James Deane's blog
Part of an organisation I helped set up is no longer going to exist.
The Panos Institute London has announced that it no longer has the resources to continue. It’s been struggling for some time; project income appears to have dried up; its executive director has left. Panos’ trustees have decided, understandably, that, after almost exactly 26 years, it needs to fold.
Today sees the start of a major international conference on Somalia hosted by the UK government in London. It is designed to inject fresh urgency into international efforts to support the rebuilding of this most fragile and fragile states. On the agenda will be issues of piracy, security, terrorism and a continuing - if thankfully slightly improving - humanitarian crisis.
Three and a half thousand people have been meeting in Busan, South Korea to discuss the future of development assistance. The 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness is a tedious name for an important process - how best to organise the billions of dollars of development assistance designed to improve the lives of the poorest people on the planet.
Aid has traditionally been a disorganised process. Multiple donor organisations, often with their own pet priorities and projects, meeting multiple Ministers in recipient countries, and funding projects with little or no reference to the strategic priorities of the countries themselves has been standard practice for many years. A decade ago there was increasing recognition that this chaos did not work.
In 2004 and 2007 at earlier High Level Fora in Paris and Accra, donors and developing countries reached a deal. Donors would work with each other so that developing country Ministers could deal with a coordinated group, and this more coordinated group of donors would try to allocate their money to 'on budget' issues which the country itself had determined as its development priorities. Increasingly aid money took the form of budget support – direct funding of developing country government priorities. In return, developing countries would become more accountable for expenditure to their own citizens. Both developing and developed countries committed themselves to opening up their systems and publishing far more information about what money was being spent on what and with what purpose. Aid and budget transparency has increased as a result, and the Busan meeting has seen both Canada and the United States join the International Aid Transparency Initiative.
Aid has many critics but the choice of hosting this meeting in South Korea was designed as a riposte to some of them. In opening the conference, Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean President passionately paid tribute to the role aid had played in enabling his country’s transformation from a war-ravaged wreck to one of the most vibrant industrial and democratic success stories in the world – all in little more than a generation. Once dependent on foreign aid it is now an increasingly influential and confident aid donor, with an annual aid budget of $1 billion and a determination to substantially increase this in the future.
Mixing donor soup
In Busan, this whole agenda has been tested as never before. It is facing two main challenges.
The first is that agreeing on a deal is a good deal easier than implementing it. The OECD DAC, to its credit, has been good at monitoring the implementation of earlier agreements and transparent when things have and haven't worked. There have been important successes; the number of developing countries with 'sound' national development strategies has tripled since 2005, and organised donor support to such strategies has improved.
Successes are, however, greatly outweighed by failures. Very limited progress has been made in enhancing the capacity of developing country citizens to subject aid spending or national development policies to real scrutiny. A progress report published by the DAC in advance of Busan argued that 'perhaps the most important overall finding on the implementation of the principles has been the clear and almost universal failure...to advance on making direct mutual accountability more transparent, balanced and effective.'
In total, only one out of nine key benchmarks set in Accra had been met. The background to Busan was one of failed implementation.
The second challenge is more serious still.
Despite the chill winds of the global economic crisis - felt keenly in the West and even more so by those dealing with high food and energy prices - the aid donors club is growing fast. South Korea is not the only new entrant on the scene; Brazil, India, China and other emerging economies are becoming powerful new donors themselves. Add to this mix the big private donors such as the Gates Foundation and the multiple global funding mechanisms, such as the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria and you get a rich soup of donors with very different agendas, cultures and ways of working.
A central tenet of the Busan meeting is that this expansion is badly needed. The Millennium Development Goals are off-track, the financial crisis is putting pressure on western development budgets, the problems of famine, food insecurity, energy and climate change make the need for development money ever greater. The main objective of Busan was to form a new 'Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation' which could accommodate new donor actors.
The potentially thankless task of getting common ground among this group has been one of the main challenges facing the OECD DAC in putting together an agreement. The process has struggled. A major aim of the organisers of this meeting was to get China to join this club. The hopes appeared to have been dashed when the Chinese delegation turned up and promptly announced that they would not be signing up to the declaration. In the event, China, Brazil and India and other emerging economies did agree that the declaration from the meeting would be a 'reference' for their development cooperation, but only on a voluntary basis.
