Media, development and evaluation

At the moment I’m working with 2 African Media Organisations: one in West, one in Southern Africa. They are quite different in almost everything, but the most interesting is the goals they are after:
One wants to open up the debate in society in order to promote social justice. That is what media are not always after, specifically not commercial media… The second is an exile newspaper, and they only want one thing: to give a voice to the voiceless, yes, but then tell the facts like they are, whoever is involved.

It makes me think of an old, ongoing debate in journalism: are media meant to promote something – like social justice, or development? – or are media there in the first place to ‘tell it like it is’ ?.
Or may be it can be linked: can you promote social justice by ‘telling it like it is’?

There is a lot of (philosophical) theory written around this theme, in the first place by the German philosopher Habermas (since 1989: The structural transformation of the Public Sphere), but the discussion is still alive and kicking…

Most concretely: do we want to develop the media (1) or do we want to promote development through media (2) or do we want to to ‘tell it like it is’ also where development is concerned? I am quite convinced of the last goal, and much less about the first 2.

In my view the media should develop themselves (where they can use some help sometimes), the development should also develop itself, so let the media stick to the core business; ‘telling it like it is’!

Why is this so necessary? Not because I think there is only one truth in this multifaceted world. Not because I think any media can ‘tell the truth’. The reason is simply that there is one thing media must have, and that is credibility. If you do not trust the people who are ‘sifting’ the news for you, why would you read them, look at them, listen to them?

If people get the right or (or even wrong) idea about whatever media that they are speaking ‘their master’s voice’ – even if that master is a charity of good will – those media will instantly loose credibility.

Now both organisations I’m working with do solve that problem in a certain way: one is above all supporting (community) media that themselves are independent ‘without fear or favour’ (as far as possible in autocratic Africa). The danger they’re in is that they themselves become the master – small news organisations are willing to talk their talk

The other is so opposed to the powers that be, that they almost become a ‘mouthpiece’ of the opposition, thus also becoming someone’s ‘pet dog’ – at least in the perception of readership.

The only answer I have is that it’s a balancing act, time and again – as it is in my job: evaluating them. Are we the donor’s pet dog? Or are we only talking the talk of the beneficiary? It’s a balancing act between those two, although the solution is not ‘staying in the middle’, but rather telling it like it is: credibility is also our best friend and it can only be earned by staying deadly honest.

From development to transparency…

Too often people think that Civil Society are formal NGO’s: following Habermas’ theory of public sphere we take civil society as a space rather than a set of organisations. It may be thus termed the civil domain. Civil domains are nested in a larger sphere, the arena. In this arena conflicts of power are fought out – in cold and hot wars. This two-sphere model lends itself to an analysis of power in and around a country or an issue.

Many constraints arise in the interplay of economic, political and military forces in a ‘public arena’, where state and non-state actors contest for power in ways strongly influenced by geo-politics. Oil and diamonds, etc. as well as security. In that sense natural resources have – de facto – the same effect as development aid (especially where it is used for budget or sector support). The effect is disastrous for democracy in a way that Dambisa Moyo describes as the ‘reversed Boston tea party’: ‘no representation without taxation’: money for public expenditure does not come from the local taxpayer but comes ‘from above’: ergo: the government holds the civilians ransom, the base for clientelism is there.
International development agencies are currently fixated on project-based strategies, including support to NGOs as vehicles for relief and ‘development’ services and for ‘advocacy’. We argue that the priorities should instead fall on domains and arenas: multiple – courageous – actors, rather than institutes.
We – as development practitioners – have a problem here, that cannot be solved simply and that is mainly given by the catch 22 we’re in: we know that we should support activists and grassroots organisations, but our money comes from governments that have made accountability more important than effectiveness …
Because of the sometimes absurd regulations we are almost obliged to spend the money to large NGO’s that we know to be ineffective…. (but write good reports…).
So I don’t know the solution for the overall problem, but I know that some – smaller – northern NGO’s are trying to bridge the gap I described and that sometimes through ‘umbrella NGO’s’ the money can effectively end up where it needs to be.
What my argument boils down to: let’s act together, let’s go on, or let’s find more ways to support those people who deserve our support and to people that have the courage to enlarge the public domain trough media, public debates and everything the like.
We admire courageous people in non-democratic and corrupt states – so let’s try to be a little bit courageous and defy the actual discourse in international cooperation where it works to the detriment of those who really need it.