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:
First, communication fosters development. Communication campaigns educate and provide motivation to change behaviors, ultimately contributing to a healthier, stronger, and better informed civil society. For instance, health campaigns significantly contribute to increase healthy behaviors such as child immunization or condom use. The media sector provides jobs, and a significant number at that. In 2006, the Economist reported that the film industry in Nigeria is the second largest employer in the country. In the European Union, the media content production industry accounts for five percent of the GDP, and employs four million people.
Second, communication is a crucial institution of accountability. I'm particularly impressed by studies by Timothy Besley and Robin Burgess, as well as Amartya Sen. These authors show that it is unlikely that citizens will be surprised by famines or other catastrophies if the media in the country is strong and independent. The reason: The media will not let the government get away with inaction. If a crisis is looming, they will demand that the government is prepared. The media as watchdog and agenda setter has an immense potential of protecting the public's rights from abuse of power. Investigative journalists helped bring down corrupt governments, for instance in the Philippines, and they strengthen citizen movements by giving them voice and persistence.
Third, a media system that operates under the thumb of governments or other powerful pressures will deprive citizens of any effective tool of standing up for their own rights. Citizens without access to information and without channels to communicate their wishes are helpless. This is especially true in developing countries with a weak infrastructure and a high preponderance of illiteracy. Oppressive governments use the media as an instrument to assert their undemocratic power. Independent media outlets force them to face their duties and be accountable, and citizens benefit from that.
There's growing attention the "demand side" of governance in development agencies. The Demand side refers to civil society, its ability to hold governments accountable and to hold up citizens' rights. A recent evaluation by the Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) of the World Bank, Public Sector Reform: What Works and Why?, stated that measures that strengthen the demand side are the "most important way to date that the Bank has advanced the anti-corruption effort." Communication in general and independent media systems in particular are central to any attempts at strengthening demand for good governance. That's what I learned at CommGAP, and that's why I believe that communication needs to be taken much more serious in development - and fast.
Photo Credit: Flickr User vphill