Women use their smart phones at a cafe in Jakarta on January 3, 2018. - Indonesian President Joko Widodo officiated on January 3 the inauguration of a new cyber agency which aims to fight hoaxes, hate speech and extremism increasingly spread online in the world's largest Muslim majority country, home to more than 150 million internet users. (Photo by BAY ISMOYO / AFP)
Women use their smartphones at a cafe in Jakarta. Freedom to communicate with one another regardless of social status or income is crucial to maintaining a healthy society. Photo: AFP / Bay Ismoyo

At this pivotal moment for people and planet, the world has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to advance an inclusive socio-economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic that drives down poverty and inequalities; advances the protection of our natural world; and boosts decisive climate action.

Yet the foundation that all these ambitions are built on – trust between people and governments – has been eroded by the pandemic. Through misinformation and division, it has been argued that the media and governments are feeding a vicious cycle of distrust and “exploiting it for commercial and political gain.”

The key to reversing this worrying trend is strengthening “civic space” – that is, allowing people to organize, participate and communicate one another freely about the future they want.

Despite the world’s health, wealth, and education outcomes being at an all-time high, this lack of trust is making people feel apprehensive about their futures. A recent report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) underlines the strong association between declining levels of trust and feelings of insecurity.

People with higher levels of perceived human insecurity – defined as freedom from want, freedom from fear, as well as freedom from indignity – are three times 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 rated as “closed,” “obstructed,” or “repressed.” In the past five years alone, countries in Asia have adopted 47 new measures restricting civic space. Moreover, misinformation and hate speech, especially on social media, continue to sow crowd out evidence-based news, fermenting intolerance and even conflict.

Therefore, we at the UNDP are working with countries throughout the region to protect and restore civic space.   

Empowering the marginalized

First, we are empowering people – especially young people, women, and marginalized communities such as persons with disabilities, the LGBTI community and indigenous people – to become more active citizens in their countries’ pathway toward the Global Goals.

For instance, together with UNICEF and our partners, we have helped more than 2 million young people in the region to improve their digital skills. That is helping to build a new cadre of young leaders – engaged and socially aware – so that they can have their say on critical issues like climate action, and their future.

This is vital work given that 49% of tech experts surveyed recently predicted that the use of technology will weaken democracy in the coming years. As part of efforts to address this area proactively, the UNDP, through the TechForDemocracy initiative led by Denmark, is helping to make technology work for democracy and human rights, not against them.

That includes pinpointing new ways that technology such as artificial intelligence can enhance democratic values and practices such as inclusion, transparency, and accountability to restore trust in democracy.

Or look to the Youth Empowerment in Climate Action Platform, which has already engaged 12,000 young people, helping them to get more engaged in the design and implementation of countries’ climate pledges under the Paris Agreement known as nationally determined contributions.

Or consider the Youth Environmental Living Lab in Malaysia that is providing 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 drive new forms of collaboration between communities, local governments, and businesses. To take just one example, in Pakistan, we are prototyping new methods to grow fruit and vegetables in mountainous villages located at an altitude of 3,000 meters. This new cooperation is improving crop yields, food security and livelihoods.

Defending the defenders

Second, human-rights defenders are facing ever-greater risks of harassment, intimidation and violence, and defenders of land and environmental rights are increasingly targeted. In 2020 alone, 56 human-rights defenders were killed in the Asia-Pacific region, some of them exposing illegal logging or mining.

Therefore, it is imperative to address the intrinsic link between business and human rights. To that end, we have invested in national human rights institutions and strengthened their ability to respond to claims of human-rights abuses from companies. And the UNDP is supporting journalists and rights activists who are facing strategic lawsuits against public participation, brought by powerful interests.

We are also working to train young environmental human-rights defenders, helping them to minimize the risks they face.

Fighting hate speech

Third, countering hate speech, polarization, and misinformation by promoting tolerance, diversity, and factual narratives is crucial. As part of these efforts, the UNDP is working directly with social-media platforms to develop more effective policies against hate speech and misinformation.

And look, for instance, to the United Creatives program, where 40 young leaders, influencers and creators were supported to build creative digital campaigns to address gender-based hate speech and stigmas around mental health. We are also amplifying the voices of young people as agents of change.

That includes building new dialogue platforms in the region, which are helping young people to engage with key decision-makers like members of parliament for the first time. 

To “build forward better” from the pandemic, everyone must be able to have a say in his or her future. That means forging better connections to the governments that serve them, including through the use of cutting-edge technologies.

If the world places a renewed focus on the “missing link” of rebuilding trust, there is well-founded hope to realize a greener, more inclusive, and more sustainable future sooner than expected.  

This article was published previously by the Bangkok Post, and was provided to Asia Times by the UNDP.

Achim Steiner is administrator of the United Nations Development Program.