India has now opened more than 170 million bank accounts. But, the majority of rural Indians don’t even know that these accounts exist. In fact, most of these bank accounts have no money in them at all. According to UNESCO, universal access to information is a priority for all member states. But, is this really the case when many nations around the world continue to restrict and suppress access to information from its citizens? How can we uphold such a principle when hundreds of millions of rural Indians don’t even know they have a bank account? Access to information can be a catalyst for sustainable change. By giving citizens from around the world, regardless of their socio-political or economic status, unfettered access to information, we will be closer to reaching the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDG’s).
While, arguably, most UN institutions and divisions are ripe with bureaucracy, the International Program for the Development of Communication (IPDC) is breaking the current mould of red tape. In fact, The United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) hosted its first IPDC talks last month at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. While it may not be everyone’s choice of a Friday morning activity, I attended these talks, and was surprised to learn how innovative and unique UNESCO’s approach is to advocating for access to information. On paper, the IPDC stands for mobilizing the international community to discuss and promote media development in developing countries. But at its heart, the program seeks to strengthen the contribution of media for a future of sustainable development.
This mission is all the more important when we look at the 16th SDG: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. As with the other SDG’s, number 16 is measured through targeted goals, including developing effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels, ensuring responsive inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels, and, ensuring public access to information and protecting fundamental freedoms. I would argue that SGD 16 is a means to an end, and plays pivotal role in the development and achievement of the rest of the SDG’s.
Indeed, many commentators – including Cat Tully of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development – argue that SDG 16 is the transformation goal and key to ensuring that the Agenda as a whole is accomplished. Specifically, as Tully argues, the once top-down approach of information dissemination to the public no longer works. Nations can no longer seek legitimacy in governance through hierarchical methods of information feeds. Citizens – and most importantly, voters – need choice when it comes to what information they can receive, and how they should receive said information. Only then can we harness the innovative ideas of the global citizen and attempt to de-mystify and solve world problems.
For many of these reasons, UNESCO launched the first ever IPCD talks, and successfully brought to light the many avenues in which improving access to information will help in achieving the SDG’s. While these avenues are quite limitless, I will focus on four pillars of improvement: power to the poor, strengthening agriculture, improving accessibility for all, and tackling societal taboos.
Power to the Poor
Today, according to the UN, there are over 800 million people who suffer from under or mal-nourishment. Due largely to this, 25% of mal or under-nourished children experience stunted growth. Economically, the world’s rich are only getting richer, widening the gap between the rich and the poor. In fact, the richest 100 Indians own more than 69% of the whole population of India. While these statistics are, unfortunately, numbers that social scientists and students of humanities are used to reading, it begs the question of how much influence the rich have on communication mediums. Money buys power; this statement is indeed no longer fallacy. With the richest 100 Indians owning a vast majority of the country’s wealth, it is the rich who own the communication mediums in the country. How then, can the poorest factions of society access information, educate themselves, become active participatory members of society, and help to fulfill the SDG’s? In short, it’s impossible within our current information structure. As the IPDC talks brought to light, the poor are losing control of their people, their languages and their culture.
They are unable to build a bridge between them and governing bodies of their societies, hence creating a systemic gap between rich and poor, educated and illiterate, powerful and powerless. Unfortunately, it is my view that it is nearly impossible for the poor to push through the boundaries of this hierarchical access to information system we have created. It is too strong – too institutionalized – for any group of society to change. The only way to allow the poor to access information is for those at the top to allow it. Public access and public control of information will empower the poor to educate, and invigorate society for the better. However, in conflict and post-conflict countries, failed states or non-democratic nations, a top-down approach for access to information reform is a highly unlikely scenario. The UN needs to continue pushing its SDG’s, specifically SDG 16, to empower the poor to access free, public and universal information.
