Access to ideas: How information matters for sustainable development in the digital era

Speech by Parliamentary State Secretary Thomas Silberhorn at the Global Media Forum 2016 Bonn, Germany, on 15 June 2016

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Ladies and gentlemen,
Access to information, exchange of ideas and free speech are, on a global scale, a rare privilege. The vast majority of the global population, six in seven people, lives in countries without a free media. In other words, only one in seven people can get information, can form his or her opinion and can freely express his or her opinion without any constraints.

This is an alarming obstacle to global development. In this way countries are losing facts and opinions, ideas and creativity innovation and perspectives. And we are losing knowledge that we really need in order to achieve sustainable development.

Last year, the international community adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with the 17 global Sustainable Development Goals. For the first time ever, all countries in the world have agreed to work together to create a partnership for a decent life for all people, and for development that does not push our planet beyond its limits.

The German government was one of the advocates for including free access to information in the SDGs. Freedom of speech and access to information are key issues for human development. Only if people have the chance to access information and express their views freely will they also be able to assert other rights: food, education, fair working conditions.

Poverty can only be reduced if we protect vital natural resources at the same time. Hunger can only be eradicated if we mitigate climate change at the same time. And all this can only be done in a sustainable way if we foster equal opportunities, the rule of law and access to information at the same time.

Governments cannot do that by themselves. Policymakers, civil society, the private sector and the media, too, can – and must indeed – do their part if we are to jointly reach our goal of a more just and sustainable world.

That is why the German Development Ministry, the BMZ, is working with DW Akademie as a strategic partner to foster freedom of expression and access to information worldwide. Enterprises, too, have a responsibility when it comes to achieving the SDGs. Economic growth can be a key driver of sustainable development.

At the BMZ, we therefore consider the private sector a strong partner. We are combining the innovative capacity of the private sector with the knowledge and experience of the development policy community. In that way, we are mobilizing additional private sector potential.

This helps to reinforce development. And companies benefit from attractive markets and vibrant societies that generate demand for new products and services.

One important example is our Strategic Partnership "Digital Africa." Through that partnership, the BMZ wants to work with the private sector to tap into Africa's digital potential and create lasting momentum for development. Digital change is a powerful force. The internet can be a potent tool for more opportunities, more prosperity and more freedom.

The majority of all internet users worldwide are already living in developing countries: two out of three billion. Soon, four billion people will have internet access. The opportunities are enormous! And this includes remote areas.

There are many different examples of small and big digital revolutions:

  • People are managing their business and money by cell phone. Mobile banking has become commonplace in Kenya and in the Philippines.
  • 3D printers and CNC mills can be distributed and used worldwide.
  • Interconnected sensors provide us with weather and climate data. An insurance company in Ghana is using this for its crop failure insurance for small farmers.
  • In Uganda, a cooperative of coffee farmers is using a smartphone app to reduce its administrative cost and make its value chain much more efficient.

The BMZ is already supporting more than 270 projects with ICT components in over 70 countries. This means we are a leader in this field.

The basis for digital progress is reliable access to the world wide web.

However, what matters is an enabling environment. If we want optimum development, including in the private sector, we need an open, free and participatory internet.

In many countries the situation is dominated by censorship and checks, hate language and surveillance. That slows down innovation and wastes economic potential. The economic benefits of the internet and digital technologies can only be realized if there can be an open and free exchange of ideas and information. And enterprises will only be competitive if they have access to reliable information.

That is why the BMZ is providing advice to its partner countries on digital regulation. Relevant legislation should strengthen the freedom of speech, access to information and privacy protection. The challenge is to give direction to global digital interconnectedness.

  • The internet must be accessible to all people. Access to comprehensive digital information must not be a privilege for the chosen few.
  • The internet must protect human rights and privacy. It must not be used as a mass surveillance technology.
  • The internet must give people access to education and opportunities for participation. It should be a place where people can gather information and make their voices heard.

This gives rise to projects such as the Nigerian "Follow the Money" initiative, which was presented here yesterday. The initiative monitors whether aid money really reaches its destination. Team members go to the villages and follow up on the promises made by politicians. They publish their findings in easy-to-understand diagrams on their website.

Or take the "Our Health, Our Voice" project. It gives women in northern India a chance to alert the public to illegal fees in birth clinics. They can report the fees by cell phone. While they remain anonymous themselves, their information will help other women. This kind of transparency prevents corruption.

Both projects use digital tools to empower people who were previously on the fringes of the digital transformation – people who don't own a smartphone or a tablet computer as a matter of course; people who live in regions where mobile coverage is patchy. We can learn from such initiatives. The BMZ therefore supports DW Akademie in identifying projects of this type and putting their insights to use for other regions or topics.

To conclude have a request to you, the media: Take a close and critical look at what we, the politicians, are doing – all over the world. Remind us of our promises on freedom of speech and a free media, not least in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Use your investigative skill to pinpoint development obstacles such as corruption. Give a voice to all people.
Globally sustainable development requires that as many people as possible take part in public discourse. And this requires that, first and foremost, communication must function. For globally equitable development, one in seven people is not enough.

So, a lot remains to be done. We count on you and we offer our support.

Thank you very much.

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