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Changing the Face of the World

Speech by Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for International Development, at the BBC-World Service Trust/DFID conference, 24 November 2004.

Awareness, understanding and response. The Media and Development; Communication and the Millennium Development Goals.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

Can I first of all thank the BBC World Service Trust for helping to organise today's conference alongside DFID, and for the work you do around the globe. It's remarkable and it's much appreciated.

Can I also thank Gordon for his passion and leadership on development. Without it "“ and without the opportunity that the electorate has given us "“ we would not have a rising UK aid budget, or be proposing the new debt relief initiative, or be the world's second largest donor in the fight against AIDS.

All of which, by the way, demonstrates the power of politics to make a real difference to people's lives, and shows that politics and politicians - as well as broadcasters - are capable of making things better. I hope that won't be regarded as too controversial a comment to make so early in the morning, but I happen to believe that politics, like broadcasting, is an honourable professions.

So I really welcome this discussion today. Why? Because "“ let's be straight about it "“ we share this small and fragile planet with a growing number of our fellow human beings. What happens in one country increasingly affects those who live in other countries. We will not have a safe and secure world unless we do something about poverty, injustice and inequality. We can do something.

And it is the media "“ the mirror that we hold up to ourselves "“ that has an enormously powerful part to play in helping to make this happen, both in what we call "˜the North', and in "˜the South' where so many people bear the brunt of poverty.

If you by any chance doubt the media's potential to make a difference, then just reflect on our own history. On the part that reporting played in our own development. In the 19th century, it was the people who got on their horses - and on the trains - and who travelled the length and breadth of the land to report back to society on the conditions in which so many people lived, who helped to change the face of Britain.

From William Cobbett with the "˜Political Register' and "˜Rural Rides'; to the novels of Charles Dickens; to Robert Tressell's "˜The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist' - a book that exemplifies the power of words and images to inspire people to act. This was great social reform born of great reporting.

And I think that we are now witnessing exactly the same process happening on a global scale, in which great reporting has the same potential to help us "“ together "“ to change the face of the world. It's one of the reasons why this thing we call international development has moved from the margins of politics two generations ago to the place it occupies today "“ right at the heart of the big political debates of our age. Take two examples.

In May 1998, our TV screens were filled with pictures of 7,000 people standing in a human chain around the G8 Summit building in Birmingham. 24 million people signed the Jubilee 2000 "˜drop the debt' petition. 6 years later over $70 billion of debt relief has happened. You were part of that process.

Or go back 20 years, to 1984. For me, as I suppose for many of us here, its abiding image is of Michael Buerk, on what was then the Nine O'clock News, bringing us the story of the terrible famine in Eritrea, Tigray and Wollo in northern Ethiopia. And I can still hear Bob Geldof pushing aside a TV presenter, and not even for one second contemplating asking us to "˜excuse his French', as he urged us to hand over our money.

So was 1984 a landmark year for the media and development? Well in one way it was, in terms of the astonishing outpouring of human compassion and generosity it gave birth to. We were shamed into doing something for our fellow human beings.

But did Michael Buerk's powerful reporting or Live Aid lead to us spend more of our national wealth on aid? Did it make us rewrite unfair trade rules or drop the debt of poorer countries? Not immediately, but over time it did play a part.

Yet to take another example, did the reporting from Biafra, or Cambodia, or Rwanda "“ as the genocide unfolded before our eyes "“ lead us to act? No, not in time to avert the genocide, as 900,000 people were macheted to death in the space of 6 weeks. A painful lesson that reporting alone - important as it is - isn't enough. We need to act, too. One lesson we need to acknowledge is that there is a difference between awareness, and understanding, and action, the subject of Gordon's correspondence with Kenneth Allsopp.

So what are the challenges for both North and South in bridging this gap? The northern media now operates in a 24-hour world. The speed of news turnover; the power of the internet as a public space for information and debate; and global audiences.

In recent years, we have seen some brilliant examples of development reporting "“ everything from Blue Peter, to Comic Relief, to Channel Four's "˜Unreported World' and "˜Living with Hunger', to the BBC's current series "˜Profit and Loss: The Story of African Oil', about Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria and Cameroon.

It was the cameras going into Bunia in the DRC in the summer of 2003 that were directly responsible for Operation Artemis. Why? Because the world saw the terrible pictures in a country where over the previous decade an estimated 3 million had died in what has been described as "˜Africa's hidden first world war'. On this occasion, they saw it happening and demanded that something be done. Or take Hilary Andersson's powerful reporting from Darfur which DFID played a small part is assisting, as she came with me to Nyala on my visit in June, and stayed.

But we have also to acknowledge the factors which constrain reporting on development. Like the despair and fatigue that can come from images of unremitting disaster. Like your own reaction to BBC research which tells you that while people have compassion, it's only a tiny minority that have real interest in development issues "“ even if that's starting to change. Like the way you have to balance the other pressures you face as broadcasters, with your public service obligation to inform and to educate audiences on international issues.

