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CFSC and the Commission on Africa: Deciding How Aid is Spent

The Global Development Conference 2005: Africa's Development"”Who Decides? was held in London in July 2005. In his presentation at the conference, James Deane, the Consortium's managing director-strategy, argues that it is not the volume of aid that matters most, but who decides how it is spent. The media, he says, has a central role in ensuring that an intelligent debate of the issue takes place.

For many people, and particularly this summer of Live 8, the G8 and the Make Poverty History march, the central issue has been: Who decides the fate of Africa?

The challenge set for the G8 meeting in Scotland was to provide the conditions"”particularly the trade conditions"”for the people of Africa to decide their own destiny. It was a decisive departure from Africa being the subject of change, and toward the continent being an agent of its own change.

For all the progress made on debt and aid, if not on trade, three or four decades after most African countries gained their independence, did the GB meeting really cement the principle that the citizens of the 54 countries who make up the continent must principally shape their future?

Or will the world's richest countries still decide?

The Media's Role in the Debate

I leave you to draw your own conclusions on how much the G8 placed the future destiny of Africa in the hands of Africans. With regard to the media, however, my belief is that it is the media, together with civil society, that will have a decisive role in determining the answer to that question: Africa: who decides?

And it will have a central role in determining whether poverty is made history.

The report of the Commission for Africa, which I believe should be a benchmark of action far beyond this month and this year, had much excellent analysis, and many excellent recommendations, many of which focused on the issue of who decides. Among them was, in my view, its starkest and most radical assessment.

After 30 years of development cooperation, African governments view themselves to be more accountable to Western donor governments than they do to their own citizens. The report argues that progress will be impossible until that changes. Such a change requires Western governments to surrender decision-making over development strategy, including spending of development aid; and it requires the capacity of people, particularly the most marginalised who are the supposed beneficiaries of development assistance, to hold their governments to account.

In essence, the Commission argues that Western countries should spend far more aid, but have far less control over how it is spent. It argues that only by a rapid scaling up of investment, the forgiveness of debt and a dramatic change in the international trading system --what it calls a "big push"ť-- will progress be possible. We have heard much at the G8 about a scaling up of development assistance. But we have heard less about who decides how that aid should be spent.

Let us assume for a moment that real and rapid progress is made not only in scaling up investment, but also in ensuring that African governments decide who take the decisions on how it [investment] is spent. If this strategy is to work, people who have most at stake in who decides, the people who are poorest, the most marginalised, those outside of the government elites, must have a far greater voice in their own development.

Several ways exist to ensure that that can occur. It can be exercised through improving democratic process, through elections and representations to elected officials and myriad other formal and informal structures that societies have developed, or could develop, to hold their governments to account. It can be exercised through a dynamic civil society. And it can be exercised through the media.

Of these, democratic processes are, in most African countries, fragile but growing stronger. Civil society is increasingly vibrant and dynamic, but it barely exists in some countries and sometimes it's accused of being both urban-based and elitist.

The media, meanwhile, have undergone a revolution.

A Second Information Revolution

In the G8 countries, we are familiar with the term the information revolution, which comprises new technologies of the Internet and mobile telephony. But for those living on less than $2 a day, there is another information revolution, a revolution just as transformative and just as fundamental in its implications for people's lives.

Just 15 years ago, the people of Africa mainly received their information from one main source, their governments. Liberalisation of media has swept Africa, facilitated by democratic reforms, new technologies and by investment. In 1986, Uganda had two radio stations. Today there are more than 100. In Mali, there are now 30 private newspapers, almost 150 radio stations and television.

New free media have emerged, noisy, complex, dynamic and confusing. There are major new regional media houses owning print and broadcasting empires in various African countries; there is an explosion of community media; religious broadcasting, both from within and from outside the continent, is exploding; it is increasingly self confident, increasingly organised, and while there is a long way to go, increasingly working across the continent in demanding and safeguarding freedom of expression. Radio, the medium most accessible to the most people, in particular, has grown dramatically.

