

And we suddenly find, for instance, in the world of insurance, the risk that many people are essentially being in an algorithm deemed not to be a worthy clients. And you can find a whole group of people in society being [00:10:00] excluded. The capabilities begin with the kind of policy framework, the regulatory framework, the legal frameworks, but they then also go into how companies deliberately develop services that are geared towards, let's say, an inclusive approach to society.

One of the phenomena that I think that we have seen with the advent of digital technology is obviously that we have someone strikes a brilliant idea, is an early starter and gets into the market. We also see that very quickly, you become a dominant player in the market. We have spent the last 100 years understanding that competition is a good thing.

So how do we avoid monopolies and oligopoly? Also in the digital world, particularly with cryptocurrency and some of the large platforms that have literally in a matter of a decade become global dominant players in the marketplace, not only providing amazing service, but also displacing many other players in the market and make it much more difficult for new ones to enter. So regulatory and competition policy are also important.

And you then go down to the very basic skills that you need to develop in the education system, but also in our labor markets, where many people need to essentially acquire new skills. It's a lifelong learning strategy that increasingly both companies and economies that are successful are putting in place.

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: The UNDP has a number of initiatives making impact. Can you describe one that’s surprised you?

Achim Steiner: Well, very difficult to capture some of these stories in a short discussion like this, but let me just point it to report the Secretary’s high-level panel on digital finance and the sustainable development goals. I think this is, was an attempt to actually harvest, two-and-a-half-years ago, the richness of these extraordinary transformative experiences I've already touched on the financial sector, financial inclusion, really being one of them. But also telehealth. In the context of COVID-19 we found that many people, particularly in developing countries where the health system and infrastructure is not as developed as in welfare countries, how do people get access to advice?

You know, this was a virus. We didn't know how to deal with it. So in Bangladesh, but also many other countries supported the establishment of a tele-health worker platform to train 3000 nurses and doctors on how to use it and suddenly created access to literally millions of people in the rural areas (because Bangladesh has a very digitally developed infrastructure already) the capacity to access immediate health. Very interesting. In India we developed a vaccine platform that allows digital technology and a decentralized set of health centers using simple cellular phone infrastructure to have, in real time, the numbers of vaccine stocks that are available so that your supply chain can already be triggered two or three days in advance, rather than running out, reporting to the district Capitol than ordering in a waiting for a week. All of these are sort of very interesting examples of how people are working with technology. The UNDP a couple of years ago set up, what we call the UNDP accelerator labs, which in part where, a kind of attempt to create the capacity within our teams to study where innovations were coming from within the country, looking at the tech sector, the startup sector, but also low community-driven solutions. And again, what we have on earth is an extraordinary amount of innovation. And as a development agency, we work with governments now to either to create better policy contexts, where they can be scaled up or remove blockages, sometimes regulatory or legal blockages or financial constraints. So that the dynamic that, is really coming from within countries from the next generation of technology users, becomes really almost an open source, approach. This is something that we are also, at the moment addressing with the Edison Alliance, because I think we need to take advantage of our ability to literally learn instantly from one another across the globe right now.

"We often underestimate how much alignment of public policy, private sector investments are fundamental to breakthroughs."

Achim Steiner, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: I was about to mention the Edison Alliance since the UNDP has been such an incredible partner on that. Can you explain what it is and why it's important?

Achim Steiner: When were asked would we like to join the Edison Alliance by the World Economic Forum? I immediately said yes, because I see the UNDP as one of the accelerators that we can bring to bear on a world that is still trying to first of all understand how technology can change development trajectories, what kind of policy context is needed, but above all, we need to bring business science, technology, citizens and civil society into a dialogue with one another. This is truly how ecosystems are built. This is how development revolutions happen.

And the Edison Alliance has precisely that. And it then also picked areas such as health and education as domains in which we would forge a common cause. And leverage our respective institutional capacities to quickly both accelerate programs on the ground or at least platforms. And one of the things that we are developing right now is a digital inclusion navigator, which is a sort of platform that allows best practices to quickly become available.

And the beauty of what this technology age, this Fourth Industrial Revolution, has in a sense presented us with is that what once used to be a logic in particularly, let's say, the core of capitalism and how markets work, is that intellectual property always has to be owned, privatized and essentially be used in an exclusionary sense.

We also see an extraordinary potential of open source platforms, collective learning, shared learning. We can advance together on solving problems that still allow us to then have particular products that are registered trademarks or our services that are provided through a particular corporate service model.

But that ability to work together, particularly when it comes to. The other half of the world, if I may put it, that is not properly connected, not that able to access this digital universe, to quickly become part of it. It will help us all. It will make the world fairer, more equal, more stable, and less likely to fall into sort of groups of people who feel excluded. And once you feel excluded, you also are more likely to become politically alienated. This is very much part of the digital age as well. Something we have to confront practically. And I think Edison is a good platform at the moment of which some of the largest technology organizations, but also some of the largest, for instance, development organizations or UN organizations (UNICEF is another one, the International Telecommunications Union, we are all engaged and invested in, in advancing this frontier.


