The last decade of support to development can – simplistically - be boiled down to two sets of complementary strategies.
The first consists of mobilising financial resources to meet the Millennium Development Goals. This has focused on aid, debt forgiveness and trade justice.
The second has consisted of supporting democracy and governance.
The latter has had one core component – elections. Elections confer the status of making a country a democracy. They provide the essential check on government, the prime incentive for keeping governments honest and making them deliver for their people. Without elections, increasing resources does not really make development happen.
Consequently, the international community spends a huge amount of political and economic effort on supporting elections – exerting pressure to make them happen, and providing technical and monitoring support to make sure they are free, fair and efficient.
Except that they are simply not fulfilling this function very well.
Elections do not always create democratic governments – particularly in fragile and fractured societies, governments are often effectively elected dictatorships, governing on behalf of the ethnic or other groups who have provided the votes to elect them. Those who did not elect them are simply not looked after.
And elections do not seem to be working very well in keeping governments honest.
These arguments are not mine, but those of several commentators, and particularly Paul Collier, who makes this argument in the Bottom Billion. He is planning to expand on them in a forthcoming book, Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracies in Dangerous Places. He argues that mechanisms for providing checks and balances between elections are the key to providing the environment for economic growth in bottom billion countries. He considers media to be essential to this process. Similar arguments were made from a very different perspective in last year's Global Civil Society Yearbook.
Collier provided at a Salzburg Seminar on Strengthening Independent Media – organised with the Global Forum for Media Development - the most succinct case I have yet heard on why media is essential to economic development. He argues that information is an essential public good and that the media’s role in providing information and acting as a check on executive power qualifies it for public financial support (I will not quote him directly here because his arguments may be published separately and I don’t want to pre-empt them).
But if these arguments are right, and I obviously agree with them, then it suggests a massive rebalancing of development priorities.
I don’t want to suggest that elections are somehow unimportant. Nor that investing in checks and balances is not happening. Support to civil society and media, as well as parliaments. judiciaries and others is a long standing part of governance strategies and – if the recent Accra Agenda for Action on Development Effectiveness is to be implemented – a growing one.
But support to media occupies, I would guess, a tiny space in foreign policy and development discourse compared to elections. Whole departments in UNDP, other multilateral agencies, most bilateral agencies and others, all with major budgets, support the election process and the issues around them. Substantive and substantial research and policy networks inform strategy and learn lessons of what goes right and wrong in different election processes. Clear and coherent coordination functions exist at country level to make their conduct as effective as possible.
None of this can be said of media support.
Media and the development efforts that support them are not more important than elections in securing democratic development.
But, based on some of the best economic thinking of our time, media development is vastly more important than their current status within the development system currently suggests.