Roumeen Islam is manager of the World Bank Institute's Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Division. She is an economist by training and, I might add, by conviction. But to anybody who cares seriously about the role of the mass media in development, Roumeen is much admired in a particular capacity: as someone who has made a sterling contribution to how the media is viewed within international development. Although media systems and their impact on development are not the only things that have preoccupied her - right now she is leading major work on international trade indicators, amongst others - she has done as much as anybody I know to put an institutional view of the media on the development agenda. Her unique contribution has been to use the language and methods of economics to make the case for the potential contribution of free, plural and independent media to development.
Roumeen was staff director of the World Bank's World Development Report 2002: Building Institutions for Markets. Chapter 10 of that report - titled 'The Media'- is a classic analysis of the role of the mass media in development. It still rewards reading even today. Then she followed this up with a longer study, The Right to Tell: The Role of Mass Media in Economic Development. My own reaction to the book, and the reaction of many others in the field, is elegantly expressed by David Hoffman, President, Internews Network, as follows: 'I've been waiting for ten years for someone to put together a book like this. The Right to Tell finally makes the case linking open media with economic growth and development. Each article in this collection is like a building block in a public policy brief that places open media at the forefront of development strategy.' There is still a lot of work to do, of course, but the two efforts by Roumeen have been seminal contributions.
Now, she has just published a new study, Information and Public Choice: From Media Markets to Policy Making (The World Bank, 2008). The book, as the blurb correctly states, addresses the factors that affect the content and reach of news coverage as well as its impact on public policy. It also addresses market constraints and the impact of news reporting on economic and political choices. The contributors are mainly economists who are at the cutting edge of research on these issues globally, including Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz. And they use the register and frames of their discipline. Now, that is not going to be to everyone's taste. For instance, my own appetite for econometric analysis is very limited. I read the introduction of papers engaged in this and jump right to the conclusion. I am also not sure what firm conclusions one can draw about political behavior by running a bunch of regressions. But I am happy that economists are looking at media systems and media effects. The more the merrier. Given the domination of many development institutions in the global system by economists, the more of them you have picking up our issues the better for our agenda. It does not stop us from showing what other social science disciplines - as well as the lessons of practice - have to contribute to our understanding of these important policy issues and actual processes.
May Roumeen and her colleagues maintain their interest in open media in spite of the understandable pull of issues like international trade. I urge you to take a look at Information and Public Choice...and, if you are not an economist by training, give your mind a good workout!