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Voices for The Poor

By James D. Wolfensohn

Wednesday, November 10, 1999; Page A39

The following is excerpted from a speech to the World Press Freedom Committee in Washington on Monday:

A free press is not a luxury. A free press is at the absolute core of equitable development, because if you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus needed to bring about change.

This might sound like a strong statement from a president of the World Bank, an international institution governed by 181 member governments and constrained in terms of our Articles of Agreement from any involvement in political matters.

When I came to the bank nearly five years ago, I was told we did not talk about corruption. Corruption was political. It was the "C-word," and if you could not use the C-word, you surely could not talk about press freedom. What could be more intrusive on politicians than a free press? What is it that could enfranchise people more than a free press?

But it soon became very clear to me that corruption and the issue of press freedom, while they may have political impact, are essentially economic and social issues, both key to development. So we redefined corruption, not as a political issue but as an economic and social issue. Corruption is the largest single inhibitor of equitable economic development, and in redefining the issue in this way our shareholder countries reacted very favorably. Indeed, six months later at a meeting of our development committee, ministers all made speeches about corruption and asserted that it was at the core of the problems that affect development.

So, too, is press freedom. Studies at the bank show that the higher the level of press freedom in countries, the higher the control of corruption. Studies show, too, that there is a strong positive correlation between voice and accountability and measures such as per capita income, infant mortality and adult literacy. And yet we know from Freedom House that just 1.2 billion people live in countries with access to a free press, that 2.4 billion live without a free press and 2.4 billion have access to a partially free press.

Because we understand better now the links between development and issues of voice, accountability and transparency, the bank is running courses for journalists in all regions of the developing world and doing so with government approval. We have reached several thousand journalists in more than 50 countries with core courses in economics and business to help them understand the changing dynamics of their environment. By addressing critical health issues such as HIV/AIDS, we have spurred journalists to find new ways of covering this pandemic in their countries. And investigative journalism courses help them tackle the issues of corruption in a professional way--help them shine the spotlight.

But of course with press freedom comes responsibility. And for the media of the developed world this is true too. It is critical that the international media understand and embrace the issue of development as the issue of the moment. We must bring home to the public that there is just one world today and that issues of development are central to the future of our developed countries. We particularly need leadership from the press and from communicators because it is too easy to become caught up in immediate domestic political issues. We and our children need knowledge of our world if we are to ensure peace and stability.

We need to hear our world, and for that reason the bank has just undertaken a study of 60,000 poor people in 60 of the countries in which we work. These "Voices of the Poor," as our study has become known, give us a rich insight into the complexity of poverty. Most striking, what sets the poor apart from the rich is lack of voice. They feel they are not represented, they cannot convey their needs to authorities, they do not have the power to bring a searchlight upon conditions of inequity. Poverty is not just about money: Poor people want to be able to express themselves, to elect their own people and to gain access and representation.

If you do not have the right to voice and the ability to expose issues, which is of course so tied to the freedom of the press, you remove the right to equitable development. It is that simple. And each country needs to ensure this right from within. It needs to listen to its own voices to get the ideas moving that can change society. Where we are welcome, the bank can help. So too can the international press and such organizations as the World Press Freedom Committee.

The writer is president of the World Bank.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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