There are many reasons why countries like China would not want to commit themselves more fully. It could ostensibly commit them to being far more transparent about where their money goes and for what purpose and intensify pressure to untie their aid. Besides, China like other emerging economies also see aid as south-south cooperation which historically has been politically rooted in efforts to counter Western hegemony. New models of 'triangular cooperation' are emerging, and a session at the conference on south-south cooperation focused on practical technical sharing of knowledge and experience between countries that had experienced similar development challenges. Nevertheless, joining what many developing countries see as a Western club of donors is a big step, particularly when so many of the rules of the club have been established before they have joined. Underpinning much of the debate at one fascinating conference session on the subject of Asian development cooperation was a deep-seated historical sense of national humiliation and a determination not to be in thrall to a weakened West regarded by many new actors as still bent on lecturing others on how to govern themselves.
All this raises a question. Is there a point when the search for consensus among an ever growing set of actors comes at the price of effectiveness? Many of the emerging economies are pursuing their own national interests in their aid policies, just as Western countries have done. The carefully calibrated language of the Busan outcome document is that of the lowest common denominator. It is short on clear, time-bound indicators and hard targets. It is focused on setting out rules that can be agreed by the widest range of actors.
The drafts and final text of the declaration coming out of Busan have been tailored to make it more palatable to new emerging economy entrants. The danger is that the broader the consensus, the shallower it becomes and that some important things get left out. Are we moving now towards a development consensus that everyone can live with, but few really buy into?
The cost of consensus
I must declare an interest in this debate. The BBC World Service Trust - a charity founded by the BBC that is legally, financially and operationally independent - is not an advocacy organisation but it does strongly believe that a free and plural media, strong investigative, financial and other forms of journalism, and open and connected societies are key to making accountability work in society. The media is also key to making the issues discussed at Busan relevant to and resonant with those who have most to win or lose from the outcome of these debates.
Our work has focused significantly on working with developing country media to enable citizens in developing countries to question their political leaders in front of millions on radio and television. In the run up to Busan over the last couple of years, we have also helped organise meetings with and worked alongside the OECD DAC to document the evidence base supporting the role of media as an accountability mechanism and to highlight its relevance of media to aid effectiveness.
The word 'media' does not appear in the Busan declaration despite recommendations coming from the preparatory processes and synthesis of findings on ownership and accountability recognising its role.
There are defensible reasons for this, and too many negotiations of this kind insist on listing every group in society anyone feels are important (faith groups, youth groups, political parties and many other actors who have engaged actively in the Busan process are also not mentioned and are assumed, like media, to fall into an overall category of 'non-state actors'). However, important emphasis is placed on parliaments and civil society organisations as key sources of accountability. The omission of any language on a free media as a source of political accountability looks odd.
The Busan process is a response to how the world is changing, particularly given the growing influence and development role of emerging economies. It has as one of its central objectives to make 'domestic' accountability work better and to address the problem that development strategies are too disconnected from the people they are designed to benefit. Few disagree that media is important to this, so it seems strange and puzzling that it appears to be so overtly ignored.
It is more puzzling still given this meeting takes place in the winter following the Arab Spring. It is not just the reconfiguration of power moving from West to East and North to South that is happening. Growing access to new communication technologies and independent media is enabling more power to shift from governments to citizens, from institutions to networks, from elites to masses, from old to young. The Arab Spring was just the most powerful manifestation of this shift.
The Busan process places a strong and welcome emphasis on issues of aid transparency and opening up access to information on budgets and government processes and on the importance of civil society. It seems oblivious however to these wider changes in how citizens are holding their governments to account.
A central hypothesis remains behind the Busan process that it is governments that shape development and that the South Korean example of the past provides a blueprint for the future. Perhaps, but the world is changing in broader ways than the simple shifting of international economic and power balances. Information empowered people, companies and civil societies are increasingly driving change. A central focus on the role of the state makes sense, particularly when this process is so focused on fragile and conflict affected states - a strong case for this was certainly made by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda in his keynote address to the conference. However, present that case to the citizens of many of the Arab Spring countries and you may get a very different perspective.
