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The Christian Michelsen speech 2019

At the Christian Michelsen Institute dinner 2019 Minister of International Development Dag-Inge Ulstein gave the annual Christian Michelsen speech.

This morning a horrific tragedy took place in New Zealand. My deepest sympathies goes out to the victims, their families and friends, as well as all New Zealanders.

Allow me also to underline that we stand firm on our commitment to democracy, inclusiveness and tolerance. The very same values that Christian Michelsen wanted to support when he established the foundation for science and intellectual freedom, that led to Christian Michelsen Institute.

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It is a great honour to have been invited to give the Christian Michelsen speech. And it is a particular pleasure to be here as guest of the Christian Michelsen Institute, because CMI is one of the key providers of the research-based knowledge we depend on for shaping Norwegian development policy.

Christian Michelsen himself stands out as one of the great leaders in modern Norwegian history. Michelsen believed that science would contribute to tolerance, understanding and peace between peoples, nations and religions, and that it would stimulate both social and economic progress.

But where are we now, almost a 100 years after Michelsen’s death?

In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries chose ‘post-truth’ as its Word of the Year. This is an adjective that describes a state of affairs in which objective facts have become less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

Unfortunately, this worrying trend has influenced democracy and political decisions in many countries – and if anything, it is becoming more pronounced. Faith in science is under pressure. Trust in public institutions is declining. Tolerance between people of different beliefs or cultures – Christian Michelsen’s vision – is being eroded.

The multilateral system established after the Second World War has served us well. It is now under pressure. Leading nations are preferring to go it alone. We are seeing authoritarian regimes gaining a stronger foothold, even on our own continent. Civil society organisations are finding that the space for their activities is shrinking. Again, even on our own continent. 

The traditional public sphere has to some extent disintegrated into separate ideological echo chambers. In these echo chambers, like-minded people are cheering each other on, rather than testing their arguments on each other.

So how should we respond to these developments? I believe our answer should be more facts, more science, more insistence on the value of reason.

The Swedish scientist Hans Rosling was a master of facts. His book Factfulness advocates the stress-reducing habit of only carrying opinions for which you have strong supporting facts.

The problem today is that the idea that everybody is entitled to their own opinions is often confused with the idea that everybody is entitled to their own facts. This is a challenging situation. The short answer is, of course, ‘No, you are not!’

It is difficult to know how to best counter this tendency. But I still believe that the best defence we have is to hold on to the value of facts, and continue to disseminate them with passion and insistence. To drown populism, bigotry and anti-democratic forces in a flood of facts.

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Allow me to engage in some ‘factfulness’ in my capacity as Minister of International Development:

  • The proportion of people living in extreme poverty has been almost halved in the last 20 years.
  • Life expectancy has risen steeply.
  • Child mortality has fallen considerably.
  • More children than ever before go to school.

You are probably thinking that my job as Minister of International Development must be easy. Well, I can assure you, it isn’t!

Ensuring real and tangible sustainable development is the greatest challenge of all. Despite the great progress that has been made, despite the world being a much better place today for so many more people than it was 20 years ago, there is a flip side to the coin. Here are some more facts:

  • More than 700 million people still live in extreme poverty.
  • More than 600 million children do not get a basic education.
  • Hunger is on the rise in some regions.
  • Every fifth child in the world is stunted.

Add to this the fact that all these points are aggravated by climate change.

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The 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by 193 countries in 2015, is the road map for my work. The 2030 Agenda brings the countries of the world together in an unprecedented manner to combat poverty in all its forms and to leave no one behind.

Allow me to elaborate a little on the concept of leaving no one behind. This is a topic that is of particular concern to me, and to the Norwegian Government as a whole.

Let me start by giving you some facts on vulnerable groups.

There are around one billion disabled people in the world. Some 800 million of them live in poor countries. One third of disabled children do not get any education at all.

Many people think that slavery is a thing of the past. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Around 40 million people live in conditions that can only be described as slavery.

According to conservative estimates, around 100 million children are victims of forced labour.

In addition, millions of girls are victims of what is sometimes referred to as gendercide – systematic gender-selective killing of, and violence against, girls and women.

Many people live in fear because of their religious beliefs. Others because of their sexual orientation.

In our new political platform, we have announced increased support for the most marginalised and vulnerable groups. If we are to reach the SDGs, it is vital that we succeed in our aim of leaving no one behind.

Leaving no one behind is also crucial if we are to uphold a fundamental principle of human rights, namely, that all human beings are of equal value, regardless of abilities.

Ensuring equal opportunities for the least fortunate and most vulnerable is not only a noble thing to do, it is a moral imperative that goes to the core of our common humanity.

This is why the Government’s new political platform puts special emphasis on the least developed countries and the most marginalised and vulnerable groups. Our aim is to play a leading role in ensuring that no one is left behind.

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The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said that ‘Science is organised knowledge. Wisdom is organised life’. In the field of development, we need a bit of both.

At the end of the day, our development policy is based on political decisions. But in order for these decisions to be wise decisions, they have to be rooted in the best available research-based knowledge. If we compromise on this, we will never reach our goals.

Christian Michelsen understood the importance of science. The research institute holding his name is Norway’s first independent research institute. As I am sure you are all aware, CMI started out as a general research institute, devoted to both natural and social sciences. Gradually it narrowed its focus, and since the mid-1960s it has been a leading institution for development research. CMI is still one of Norway’s most important providers of research-based knowledge, and it is shaping our understanding of a wide range of topics in the field of international development. We look forward to continuing our close cooperation with CMI.

Let me end by making a few final points:

If we are to reach the SDGs,

  • More decisions need to be based on research and knowledge.
  • We need to see more political courage and long-term wisdom.
  • We need more partnerships and international cooperation, and
  • We must leave no one behind.

I am – in fact - quite certain Christian Michelsen would have agreed.

Thank you.

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