Print Version Print Version Email to Friend Email to Friend
MAZI Articles

Democracy, Development and the Media
by James Deane

What makes the biggest difference to the quality of governance is active involvement by citizens—the thing we know as politics – it's the only thing that can, in the long run, transform the quality of decision-making in developing countries and the effectiveness of states.
White Paper
United Kingdom Department for International Development, 2006

In politics, communication makes possible public opinion which, when organised, is democracy.
Charles Horton Cooley, 1909

Media have become the social space where power is decided
Manuel Castells, 2007

How Media Matters to Democracy Depends on What We Mean by Democracy

The development sector is full of contested concepts, but a discussion on the relationship between media and democracy demands a particularly close attention to conceptual clarity and definitions. I want to start this talk by rooting this discussion in different conceptions of democracy and different conceptions of media.

There is a major international debate over what democracy comprises. While not a new argument, it is growing in significance and intensity and has important implications for the focus of this paper: international development strategies and what place the media – and possible support to the media – play in them. The essence of this argument (Kaldor 2007) focuses on the extent to which democracy is procedural (what has also been referred to as minimalist), or substantive (what has also been termed substantial). This debate has also been ably articulated in earlier conferences in this series organized by the University of Uppsala, particularly by Lars Rudebeck. (Rudebeck 2002).

Procedural democracy comprises first and foremost the holding of free and fair elections, together with the existence of independent institutions, such as a judiciary, the separation of the legislature from the executive and the existence of some form of civil society. In this context, the existence of free media is also often cited, but generally conceptualized in minimalist terms of being reasonably free of overt government control.

Substantive democracy builds on this concept of democracy but focuses additionally and explicitly on the capacity of citizens to hold authorities to account between elections, and tends to emphasise an informed, engaged citizenry able to engage in public debate and create public opinion that governments feel bound to heed. Such a substantive notion of democracy inevitably presupposes a citizenry that is informed, is able to debate ideas in public and able to communicate those ideas in ways that shape public opinion and ultimately policy.

Such substantive notions of democracy place a strong emphasis on concepts of a healthy, vibrant public sphere. In this notion of democracy, the role of media goes beyond being “free,” and attention focuses additionally on the extent to which media inform publics of the issues that shape their lives, provide spaces for informed and inclusive public debate, and provide an outlet for the voices and perspectives of citizens, including marginalised ones. Issues of who the media are owned or controlled by, who they cater to in terms of audience (and particularly in the development context whether they cater to people living in poverty) and whose voices they choose to give legitimacy to, all become key questions in terms of the quality of democracy.

Professor Mary Kaldor of the London School of Economics in discussing communicative power in the context of democracy promotion in a forthcoming edition of the Global Civil Society Yearbook (Kaldor 2007) argues that: “The more bottom up the approach, the more the emphasis is on dialogue and communication, the more favorable the terms and the greater the possibility for substantive democracy.”

As Kaldor argues, democracy is rarely defined in development assistance programmes as it has rarely been defined in history. George Orwell argued in 1957: Not only is there no agreed-upon definition of democracy, but also the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. The defenders of any kind of regime claim that it is a democracy and fear they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning (Orwell 1957).

Connecting the Democracy Debate to the Development Debate: Ownership, Accountability and the Millennium Development Goals

I think it can be argued that, in the context of governance programmes in development, and of development strategies in general, much of the effort and expenditure has been on creating democratic institutions as part of a procedural democracy. This is not to say that the more substantive elements of democracy have been entirely ignored, particularly through support of civil society organisations, but they have arguably been subsidiary. This explains in part why media and communication support, as part of good governance and democracy building programmes, have tended to be rather peripheral, short term and somewhat technocratic in scope.

In this paper I want to suggest that this is changing, and explain why it is doing so.

I argue that a number of factors are providing incentives for donors and other development actors to become more focused on substantive elements of democracy and that this in part explains a more explicit—if sometimes reluctant—focus on the role of media and communication in development.

Central to this argument are three of the pillars that form the central support structure for the current development consensus, a consensus to which most bilateral and multilateral development actors are explicitly committed.

The first of these pillars is that development strategies should be “owned” by the societies implementing them; in other words, they are the product of debate within these countries, not the product of processes forced on them externally by donor organizations.

The second pillar is “accountability,” the notion that governments should be principally held to account by their citizens rather than to donor governments.

And the third is the Millennium Declaration and the Millennium Development Goals articulated within it (United Nations, 2000).

This consensus is captured and articulated by the “Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and Harmonization” (OECD 2005), a seminal document that now provides the principal organizational framework to which nearly all donor governments, recipient governments and multilateral agencies are explicitly committed. The Declaration was agreed to by more than 100 ministers, heads of agencies and other senior officials at a major meeting organized by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris in 2005.

Previous development strategies, most recently poverty reduction strategies, are seen in reviews to have failed, or at least been compromised, because they were not “owned” by recipient governments (Mazummel and Odugbemi 2005). While concepts of such ownership have tended to rest on government ownership, it is increasingly recognised that in democratic societies, governments change and that ownership needs to extend to broader publics, not only governments. Ownership of such poverty reduction strategies necessarily involves a reasonable degree of understanding of them and the capacity to subject them to debate and scrutiny.

