Author: Will Taylor, September 21 2016 - Will Taylor reviews the ‘green cover’ draft of the World Development Report, which puts a spotlight on the media but could do more to lay out how to support inclusive public dialogue at scale.

Induced participation sounds both painful and unappealing. And taking it to mean a state-led mechanism of consultation – the definition initially used by the draft 2017 World Development Report (WDR) – it might well be.

Subtitled ‘Governance and the Law’, this report provides a broad-ranging analysis of how to help shape formal governance mechanisms for development outcomes. Yet some of the report’s most interesting thinking – on induced participation and public deliberation, which can be more encouragingly thought of as supporting societies to discuss and determine their future – is buried deep within its 300 pages.

Drawing on a widening evidence base, the “citizens as agents of change” section of the report connects higher quality citizen engagement with access to information. Encouragingly, it doesn’t stop there, going on to recognise what might hamper both people’s understanding that information and their using it to achieve real change. This recognition stems from an understanding that citizens’ political participation and preferences are shaped by complicated layers of attitudes, behaviours, norms and identities. The report then goes on to highlight the potentially transformative impact public deliberation can have in addressing those barriers – linking it to civic participation and the legitimacy and quality of decisions made by leaders.

Our experience and research at BBC Media Action all echo these conclusions. Just providing people with information isn’t enough as it’s what people do with it that really makes the difference. Beyond having information made available to them, publics need support to interpret what they’re presented with, take discussions forward and put pressure on those in power to change policy and practice. Not easy tasks but the results can be powerful.

The report even has a spotlight section on the media’s role. That’s excellent as it is an area which consistently gets less attention than it deserves in international development debates.

A spotlight on the media – but not on what might be its most vital role

And yet, having come close to making the big case for supporting inclusive and effective public deliberation, the suggested entry points for change don’t inspire great confidence. They feel technical, fractured and limited. Others will have wider-ranging thoughts on how to improve them but from my vantage point, the media spotlight misses an opportunity to chart a way forward on the media’s vital role in public deliberation.

In an increasingly connected world, where people all over the world are accessing more types of media, more intensively, the media should prominently feature in any strategy to develop inclusive and effective public deliberation. While the report’s media spotlight highlights important roles for the media, it doesn’t draw out a role for the media in inclusive public deliberation.

Supporting the media to play its role in inclusive public deliberation is what we are doing at BBC Media Action. And we’re doing it at large scale. Programmes we support reached an audience of 104 million last year. Our research strongly indicates that it can be an effective one. Regression analysis of data from nationally representative surveys in seven countries show that our programmes’ listeners are 74% more likely to participate in politics than non-listeners (activities include writing to or meeting their elected representative or participating in a local initiative or council meeting).

We don’t have all the answers on how to sustainably facilitate inclusive public dialogue in diverse and challenging contexts. But more exploration (and questions) will follow in a series of research and practice reports lined up over the next six months.

What’s the long term strategy for nurturing public dialogue?

It’s that question of sustainability that I really wanted the WDR draft to address. If you accept the media’s potential role in curating inclusive and effective public dialogue, then it follows that we collectively need to lay out how to nurture that role – especially in complex and highly political institutional environments. The report paints a gloomy, if accurate, picture of closing space and media capture. State intimidation and media co-option is increasingly common and proving depressingly effective.

Despite these challenges, there are opportunities to develop sustainable, independent and inclusive media that support public deliberation. The media industry is changing rapidly. Channels are multiplying, access rising rapidly and habits changing. Young people increasingly want to shape and participate in media content on the big issues that affect their lives. Inclusive content can open up new audiences, change audience preferences and  –crucially for an audience-driven industry – shape what people demand from what they watch, listen and read. The media development sector has decades of experience of effective (and less effective) support to all types of media, from grassroots community stations to the big beasts of state broadcasting.

The WDR has elements of an exciting framework that speaks to many things that we have been learning in our work. However, it doesn’t fully integrate the media into its thinking or outline a coherent narrative for supporting inclusive public dialogue at scale. If the media is to fulfil its potential (and avoid undermining other voice and civil society initiatives), the international community needs to take the issue more seriously – both politically and by committing long-term funding. As it stands the current draft does not do enough to pave the way for the media to fulfil its potential in driving public engagement, participation and deliberation.

Will Taylor is the lead adviser on BBC Media Action's Governance and Rights programming.

The World Development Report 'green cover' draft will be available until Friday, September 16th at 6 pm EST, when the consultation formally closes.


Click here to access this BBC Media Action blog and related links on their work in governance.

Image credit: BBC Media Action

BBC Media Action
BBC Media Centre, MC3A, 201 Wood Lane
W12 7TQ
United Kingdom (UK)
Phone: 44 (0) 20 8008 0001
Fax: 44 (0) 20 8008 5970