Media development has ridden a rocky but successful road created by the flourishing of democracy, especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Support to independent media certainly predated that, and it has had to confront real democratic reversals since, but the past 20 years has generally provided fertile democratic soil in which media development has grown.
The straws in the wind are gathering that suggest this period of democratic advance may be coming to an end. Not enough to make a haystack, but they are real. Take the following:
- In this month's US-published Foreign Affairs, Larry Diamond (coeditor of the Journal of Democracy) argues in The Democratic Rollback: The resurgence of the predatory state that the world "has slipped into democratic recession." Even as the article appeared, another coup against an elected president - in Madagascar - was taking place.
- Global economic recession is sparking social unrest and increasing fears that many democratic regimes - especially in the poorest counties - cannot hold their ground. "African leaders warn of a popular backlash: If the public suffers undeserved pain after governments did what rich countries told them to do in the 1990s; economic growth and democratic stability are at risk. Already coups and riots are on the rise," said the March 17 Financial Times in a call for more aid.
- Paul Collier, the keynote speaker at the Global Forum for Media Development's World Conference in Athens last December, argues that democracy in the world's poorest countries and fragile states is failing. Perhaps the most influential development economist in the world, and author of Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, Collier says that far from providing the conditions for political stability, for keeping governments "honest" and enabling economic prosperity, democracy has become a source of conflict and economic ruin. What does this mean for media development? There are plenty of grounds for pessimism and media development organizations could be forgiven if worry lines crease and brows furrow.
This need not necessary be the case. Few international development policymakers and academics are asking for less democracy. They are calling for better democracy, and especially for democracy that is not simplistically equated to elections.
A recent TransAtlantic Task Force on Development report puts it like this:
"Elections represent only one part of a functioning democracy. Voice, capacity, accountability and responsiveness - especially the need for checks and balances - are equally important, particularly in the early stages of a legitimate system."
Paul Collier said as much in Athens, arguing that a more professional media is essential to keep governments honest and enable the kind of informed citizenry that makes democracy work.
My bet is that the role of media in democratic governance is moving centre stage in development debates precisely because procedural democracy has failed to deliver. These are arguments that media development organizations have been making for years, but the ground is more fertile now. The simple, unfortunate fact is that the democratic need for media development is rising fast.
Media development has many lessons to learn from past successes and failures and will need to adapt fast to ever more rapid change. Debates on democracy and development need to be reframed, reinvented and rearticulated - media development organisations should be at the heart of them, not the fringes.
This is a cross posting from the Global Forum for Media Development.