Author: BBC Media Action's James Deane, originally posted on February 7 2018 - The UK Department for International Development's commitment to undertake a "transparency revolution" is welcome. Their new strategy outlined yesterday Open Aid, Open Societies: a vision for a transparent world sets out a fresh set of commitments to close loopholes that allow corruption to be hidden; support efforts to make DFID’s partner governments more open and transparent, and scale up DFID’s broader support for transparency and accountability efforts.
The opening paragraph of the Secretary of State, Penny Mordaunt’s introduction, closely reflects BBC Media Action’s strategic mission in stressing that access to information is critical to enabling people to “have a say in decisions which affect our lives”. The commitment to “scale up support for a healthy, free media and civil society that can champion anti-corruption and transparency and promote debate and uptake of data” is especially welcome.
For the strategy to be effective, however, those of us working in development could learn from some of the mistakes of the past. Three points in particular stand out.
1. Access to information is not enough. For many years, it was assumed that opening up government data and other information would automatically improve transparency and herald a new era in which citizens would shine a light on poor government performance or inadequate service delivery. That was always questionable and, indeed, for some time, questioned. The data generated as a result of excellent initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership have provided immense energy and focus to transparency efforts - but translating that data into forms that are easily usable by those who most need the transparency and accountability agenda to work for them continues to be a struggle.
To its credit, DFID’s strategy acknowledges this. “Too often, data is not presented in an understandable way that enables citizens to find, interpret and use it”, it argues. “Evidence must also be accessible to parliaments, audit offices, media and civil society organisations that can monitor and champion improvements in services.” But in many places media that can “monitor and champion” struggles to exist. Media needs support to develop the skills, systems and mindset to do this and to survive long term. We are witnessing a global assault on independent media especially in the fragile states that DFID prioritises for support. The closing of civic space by often authoritarian government is reinforced by increasing attempts to co-opt and capture independent media by multiple commercial, factional, religious, ethnic and other political interests. Independent media, especially in fragile states with weak economies, are simply not able to afford to able to resist such co-option.
It was a neat coincidence that saw this strategy launched on the same day that the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, gave a speech stressing just how critical journalism is as a “huge force for good” in fostering informed public debate in society. The Prime Minister especially highlighted how “in recent years - especially in local journalism - we've seen falling circulations, a hollowing-out of local newsrooms, and fears for the future sustainability of high quality journalism”. That is indeed the case in the UK.
The consequences in fragile states of weak media systems are more profound, and the challenges of enabling the independence and sustainability of good journalism acutely difficult. When you add to these challenges the increasingly successful exploitation of online platforms to misinform, polarise public debate and undermine the democratic processes, the prospects for seeing open government being translated into more accountable and transparent governance seem still more distant. It is becoming critical that development agencies reconsider and reprioritise their support to independent media.
2. DFID’s strategy makes another welcome proposal in its commitment to test “innovative approaches” in four African countries where it will support efforts to “work with civil society, law enforcement and investigative journalists to use greater transparency, to help drive forward investigations and prosecutions of incidences of corruption.” The potential benefit of supporting investigative journalism is undeniable. The Global Investigative Journalism Network has argued that the revelations exposed in the Panama Papers and other investigative efforts constitute one of the best returns on investment the development community can make. But, as we have argued before, investigative journalism is an extremely dangerous occupation in fragile states and is not a substitute for a media system that supports and sustains good journalism – the day to day job of journalists reporting on what government is doing, asking challenging questions which demand answers and working to underpin informed public debate. Investigative journalism needs to be complemented by support to independent media systems that are fundamental to the kinds of democratic politics that deliver for those who most need it.
3. Which raises the final challenge of linking transparency initiatives to all in society, and especially those who most need a say in the decisions that affect their lives. Our work at BBC Media Action, as well as mentoring many journalists and building the capacities of hundreds of media institutions, focuses on ensuring that those with least access to decision-making power have the opportunity to challenge and question their political leaders. Through the much-valued support of DFID, broadcast public debates and other programmes have enabled ordinary people to question and challenge their leaders. They reached almost 200 million people across 14 fragile states; from an earthquake-devastated Kathmandu slum to the presidential palace in Afghanistan, to a disaster-affected Bangladeshi city to an Ebola-affected Sierra Leone. Our extensive research showed a clear association between exposure to this kind of accountability programming and improved political participation.
The evidence that an independent media is essential to improving transparency and accountability is not only long-standing but growing. The damage to effective governance of not having an independent media is increasingly recognised.
DFID’s strategy is welcome and important. Ultimately the future success of transparency and accountability efforts will depend on a more ambitious, more sustained and more determined international support effort to an increasingly imperilled independent media around the world. The UK has a set of media support institutions that have strong reputations and unrivalled capacities to contribute to such efforts. Our hope is that this strategy is just the start of a stronger cross-government commitment to support an increasingly vital but imperilled sector.
Image credit: BBC Media Action
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