"Eradicating poverty" is the headline recommendation of a report
published last week outlining a new development agenda for the 21st Century. If the
panel's recommendations are accepted, another issue will have found its way
into the heart of the international development agenda for the first time: a
commitment to support free and independent media and access to information.
The Report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons Report on the
post-2015 development agenda titled A New Global Partnership proposes an "indicative" set of 12 new
universal goals, the first of which is to end extreme poverty by 2030. One of the 11 other goals – alongside
those focused on health, the empowerment of girls and women, improving food
security and so on - is one designed to "ensure good governance and effective
Five elements are identified in the report as necessary for
achieving this goal. One of these is to "ensure people enjoy freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest and
access to independent media and information". Another is to "guarantee the public's right to information and access to
Commissioned by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, this report offers an impressive reframing of
what is required to move the development agenda on from the existing Millennium
Development Goals due to expire in 2015. It manages to integrate just about all the key development challenges
that humanity faces whilst avoiding – mostly – what many had feared would
simply be a long wish list without clear priorities. The report blends a fresh set
of targets with a clear commitment to rights and good governance and does so more
explicitly than the existing development agenda it seeks to replace.
The original Millennium Declaration agreed in 2000 – which
articulated the Millennium Development Goals due to expire in 2015 – also affirmed
freedom as one of the fundamental values underpinning the MDGs and urged a
commitment "to ensure the freedom of the media to perform their essential role
and the right of the public to have access to information". That Declaration has tended to be forgotten, however.
Instead, it is the eight Goals it laid that have galvanised international
attention in the interim years.
The new High-Level Panel report goes a step further and
recommends that media freedom and access to information should be included in
the targets in themselves. This is no
great surprise. David Cameron, the co-chair
of the Panel, has repeatedly called for a set of "golden threads" to be woven
into the development agenda. These include
good governance, the rule of law, clear and stable property rights, strong
civil institutions, free and fair trade and free media. All of these objectives are reflected in this
The fact that "access to independent media and information" has ended up as a recommended target is welcome on many levels. It is especially so as the focus is not just
on the existence of a free and independent media (which tends to be
captured in most media freedom indicators), but on access to media
Having a free press – even if only 10% of the population
have access to it – can mean that a country receives a high score in standard international
media freedom indicators. If the post-2015
agenda can encourage principles of media freedom as well as access to independent
media, then they will have played a key role in moving a critical issue forward.
The report outlines a new Global Partnership and says: "People must be central to a new global
partnership. To do this they need the
freedom to voice their views and participation in the decisions that affect
their lives without fear. They need
access to information and to independent media." Such a partnership should, the report argues,
be a principal priority for future development action.
There will be major political challenges to be overcome if
the recommendations of this report are to be included in the final UN agreement
on the new development agenda, to be agreed in 2015. Placing issues of media freedom – or even good governance – so explicitly at
the heart of the post-2015 agenda is unlikely to command universal support at
There are challenges too of implementation. As the report highlights, access to
information through mobile telephony and the internet has been transformed
since the original Millennium Declaration was published in 2000. The sheer pace and scale of change in
communication technology, especially across the developing world, was not predicted then, and certainly not by
the development sector. Huge information
and communication gaps remain, especially in fragile states where more than
half of people live in poverty. Adapting
development policies to one of the fastest moving arenas of human innovation will
be difficult. Only a very few
development agencies have significant institutional expertise in supporting
improved access to independent media and information. Major progress
has, however, been made in the development sector
in opening up and supporting improved access to data, another of the welcome
and critical issues highlighted in the report.
This report is hugely welcome. It presents a fresh, ambitious agenda that
provides a comprehensive framework for meeting a set of immense development
challenges. It does so by putting issues of governance and rights – including
freedom of the media – at its heart, not
its periphery. That has not happened before.
The hope is that this agenda will be embraced by the
international community and be reflected when a new set of goals are eventually
agreed in 2015. Much needs to be done to
transform that hope into a reality.
James Deane is Director of Policy and Learning at BBC
Media Action, the BBC's international development charity. These views should not be taken to reflect
those of the BBC itself.