At this pivotal moment for people and the planet, the world has a unique opportunity to advance an inclusive socio-economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic that is rolling back poverty and inequality; advances the protection of our natural world; and drives decisive climate action.
Yet the foundation on which all these ambitions rest – trust between citizens and governments – has been eroded by the pandemic. Through disinformation and division, it has been argued that the media and governments fuel a vicious cycle of mistrust and “exploit it for commercial and political gain”.
The key to reversing this worrying trend is to strengthen “civic space”, that is, to allow people to organize, participate and communicate freely about the future they want.
Although global health, wealth and education outcomes are at an all-time high, this lack of confidence is making people worried about their future. A recent report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) highlights the strong association between declining levels of trust and feelings of insecurity.
People with higher levels of perceived human insecurity – defined as being free from want, free from fear, and free from indignity – are thrice less likely to find others trustworthy.
As in other parts of the world, civic space in Asia and the Pacific continues to shrink, with many countries classified as “closed”, “obstructed” or “repressed”. In the past five years alone, countries across Asia have adopted 47 new measures restricting civic space. Moreover, disinformation and hate speech, especially on social media, continue to crowd out evidence-based information, fueling intolerance and even conflict.
Therefore, at UNDP, we work with countries across the region to protect and restore civic space.
Empower the marginalized
First, we empower people – especially young people, women and marginalized communities such as people with disabilities, the LGBTI community and indigenous peoples – to become more active citizens in their country’s journey towards the Global Goals .
For example, with UNICEF and our partners, we have helped more than 2 million young people in the region improve their digital skills. This helps build a new cadre of young leaders – engaged and socially conscious – so they can have their say on critical issues such as climate action and their future.
This is essential work given that 49% of technology experts surveyed recently predicted that the use of technology will weaken democracy in the coming years. As part of efforts to proactively address this area, UNDP, through the Denmark-led TechForDemocracy initiative, is helping to make technology work for democracy and human rights, not against them.
This includes identifying new ways in which technology such as artificial intelligence can improve democratic values and practices such as inclusiveness, transparency and accountability to restore trust in democracy.
Or watch the Youth Empowerment in Climate Action Platform, which has already engaged 12,000 young people, helping them to become more involved in the design and implementation of countries’ climate commitments under the Accord. Paris, known as Nationally Determined Contributions.
Or consider the Youth Environmental Living Lab in Malaysia, which provides young people with the skills and space to design and lead much-needed local environmental initiatives.
Indeed, our social innovation platforms in Indonesia, Pakistan and Thailand are helping to create new forms of collaboration between communities, local governments and businesses. To take just one example, in Pakistan we are prototyping new methods of growing fruit and vegetables in mountain villages at 3,000 meters above sea level. This new cooperation improves crop yields, food security and livelihoods.
Defend the defenders
Second, human rights defenders face ever-increasing risks of harassment, intimidation and violence, and land and environmental rights defenders are increasingly targeted. In 2020 alone, 56 human rights defenders were killed in the Asia-Pacific region, some of them speaking out against illegal logging or mining.
Therefore, it is imperative to address the intrinsic link between business and human rights. To this end, we have invested in national human rights institutions and strengthened their capacity to respond to allegations of corporate human rights abuses. And UNDP supports journalists and rights activists facing strategic public participation lawsuits brought by powerful interests.
We also work to train young environmental human rights defenders, helping them to minimize the risks they face.
Combat hate speech
Third, it is crucial to counter hate speech, polarization and disinformation by promoting tolerance, diversity and factual narratives. As part of these efforts, UNDP works directly with social media platforms to develop more effective policies against hate speech and misinformation.
And look, for example, at the United Creatives program, where 40 young leaders, influencers and creators were supported to create creative digital campaigns to tackle hate speech and mental health stigma. We also amplify the voices of young people as agents of change.
This includes building new dialogue platforms in the region, which help young people engage for the first time with key decision makers like MPs.
To “build better” after the pandemic, everyone must be able to have a say in their future. This means forging better relationships with the governments that serve them, including through the use of advanced technologies.
If the world pays renewed attention to the “missing middle” of rebuilding trust, there is a well-founded hope of realizing a greener, more inclusive and more sustainable future sooner than expected.
This article was previously published by the Bangkok Post and was provided to Asia Times by UNDP.