It's a fine sunny Sunday in Man o' War Bay in Freetown, with fishing boats heading out into the balmy Atlantic as I sit here reading about media development, a sure indication of unhealthy obsession. But I'm finding the BBC-World Service Trust (WST)'s "Governance and the Media" survey of media-development-policy types to be one of the most useful fresh contributions I've seen to this field, adding to other impressively thoughtful pieces put out by the BBC-WST team in recent months. It helpfully distills undercurrents running through many media-development conferences and papers and web discussions, and tries to get a handle on why the development of local news media and communications in general still does not receive the recognition in the aid world - and thus the scale of support - that we all think it should.
As I was reading, however, I kept being reminded of an in-house UNDP meeting called some time back to identify "governance priorities" and expected "outcomes" in the agency's Africa programme. And it rekindled a suspicion that those of us who seek more media aid from donors may be asking them - and ourselves - the wrong questions.
The UNDP group was working through an elaborately matrixed document that was supposed to tally national policy goals, objective needs, resource availability, delivery capacity, and so on, in a long check-list of governance areas. The leader - like most in the room, an African with long development experience - paraphrased aloud as he got to the section on human rights: 'How many African governments are active in the field of human rights? Most? A few? And how active are they? A lot? A little?'
He put down the paper and laughed.
'We all know the answer to that. They are almost all very active. Some are active in a good way, some are active in a bad way. But most are indeed quite active.'
And so it is with media development.
Most aid-receiving governments are quite actively engaged with media - some in a good way, and some in a not so good way. It is because they, like all governments, are acutely aware of media's importance that they deploy an entire media-management apparatus of information ministries, state broadcasters, news services, advertising offices, direct and indirect payments to reporters and their employers, and myriad other methods of coercion and suasion and co-optation to influence news coverage. They care about media, deeply. And they invest in it, directly and indirectly.
Aid-dispensing governments are little different. Politicians and aid professionals in the industrial democracies are hyper-aware of media's importance, including its impact on the foreign assistance budgets that ultimately depend on public support. And they have long seen media as a tool within the countries that receive aid from those budgets.
The U.S. government may be most conspicuous in this regard, having devoted hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years to media created for its own policy ends, like Radio Sawa and Radio Marti, much as in the Cold War era with Radio Free Europe. Yet all five permanent members of the Security Council have long underwritten short-wave broadcasts from their information services in multiple languages to every village on the planet. And when the Security Council authorizes peacekeeping interventions, one of the first things the peacekeepers usually do is set up a UN radio service, building entire national transmission networks and news departments from scratch. The 'public diplomacy' professionals in donor nations subsidize junkets by foreign journalists and use embassies to court local news organizations and monitor their coverage. And so on.
None of this is the behavior of policymakers or governments who think media is somehow insignificant or marginal in the greater geopolitical scheme of things.
Yet pervading our discussions is the conviction that we self-proclaimed 'communicators' have simply failed to make the case that media matters - and that this is the problem.
We attribute paltry funding to our marketing ineptitude, and policymakers' consequent failure to recognize media's signal importance in all realms of development. And then we factor in the perceived consequences of donor commitments to 'local ownership' of aid disbursement, which victimizes media development if aid-recipient governments do not deem media to be deserving of development. Add to all this the difficulty of proving the beneficial impact of media support to funders obsessed with 'metrics' and advised by statisticians who doubt media development's legitimacy even as a field of inquiry.
Terrible, isn't it? But little of this is actually true, and what is true doesn't matter much.
That politicians everywhere pay close heed to media is hardly a news flash. Media isn't overlooked in the academic world either, or shunned as some arcane specialty too immature to sit at the grown-ups' (read: economists') table. From Smith to Keynes to Krugman, leading economic thinkers have recognized the critical role of information and the media that convey it - including the media's contribution to their own policy impact.
We have all quoted Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen over and again on the market-rationalization impact of even a 'reasonably' free press (the modifier is his). We know that the work that won Joseph Stieglitz his Nobel centers on the supply and use of information. The most recent laureate in economics is enjoying the greatest influence of his career as a New York Times columnist. We will all be rooting for Paul Collier to win his own trip to Stockholm now that he has made us feel better by stressing the primacy of communications in freeing the 'bottom billion' from the poverty trap.
And in the social sciences, we have an ever-expanding library of research on communications and behavioral change, press freedom and governance, and access to information vis-à-vis corruption. Lack of intellectual rigor or respectability isn't really the problem. It may be that that the analytical as opposed to quantificative assessments of the role of media in emerging democracies and conflict zones are more the province of historians and, yes, journalists, than of economists or political scientists or other data-driven academics, which explains their relative absence from the bookshelves of development professionals. Yet there is again this intellectual inferiority complex, revealed often in an expressed desire for yet more empirical studies of media impact on governance along the lines seen in more respectable fields like the role of commercial banking in capital markets development. Maybe such research would indeed help in the rarefied world of ODA visionaries in London or Washington. But on the ground, I have never heard objections to media support raised by government or international aid officials on the basis that media have been insufficiently studied, or that media's impact on governance has not been convincingly established.