There are other questions, too. To what extent does the media feel that its role is to move beyond disaster reporting to examining the deeper challenges behind the bad news and the possible solutions? What about reporting the good news "“ things that are working in Africa - instead of just seeing it as the continent where things go wrong. On one of my first ever overseas meetings in this job, I remember a minister from Burkina Faso saying this to me. Your own recent "˜Pulse of Africa' research has shown how proud Africans are of their continent, and how they see themselves differently to the way that we do.

How can we ensure - and this is a particular frustration of mine - that we hear many more Southern voices talking for themselves and about what they want for the future of their country, rather than two people from the North having an argument about what we think is good for someone else? That's why I am so glad that there are so many Southern voices here today.

And it is also our job to make you aware of the stories that are out there. Stories that show development working to change people's lives. The women with terrific needlework skills I met in Lahore who had won a contract from Gap to embroider t-shirts for sale in the USA. The DFID-funded radio station in Uganda that is trying to help build peace and reconciliation in the north. The diamond diggers in Sierra Leone whom we're helping to train to understand more about the value of what they find, so they can get a better price for their labour. All are examples of development that is working. All are antidotes to cynicism that presents, in my view, the biggest threat to the future of our planet.

Anyway, so much for the North. The South, too, is in the midst of a media revolution. 40 years ago, most of the population of the developing world had never seen a TV. The digital divide still exists, but it's fast being closed.

For both the media and governments in the South, there are real opportunities to use communications in the fight against poverty. Not just communication that secures column inches or airtime, but communication which educates and brings about better ways of doing things; which helps government talk to its citizens and vice-versa; and which puts the poorest of the poor at the centre of attention.

This isn't always easy when a majority of the world's population does not have access to a fully free press. What about societies that don't encourage a culture of dialogue, like the fact that until relatively recently there was no reporting of the growing incidence of HIV in China. And yet we know that honesty and openness about HIV and AIDS - the way we have seen it in Uganda, Senegal, Thailand - is essential in the fight to protect people from this terrible disease.

And yet press freedom is good for development. It's the "˜sunlight' that Gordon spoke about. It also means less official corruption, more government accountability, more civic participation "“ and those things help to bring in their wake more investment, higher incomes, lower infant mortality, and more adult literacy and numeracy.

Let's take a recent example of this power. Go back to October 2004, when in the days before the Afghan presidential elections, almost all of the candidates standing against Hamid Kharzai decided to stand down, sensing they wouldn't win. To save face, they based their withdrawal on alleged election irregularities. They were greeted with a tide of derision on phone-in programmes on Afghan radio "“ the same radio that would have been tightly controlled under the Taliban a few years ago. They got the message: they stood for election. And, the media was part of the story.

Now to do this job, a free press needs more than just a committed and pluralist democratic government. It needs the tools of the trade, like decent equipment, proper training in best journalistic practice and ethics, adequate funding, and scope for creativity. It needs rules in the form of a legislative framework to deal with complaints, standards, advertising, ownership, and acceptable levels of politicisation. It needs these laws to be independently monitored and enforced.

This can only really happen if partner governments are fully committed to making it happen. But development agencies can help. DFID, for instance, funds NGOs "“ and the BBC World Service Trust is just one of them "“ in helping to establish things like press councils in Russia, radio licensing laws in Ethiopia, regulatory frameworks in the DRC, and the reform of public broadcasting in Nigeria.

And we already have some shining examples of how communication has helped in the fight against poverty, which we will hear more about later today. The media is doing it extremely creatively and effectively: sometimes independently, sometimes alongside NGOs, sometimes in tandem with Ministries of Health and Education. Let me just give you one example.

In the Horn of Africa, where nomadic Somalis tune in to the BBC Somali Service, DFID has funded a British NGO working locally in Hargeisha to create a radio soap opera. The characters discuss issues of female circumcision and reproductive health. Studies from the first series have shown that when the radio programmes were combined with listener groups to discuss the issues raised, operations on young girls decreased by up to 30%. This is the power of the media to change lives for the better.

Next year will be a real opportunity for all of us to do just that. The Commission for Africa will report, and I am sure it will have something to say about how we as a society report on Africa "“ its potential as well as its problems. There will be Comic Relief and the Make Poverty History campaign, which will bring the big issues of trade, aid and debt relief to our TV and cinema screens and poster sites.

But above all, it will be a unique opportunity to tell the story of how we are all connected on this small and fragile planet. A chance to demonstrate that never before have people in distant countries been able to share the stories of their lives so freely. Never before have we in the North been able to see so vividly and to understand so clearly the fears and hopes of the hungry, the sick and the destitute. Never before have the poor been able to see so starkly the world of plenty from which they are excluded. Never before have we raised so many hopes and aspirations.

The world is crying out for change, and you are the messengers of that cry. It's our responsibility to hear it, and if we do, then we have a better chance of doing the things we know in our heart need to be done to change this world we see before us. And it is by what we do that we will all be judged.

Thank you.

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