Global Policy Forum

Sustaining a Culture of Transparency


By Dr. Shashi Tharoor

Earth Times News Service
June 6, 2001

The challenges facing the United Nations in conveying information about its activities to the world today should not be underestimated. The world is already suffering from "information overload"; the sheer volume of material that assails the public, from newspapers, radio, TV and now the Internet, mean that we are seeking to be heard amidst a cacophony.

The subjects we work in, and seek to promote, are not necessarily the most interesting ones to the lay person: there is a limit to how much space an editor is therefore willing to allocate to issues of fundamental importance to the United Nations, from development to climate change. We are constantly seeking to raise concern about the problems of the poor and the strife-torn in the media of the rich and the tranquil, and we constantly face the unspoken question from the developed world: why should we care?

The problem of the relatively low level of interest in our messages is compounded by the declining coverage of world affairs by the media in the developed world (a fact starkly apparent in the US, where the 65 percent reduction in the time allocated to world affairs by the major networks since 1980 has been amply documented). Trends in communications also make our task more difficult: to pick just one example, broadcasting is increasingly being supplanted by narrow-casting, with a proliferation of channels and media outlets all carrying increasingly specialized information to increasingly narrow audiences. No longer do we live in a world in which almost everyone who matters in every country sits down at the same hour to watch the same news broadcast. Reaching "the public at large" is now a much more complex task than ever before.

The Millennium Summit and Assembly have reaffirmed that the United Nations is "the indispensable common house of the entire human family." The world's leaders have called for the Organization to live up to the faith being placed in it--by achieving clear and measurable results. At the same time, the Secretary General has underscored that the challenges and substantive goals of the United Nations cannot be attained without garnering public support for the Organization through our efforts to create an "informed understanding" of the Organization's work and purposes. How can we possibly hope to succeed with our global campaign to eradicate poverty, for instance, without mobilizing public support, both in donor countries and amongst the poor? How can United Nations peacekeeping efforts be successful without an accompanying information program, including in the mission area, to explain to people what we are trying to do?

The Department of Public Information will continue to disseminate timely, comprehensive, balanced and reliable information through print, audio visual and Internet media, and to maintain a world-class library system. We are developing effective advocacy campaigns in support of General Assembly objectives. We will partner with the agencies and programs of the United Nations system, and with key redisseminators, including the media and civil society, including nongovernmental organizations, educational institutions and the private sector.

We are continuing to respond to the General Assembly's call to maintain and improve our activities in the areas of special needs to developing countries, as, for example, in the work of our information centers, in the strengthened media outreach and training programs for the media from developing countries, and through the Internet-related training seminars we organize.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the communications revolution has opened up enormous possibilities for the Department of Public Information. This is especially important to our priority effort to provide developing countries with immediate access to news developments from the United Nations. At the heart of this effort are our daily 15-minute news bulletins in the six official languages which, since September, are being broadcast by hundreds of radio stations worldwide. In addition, building on our very popular United Nations News Center on the Web, we will soon launch a regionally-oriented news service which will carry news of United Nations developments directly to thousands of journalists in every region of the world.

We can now provide news of the Organization to every corner of the world in an instant. We have the will and the expertise to do this, but a financial investment will need to be made about to modernize our communications infrastructure.

In addition, to cover the work of the main organs of the United Nations, the Department is publicizing seven major international conferences and special sessions of the General Assembly to take place this year. The objective will be to demonstrate that these are not "talk fests", but action oriented gatherings which will provide tangible results for the world's people.

The Department began to reorient its work over four years ago, and we have made real progress towards creating a culture of communications within the Organization. I will constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to rationalize our staffing and put resources where they are most needed. I have also insisted on efficiency and accountability in our daily work. But my emphasis is on re-energizing DPI, not restructuring it.

The challenge now for the Department of Public Information is to translate "reorientation" into "modernization"--in other words to convert a "process" and an "approach" into a detailed blueprint for better serving the "We the peoples" of the United Nations Charter in the 21st century. The Department will work to ensure that the information and communications function will continue to be placed at the heart of the strategic management of the Organization and that the imperative of communications infuses the Organization's policy-making. The Department will also look at the future, to foster an awareness of the global challenges to the peace and well being of our world, as well as to the role the United Nations can play in making it a better place.

We will continue to work to project an open, transparent Organization, which the Secretary General has worked hard to achieve, and which is a change now being recognized by many members of the world press.

The Department's embrace of new technology in all areas of its work will become even more critical to its success in the future. The overall goal is to develop an infrastructure capable of developing instantaneous transmission of text, image, and voice messages from the Organization to the world at large. The Department will continue to work to strengthen the United Nations Web site as a major communications tool to enable hundreds of millions of people to directly access information about the United Nations. However, our increased use of electronic media will not be at the expense of the traditional means of dissemination.

Our information centers, services and United Nations offices will continue to present the work and achievements of the United Nations to local audiences around the world, and their means of outreach will continue to be creative and diversified, based on their knowledge gained in their respective areas, and local needs.

The Department's goal is to live up to its familiar initials--DPI--through making a difference by promoting the United Nations and influencing world opinion. We will be dynamic in our work, pro-active in our methods, and interesting in our outputs.

I believe that we are on the right track. However, in the wise words of the American humorist, Will Rogers, "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there."

The Department of Public Information is not "just sitting there." We will move ahead rapidly on the right track, doing our part to help establish the United Nations as the indispensable global organization for our globalizing world.

(Editor's Note: Dr. Shashi Tharoor is interim head of the UN's Department of Public Information. This essay is based on his recent address before the UN's Committee on Information as it began its 23rd session.)

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