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Do ‘media’ and civil society work together well to produce change? (Notes from a CIMA Seminar)

Sina Odugbemi's picture

In the untroubled, quotidian quietude of a cloudy morning in Washington DC on Tuesday this week, I walked from World Bank HQ on Pennsylvania Avenue to the offices of the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) on F Street, hoping that the skies above would not open up uproariously and ruin the walk. Happily, they did not, and I made it to the plush offices of CIMA, a think tank within the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). I was there to attend a seminar on: Media and Civic Engagement: From Protests to Dialogue. I had been attracted by both the topic and the panelists: Naomi Hossain of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Sussex, England, Ivana Bajrovic of NED, Tara Susman-Pena of IREX, a major implementing agency in development, and the World Bank’s own Marco Larizza, one of the authors of the World Development Report 2017 on Governance and Law. The session was ably moderated by Nicholas Benequista of CIMA.

You will notice that I put the word media in quotation marks in the title of the piece.  That is because, as often happens in these events, the term at the center of the discussion turned out to be contested. What is media as a subject of intervention and support in international development? It became clear that as the discussion went on that there are those who still think of media in the sense of traditional print and broadcast entities. But there are those --and I am in that group --who think of media in terms of media systems, as in the media ecosystem in a particular country: the totality of the means of communication, how it is structured, owned and governed. There is a normative element here of course; you also want the media system to travel firmly in the direction of pluralism, independence and a capacity to serve as not only an inclusive public forum but as a truculent watchdog. Finally, at the seminar Susman-Pena of IREX was promoting the organization’s intriguing new formulation: Vibrant Information Systems.

There are two portions of the discussion that I won’t report on. My colleague, Marco Larizza, discussed the sections on media and civil society in the World Development Report (WDR) 2017. This particular WDR is path-breaking. If you have not read it, I urge you to do so. You can download a copy here. I will also not discuss IREX’s new Vibrant Information Systems approach. Interested readers can follow the link already provided.

Now, let’s return to the key issue:  do ‘media’ and civil society combine well to produce pro-poor social and political change? Two real-world examples presented at the seminar caught my attention. First, Ivana Bajrovic discussed a particularly fruitful intervention model in suitable contexts. It is The Triangle Method. You get a local think tank to work with a grassroots organization and a media organization to drive a particular issue domestically. She gave a detailed example from Kosovo which I won’t go into here. But I have seen this approach work well elsewhere as well. Think about this virtuous triangle. It is, like any good coalition, an arrangement whereby different partners bring complementary skills and capabilities to the table. The overall effort benefits hugely. Naturally, caveats are necessary. As Bajrovic pointed out, donors can convene these coalitions but cannot make them work. They have to develop organically. In addition, long term support from donors is needed, since it might take a decade or more for real results to happen.  Problem: we all know that donors can be short-sighted and impatient for “results”. Above all, the particular political context matters a great deal.  As other panelists pointed out, governments and billionaires try to shape media by owning it. Media systems are intimately linked with power everywhere in the world. In other words, the media system is a site of power contests virtually everywhere.

Now, let’s discuss the second real-world example. Naomi Hossain, the political sociologist from IDS drew on her experience as “the Principal Investigator on the DFID-ESRC funded research project Food Riots and Food Rights: the moral and political economy of accountability for hunger Project (2012-14) and as a research lead on the IDS/Oxfam GB Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project” to quote from her IDS CV.  What role did the media play in these volatile events that led, in some cases, to the fall of governments? According to her, there were three aspects of the coverage of the food riots by international media:

  • The media framed the food riots as a wave;
  • They framed the issue as a dangerous one; and
  • The commentary focused on the global policy failures that led to the riots.
The national media, on the other hand, did a different job. They connected the events to particular local failures like corruption.

Overall, Hossain was impressed by how the media handled the crisis: they were analytical; they amplified the voices of the voiceless, that is, the voice of the street; and they were not only working with activists but acting like activists, and setting a moral agenda. If you want to learn more, she has a new book on the food riots coming out later this year: Food Riots, Food Rights and the Global Politics of Provisions (Routledge 2017).
          
I left as the discussion segmented kicked off. The day was cloudy still but the streets of Washington were busier and noisier. And, thankfully, the skies did not open up as I walked back to the office.

Photo credit: Dominic Chavez/World Bank

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