The Busan process is an attempt to reach a consensus, a consensus where commitments to support the more tricky and political elements of development assistance - such as free media and a right to information - might appear problematic. The consequence is a declaration that seems consensual and reasonable, one bent on accommodating as many actors as possible. Look here for a technical consensus on development effectiveness and you will find it. Look for a vision of development effectiveness, particularly a vision rooted in the creativity and innovation with which citizens are taking control over their own futures and lives around the world and you will look in vain.
This criticism is not aimed at those organising this meeting and those facilitating the process in the OECD DAC I know are not the dry technocrats implied here. The technicality and limitations of the declaration are the inevitable cost of achieving an ever broader consensus.
The West has often messed up its development assistance. It has used aid to advance its own economic and political interests, lectured and hectored aid recipients and sometimes got things badly wrong. I would argue that it has also tried to learn from its mistakes and that, for all its problems, the aid effectiveness agreements of Paris and Accra were essentially progressive ones aimed at rectifying the mistakes of the past. They were designed to put developing countries in the driving seat, and to ensure that the accountability relationship was downwards to citizens, not upwards to donors.
That seems a precious achievement but it is built on a consensus that can only be stretched so far. The aid effectiveness agenda has achieved much that is important and all of that has been achieved through consensus. The absence of any language about the importance of a free media from the document may be telling us something about the cost of such a consensus. At some point this may become a price that stops being worth paying.
There were real achievements at this meeting. The benefits of consensus were clear - a fresh energy around aid transparency, a new and important agreement on aid to fragile states and the creation of a more global aid framework capable of accommodating very diverse aid actors.
The costs are less clear, but to this observer very real. We should get better at counting them.
James Deane is the Director of Policy at the BBC World Service Trust. The BBC World Service Trust is an international development charity which is supported by but operationally independent of the BBC. His views should not be taken to represent those of the BBC.
In 2005, the UN accepted the offer of the Tunisian government to host its World Summit on the Information Society in the country. The summit proved more passing foothill than summit in the history of the global information society but it is worth relishing how delicious the ironies of history can sometimes prove. Six years later, an oppressive government has been swept away by the informational forces it was seeking to advance.
History rarely leaps as rapidly as it has since December 17, 2010 when Mohamed Bouzizi was driven to immolate himself in a Tunis street when police confiscated the vegetable cart on which his livelihood depended. Much has been written and said making sense of the epochal events catalysed by that conflagration in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Oman and – most bloodily and unpredictably – in Libya and beyond. Little of what follows- written by a semi informed outsider is new - but is a set of semi connected musings on what this means for our understanding of the role of communication in society and in effecting change.
Newly networked communicative power has at last proved more than a match for authoritarian power. We did not know this a scant few weeks ago. The much hyped 2009 twitter revolutions of Iran and Moldova seemed to prove the limits as much as the extent of the power latent in determined, angry, newly networked human society. We now know that the mathematics of power has shifted. Human courage, self discipline and organisation multiplied by the communicative power of networks has equalled unprecedented and (for now and in the main) largely peaceful - political force. Networked social media (in this case principally Facebook) added to the narrative provided by independent television (in this case principally Al Jazeera and the BBC) has delivered decisively in favour of the citizenry. The net did not, as some have reasonably feared work as an authoritarian tool for picking off dissenters.
There are many qualifications to this conclusion. The temptation is to focus more on the technology and media and not enough on the people. It was people who succeeded in overcoming dictatorship, not the internet. Some Egyptians are calling theirs the Naasbook revolution (“naas” meaning “people”) and it is people who drove change, not the technology of Facebook which, in truth, is accessible still to only a small proportion of the Egyptian population. There is temptation too in seeing the current wave of revolutions as somehow uniform (the “internet revolutions”), when very different political, religious, social and poverty dynamics inform each. All maybe rooted in deep-seated (and often middle class) anger at corruption, misgovernance and frustrated political and economic opportunity, but their outcomes will clearly not be defined simply by improved access to information. And the strength of communicative power may only work under certain conditions – not only when a critical mass of people are networked but also when your army promises not to massacre people.