Development specialists working in poor and fragile countries must stay closely attuned to the ministry mavens and parliamentarians who fund their projects, as well as to the local perceptions that can determine project effectiveness. For them, there is little dispute about media's importance. They function in a thoroughly political milieu, and tend to be acutely aware of the role the press plays in shaping their professional reality, for good or ill, back home and in the field.
The question I have been confronted with by development professionals is not whether media is an important or even a determining factor in development generally, and governance specifically. They get that, for the most part. Most would go further, strongly endorsing the need for independent, pluralistic news media in democratization and nation-building. The question they have is rather: What does this have to do with us?
If your focus has been health care or education, for example, the 'media sector' would just not be seen as a logical and necessary focus for major development support. Newspapers, radio and television are mostly private businesses that can and do prosper even in poor countries without subvention or other public-sector support, foreign or domestic. State media are rightly dismissed as government propaganda organs, and in any event rarely appear starved of official resources.
They may see 'communications for development' as a defensible investment - using media to get out the word on safe sex or bed nets or sending your daughters to school - but not the development of media itself. Especially as that media appears already to exist.
For many, media is sort of like sports or music - one of those things that diverts and engages and enhances the quality of life almost everywhere, even without much official support. It just happens. Few would want to live in a place with neither. And sports and music can of course be harnessed for all kinds of desirable social purposes. But there are no development agencies bent on promoting rugby or reggae as ends in themselves.
The challenge, then, is not to prove that media matters in development, but to prove that media require global taxpayer support, as an integral part of that 0.7 percent ODA bill, just like schools and hospitals and other essential public services and institutions, even if press freedom and access to information don't show up anywhere in the MDGs.
If you clear that tall hurdle, the second tier of questions is about how: What sort of media support is most appropriate - and most effective - for a multilateral or bilateral agency? How do foreign donors pick local media winners and shun bad actors and other losers - or should they? How do you ensure and verify that this support will benefit the general public? And aren't there other more urgent governance priorities, like fighting corruption? A journalists' workshop here and there is fine, but is news a necessity like primary schooling or potable water?
In Sierra Leone, which I cite because it happens to be where I am right now, donors have supported several effective media development projects in recent years, aimed at strengthening community radio, training journalists in election coverage, broadcasting independent news in partnership with the leading j-school and one of those peacekeeping-era UN radio stations I mentioned earlier. All good things. But the most dramatic development in the recent post-conflict media scene is the sheer proliferation of new radio stations (at least 40 private FM outlets are now on the air, up from two in 2000) and newspapers (now more than 30, with new dailies appearing, well, daily).
Little of this is due to donor support. The multiplication of media outlets is an almost spontaneous consequence of relative peace and democratization, including liberalized regulations for radio. These are small money-making businesses, quite modestly so, with limited newsgathering resources, and in the case of newspapers equally limited impact (circulation typically runs from 500 to 2,000 copies). But there they are, and any diplomat or aid professional based here sees the papers hawked in the streets and hears radios blaring out news at the top of the hour, and could be forgiven for concluding that there is at least no media scarcity in this critically impoverished country that sits at the bottom of UNDP's Human Development Index and lacks almost everything in health, education, and other essential services, like electricity and potable water.
Yet Sierra Leone remains a fragile and potentially volatile place. To maintain its hard-won stability it needs independent national news media that can reach the whole country from border to border, reporting the facts, squelching the rumors, confronting toxic rhetoric, and holding officials to account, all with civility but enough moxie to get people's attention. The journalists who do this work should not fear prosecution for exposing corruption, and should be paid enough to keep from succumbing to corruption themselves. And they should have the skills and mandate to cover the same issues that preoccupy the aid professionals, like maternal mortality, malaria, jobless youth, deforestation, women's rights, land tenure, and feasible strategies for economic growth.
The magic of the media marketplace won't produce that kind of journalism - certainly not in Sierra Leone, anyway. Public money is needed. And in a country where about a third of the GDP and two-thirds of the national budget comes from international aid - not that unusual a pattern in sub-Saharan Africa - much of that money has to be foreign.
Donors are putting tens of millions of dollars into new independent democratic institutions such as autonomous electoral boards and anti-corruption commissions, all essential long-term investments in sound governance. It wasn't as if elections weren’t held before or that embezzlement wasn't always illegal, but there was a widely recognized need for a much higher order of professionalism in these oversight bodies, as well as more arms-length detachment from the government of the day.