Achim Steiner: Well, I think two principles really define the value of such a platform. First of all, it is shared learning. it just allows us, to not have a Silicon valley or places where a technology company is kind of an aggregate being the definition of whether you're part of this new world or not.

Secondly, I think it is very much about trying to use the wealth of knowledge in a collective design and innovation effort. The unicorns of this world started as sort of extraordinary phenomenon. But we often forget that also governments, government policy, education, infrastructure, those are often the foundations upon which these extraordinary stories then thrive.

And, you know, the digital inclusion navigator is precisely to demonstrate. How can you create the conditions in which these wonderful stories can not only begin to happen, but also how do they transform our societies view of their own future? Whether it is about reducing poverty, whether it is the accelerated transition to a decarbonized world. These are existential challenges of our time and digitalization, you know, ultimately is both an accelerator but hopefully also a way of unifying these efforts.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What impact can we see in 10, 20, 30 years? What is the before and after that better knowledge share on policy can provide.

Achim Steiner: I think it almost begins with individuals who join, apart from such as the Edison Alliance. We learn from one another. We begin to understand, to look at something that maybe if I'm a company I'm looking at a market, if I’m UNDP, I'm looking at the society. Both are in fact, in the same universe and therefore need to be understood. Also in that context, it simply helps us to understand the kind of context in which we work. Secondly, we often underestimate how much alignment of public policy, private sector investments are fundamental to breakthroughs.

So I think these are immediate effects of such a platform. Now, let us see. Time will tell whether we have some fantastic breakthroughs, whether it's maybe in certain countries where we joined forces and are literally able to bring forward by 10 years the ability to include virtually a hundred percent of the population in terms of having access to digital or whether it is perhaps new platforms that are developed. A lot is happening in the context also of humanitarian and emergency responses and using satellite data. How can we create instant access to humanitarian workers on the ground be it in Yemen right now, be it in Afghanistan, be it in the Ukraine where immediate decisions have to be made. Where are people not able to access food? Where are power lines interrupted or forest fires, to give you another example. Today, we have an almost instant capacity to translate that knowledge into actionable information for those on the ground. We're able to do something about it. So all of these are frontiers that I hope the Edison Alliance can continue to foster and some of them will break free. And, and, you know, in 10 years time, maybe not remember that they might've had a spark from the Alliance and then went off on their own. So this is, I think, literally that the spectrum of possibility.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: So we've talked a little bit about all the things that can go, right? What could hold it back?

Achim Steiner: This is a moment where I think the world has confronted, first of all, with an extraordinary phenomenon of a war in Europe, Russia's invasion of the Ukraine having created an extraordinary degree of suffering, first of all, for Ukrainians, but also simultaneously as the Secretary General’s Global Crisis Response Group articulated, a series of domino effects and ripples across the world.

We are a globalized economy. The setbacks economically speaking that we are now confronted just in the next few months. I mean, the explosion food prices, fuel prices, the cost of capital going up, 80 developing countries being in a potential debt distress situation because of two and a half years of the COVID pandemic. All of this shows how vulnerable we are.

And, you know, the predicted decline in GDP growth in a recovery period of 1% means hundreds of billions of dollars, less in income in investible, financing the governments have available. We are facing a major economic setback. We also facing a geopolitical disruption that could turn into rupture. And our world has benefited enormously - whether it is through trade, through global capital flows, but also, through many economists becoming players in the global marketplace and technology traveling such as with digital, almost instantaneously today across the globe. Where, you know, sometimes a farmer, perhaps in a remote area where there is not even regular power supply, but a solar photovoltaic installation has created electricity. You are connected to a telephony grid. The cellular infrastructure is able to interact literally with clients and customers on the other side of the world. I mean, these are extraordinary things that have happened. All of this is obviously in danger of being either, reversed or even lost.

We are at a moment in time where our ability to work together Is being seriously challenged and questioned for not only the events in Ukraine. And we are since 2008, the financial crisis, but also with the growing inequality in the world. All the riots, the political radicalization and extremism we saw in the years, 2010 to 2017, -18, -19. We are not a world that is comfortable with where it is heading and insecurity is becoming really a defining element of our time. People are not confident about the future. They are less trusting of their neighbors. These are all indicators that could easily throw us back and therefore working for the United Nations right now is a very clarifying moment. Yes. Rightly people are questioning ‘Can the United Nations provide an antidote to many of these developments?’ I believe we can. But certainly not on its own and certainly not against a world that loses sight of the fact that we are so dependent on one. These are extraordinarily clarifying moments, I think. And so to anyone who believes that technology is a solution for everything, I think we are living in a moment in time that is a stark reminder, that the most important thing that we can strive for, and need to strive for, first of all, peace in the world. And secondly, continuing to build that understanding that we have shared interests that should always predominant over competing interests or differences. But we're not doing too well right now.