It is nevertheless clear that those Middle East revolutions that have succeeded in at least achieving their initial objective would not have done so without a freshly defined and available communicative power working at the disposal of people, not authority. This being so, some thoughts on where is this communication headed and with what result.
This power – not new, but newly realised - is on the move and in clearer directions: it is shifting downward, southward and eastward – and with contradictory implications.
The downward move is well documented and clear. Communicative power is leaching from elites to masses, institutions to networks, old to young. Recent events have reinforced just how powerful that downward shift is proving in shaping political and social outcomes.
The southward move is becoming more clearly visible each passing day. Some of the southward move can be seen in how the newer southern oriented media players have – especially over recent weeks – become further entrenched as globally respected brands. Al Jazeera is the clearest example of this. More fundamentally, we are moving closer to the age of near ubiquitous global information access. It is the developing world where access to information is exploding and where the political, economic and social consequences are only just pixellating into clearer focus. The next stage of the internet – web 3.0 or the semantic web – is conventionally envisaged as a more sophisticated set of computer relationships. Finer minds than mine are defining what web 3.0 looks like, but in my mind the web 3.0 could as usefully be viewed through a different lens – near ubiquitous global human access to information. Near ubiquity as much as sophistication of function will surely shape the equation between technology and global human society.
Next year will see mobile subscriptions reach the equivalent of the entire global population – the figure already reaches 5 billion. 73% of those will be from the developing world in 2010, up from just over half in 2005. India and China alone accounted for 300 million subscriptions in 2010. The global online population is destined to grow 40% by 2014, up from today’s 1.9 billion. Africa is showing some of the fastest growth.
The digital divide remains and the information revolution will not reach everyone anytime soon. This post was delayed for several days because, being at a conference in sophisticated Gaborone, Botswana, internet access from hotel and conference centre was so difficult. Many hundreds of millions of people will and are being left behind, not everyone will have access any time fast to these technologies and much development attention should focus on those who remain disconnected from a connected world. But we also have to recognise that these technologies have spread faster and deeper within human global society than many thought possible just a few years ago. A combination of demand, the extraordinary adaptive character and evolution of the technology, commercial and individual enterprise, intelligent regulatory regimes (save for a decreasing number of countries such as Ethiopia) and the sheer ingenuity of the human character have confounded the gloomier concerns.
Humanity is getting credibly close to being largely networked. That, to state the obvious, has never happened before. The power of communication will increasingly rest with those who can use it best, and the largest numbers of those are increasingly young and from the developing world.
Predictions of the implications of these changes are a mugs game including for those working within the development sector. The current political turmoil may be headed toward a terrible period of instability which could reach well beyond these countries or for an extraordinary new era of democratic, people driven renewal. The prospects for more ubiquitous access to information may, as events in the Middle East strongly suggest, truly be underpinning the capacity of people to more decisively shape their own political and economic futures but we have seen more sinister outcomesfrom greater information access.
Despite the cautions, these are heady days for those who have argued for years that it is people who can do most to change their own realities and that the current development preoccupation of concentrating so many resources on the state is simply insufficient and in peril of becoming an unbalanced strategy. Changing access to media, information and communication was always going to redefine how change takes place. It is not clear how well set up development organisations are to adapt to such change.
One prediction might be worth making. This is the era of direct, unmediated communication, including (increasingly) unmediated South North communication. Many civil society organisations focus on representing the voices of the marginalised to Northern or international publics. This role may shift from the representational to the catalytic and connective. Young people in the South connecting directly to their peers in the West through facebook, creating new online identities. We may see this most powerfully around issues like climate change, where the accountability relationship of the West (historically most responsible) to South (most affected) is the starkest and least ambiguous.
The eastward shift of communicative power is less clear cut and may not win out against the more powerful downward shifts. The impact of China’s $8 billion investment in its international broadcast services will take time to materialise, but as a statement of intent it is astonishing. Its investment in CNC World (24 hour English News channel), CCTV (which alone is receiving $2.2 billion), Xinhua and its decision to invest in Arabic, French and Spanish) appears part of a clear, determined soft power strategy, accompanied by multiple other cultural exports (such as the global proliferation of Confucius Institutes). Countries who have traditionally had preeminent soft power assets (such as the UK) are disinvesting in them because of economic crisis, the major cuts affecting the BBC World Service being the most significant of these. The communicative element is, of course, just one component of a much larger shift in global power balances reflecting economic crisis in the West and the growing vigour and self confidence in the East. The likelihood of communicative power leaching from West to East inevitably increases the capacity of China and others to shape international norms in their image. For development organisations and especially the governmentally controlled UN, such shifts suggest that communication strategies should increasingly reach beyond the traditional international media partners of the New York Times and BBC to embrace Xinhua and other non western actors.