These long-term funding decisions emerge by consensus from long and yes often tedious consultation processes among bilateral and multilateral aid providers, national governments and political parties and civil society groups and other 'stakeholders.' The result is often a multi-donor, multi-year commitment to these institutions, as reflected in their inclusion in 'basket funds' and 'PRSPs' and other development instruments.
Wouldn't we like to see media get that sort of support? It's hard, because the press is always messy, and should be, with multiple outlets with diverse agendas and audiences, and all - ideally - maintaining a critical Fourth Estate distance from the government. Yet support for this desirable pluralism too often manifests itself in many parallel or overlapping training programs for individual journalists and news organizations - support that ends up being less in terms of impact than the potential sum of its parts. This syndrome is exacerbated by donors' tendency to support media through public-diplomacy budgets, where spotlighting the donor's flag and image is a bigger priority than aid effectiveness.
Yet much could be done that would foster greater donor collaboration and bring new money to the table.
The first step is to get into their heads, and see the aid landscape from their perspective.
As in health or education or any other development field, it is immensely helpful if there is a consensus about specific aid priorities in Country X among media development professionals, key officials and civil society figures, and the local journalism establishment. It is more helpful still if those identified priorities include national institutions serving the entire population at least in principle, and with objective needs for long-term aid and the capacity to utilize it. Examples would include media regulators, journalism schools, national news agencies, and public-service broadcasters. These kinds of proposed beneficiaries would seem to aid professions to have similar contours and rationales as other institutions getting international support.
Reassuringly to aid professionals, there are recognized international norms in the management and monitoring of elections, as there also are in the anti-corruption fields, from established public-contract bidding procedures to binding international treaties.
In media, though, there is a perception in the international laity that there are no norms, with even British and American journalists disagreeing on key principles despite a shared legal and press heritage. So it would also be helpful if professionals in the field made more consistent reference to the media principles that have been endorsed by regional and global intergovernmental bodies, like the OAS and AU and OSCE. Potentially very useful in this regard, tactically as well as substantively, is the new Media Development Indicators Framework sponsored by UNESCO and adopted unanimously by the International Programme for the Development of Communications, a UN intergovernmental body representing a wide ideological range of UN member states.
There also has to be 'local demand' for this service - which there is, in abundance, both among the journalists themselves, and by the irked subjects of their coverage, who like to ascribe their image problems to a lack of media 'professionalism.' The idea that fragile societies are not ready for a free and robust press is rarely voiced in this fragile society.
The next step is for the media development specialists to actually collaborate, by communicating with one another on the ground and shaping their project proposals so they serve those priorities in a complementary rather than competitive manner. Given existing niche specializations in broadcasting training, media law, investigative reporting and many other areas, this kind of cooperation shouldn't be hard. But it remains rare.
And finally, seek alliances with movements already embedded in the global governance-and-aid matrix. An obvious example is the anti-corruption campaigners who have become a force in donor institutions and domestic reform groups alike. Aside from ritual nods to the role of journalists as 'watchdogs,' they have not made common cause with the media development community, or vice-versa. Yet doors are there to be opened.
The first national reports to emerge from the intensive donor-supported African Peer Review Mechanism all identified a need for better local investigative reporting to reinforce anti-corruption and accountability efforts - and the authors of those recommendations were primarily finance technocrats, not the usual democratic-reform crowd. This should be seen as an invitation to media aid advocates to, first, strongly agree, and then to underline the linkages between investigative reporting and (for example) the elimination of criminal libel laws, the strength and independence of national news organizations, and the caliber of local journalism training.
Similarly, there could be more effective partnerships between civil-society proponents of right-to-information statutes - a half dozen such bills now sit stalled in draft form in parliaments across Africa - and the journalists' groups who could push harder for these laws, and in return get support for training reporters and civic activists alike to use those legal tools when they become available.
Which brings us back to the question about governments being 'active' in human rights.
Among the other democratic institutions which donors are now supporting are national human rights commissions. These semi-autonomous monitoring bodies are among the chief beneficiaries of the Africa governance programs of several major bilateral and multilateral funders, such as UNDP, in one result of that priority-identification exercise.
The commissions don't work magic, but they do promote local awareness of human rights, as well as legal compliance with treaty obligations and constitutional protections. And as national institutions, they are easier for most donors to support in an open and sustained way than are independent rights advocates. Local and international activists endorse this support, as does the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, hoping the commissions will offer protection to victims and principled resistance to governments that are "active in a bad way." There is a good-faith effort among donors and human-rights professionals to ensure that this brings in new money and expert assistance, rather than shifts resources away from other essential areas of governance and development - or from rights advocacy outside any governmental framework. Creating this kind of consensus support for human rights commissions does not appear to be a misplaced priority, nor to be producing a bad outcome. In media development, we could do worse.