Open-source for development

There is a large number of open-source projects, such as Wikipedia or WordPress with extremely large communities behind them, formed by individuals seeking to make a difference with their knowledge and time, often times without expecting anything in return. Most collaborators bring brilliant ideas to the table and more importantly they bring a concrete implementation and give it to the world for free. This model of implementation can be too costly if it is to be originated or replicated by a private company, international organization or government. Besides the implementation, open-source communities also contribute their time and effort towards other product development critical activities such as creating technical and functional documentation, editing, testing, debugging, internationalization and translation.


UNCTAD defines free and open source software (FOSS) as a tool that gives users the freedom to run a programme, to study how it works and adapt it, to redistribute copies and to improve it.[1] Currently, very few UN organizations have developed FOSS applications, let alone internal processes and models. ITU has experience with its ITU-T Software Tool Library

As focal point for the integrated treatment of trade and development and interrelated issues in the areas of finance, technology, investment, services and sustainable development, we should be able to provide technological tools, preferably using FOSS, that are related to our mandate.

Some countries have also used FOSS to develop tools for measuring the achievement of the SDGs, such as United Kingdom and the United States.

Building its own FOSS processes would enable UNCTAD to develop better technological tools for development more efficiently. Software development would not only be faster and cheaper, but its products would benefit from the improvements allowed by the fact that collaborators see FOSS tools as public goods and therefore willingly contribute their time and expertise not necessarily for a fee.

[1] “Free and open source software: policy and development implications” TD/B/COM.3/EM.21/2

UNCTAD & open-source

Once UNCTAD’s FOSS process is available, we will be able to develop technological tools tailored to the needs of our clients (member States, businesses, citizens). Such tools could be:

  • An online consumer-to-business mediation platform. For instance a consumer from Thailand unsatisfied with an online purchase of coffee from an Ethiopian local business could use the platform to settle the issue;
  • A cryptocurrency application for remittances and micro-payments in LDCs;
  • An algorithm to detect price collusion based on information provided online;
  • An NTM calculator for exporting businesses;
  • Big data frameworks for consumer behavior analysis;
  • An app on creative economy initiatives to link entrepreneurs, investors and Governments;
  • Artificial intelligence to analyze investment-arbitration agreements’ implications for Governments and investors;
  • A measure for UNCTAD’s achievement of SDGs as contributors to FOSS projects created by member States;

… and the options are virtualy unlimited as FOSS offers the possibility to tap all the knowledge that is out there.

The Idea and why it is needed?

UNCTAD is committed at contributing to a more sustainable and inclusive development. Providing practical and user-friendly technological tools to our clients is a promising future line of work.

For this to happen, we need to come up with an internal FOSS process. This project is the first step towards putting UNCTAD’s expertise and competitive advantages at par with the development of technological products.

UNCTAD is increasingly requested to provide practical technological tools to satisfy specific beneficiary needs but is often unable to meet them because of lack of resources. Creating an UNCTAD FOSS process will allow cheaper and faster delivery of such technological tools. It will also allow UNCTAD to seek help from collaborators in the wider public or take existing FOSS tools to incorporate them into our technological solutions.

What will change?

UNCTAD will have its first FOSS process, a common methodology and inhouse capacities, which will in turn allow the development of more specific software (the practical tools). UNCTAD’s FOSS process will thus be free, open and continuously improving.

This is particularly relevant to the SDGs UNCTAD contributes directly to (17, 8, 9 and 10). Because FOSS can be applied to any other areas, this proposal is also relevant for those SDGs for which UNCTAD contributes only trough certain targets.

How it meets the challenge’s criteria

A. Innovativeness: UNCTAD does not have a FOSS process, only ITU has developed FOSS so far
B. Potential for Impact: it can open a new line of delivering UNCTAD’s mandate
C. Development oriented: it will enhance UNCTAD’s capacity to respond to our clients’ needs, it will benefit LDCs most
D. Potential for scalability and replicability: FOSS process will be a framework in which all UNCTAD technological tools can be developed
E. Interdivisional collaboration: all Divisions will be able to use UNCTAD’s FOSS process for the development of their technological tools
F. Gender and Human Rights: potential positive impact if gender/human rights technological tools are developed using UNCTAD FOSS process.