I think we have many Achilles heels and therefore peace and the ability to, in a world that is so often defined by what divides us, actually finding back to that civilizational appreciation that we cannot afford in this day and age to go to war with one another. It is not just because of nuclear weapons.

It is actually a form of self-destruct that is even more potent than in the 20th century. So I literally stay up at night right now wondering what is it that we can do? And, you know, there is no silver bullet, none of us, not even the most powerful head of government or the head of the United Nations can simply say let's do things differently. But each one is a part of this world. And I think we need to focus right now and what it is we can do. We are citizens of the world, and this is a moment where we have to step up.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: What gives you hope?

Achim Steiner: People. I am somebody who has been inspired by so many individuals that I have had that had the privilege of meeting in my work. Sometimes community leaders, visionary, reformers, a new president who, you know, after years of living under a dictatorship or an authoritarian regime, suddenly politics changes. They are given the opportunity to lead a country. But I'm also somebody who offten the thought of people like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela and Wangari Maathai not as the people they were by the time they were at the end of their lives but who they were when they were literally no one. Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa got beaten up in the streets.

Nelson Mandela got locked up for almost three decades, in a, in a jail and Wangari Maathai began as a young girl in a village in Kenya and became a Nobel prize Laureate. These stories, I think, are not unique. They are not singular. They're in the thousands every day. Not everybody becomes famous. So that is my conviction for why we need to give hope to people. We need to give them reasons for optimism. That is not always to say things are okay. Things are not okay, but people can change the world and movements don't start with a million people marching. They start with one person talking to the next person. And before you know it, you have movements and you have citizen power. And I think that ultimately is, in some of the worst moments in history, what has allowed us to step back from the precipice and look for better ways forward.

"Movements don't start with a million people marching. They start with one person talking to the next person."

Achim Steiner, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: You've worked with top leaders around the world. How have those experiences changed how you lead?

Achim Steiner: Well, first of all, when you have the privilege of working for the United Nations and therefore have the ability to literally visit, countries across the globe, meet people in completely different settings from your own. I think one of the things you learn is that you need to carry a great deal of empathy with you.

I think empathy is a very defining element of credible leadership because, leaders sometimes are judged by how loudly they speak or how, you know, confidently they project. That's a communication skill, but true leadership, I think and the way people responded to it is if I have the feeling that somebody actually listened to me first is informed by what I might think and then forms their opinion about what their role is in this context, be it in a company or in a society or on a particular issue.

"Empathy is a defining element of credible leadership."

Achim Steiner, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme

So I think, having grown up, professionally speaking in so many different parts of the world, I've had the privilege of living in many communities, societies and countries over the last 30 years certainly has changed my outlook and it has made me, I think, far more, of a listener than I would have been without that.

Secondly, I think authenticity. None of us, I think should pretend that we have all the solutions. I think what people expect from us is a degree of honesty and integrity that perhaps authenticity best captures. Because honesty is a foundational part of how people rely that trust you and trust is fundamental to leadership. And frankly speaking, I also once attended an executive development program at some of the best business schools of the world that the then world bank president Jim Wolfensohn had organized for world bank staff and invited some externals to participate.

And I was already struck then that, you know, the principles of good leadership are actually not fundamentally different, whether you are a CEO in a company, whether you are a minister or a prime minister, or whether you're a leader in a civil society organization or a movement.

And I think that is something that, to me, it has been quite revealing because it shows that leadership ultimately, is something that has a great deal to do with how people see you and how you are able to interact with people. And, you know, everything else flows from that.

I think the willingness to look at something for a moment from a totally different vantage simply broadens your own spectrum, your own understanding, I think I certainly am not a teacher about listening.

These are just my own, let's say, reflections on how encounters between people that sometimes believe they have nothing that they agree on or nothing in common, can start on a very different footing. If one takes that kind of approach.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: If there is one message that you could leave with our listeners, what would that be?

Achim Steiner: You know, we, we spoke earlier about the sense of insecurity. And UNDP produced a new report a few months ago called human security and new threats to in the age of the Anthropocene. And one of those staggering figures in there was a six out of seven peoplbelieve in the power of one in order to change what happens next.e today actually feel a great deal of insecurity and insecurity has not only as having to do with one's own sense of what is happening in the world.

"Believe in the power of one in order to change what happens next."

Achim Steiner, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme

It also erodes our confidence about ourselves and what we can do about it. So I think one of the things that I hold on to is that the power of one is immensely important. So many people feel disempowered in the world, whether you're a young person, maybe a girl child in school, whether you are a person living in the midst of a civil war or perhaps in a country where electricity is not yet available to your family, to your household. People can change things.

And I think we need to continuously focus on giving individuals the sense that they matter, but they can also matter to what happens next. And I think that to me remains a sort of departure point in anything we do. And wherever it takes you, that is your life's choice, but believe in the power of one in order to change what happens next.


Listen and Subscribe

Find all our podcasts here.

Join the World Economic Forum Podcast Club on Facebook.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Davos AgendaLeadership
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.


Davos 2024 Opening Film

Andrea Willige

March 27, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum