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The Strengthening African Media Initiative

A Role for the International Development Community

ERIC CHINJE (African Development Bank)

Thursday 22 March, 2007
London School of Economics

Talking Points

There have been innumerable efforts by the international donor community to address the problem of media development in Africa – at least for as long as I have been involved in the sector – and that is three decades and counting!

I want to put a couple of things on the table before I introduce an initiative that, my friends and I hope, will finally succeed in doing what we all have been trying to do over the last few decades: ensure that the media can effectively contribute to Africa’s struggle to achieve high growth rates, development and improvements in the quality of its people’s lives!

I will quickly examine a few manifestations of the problems that confront media in Africa and then identify some of the approaches that well-meaning donors have taken to try and address them. That will allow me to talk about the Strengthening African Media Initiative (SAMI) and why I think it may be the best response yet by the international development community to the problem of media development in Africa.

Some Manifestations of the Problem

1. Economic Reporting in the Congo … capacity and policy

During most of the 90s, on field trips in Africa, I made it a point of meeting with journalists who regularly covered economic development issues. The numbers varied from one country, with an average of about 10. I also took time, before each visit, to review the papers of the last couple of weeks to get a reading of the range of topics covered. I did this when I visited Brazzaville in 1997 and was convinced I would have a near-empty room. There was hardly any economic development news in the papers. Well, it turned out I had close to 40 reporters gathered. When I asked to know how so many could produce so little over the span of two weeks, I was told by someone who introduced himself as the President of the Economic Reporters Union that the reason was quite simple: there had been no economic activity in the country over the last two weeks! [I found out later that he meant that no loans had been signed with donors over the last two weeks. That, in the view of the gentleman and his colleagues, was The Economy.]

2. Covering HIV/AIDS in Zambia …. Capacity and Ownership

In Lusaka around the same period, I wanted to know why there was little or no reporting on one of the major economic development stories of the day: HIV and AIDs. A young lady provided the response: AIDS, she said, is too sad a story to relate and Editors would not authorize publication because it would not sell papers. And besides, she added, most of the population knew what they needed to know about the problem. I wondered if anyone knew, for example, about the work of the Washington-based Zambian Orphans of AIDS organization of which I was a part; if anyone had reported on the life of any one of the children whose lives had been forever changed not only by the epidemic but also by the actions of people and organizations like ZOA. About a year later, I was informed that the same young lady had not only convinced her Editor and become a regular on the AIDS beat but was in Geneva (or somewhere in Europe) to receive an award for AIDS reporting.

3. Pre-Election Coverage in Nigeria … Ownership, Capacity, Status, Ethics

In February 2002, I organized workshops in Abuja and Lagos on pre-election reporting in Nigeria. Prior to that, I’d commissioned a study on media content covering the previous two years. The opening exercise in each workshop was the identification by participants of ten of the issues they all agreed were most important to citizens. We found out in Abuja that only one of the ten issues they agreed on was contained in the top ten identified in the study; Lagos did a little better with two! To explain the dichotomy, the journalists pointed to pressure from media owners, limited capacity in economic development issues, and the status of journalists that left them vulnerable to those who could pay to have a story reported. This was also responsible for a drop in ethical standards, they recognized.

4. Using Mr. O

I recount the next story not to underscore the problem but to point out what is possible. In the mid-eighties, television was introduced to Cameroon and I had the challenging task of coordinating the news and programmes department. Every politician with power tried to get one of his own on TV, qualified or not. One from the later category who joined Cameroon Television was Mr. O. After months of failed attempts to get anything of value out of him, I decided, over protests and political pressure that I would have him stay on the health beat and simply bring in footage from hospitals and other health service areas. Fast forward to 2003 during a visit to TV House! We suddenly hear someone who had just hurt himself scream in pain. Suddenly everyone was shouting: call the doctor; call the doctor. Surprise! Surprise! It was none other than Mr. O!

Some Past Donor Approaches

Efforts to address these and other problems of media abound and there have been innumerable attempts by donors and others to find these solutions. Many of the African journalists in this room may have made their first trip to North America as part of a group sponsored by the US government, to expose the journalists to the values of freedom and democracy. Many probably ended up staying in the US or returning there shortly thereafter.

Many will recall the never-ending training workshops – excellent platforms for learning and knowledge-sharing – organized at the national or regional level, which introduced what everyone came to agree, was nothing more than a “culture of per diems”. This, because the most deserving reporters were never sent by the editor to training programs for which an attendance allowance would be provided!

I became a part of that culture when I joined the World Bank in 1992 – called in to “help train” a group of journalists who had been brought over from some 20 countries and to ensure that there would be a sizeable contingent of African reporters covering the 1992 World Bank and IMF Annual Meetings in Washington DC. The journalists clearly missed the point after two weeks of intense training in the values of development communications: virtually every one of them was out (probably shopping) when some of the key players in the Meetings held open sessions on issues of direct interest to Africa.

After a second attempt at Washington-based workshops, the Bank decided that it would be more fruitful and cost-effective to move the training to the field. Attendance allowances were always provided. We soon found that we had simply become another sponsor of the per diem culture. Few journalists would show up when it was decided that no allowances would be paid.

Two more examples from the World Bank experience. By the mid-nineties, the Bank had built a video-conferencing system that allowed it to reach trainee groups in a number of African countries at any one time. Two important courses were introduced, one on investigative journalism and the other, which I co-hosted, on Economics and Business Journalism. The jury is still out on the impact of those programs. Many of those we thought were very good quickly moved on into other fields of activity.

The second example was indeed the first real attempt at donor coordination of support for media development. It was appropriately called ParMA – the Partnership for Media Development in Africa. The one problem with the ParMA experience was that its prime movers were rather averse to the idea of directly involving African media professionals in the conception and delivery of the solutions they envisaged. The effort brought a lot of important donors around the table but fizzled off in 2000 – precisely after consultations with journalists in Africa brought out issues the lead agency was apparently unwilling to deal with.

The Strengthening African Media Initiative

Having pointed out some of the manifestations of the problem and donor attempts to address it, let me now turn to the one effort I strongly believe would finally make a difference in African media development: the Strengthening African Media Initiative.

In many ways, this Initiative is a first. More than most region-wide development endeavors that involve stakeholders from recipient and donor countries, the seeds for this Initiative germinated in Africa, were nurtured in Europe and came back to Africa for its implementation. SAMI came out of two processes led respectively by the Addis Ababa-based Economic Commission for Africa and the BBC World Service Trust. Its origins, as far as I know, are African: The idea of a media development facility was contained in at least one contribution to what was then the Blair Commission on Africa. That paper came out of a Communications Forum in Kampala in 2004, held on the sidelines of the African Development Bank Group Annual Meetings, which argued for a holistic and coordinated approach to donor funding and private sector participation in media. It suggested that the facility should establish a programme for ensuring private sector support for media development, using catalytic donor funding over a specified period of time to achieve that objective.

The Commission ultimately issued a report – “Our Common Interest” – that placed the role of media within the larger context of governance and development, and underscored the importance of an African media development facility. Following the release of the report in April 2006, the two processes mentioned earlier were launched to carry out research, consultations and deliberations on the need and potential role of such a facility.

The ECA, with funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Open Society Institute, launched STREAM – Strengthening Africa’s Media – an Africa-wide series of electronic and in-person consultations on the state of media in Africa, its role as an agent of development, and ideas for strengthening it. The STREAM process resulted in a report that is being finalized: “The African Framework for the Development of a Sustainable and Pluralistic Media”.

The BBC World Service Trust and a group of African and international partners formed the African Media Development Initiative (AMDI) and, with funding from the Gates Foundation, DFID, the International Finance Corporation and Irish Aid, launched a 17-nation research and consultation process, working with an Advisory Group of African and international media owners and practitioners, and in collaboration with Rhodes University in South Africa and Amadou Bello University in Nigeria.

The two processes together constituted by far the largest and most comprehensive study on media in Africa. Not surprisingly, they were fairly consistent in their findings. They provide us not only with empirical data on media in the region but also allow us to gain greater insight into both the current state of media in a majority of African countries and the lessons that must be drawn from past efforts to strengthen media in the region. They also provide us with credible recommendations on a way forward.

Going Forward

We have the evidence and now know, with a fair amount of certainty, what it is that impedes media action in Africa. We know now why and how donor efforts have failed to deliver and why private sector support is sporadic, unreliable and ineffective. We also know why ethical standards remain low, why professionalism remains in such short supply, why training institutions are only peripheral players in the search for solutions, and why some governments will not give media the space it needs to flourish and contribute effectively to changing society.

What we still do not know is the sequencing of all the recommendations that have been made by professionals, media owners, academics and development agencies, all key actors in media development efforts. What we do not yet have is a coherent programme to achieve the central objective of transforming media in Africa into a veritable frontline player in the battle for development and improved living standards across Africa.

The AMDI and STREAM processes were brought together into what we now call the Strengthening Africa Media Initiative (SAMI). Its challenge is to take the work that has been done to the next level: bring forth a set of actionable proposals drawn from both reports; identify the action areas and suggest mechanisms for addressing them, first by the national and international public sectors, and then, on a more sustainable basis, by the private sector.

A Steering Committee, many of whose members are in this audience, has responsibility for overseeing the next phase of the work. This is how we intend to proceed: Starting tomorrow, we will meet to discuss an advocacy programme and agree on the terms of reference of a Technical Team that will review all the AMDI and STREAM reports. The Team will be expected to come up with concrete proposals that will then be tabled for discussion at a Stakeholders Forum. That gathering will endorse a plan that will first seek to generate significant donor resources to finance action that, over a five year horizon, will ensure that the private sector becomes the main driver of media activity in Africa. The plan will be presented to a donors’ conference sometime (we hope) before the end of the year.

We may be on the eve of one of the most significant developments in the history of media – global media and, more specifically, media in Africa. It is the hope of everyone involved – and that is a lot of communications professionals and other stakeholders in Africa and around the world – that this broad-based, comprehensive, and well-thought-out approach to dealing with the problem of media development in Africa will finally pay off! You can all contribute to making it happen.

Thank you.