I know, agriculture is not exactly a sexy topic. How then, can the world explain that while 25% of mal or under-nourished children experience forms of stunted growth, 1/3 of the food we produce is wasted? I’m not here to argue for improving agricultural practices globally (SDG 2 seeks to end hunger, achieve good security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture). Rather, I question whether information dissemination on the topics of agriculture, food security, nutrition and food spending is accessed by all populations? The answer I unfortunately find myself happening upon is no. Agricultural resources are certainly not targeted well. According to the IPDC, we spend as much money annually on agricultural subsidies than we do on snack food (1.2 billion USD to be exact). While the utter disregard for proper resource management is flagrant in this example, it also brings to light the lack of information dissemination within the field. If populations – especially rural populations – were to be able to access information surrounding agricultural best practices, resource management, irrigation techniques, and spending needs, they could not only better sustain themselves and abet in reaching SDG 2, but they could disseminate agricultural information properly and effectively within their communities. Unfortunately, this goal has many obstacles – particularly since many rural populations do not yet have access to the internet or other means of mass communication. Hopefully by pursuing SDG 2 in conjunction with SDG 16, the UN will be able to overcome said obstacles and improve food security and agricultural practices worldwide, while dually allowing farmers and rural populations to access agricultural information.
Improving Accessibility for All
Even in the West, information dissemination is largely geared towards able bodied individuals. Disabled populations tend to be left behind. One of the most impressive sessions during the IPDC talks was led by Ms. Daniela Bas, the Director of the Division for Social Policy and Development at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. After becoming a paraplegic at the age of six, Ms. Bas beat all odds of survival and now fights to ensure that no one is left behind. After reaching out to her office, she elaborated that her “mission is to use information as a platform to enhance the well-being of people through promoting an inclusive and an accessible society.” Specifically, Ms. Bas is now advocating to use access to information to help achieve the SDG’s, in particular SDG 3: Ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages. “There is a difference between wellness and well-being”, Ms. Bas said. Indeed, “this can be seen through access to information and nutrition.”
While I discussed above the effects access to information can have on agriculture, it is also undeniable that improving access to information will help with nutrition, especially combatting obesity and health problems in society. Ms. Bas is a huge advocate for such initiatives and believes that access to information for all people will help combat this problem. However, one problem she points out is that access to information largely occurs over the internet. While Millennials are no strangers to the internet of things, the elderly and rural populations hardly have access to the world wide web. Indeed, this is increasing the gap in access to information and well-being. Ms. Bas is currently working on combatting this.
The Shit-Flow Diagram was a flow chart presented by an organization called SANA (Social Awareness Newer Alternatives) during the IPDC talks. As this flow chart showed, there are more cell phones than toilets in India. As SANA is now advocating for, waste water needs to be cleaned up in rural populations through the use of technology and access to information. If the SDG’s are to be achieved – specifically SDG 6 (Ensuring access to water and sanitation for all), they need to be imbedded in the socio, economic and political reality of the local region. Not only will this have a sustainable impact on the region, but it will break down taboos and stereotypes within each region in a culturally appropriate way. This “Shit-Flow” Diagram is a perfect example. Sanitation in India is not exactly a topic decision makers want to talk about. It is a taboo that has not yet permeated through political society.
By allowing free and easy access to information to rural populations, Indians will be able to take control of their own sanitation and well-being, in turn lobbying politicians to fulfill SDG 6. Sanitation is only one example. When women in rural areas and developing countries menstruate, many opt not to go to school or work during their cycle. Do politicians know this? Why then do politicians insist on taxing sanitary and feminine hygiene products? The “pink tax” is having a perniciously bad impact on the sustainable development of society. If women were to be able to access information on menstruation products and health awareness campaigns, many of the SDG’s would be slowly chipped away. Nevertheless, the reality remains that these topics are hardly issues people are willing to discuss. However, perhaps by giving women and marginalized groups access to information, they will be able to shape the conversation surrounding these topics. Perhaps access to information will allow taboos to become real and tangible policy issues.
This is a lot
With 17 SDG’s and 169 targets, the UN has a lot to strive for over the next few decades. The SDG’s are hardly easily achieved tasks, nor are they singular in scope. However, I strongly believe that improving and strengthening access to information is absolutely pivotal in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals. What is even more important is that this information is accessible by all – poor, rich, old, young, rural, urban, disabled or not. While this ideal may sound entirely plausible, there are still many obstacles and problems that we will face. Do sources of information offer a wide choice of news or tight controls on communications and media? How does this affect views on SDG’s? How do we facilitate media in a way to create a bridge between government and citizens? How do we bring the voice of people to governments, especially in societies that are non-democratic, or facing conflict and war? These questions will, hopefully, be answered, once a holistic approach to access to information is taken. Much like societal change, information is a constant. We have to make sure that no one is left behind.