Until two months ago, a prediction might have been made that the prospects for advancing democracy, freedom of expression and other human rights might struggle in this environment. BRICS countries have been sceptical of international organisations – especially the UN – having a mandate to promote what they consider Western agendas (and the associated accusations of double standards) within their countries. That too has changed. A wave of new governments across the Middle East may be about to come to power born from a collective assertion of human rights of which freedom of expression is the most sacrosanct.
Over recent years the world has been plunged not only into economic recession but also what Larry Diamond, editor of the Journal of Democracy, called just over two years ago the democratic recession. Suddenly we are in a new era of democratic resurgence, a resurgence rooted in the social, political and economic dynamics of the countries concerned rather than an emulation of the West. This does not feel like a set of revolutions who will take their inspiration from either West or East, but from their own original brand of democratic renewal enabled, centrally, by new found communicative power.
If so much communicative power is shifting downwards, Southwards and Eastwards, what then of the West? That too is a mugs game, but I can say that working for an organisation rooted definitively in the Western tradition, it is as much an exhilarating as challenging time. The work of the BBC World Service Trust is rooted in a belief that media and communication has the transformative potential to advance social, economic and democratic progress. To see that happening in such extraordinary ways is breathtakingly exciting. Some of our work will become less and some more relevant to the 21st century than it has ever done in the past. Organisations like ours will – like the BBC to which we are closely affiliated - continue to have an extremely important role in the future but the self confidence underpinning that role will be derived from a clear recognition of how communicative power in the world is changing. Such directions provide far more opportunities than threats to those whose traditions are rooted in making information and communicative opportunity as widely accessible and available as possible. We live in difficult and thrilling times.
The problem is not with the research it summarises, nor the way it summarises it. The report provides admirable insight into the conclusions of more than 600 working papers, books, briefing notes and journal articles from four UK funded international research centres. It focuses on one of the most difficult, contentious and dangerous areas of development and represents 10 years of sometimes contradictory research by research centres who have very different theoretical reference points and research objectives.
Out of this vast volume of research, it finds one key message:
"that to understand development we must understand the politics that shape it. Ultimately it is political decisions that will shape whether or not the Millennium Development Goals are reached, revenues are raised to fund investment, and growth occurs. The report argues that the political settlement is central to all development."
The report documents how this research has, especially over the last ten years, shaped policy and thinking within DFID and throughout much of the international development community, prompting shifts away from the technocratic comfort zones that have dominated the development mainstream for decades. It demonstrates how research of diverse origin and methodology can reach challenging conclusions, pointing for example to the "essential role of the indigenous political process for working out a country's own development and institutions - something the transfer of blueprints from another country or the development world could not achieve".
These are not cosy conclusions to reach, not least because they inject complexity into the development process. Donors historically dislike complexity - I have lost count of the number of times I have been told by donors to KISS - keep it simple, stupid. Many of the early debates around delivering the Millennium Development Goals were in part exactly designed to do that - to strip some of the complexity out of development and focus resources on the end point of the development process, whether that be delivering health treatments, bednets or schools.
This research suggests that little of anything else will work unless the politics is right. If development at its heart needs to be a political process, and if that process can only be determined from internally driven change, the role of the external agent - and especially the donor - becomes complicated. The understanding that development agencies need to understand the political realities of the countries they are working in may seem obvious to many but for those who have been working in this field for a long time, it is the reverse of the norm just two decades ago.
Go to an international development meeting focused on governance and you will be confronted with much of the lexicon that this and linked research has developed or at least made part of mainstream policy debate - concepts of state fragility, state resilience, political settlements, for example. Concepts such as citizenship, which most in the development world would instinctively feel they have a strong understanding of, have been challenged, fleshed out, made real, made more amenable to policy interventions.