Implications for Media's Growth

What does all this mean for making poverty history? The answer is complex.

In the largest ever survey of what people living in poverty say they need, which was conducted by the World Bank in 2000, the most common response was not that they wanted money. What people want is a voice.

How equipped are the media in Africa to provide that voice?

Much of this second information revolution has already contributed radically to making poverty history. Commercial radio stations are abuzz with talk shows criticising government corruption, enabling debate about issues such as AIDS, giving voice to people who have rarely been heard. Journalists risk jail and worse in defending their freedoms, ever more frequently, ever more courageously. Community media today provide a space for the poorest in society to find their voice. There are myriad examples of how journalists and media are standing up for the rights and interests of people who lack clout. While there are many exceptions, there are increasingly free and open media across the continent.

However, while there are increasingly free and diverse media, are they reaching the greatest populace? Free media is an indispensable non-negotiable component of pluralistic societies, but it is not the same thing. It is perfectly possible to have media free of government interference and restrictions but accessible to only 20 percent of the people and concerned only with the interests and perspectives of 10 percent. That is free media, but it is not pluralistic.

This second information revolution is principally an urban, consumer-oriented, advertising-driven revolution. In some countries you can be in a city and pick up a dozen radio stations on your radio. But move only 20 miles out of the city and people can pick up nothing in their own language.

Commercial and Bottom-line Oriented

These are media that are largely commercial, and focused almost exclusively on the bottom line. A friend of mine, the highly successful influential editor of a major independent media group in Uganda, recently resigned, explaining his frustration with not being able to edit his newspaper in the interests of the public, because of pressure from the owning conglomerate to maximise profits.

Editors often struggle against commercial imperatives to allocate many days of reporters' time investigating a story of government corruption versus getting outside the capital city and reflecting the views of those living in poverty in the countryside or the townships.

Issues of the degree to which the media should feel obliged to cover issues of public interest, of poverty and of social concern, are matters of intense debate the world over. But in countries where people die in the thousands because of a lack of a voice, they have a special relevance.

Should the media be forced to cover such issues"”a debate that's been raging for decades? My belief is no, they should not.

Needed: An Intense Debate

But we do need more of an intense debate and a much better understanding of how the media are developing. We must also understand to what extent people who are poor have:

  • Access to information on issues that affect their lives,
  • Capacity to debate those issues, and
  • Forums to publicly air their perspectives that can shape policy.

Last year, a meeting arranged by my organisation, the Communication for Social Change Consortium, and the Panos Institute, with the Rockefeller Foundation, brought together media freedom activists and social activists.

Our declaration set out these convictions:

1. Freedom of expression, as articulated in Article XIX of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is a fundamental right that underpins all other human rights and enables them to be expressed and realised. Eradicating poverty is essential to the realisation for all peoples of the aspirations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

2. People living in poverty face particular obstacles to achieving freedom of expression and access to the media. These obstacles include economic, social, educational, logistical and political factors. Economic obstacles include the cost of equipment for production, distribution, licenses and operation; social obstacles include gender inequality and language barriers; educational obstacles include lack of literacy; logistical obstacles include transport, physical access and electricity; political obstacles include repression and lack of will of many states to allow democratic expression and to give voice to the most marginalised groups, as well as censorship by government and commercial and social interests.

The interests and concerns of people living in poverty are not sufficiently exposed in the media.

The Africa Commission argued that aid does not work if it is spent according to conditions imposed from outside. If that is the case, it is not the volume of aid that matters most, but who decides how it is spent.

In sum, we need far more urgent, far more intelligent debate about how governments can be empowered to spend more development assistance in the interests of their poorest citizens. We also need debate on how those governments can be held accountable by their citizens. The media have a critical central role in ensuring that. Much work is necessary if the media are indeed to play that role.

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