23 June 1997

Press Release


19970623 In Address to World Bank Conference 'Global Knowledge '97 Kofi Annan Also Stresses Challenge of Making Information Available to All

Following is the text of the address by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the World Bank conference "Global Knowledge '97", in Toronto, Canada, on 22 June:

I am honoured and deeply gratified to join you tonight in Toronto for this important conference hosted by the Canadian Government, and convened by my dear friend and ally -- a true visionary in the work of peace and development -- Jim Wolfensohn.

We are all here because we share a deep concern about the plight of poverty and deprivation in the world. We are all here because we believe this poverty to be intolerable in a world of plenty.

And we are all here because we are convinced -- indeed we know -- that this poverty can be ended in our lifetime, with our own hands, with our own minds.

We know that the global dilemma of squalor amid splendour is a creature of human agency, and that it can be reversed by human agency.

The facts are not in dispute. There are gross disparities of income, of access to services and of opportunity in the world. An estimated 1.3 billion people in the world survive on less than a dollar a day; nearly a billion people are illiterate; well over a billion lack access to safe water; some 840 million go hungry or face food insecurity; and nearly a third of the people in the least developed countries are not expected to survive to the age of 40.

It is a fact that children and women suffer disproportionately as a result of lack of development; that disease, especially the AIDS pandemic, is devastating families and communities in many developing countries; that armed conflict is engulfing about 30 countries -- mainly in Africa.

The United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index, published 10 days ago -- where, by the way, Canada ranked first -- revealed that a record 30 countries had lower scores this year than in the past: that means that 30 countries are regressing rather than progressing in terms of human development.

The extreme inequalities in the world are morally untenable, economically irrational and politically indefensible.

But how will we confront, how will we conquer them? How will we best work for development and against poverty in our time, with our resources, in our context? What tools will be needed, how far will they reach and how long must we persist? These are the questions that occupy the minds and, no less, the hearts of all who have gathered for this conference in Toronto.

You will over the next few days engage in a vital debate about global knowledge, about the role and power of information and their impact on development. You will begin a global conversation that will discover new ways of making information an agent of change and a tool for prosperity. We must, and will, make knowledge and information our partners for progress.

Looking out on this hall and marvelling at the variety of groups and organizations committed to this common goal, it cannot escape anyone that the work of development has been fundamentally transformed.

The explosion in the number of non-governmental organizations, civil society groups and private sector companies that have a role to play in development has renewed our cause and expanded our potential.

Nowhere is this more apparent or more inspiring than in the information revolution and the new world that is opening for men and women every day.

All of us -- the United Nations, the World Bank, governments, the private sector, members of civil society -- must form a global partnership for information.

We must do so wherever and whenever we can, above all, because this new revolution leaves us no choice. Development, peace and democracy are no longer the exclusive responsibility of governments, global organizations or intergovernmental bodies.

The great democratizing power of information has given us all the chance to effect change and alleviate poverty in ways we cannot even imagine today. Our task, your task, in the coming days, is to make that change real for those in need, wherever they may be. With information on our side, with knowledge a potential for all, the path to poverty can be reversed.

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Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.

We at the United Nations are convinced that information has a great democratizing power waiting to be harnessed to our global struggle for peace and development.

We believe this because we are convinced that it is ignorance, not knowledge, that makes enemies of men. It is ignorance, not knowledge, that makes fighters of children. It is ignorance, not knowledge, that leads some to advocate tyranny over democracy. It is ignorance, not knowledge, that makes some think that human misery is inevitable. It is ignorance, not knowledge, that make others say that there are many worlds, when we know that there is one. Ours.

Information and freedom are indivisible. The information revolution is unthinkable without democracy, and true democracy is unimaginable without freedom of information. This is information's new frontier, this is where the United Nations pledges its commitment, its resources and its strength.

We have learned too often that democratization -- like reform, I might add -- is a process, not an event. For democracy to take root, it needs institutions, respect for the law, integrity of the armed forces and free and regular elections. In all these areas, the United Nations has been working to implement lasting democracy, and we have been doing so by spreading information and encouraging knowledge.

Why? Because an educated electorate is a powerful electorate. Because an informed citizenry is the greatest defender of freedom. Because an enlightened government is a democratizing government.

The quantity and quality of available information is changing dramatically every day in every country in the world. Citizens are gaining greater and greater access to information, too. And, perhaps most importantly, the spread of information is making accountability and transparency facts of life for any free government.

The consent of the governed -- the condition for any free society -- must be an informed, enlightened consent. The challenge now, for us, is to make information available to all.

Access is crucial. The capacity to receive, download and share information through electronic networks; the ability to publish newspapers without censorship or restrictions; the freedom to communicate freely across national boundaries -- these must become fundamental freedoms for all.

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For too long, economic inequality and fear of freedom has prevented the large majority of men and women on this planet from taking advantage of this bounty of knowledge.

There is no longer an excuse for this state of affairs. And there is no longer a reason. No one disputes the dangers of excessive inequality in any society anymore. And no one claims to govern on any principle other than democracy anymore.

For us at the United Nations, this development has had very concrete, and very welcome, consequences over the last few years. In 1992, we had seven requests for electoral assistance. In the last five years alone, we have participated in over 40 elections, responding to government requests for help in preparing, conducting and verifying their votes.

That is the face of the new world created by the information revolution. But its consequences are felt in every field of human endeavour. In agriculture, health, education, human resources and environmental management the spread of information is transforming practices and revolutionizing progress.

Communications and information technology has enormous potential, especially for developing countries, and in furthering sustainable development. But that also means that the information gap is the new dividing line between the haves and the have nots, those forging new paths to development and those increasingly left behind.

What can we do, what can you do -- at this conference and in your agencies and organizations -- to foster that enabling environment for development and democracy that is the condition for global knowledge:

-- Promote greater, freer and fairer access to information for developing countries, through infrastructure improvement and technological advances;

-- Advance liberalization in the field of government control and censorship wherever it may exist;

-- Foster environments of growth and communication between developed and developing countries so that the transfer of technology becomes faster and more effective;

-- Initiate innovative approaches to education and learning at all levels, understanding the cultural contexts in order to ensure the greatest achievement of knowledge;

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-- Welcome foreign investment, which, as Jim knows well, now dwarfs official development assistance by a factor of six, and make that investment an agent for knowledge;

-- Provide the ground for pilot projects in such fields as interactive long-distance learning, telemedicine, telebanking and micro-credit schemes, environmental protection and management; and

-- Ensure that the young will be the first to gain this knowledge and to make it their partner in the pursuit of a better, richer life for themselves and for their peoples.

The role and responsibilities of the United Nations system are as clear as they are crucial: to ensure that the gains of the information revolution are placed at the service of developing countries.

Freed from the ideological shackles of the cold war age, we can approach this challenge with new energy and sound pragmatism. Information does not belong to one ideology or another, knowledge is not the privilege of one creed or conviction.

If information and knowledge are central to democracy, they are the conditions for development. It is that simple.

What is so thrilling about our time is that the privilege of information is now an instant and globally accessible privilege. It is our duty and our responsibility to see that gift bestowed on all the world's people, so that all may live lives of knowledge and understanding.

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For information media. Not an official record.