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With Media, When Donors Leave Counter-Reform Pounces

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Photo Credit: Eric Miller (2002)For a few years now, I have been developing a theory of media reform in post-conflict environments. It is a reading of the facts, nothing grand. I want to trot it out and see how you react to it. My sense is that when a developing country succumbs to conflict and finds the will to come out of it, or the combatants are simply too exhausted to continue the quarrel, donors rush in to help put Humpty Dumpty back together again. One of the things donors sometimes do is re-build the media system.

The need to re-build the media system is often dictated by sheer need. After a conflict, people have to be reached where they are and brought together again. Some kind of mass communication infrastructure needs to be put in place. The post-conflict government must establish two-way communication with the citizens. For instance, it is in these situations that the role of the mass media as  means of creating a sense of one political community - and one in conversation with itself - becomes very clear. A rudimentary public sphere has to be reconstituted.

What I am interested in, though, is something beyond mere necessity. Donors, mostly from the West, don't simply pay for the recreation of the media system that the post-conflict country used to have. They seek to build a plural, independent media system, that is, one  more in keeping with the values of liberal constitutional democracy. So, for instance, they will pay for 'independent' public service broadcasters, that is, independent of the new government and domestic political control. Second, they will train local journalists to be watchdogs, entirely unafraid of the powerful. Third, the new media system will be designed to give voice to hitherto oppressed minorities of all kinds, including women. The gender agenda will be vigorously prosecuted partly via the new media system. Above all, cultural fare from the West and other parts of the world will invade the country through the instrumentality of the new, liberal media system paid for by donors: films, music, images of all kinds.  And this is often seductive stuff. The young and the young at heart greedily consume the new cultural fare and take full advantage of the new freedoms, breathe in the fragrant air.

Then the donors leave, as donors always do. On to the next crisis, the next conflict or disaster zone.  Then what often happens? Well, first, the local political leaders begin to seek authoritarian control of the media system. They don't want a BBC-type public service broadcaster, thank you very much. Very often, they don't want journalists who talk back and ask tough questions either. They begin to hassle and harass the media. Or far worse. They will often tolerate independent media outlets only if their friends - or those they can trust - have the licenses. And, finally, conservative forces begin to fulminate against the cultural fare suddenly available via the media. They complain about supposedly rampant moral degeneracy and so on. A good recent example is from Afghanistan. [ 'Afghan Ministry Bans the Broadcast of 5 Foreign Soap Operas' New York Times, Tuesday April 22, 2008, page A6].

This is counter-reform in action. And it seems to me that it happens all over the place these days, once the donors leave with their resources.To be fair to donors, part of the problem is that partner governments use claims of sovereignty to get donors to leave them alone; but donors engage in 'policy dialogue' on difficult issues all the time when they want to. What saddens is that the defenders of the new media system, all those who have been trained, all those who have come to enjoy a spring of voice after decades of voicelessness, suddenly find themselves beleaguered and alone. It is usually a sorry spectacle. (A delegation from such an environment visited CommGAP recently, asking for help). And it happens because of impatience in the donor community, the short attention span, and the continuing failure - it seems to me - to realize that true change is what can be sustained. And that true pro-poor social and political change takes time, stamina and sheer insistence.

Photo Credit: Eric Miller, 2002 (WB)

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