Last week BBC Media Action published a
policy briefing, Fragile
States: the role of media and communication, and helped to organise a
conference on the same issue held by and at Wilton Park.
Increasing and very substantial
resources are spent to support fragile states for good reason – half the
world’s population classed as extremely poor will be living in these countries
by 2015. Supporting development in fragile states, which are often conflict
affected, is challenging and risky. It is to the credit of development agencies
that they are determined to focus efforts where results are often most
difficult to achieve, but where their contribution is most important.
However, both the conference and the
policy briefing provided a challenge to existing thinking and action to support
fragile states. Currently, that support
is focused on the state – to make the state more stable, more effective and
more capable of meeting the needs of its people.
No-one disagrees with this, but the
proposition advanced at this meeting was that a focus on the state needed to be
complemented by a stronger focus on society. It argued in particular that
increased access to media and communication technologies were changing the
character of fragility in complex ways that were poorly understood by those
tasked with supporting fragile states.
Most donor organisations support media
from departments focused on enhancing democracy and human rights. The policy
briefing argues that issues of media, communication and access to
information should be an issue of increased concern to departments focused on
fragility, conflict and stability. It argued that this was not just an issue of
where best to spend money – it was one of understanding fragility and what is
making societies in the 21st century fragile. It argues that very little
substantive attention is paid to this issue among development actors and it’s
not clear where responsibility lies for it within the development system.
Afghanistan provided just one of many examples where these
issues were shown to be playing out in practice. (Other countries highlighted
at the conference included Mali, Egypt, Myanmar, Pakistan, Guyana and Colombia.)
Afghanistan faces a transition with its fate in the hands not only of its
political leaders and factional groups, but in those of its people. How people
across very divided communities access information and how they are able to
debate and engage in dialogue with each other through the media will play an
important role in defining the success of the transition.
We are already witnessing the growth of
warlord media, some of it arguably funded from Iran. And it is not clear how
platforms for public debate and dialogue capable of engaging very different
interests and identities will emerge, especially at the national level. Such issues have barely registered in the
plans for the transition and no agency is clearly responsible for informing
The dilemmas and options involved in
support to media in fragile states are outlined in the policy briefing and were
energetically discussed and argued over in the conference. In essence, however, there seemed widespread
agreement that this issue is currently poorly understood and insufficiently
prioritised in fragile states policy, research and support. This is a challenge for all involved – those
in fragile states, the donors who support them, the media and other support
organisations who work in these countries.
Building a functioning state should
remain a central priority for those working to support fragile states. Supporting an inclusive society is also part of
the state building project. The role of media and communication is central to doing
so. That role is largely forgotten at present. The hope is that this conference
might have played a small but important step in changing that.