And the research has had real policy impact. Not just in DFID where successive policy White Papers over recent years have focused on making politics work for the poor and working most in those fragile states where both the political and development process are most challenging - but beyond to shape much of the debate in the international development community.
Nor is this research the abstract product of pontificating professors sitting in distant ivory towers. I should declare an interest, in that I sit on an advisory board for one of the research centres - on citizenship and accountability, and have close connections to at least one other. But that connection has provided me with a real insight into what is often involved in gathering this research - researchers spending many many months in dangerous and difficult environments, sometimes living within the environment they are studying.
So what is the problem? I have two quibbles.
Research reports like this do a critical job in providing insight from a very diverse research base. Such insight tends to focus - as it does here - on where there is agreement. Sometimes the most important insights come from where there is disagreement and contestation of research conclusions, rather than where there is consensus. The four different research centres ultimately have different perspectives and reach different conclusions about what political conditions create the best conditions for development to take place. In some parts of the report, for example, the focus is all about elite bargains and elite incentives, in others the focus is all about citizen agency. The report implies that all these things are important, which they are. The problem comes, especially going forward, in determining what is more important. A clearer flagging of not just the connections and consensus points between the research, but also a mapping of the faultlines in these research conclusions would be helpful.
Second, it is quite difficult to discern what the key research questions going forward should be and how they will link back to the ones already examined. What are the major emerging themes of research into fragile states and what can we expect to be focused on a few years from now? How quickly can the field move? Is there room - even the opportunity - to examine issues which are barely registering on the fragile states agenda but which are likely to prove transformational in their impact on political settlements and state citizen relationships?
Fragile states are not immune to the political impact of an information revolution that has already (almost) provided 5 billion people on the planet with access to mobile telephony. A strong argument can be made that the shifts in communicative power currently taking place in both media and communications and the dizzying new patterns of information access, control, and manipulation that are now occurring have a special significance in states that are politically crippled. Political actors in some of the poorest and most conflict-ridden states are developing highly sophisticated strategies to control media and communication in order to manipulate and sometimes inflame public opinion and exacerbate tension. New and old technologies alike are providing some of the most powerful opportunities for citizens to hold authorities to account. Politics is being recast internationally in the wake of the information revolution.
The fragile states research agenda sometimes comes across as seeing informational transformations as something that has yet to permeate the political realities of the poorest and most fragile countries. My bet is that the opposite is the case. It is in these states, where government and governance is weak, where control over and manipulation of information is most politically potent, where the poorest are often prepared to set aside the greatest proportion of their income for access to a mobile phone or batteries for a radio. It is in these countries where citizens are most using communication to bypass formal state institutions - seen perhaps most powerfully in the M-Banking phenomenon.
There is no lack of interest in these issues from researchers working in fragile states and they are not entirely ignored in either this report or in the work of the Centres involved. And again I declare an interest in having worked on incipient research agendas on exactly these issues with some of the academics whose excellent work is featured in this report. But my bet is that, five years from now, research will reveal that these informational and communication transformations will be acknowledged as far more central to shaping political settlements and state citizen relations than they appear to be now.
The UK Department for International Development published its latest White Paper this week setting out its strategy for the next few years. Given DFID's reputation and clout throughout the international development system, it is likely to prove highly influential beyond a simple UK government department.
I should declare an interest from the outset. The programme I run at the BBC World Service Trust, the Policy and Research Programme on Media and Communication in Development, is funded by DFID. You'll have to (or not) take on trust that my comments reflect my own perspective, rather than any effort to please those who substantively fund this work.
The fact is that it's a gutsy document. It outlines a strategy that sees DFID working most where development gains are toughest to achieve and least amenable to clear impact evaluation. It argues that it is politics rather than simply development money that will determine success or failure in fragile and conflict affected states. In particular, it commits itself to a set of strategies that are informed and shaped by the political economy of the countries in which DFID works.
