I recently gave a talk about the importance of strengthening the public sphere in programs designed to build good governance. In this conceptualization, the public sphere is that space where free and equal citizens discuss, debate, and share information about public affairs in order to influence the policies that affect the quality of their lives. Existing at the cross-roads of media, civil society, public opinion, and state institutions, the public sphere forms an essential element of good governance and accountability.
During the talk, a question arose about whether the public sphere model actually discounted issues such as accountability in favor of building consensus between civil society, media, and government. In my view, this is absolutely not the case, but I can see how such questions arise.
The 2008 presidential election in the United States has been touted as an epic battle over many things – over whether and how to continue US military involvement in Iraq, over whether and how to boost private companies’ efforts to dig their way out of a global financial markets crisis, over whether and how to change the overarching course of the country from the trajectory it has been on for the past eight years.&
The reason I chose such a title is due to the difficulty of mainstreaming (i.e., understanding and institutionalizing) the emerging conception of communication in development required to support and address the challenges in the current process of democratization, especially when dealing with governance issues.
During a working group session as part of the “Access to Information, Media and Accountability” workshop in Dar es Salaam in March, I wondered just how difficult it would be to shift the discussion from advocacy in support of the access to information (ATI) and media services draft laws to key aspects of how to implement these laws. It is no revelation that implementation of access to information legislation is quite challenging, as two other African countries with ATI laws, South Africa and Uganda, have already discovered. But what the workshop in Tanzania (supported by CommGAP) also showed is that even if an access to information law is enacted, people have to be informed enough to use it.
"Civil society is an important partner in the development process." Within the current development context, there's nothing particularly remarkable about this generic sentence. If anything, it merely reflects the now commonly espoused viewpoint that civil society should be considered an important constituency in development planning.
I've been with CommGAP for four months now, and since the fall semeser starts at University, it's time for me to take a little break and go back to school. Intermissions are handy occasions to reflect, and I'll make use of this occasion with some thoughts about the role of communication in governance, and my experience at CommGAP.
After more than 10 years of communication practice and training, it often startles me how people are not aware of the crucial meaning of communication in our everyday lives, politics, and yes, development. After four months of development work, I feel that this lack of awareness is shortsighted to the extreme. Here are my top 3 reasons:
As a first-time blogger on this site, I will focus on bringing experiences and reflections on how communication plays a key role in initiatives related to governance, a role even more fundamental than that played in other kinds of development programs.
"Unless mass views have some place in the shaping of policy, all the talk about democracy is nonsense" - V.O. Key said that in 1961 in his book Public Opinion and American Democracy. It reminded me of the discussion that Sina, Taeku, and I have had on this blog with regard to John Kingdon's Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. When reading this eminent work, I had been surprised how little influence the media and public opinion were supposed to have on policy making. According to Kingdon, the will of the public had considerably smaller effects on policy than the President, Capitol Hill, and lobbyists in the U.S. of the 1970s, putting policy making somewhat closer to nonsense than it should be.