Earlier this month, we worked with the Institute of Development Studies in the UK to organize a research symposium on media and democracy in fragile states. The idea was to bring a small group of serious development thinkers and thinktanks from different disciplines together with some renowned media researchers - and practitioners like ourselves. Our aim was to discuss what a more serious and robust research agenda on media and democracy might look like. The focus was especially on developing countries where democracy and governance is fragile.


We called it a “research dialogue across disciplines” and it was conceived as a way of bringing together economists, governance researchers, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists as well as media researchers to identify different perceptions and shared interests of this issue. We were somewhat blighted by illness but still had excellent participants including from the London School of Economics, Overseas Development Institute, IDS and the Department for International Development.


One reason for organizing the meeting with IDS was to test some perceptions we at the BBC World Service Trust had about the state of research about media in fragile states. We didn’t know whether these were fair or not and wanted to find out.


Our perceptions were chiefly these:


• There is a disconnect between research carried out by media researchers and research carried out by development researchers. Media research tends not to be framed in the language and discourse of mainstream development research or development policy, and so its results do not readily resonate with them. It’s difficult to identify very much media research that has had a substantial impact on development policy. Media research does not seem to be profoundly respected by development researchers or policymakers.


• At the same time, development researchers – especially economists and governance specialists – tend not to take the role of the media in democracy very seriously as a research topic. There tend to be assumptions made about the democratic role of media, but not much interest in testing those assumptions as a research priority. When the issue of media is highlighted in the development or democratic research literature, it tends to be as a potentially interesting or contributing factor, not something that clear research conclusions can be drawn from (an example is from many “drivers of change” studies commissioned by Dfid and others). There seems to be a real lack of serious curiosity about the issue.


• The limited substantive outputs from mainstream development research institutes on the role of the media are rarely subject to serious scrutiny, challenge and debate. In general, research driven debate seems very fragmented and policy conclusions seem equally haphazard.


• There seems to be very little substantive data of the kind that could provide real insight into the implications of rapidly changing media and communication trends on people’s lives, particularly citizens living in poverty and particularly in relation to issues of democratic participation. There is tremendous and much improved media mapping describing what media exist in different countries, but much less data on the information realities, gaps and aspirations of people on the ground. Much research that does exist is in the form of case study and anecdote.


Gerry Power, who heads the research and learning team at the BBC World Service Trust and myself posed a series of research questions which we felt seemed important in the context of mainstream development policy but about which there was very little serious understanding in development circles. These are some of them (these are truncated versions of what are inevitably large –and possibly unresearchable - questions):


– Is Amartya Sen still right? His famous argument that no democratic society with a free media has experienced a famine has held true for decades. But, given the extreme pace of change in 21st century media and communication trends, what are the incentives and disincentives at work in a free media investigating or covering famine related issues?


– The Sequencing Debate: Some argue that democratic reform in fragile states should wait until a functioning and capable state has been established. Others disagree. The debate is at the heart of much economic and governance debate in development circles. But under what conditions, and to what extent, do liberalised media systems (and associated communication changes resulting from democratic and economic reform and technological adoption) contribute to state fragility; and alternatively, when do they become essential to democratic evolution and effective governance in bottom billion countries?


Neopatrimonial systems and the role of sunlight: Such systems describe states that are nominally or formally democratic, but where power continues to be exerted through client-patron relationships and patronage networks by very small numbers of people in society. Some argue that such systems inhibit economic development, political evolution and democratic reform; others argue that in fragile states, such relationships, however imperfect, are the essential glue which holds societies together and if they are disrupted, conflict and chaos can ensue. In neopatrimonial states, is a free media a destructive disrupter to neopatrimonial systems (media acts in ways that fundamentally destabilise an already critically weak governance structure) or is it a constructive one (by shining sunlight on corrupt and hidden relationships it provides the incentives for political development and economically productive democratic reform)?


– Does media really encourage accountability?: One of the central arguments made by people like myself is that media encourages state accountability and, in Paul Collier’s phrase, performs the role of keeping governments “honest”. But does it? Even in countries with politically vibrant and plural media systems like Uganda, what do we know about whether they make any real difference to state accountability. Have radio talk shows, for example, really made Ministers behave in more accountable ways, or have they been opportunities for comparatively small numbers of people to vent their frustration?


– How important is media as a “driver of change”? Several studies have examined what trends, sectors or events tend to “drive change” in societies. If we understand these processes better, development actors can potentially engage in supporting the tipping points that can enhance positive development outcomes. The media is quite frequently highlighted in such studies as a driver of change. But we know very little about whether media is a substantial, significant or merely minor factor as a driver of change?


– Media and elections: to what extent is the media a polarising and sometimes destabilising factor during elections - and to what extent is it capable of transforming identity based politics into issue based politics?

These are just some of the questions we raised.


It was pleasing to see the interest such questions aroused.


The resulting debate took in discussion on countries like Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo and many others.


Some of the governance researchers acknowledged that there was, at least in some circles, a disdain for media and media research and argued that this was mistaken. Some of the political scientists argued that, given there was so little policy consensus on issues such as sequencing, the arguments around media were likely to be similarly contested.


Many examples were provided of just how critical media was to any level of public discourse in countries like DRC Congo. Other presentations covered experiences from Kenya and Brazil, and ranged from participatory communication systems through the role of blogs in elections. Professor Robin Mansell from the London School of Economics staunchly defended media studies arguing that it increasingly rooted itself in real world challenges and did not start with issues confronting media but started with issues of governance, accountability and many other issues raised at the workshop. She argued that an interdisciplinary approach was essential.


The conclusions from all this:


No one disagreed that these and other questions raised during the day were becoming increasingly important if we are to understand fragile democracies and other states.


There’s a long way to go in working out how both resources can be mobilized and appropriate research alliances built that can provide real policy relevant answers to these and similar questions – but it seems more important that they are. See Charlie Beckett's blog on this and other issues coming out of the meeting.


And broadly speaking – not a lot during the day challenged the perceptions we had going into it.


But any additional insights from readers of this are much appreciated.