It has, in other words, set itself on a path to do the difficult rather than the easy and to work in a way which most development agencies - which are more used to spending money in pursuit of technical targets - have traditionally found challenging. It has done so moreover at a time of global economic crisis when it may have been easier and simpler to lay low and trumpet the easier wins of how many anitmalarial bednets DFID will fund (it does this too....10 million over three years is the answer). The fact that parties across the political spectrum in the UK have committed themselves to defending the aid budget from cuts when virtually all other departments will suffer them is a real testimony to how far the development debate has come in the UK over the last decade.
In choosing this path, it has signalled a policy that sees international development strategy seriously beginning to address the root causes of failed development in fragile states. There are articulate critics of development aid who have some strong arguments, but the development system has over recent years - particularly through the development of the Accra Agenda for Action - taken really serious measures to address its weaknesses and maximise its collective effectiveness. The forensic focus that this White Paper places on understanding and recognising the power realities of fragile states is another serious signal that the huge and unwieldy beast that is the international aid system is adaptive and unafraid of the difficult.
In some respects, this focus on the political dimension of development is simply an intensification of existing policy. The last DFID White Paper published just three years ago in 2006, was entitled "Making Governance work for the Poor", and Hilary Benn, the then development minister, frequently paraphrased this to mean "making politics work for the poor".
This White Paper, produced under the current development minister, Douglas Alexander, goes further, setting out concrete strategies for how DFID will place a new focus on the political dimension of development. Media is explicitly highlighted as part of one of the core strategies for ensuring that the increased funding that DFID is providing through governments is held to account by citizens. The current strategy of budget support (which curiously gets very little mention given that it makes up the bulk of DFID expenditure) will be tailored to ensure that 5% of all such funds will be set aside to "strengthen mechanisms for making states more accountable to their citizens. This will ensure that citizens groups, local media, parliaments, audit bodies and others are able to monitor how governments use these resources".
Funding will be doubled to civil society organisations and a new fund will be set up for smaller scale NGOs, faith based organisations and others who have struggled in recent years as DFID has spent money in ever larger chunks. The paper also focuses heavily on the challenges of climate change and on other issues, such as economic growth and the reform of international institutions.
The focus on local media as a key element of accountability will come as welcome recognition among those working in media development. The main reason why media development organisations have placed such an emphasis over the years on the political realities that determine political outcomes is that we act at the interface of politics, development and citizens.
Our work is to support media that can inform citizens on issues that affect their lives so that they can take control of them; that can investigate and provide a dispassionate check on those who exercise power; that can provide a platform for independent public debate that is often muscular, bitter and fought out in the political domain. At its best, media works on behalf of citizens and helps them navigate their way through the political maze and constitutes a giant pillar supporting the public interest. When media works, media does not undermine state stability, it guarantees it by providing legitimate outlets for unheard, often angry voices. It can help forge national identities and underpin lasting political settlements through a process of peaceful - if often very difficult - public debate and dialogue rather than civil war.
At its worst, when media becomes appropriated by narrow political, religious, ethnic or other powerful interests, it becomes one of the most powerful agents of that power. At its very worst, this can lead to hate and catastrophe. This is the case in all countries, but the potential good and potential harm that media can wreak are accentuated many times over in fractured, conflicted and fragile states.
Many media development actors have argued for years that treating development as a largely technical process that can be implemented with disregard to the political and power realities of countries is a key reason for a lack of lasting success of development efforts. The DFID White Paper is a seriously refreshing antidote to this.
I suspect that not all those working within the media and communication sector will be quite as enthusiastic. Most media and communication actors see development as a process that is fundamentally shaped and driven by the citizenry of countries, rather than by government. The central message from this White Paper is that states - especially fragile states - that are not capable cannot deliver for their citizens. Media, civil society and other non state actors are considered almost entirely in their capacity to make the state more effective and responsive, rather than as the spaces and places where the energy, vision and emerging identities of fragile countries are shaped and determined. That, however, is another story and another blog.
When large development actors choose the rocky road over the smooth one, and when they argue their case as effectively as this, they deserve applause. The White Paper has been largely welcomed by politicians across party divides in the UK and that will improve the chances of it actually achieving its aims. That's just as well. It took guts to choose this road but it will take more to implement it (including, it must be said, in the face of an often sceptical media in the UK).
