If we are to keep the promises made in the Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty and improve poor people’s lives then policymakers must recognise the essential role played by information and communication in development.
Poor people must have their voices heard and be able to participate in the debates and decisions that affect their lives.
Sustainable development demands that people participate in the debates and decisions that affect their lives. They need to be able to receive information, but also to make their voices heard.
The poor are often excluded from these processes by geography and lack of resources or skills; and many groups – including women – are also kept silent by social structures and cultural traditions.
Inclusive political processes, through which citizens can shape political agendas and hold their governments to account, are an essential foundation of successful development.
Political processes are communication processes – not only through formal elections, but also the ongoing dialogue between people and their governments and the shaping of public agendas.
For instance, mobile phones are increasingly used to strengthen the integrity and credibility of elections; while the media play a crucial role in political debate.
Healthy political processes need open communication environments.
Governments must be open, accountable and responsive to their citizens - there must be free flows of information so that civil society can monitor government performance.
Communication also lies at the heart of good governance, where governments are responsive, accountable and capable of fulfilling their functions with the active engagement of civil society.
Good governance requires that transparent information on the state and public services is available to citizens so that they can monitor government performance.
‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant’, US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously observed, and transparent information and communication flows reduce opportunities for corruption.
Improved communication can also facilitate the day-to-day administrative relationships between citizens and bureaucracies – for instance, applying for licences or obtaining land records – and the effectiveness and efficiency of public services.
Countries need a healthy, vibrant civil society with networks of individuals, groups and organisations; change is much more likely where people are involved in discussions on issues that affect them.
The fabric of civil society is woven from the ongoing communication and exchange between people – through interpersonal, informal and cultural processes as well as through formal institutions and official channels.
A healthy civil society is characterised by the vibrancy and quality of the networks between individuals, groups, institutions and organisations; and the ‘social capital’ (the trust and respect) they create. Information and communication are fundamental to this process.
Decades of research on issues as diverse as HIV and AIDS communication and sustainable agriculture has shown that where people are involved and engaged in discussions of issues that affect them, societal attitudes and individual behaviour are much more likely to change.
Economic development depends on accessible information and communication at all levels - governments should try to ensure that new information technologies are available to everyone.
Economic development also depends on communication at every level, from helping a poor producer market her goods to strengthening a minister’s hand in negotiating international trade agreements.
When governments create an environment marked by open and transparent information and communication flows, they help to establish the conditions for economic growth and fairer markets.
The revolution in information and communication technologies (ICTs, such as telephones and the Internet) also offers exciting new opportunities for small- as well as large-scale economic activity.
Governments should try to ensure that ICTs are available and affordable for everyone, because while ICTs are already spreading fast, particularly mobile phones, the market will not provide for the needs of poor people without some intervention and regulation from governments.
Role of the media
The media are central to development and to holding the powerful to account – this will only happen when the media are diverse, dynamic and free, working in a supportive regulatory environment.
In all these areas, the media play a central role. They provide a forum for political debate and accountability, and they also help shape social attitudes – for instance to women’s equality.
Media freedom and pluralism of ownership are prerequisites if the media are to fulfil their watchdog function of holding the powerful to account.
But these fundamentals do not guarantee that the voices of the poor and marginalised groups are reflected in what is printed and broadcast.
For the media to provide high-quality public interest content, in which a wide range of voices is heard, liberalisation, pluralisation and regulation are all required.