Just before Christmas I was at a workshop in the beautiful mountain village of Caux in Switzerland with several dozen other thinkers and do-ers in media and development (and no, we were not doing any skiing, we were working hard...). We were applying ourselves to the difficult task of defining how best to evaluate media interventions in conflict countries. We came up with what I believe to be some useful guidelines. But out of all our deliberations, the most significant for me was that we all agreed on the importance of managing donors' and policy-makers' expectations. In other words, donors must realise - and implementers must be honest about - what can be realistically achieved and especially that the outcomes of media programmes in conflict countries need to be assessed in the broader political context, much of which is beyond the control of media programmes.
So, when the bullets are still flying at the end of a multi-million dollar programme in a war-torn country entitled 'media for peace-building,' what do you do? Do you: A. shovel more money into it and hope a second phase will ensure that peace eventually breaks out? B. axe all further funding for any more media projects and conclude they are all a waste of time? or C. manage expectations a little more and focus on outputs and outcomes rather than ultimate impacts? The answer, for us at Caux was obviously the last option, C. The guideline we formulated, subject to some possible further word-smithing, was: 'Donors and implementers should be flexible in considering amending project outcomes in the light of a better understanding of how the wider situation or context is evolving.'
An example from my own experience in the D R Congo is the aim of establishing an independent media regulator in that country, as part of a large media-support programme financed by Britain, Sweden and France. This aim was originally written into the programme's logical framework - the road-map which is meant to guide the whole programme. Three and a half years into the project, we find, to our disappointment, that the DRC government is seriously dragging its heels on promulgating a law which will make this new regulatory body a proper legal entity and with its own budget and staff independent of the ruling elite. This is not surprising given that elections in the DRC are on the horizon later this year, and politicians of all stripes depend heavily on the various TV and radio stations they own and control in their local areas, to win votes and get re-elected. They are not particularly interested in fair regulation of broadcasting if it means that the partisan - if not hate - messages they are planning to broadcast are regulated. Such is the norm in many a conflict-affected country that I have observed, especially in Africa.
We will have to amend this particular goal - perhaps even cut it. But our media-support programme will not have 'failed' if some of these higher goals - sometimes called 'impacts' - are not achieved. There are many other achievements that can be pointed out (in the case of this particular programme in the DRC, the wonderful Radio Okapi, for one). Let us finally say loud and clear: 'it's OK not to solve everything and it's OK not to pretend we can!'