A Robust Research Agenda on Media and Democracy in Fragile States: Getting a More Serious Conversation Going
Earlier this week, we at the BBC World Service Trust published Media and Governance: a survey of policy opinion. Among other conclusions of this survey of policy makers and policy informers was this:
"There is a fairly widespread (though not universal) belief...that media and its contribution to governance is under-researched. Both academics and policy makers believe there are gaps in the research literature."
In early 2009, we worked with the Institute of Development Studies in the UK to organize a research symposium across disciplines on media and democracy in fragile states.
The idea was to bring a small group of serious academic 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.
Conceived as a way of bringing together economists, governance researchers, sociologists, political scientists, and anthropologists as well as media researchers together to identify different perceptions and shared interests of this issue, it included participants from the London School of Economics, Overseas Development Institute, IDS and the Department for International Development.
This was a small group of people gathered together for a single day, so the report should be read in that light. Nevertheless, we think we reached some useful conclusions:
- There is a potentially substantial and increasingly relevant research agenda on media and communication which could provide important policy insights into state fragility, state effectiveness and state-citizen relationships in developing countries.
- Research on this agenda is starting from a low level, both in terms of content and capacity.
- Several priority areas for research were identified. This included looking at state transitions and systems of patronage and how media affects these, and other issues of state-citizen relationships.
- Interdisciplinary research will be important, as will research which connects core development research disciplines with media practice and media research.
- As a beginning, there is an urgent need for more media studies research to be framed within research agendas that resonate with political science and 'mainstream' development research.
- Practitioner organisations are important sources of current research insight and policy analysis and are an important part of the research mix.
- Equally, political analysis and political science, governance, economics, and other disciplines could usefully reassess whether these and other research questions should constitute a more serious component of their own research agendas and how media studies could usefully contribute to their understanding.
- Media and communication trends are especially rapid in character, and policy-useful research will need to be similarly rapid and reflect current reality.
- More needed to be done to determine more precisely a core set of research questions. More also remained to be done in identifying the most effective constellation of research actors, relationships, and methodologies that would deliver timely and research-rooted policy guidance on these issues.
- A more predictable and organised resource base to support such efforts was also necessary for real progress to be made.
We suggested some potential research questions and made several other suggestions. Ultimately, however, the question of what the best way of developing a more robust and compelling research agenda in this area, and what the most effective approach to carrying out this research still needs work.
Comments and suggestions on all this are welcome.
The BBC World Service Trust is publishing today a new research report, Governance and the Media: a survey of policy opinion.
We commissioned this because we wanted to genuinely discover what the view of this issue was in the development policy community. Interviews were carried out with some media and communication specialists, but the main focus was to get perspectives from more mainstream development academics, policymakers, and policy influencers.
People interviewed included John Githongo, the former permanent secretary for ethics and governance in Kenya, Thomas Carothers, leading democracy theorist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Paul Collier, author of the Bottom Billion and Democracy in Dangerous Places, and many senior people from bilateral and multilateral development organisations.
We commissioned an independent consultant, Kathy Lines, to do this research, partly because she is very smart but also because she does not come from either a media or a development background. We chose the interviewees, but made sure that some of these - such as Professor Mushtaq Khan from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London - had views that might be expected to be quite sceptical of the role of media in governance.
In other words, we wanted views that we might disagree with, and we wanted a real insight into where policy perspectives were on this issue. The aim was not to make an argument, it was to understand where the policy argument was.
As it happened, the research did back up our existing assumption.
The main conclusion of the report, based on more than 20 in depth interviews with policymakers and academics, is that there is what the researcher, Kathy Lines, calls an "engagement gap".
She concludes that "the importance of supporting free and pluralistic media in relation to governance - and development outcomes - is thought to be increasingly recognised by a wide range of policy makers, academics and practitioners."
Despite this, "there is an ‘engagement gap' between the value assigned to its role ... and the practical provision made for it in development planning, thinking and spending."
To some extent inspired by this study, the BBC World Service Trust is currently researching a policy briefing on Media and Democracy in Fragile States. If you have any thoughts, comments, or suggestions in relation to this, they would be extremely welcome.
I think this report says some important things and brings some fresh insights on the relationship between media and governance. If you agree, or even if you don’t, please circulate to anyone you think will be interested.