Speech by UNDP Pacific Center Manager at FOI workshop
Speech by Garry Wiseman, UNDP Pacific Centre Manager
“FOI Workshop for Pacific Policy-Makers”
Honiara, Solomon Islands – 30 June 2008

Honorable Dr Derek Sikua, Prime Minister of Solomon Islands, Members of Parliament, government representatives from throughout the Pacific, colleagues from the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, officials, distinguished guests and members of the media.

The UNDP Pacific Centre is pleased to be part of this Freedom of Information Workshop for Pacific Policy-Makers, and to support your organisers the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat over the next three days.

The right to information has long been recognised as underpinning all other rights to which the UN is committed – because without information people cannot effectively protect and promote their own rights. Notably, 2008 marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human rights to which all Pacific island countries, as members of the United Nations have committed themselves. We are, therefore, very pleased to support a workshop on right to information – such a fundamental right – in the same year as the anniversary of the Declaration.

I would like to thank the Honourable Prime Minister for his willingness to be with us this morning to open this Workshop. I am aware your Government is committed to improving governance and access to information. In fact I recall reading one of your first major policy addresses, made soon after you became Prime Minister in which you specifically discussed the challenges posed to Solomon Islands, and in which you outlined your commitment to participatory development and good governance. I also understand that in your meeting last Friday on the new Solomon Islands Medium Term Development Strategy you again addressed many of these themes.

We are hopeful that this workshop will provide guidance to Pacific policy-makers, including senior officials from the Solomon Islands, on the value of freedom of information in achieving these very important goals – participatory development and good governance.

I am aware that in the Pacific, freedom of information is often thought about as more of an issue for the media, than for ordinary people. It also seems that there is a strong sense in our region that access to information combined with responsible reporting is a media right. In this regard, I would like to acknowledge the media in the room today and agree that it is essential to effective democracy that the media are able to access solid data and reliable information from governments, so that their stories are fact-based and thorough and impart useful information to the public.

However, it is also important to recognize that access to information does not have to be restricted to the work of the media. The right to information is a tool which can be used by all members of society to empower ordinary members of the community to better participate in their own governance and development. With more information about what governments are doing, what services they provide and what programmes they are implementing, members of the public can engage with the development activities around them at their own pace and in their own way.

I have worked in development a long time, and I have often seen that when we talk about participation, too often participation is promoted on our terms. We have consultations with the public when WE need to, meetings with stakeholders and partners according to OUR schedules. But with freedom of information, people can start asking questions about issues that interest them and that are important to their lives. However, it is also important that the information is available in a form that is understandable and not “public service speak”.

The PFNet service, using simple low-cost technology was set up in Solomon Islands as an initiative to facilitate just this kind of information flow. I read with interest some time back that the Government Communications Unit has started publishing more information on PFNet to keep the public informed about what is being done from the capital. These are the kind of simple initiatives Pacific Island governments and parliaments can look to if they are interested in practically implementing the right to information.

Significantly, by opening up channels of communication between members of the public and governments, we can also rebuild and cement the relationship of trust between governments and the public they are to serve. Often, people don’t understand what is happening around them and in our region; they tend to rely on the coconut wireless to fill the gap where governments are silent. This can often lead to rumour-mongering which can distort the facts and leave people nervous – or worse – angry. Entrenching freedom of information can tackle this problem directly, a benefit of especial significance to many countries in our region.

I would like to note that this Workshop also coincides with the Pacific launch of the UNDP Asia Pacific Human Development Report “Tackling Corruption, Transforming Lives. We are very honoured that the Deputy Prime Minister of Solomon Islands, Honourable Fred Fono, has agreed to join us this evening and will be launching our Report tonight. Notably, the importance of freedom of information as a mechanism for promoting government transparency and accountability within a framework of promoting participatory development and the realisation of human rights for all is one of the key themes of that Report.

You are all invited to the launch this evening which will also double as our welcome reception for this workshop.

I would like to conclude by reflecting on the fact that the Pacific Plan, the regional document which guides the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat’s work and the work of development partners like the UNDP, highlights freedom of information as an element which will support the Good Governance Pillar of the Pacific Plan. It is encouraging that Pacific leaders have recognised in such a seminal document, the benefits that freedom of information can bring to the Pacific – some of which I have highlighted already, but many more of which will be discussed over the next three days. We hope that these discussions will make a contribution to achieving the regional and national development goals that Pacific leaders have set for themselves and their people.

Thank you and best wishes for the next three days.