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At Harvard's Kennedy School This Week...

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Photo Credit: Ami Vitale,2002It often seems to me that in international development today a bifurcated reality exists when it comes to the potential or actual role of the news media in the governance agenda. For instance, in the great bilateral and multilateral agencies, many officials will, if asked, tell you that there is no doubt that the news media are a fundamental part of the architecture of good governance in their own countries. There is in these countries a tradition of thinking about the media as – collectively – the fourth estate of the realm, as co-participants in governance. But ask these same officials what role the news media can play, if supported and developed, in securing improved governance outcomes in developing countries and, suddenly, the conversation gets complicated. Why? Lots of reasons.

First, there are those who doubt that the news media are a public good. They are not at all convinced that the news media in developing countries serve a higher public interest. Second, there are those who say that we should wait. Let’s tackle growth first they say; when you have a large, well-fed middle class then we can worry about free and plural media. Third, there are those who say that while it might be a good idea to work on developing independent and plural media systems as part of the good governance agenda, it is tough to actually make a difference because partner governments deem it as political interference and object strongly. Power is involved here, they say, and leaders do not like to see their power challenged.

As a result, as the governance agenda develops, and work to improve governance systems in developing countries gathers pace globally, there isn’t as yet a secure place for the news media in the agenda and the actual work.  While more donor agencies pay lip service to the role of the news media in governance in their policy documents, very little is actually being done in practice. There are exceptions, of course, but it is impolitic to name names at this point. So CommGAP has decided to launch a big evidence-based advocacy push. We are tackling two interrelated issues. First, why do we say the news media are fundamental to the governance agenda? Where is the evidence? What do we know as of today? What do we not know? Above all, from the evidence what should we make sure policy makers know? These questions will be tackled later this week at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government by leading researchers and policymakers from around the world. CommGAP has teamed up with the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government.  The workshop conveners are Professor Pippa Norris and my humble self.  We hope, in the next few months, to produce a major report. An advocacy effort will then ensue.

After the Harvard effort, we intend to take on the second interrelated issue: How do you work to improve the news media in developing countries in ways that will lead to improvements in governance? What have we learned? What works and what does not work? What do policymakers and implementers need to know as they contemplate interventions in this area?

We hope that these efforts will make a modest contribution to efforts to improve the quality of governance in developing countries.

Photo Credit: Ami Vitale, 2002 (WB)


Submitted by Rezwan Alam on
Sina, thanks for raising some valuable points regarding media's role in governance. I had worked in the Bank's communication unit for slightly over two years and recently moved to Governance unit. Please allow me to share my not-so-good experience. Barring a few, the majority of Bank staff do not recognize media's positive role and see it as 'headless chicken'. Ours including that of other development partners' attitude towards the media is really pathetic. Communication is not even considered as a sector within the Bank. Compared to billions spent on not-so-fruitful projects, how much investment the Bank and other development partners have made in media and communication over the last 50 years? A careful stock could reveal startling findings. As a former journalist, I witnessed the government’s indifferent attitude towards media. I had the similar experience as national civil servant and UN official. While doing a PhD. on military-media relations in Bangladesh', I found military's utter disgust about media. All these people see media as a problem. They think journalists are self-serving by nature, compensated based upon copy-inch published, and focused solely upon their self-aggrandizing ego and the increase in circulation their sensationalism spawned. They think TV is the worst of the bunch. Media people also know it very well how they are viewed by others. It is equally important to know how media views us, and others. It’s a disastrous relationship based on ‘mutual mistrust’. Under such a relational framework, your efforts to further the governance agenda through media’s help are very daunting indeed. Given the onslaught of embedded journalism globally where media are acting as ‘agents of elites’, my suggestion would be to devise a better relational framework based on mutual trust, and then utilize the power of the media to carry forward the governance agenda.

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