22 Aug 2017 - by A4ID

Access to information flows essential for development

A4ID recently hosted a discussion on the impact that access to information can have on the achievement of development goals, and the role of the media as a communicate channel between society and government.

Whilst the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have brought a focussed agenda to development, there is an underlying consensus amongst development organisations that they represent a compromise.  Some will be achieved, others will not, but what is increasingly being recognised is the impact of the more pervasive problems that hinder the achievement of these goals and stunt development.  Climate change, conflict and security, and population growth are amongst the overarching themes now being considered by the post-2015 UN panel, and attention has turned to the discussions they will soon be undertaking to draw up a new set of goals and further strategise the future of development.

One of these foundational influences, powerful in the undercurrent of development progress, was addressed in a recent A4ID Governance Knowledge Group event, which considered the role of the media in development and the impact access to information can have on the achievement of the development goals.  A fundamental point made by one of the speakers, Andrew Smith (Article 19), was that access to information empowers civil society to know and to assert its rights; without knowledge of what the rights are, how can they be realised and effected? The empowerment afforded by flows of information can help to secure the rights of otherwise marginalised groups.

The second speaker, Mark Wilson (Panos London), noted further the importance of the media and as a vital communication channel between society and government; a channel too for demanding government accountability.

Focusing on the right to information and its impact on development, Andrew Smith examined the international laws that frame article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ He commented on the prominent correlation between the adoption of access to information legislation and the increased fulfilment of other human rights, but he also acknowledged that legal responses are not alone sufficient; if society does not hear about the change in legislation, nothing will change.  An example comes from Nigeria which adopted Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation in 2011, and yet the body tasked with receiving requests for information received no claims in the first year, the lesson simultaneously being the need to inform the public too about the right toaccess information, especially among the poor and marginalised.  Reforms need to be made, but they also need to be implemented effectively, and work needs to be done in empowering communities both in the knowledge of their rights and in claiming them.

The ubiquitous nature of the media was captured by Mark Wilson as he discussed the power of the media and its responsibility in setting agendas as well as then providing a convening space in which to allow open debate.  As a part of the framework of civil society, the media should articulate the needs and demands of the people, and so be a pluralistic and diverse instrument representing all voices in society.  In effectively fulfilling its role and being an educator of the consumer, however, the media must facilitate debate and dialogue: a two-way conversation engaging both with the public and the politics in communicating perspectives.

With access to information and the role of the media so fundamental to development, and an inclusive development agenda requiring total transparency, there remains a challenge for more open communication systems and a more holistic view.  Information flows must be integrated into the development process and sufficiently funded, and the power of information must be recognised as an overarching influence on development goals.

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