Publics in most developing countries depend for most of their information on their media. Being informed of development strategies and policies requires media being capable and interested in informing and explaining such policies in ways that publics –and particularly people living in poverty—can understand. It requires media to provide a forum for public debate on them; and it requires media that are amenable and able to act as conduits for people living in poverty to communicate their perspectives into public debate.

The notion of publics having a degree of “ownership” of public policy is far more rooted in a substantive notion of democracy than a procedural one and the role of the media and communication in such a discourse becomes necessarily more central and more deep-seated.

The second notion underpinning the Paris Declaration—and other major development reports, such as the Report of the Commission for Africa in 2005—is accountability (Commission for Africa, 2005, p29). The general direction of development policy is, as we know, towards budget support, providing substantially increased funding to governments and leaving it to governments, rather than donors, to determine how and where that funding should be allocated. Such support is provided with the understanding that it is citizens who will hold governments to account rather than donors.

If citizens are to hold governments to account, they need access to information on government policy and on how and where funding allocated to benefit them is being spent. The poorer people are, the more they need such information. They also need the capacity to articulate their perspectives on these issues. The media provide one of the very few mechanisms available to fulfill these functions.

It would seem, therefore, that the logical consequence of development policy is one that places increasing priority on substantive as well as procedural aspects of democracy. The Department for International Development in the United Kingdom would appear to be following either this logic or something close to it. In 2006, the white paper “Making Governance Work for the Poor” (DFID, 2006) had as one of its principal components the creation of a £100 million “Governance and Transparency Fund” designed to support free media and civil society in order to enable citizens to hold governments to account for the delivery of services. In statements, DFID Ministers and officials have often argued that “making governance work for the poor” can also be translated into making politics work for the poor.

A third main pillar of current development policy—the eight Millennium Development Goals, the achievement of which frames most current international development efforts—could provide arguments in either direction. On the one hand, MDGs can be seen as a set of technical targets, largely free of political complexity, requiring the mass mobilisation of financial, technological and human resources that can be safely delivered by elected governments with little need for substantial public debate. Or they can be seen as a set of targets the meeting of which depends on a set of deeply political policy choices—such as cost recovery in education, health or water services, privatisation or otherwise of national utilities. In the latter case, the need for public understanding, the quality of spaces for public debate and the capacity of people most affected to have their perspectives legitimised in public debate become far more acute.

We are at the midway point of the timeline to meet the MDGs. Immense progress has been made in galvanising the technical, human, financial and political resources to meet these goals. Extraordinary advances have been made over the last seven years and more in delivering development as a technical process—vaccines, condoms, treatments; teachers, doctors, clinics; money, budgetary systems, coordination mechanisms. A growing focus within development agencies on governance is a recognition that much more work needs to be done on development as a political process.

If such an analysis is valid, and if the quote from Manuel Castells (Castells, 2007) that headlines this paper is right in arguing that “media have become the social space where power is decided”, and if another quote from Coolings (Coolings, 1909 quoted in Price, 2007) was right that “in politics, communication makes possible public opinion which, when organised, is democracyany discussion on making politics work for the poor, would, it seems, suggest that issues of media and communication should become central components of development thinking and action. Without such commitment, enhanced democratic ownership, greater accountability between government and citizens, and sustainable, democratic policies to meet the MDGs would appear to be fraught with difficulty.

Making Politics Work for the Poor: the Relevance of the Media

All this, then, is by way of saying that the whole relationship between media and democracy depends on which concept of democracy is being discussed, and that concepts such as “making politics work for the poor,” suggest an increasing focus on substantive rather than simply procedural democracy. Such a discourse would, logically, suggest a stronger focus by development organisations on the institutions and mechanisms that enrich substantive, and not just procedural democracy, of which plural media would appear to be a critical component. The creation of the Governance and Transparency fund in the UK would appear to be evidence of just such an interest.

So having talked about how different concepts of democracy largely determine notions of the role of media, it would be useful to focus now on different notions and concepts of media, and different reasons why development organisations choose to support them.

As for the media, I will use as my starting point the definition used by SIDA in its 2006 policy document on Culture and the Media.

Media means the press, radio, TV, Internet based and wireless communication. Free and independent media means media independent from government control, conveying diverse points of view in society and enabling journalists to spread knowledge and debate in society. Media are for the larger part seen as a tool for communication for disseminating information, opinion on, ideas, and cultural expressions. There are also cultural expressions that are media oriented, such as TV documentaries, soap operas and news reports. When referring to media as a business sector, the term media industry is used.

This is one of the more detailed definitions of media to be found in most development policy documents (and such statements are, in fact, very rare—SIDA’s is one of very few that exists). Most references in such documents generally simply refer to “free media”, and strategies tend to focus on encouraging and supporting “free media” without defining what that is.

Let us take this definition as a starting point—one embracing new as well as traditional media platforms—of what media are and then explore how media are currently structured and placed within concepts of democracy. Here I want to focus on two main conceptions of the media. The first is free media; the second is a plural media.

Free media are an essential component of procedural as well as substantive democracy. They are both on the ascendant and under attack. Growing democratisation, liberalisation of media and new technologies have meant that control of information and media by government has become far more difficult. The number of media actors has blossomed, the complexity of media markets has intensified, and the consumption of media has exploded, even in countries with oppressive media systems such as China. At the same time, the growing number of attacks on journalists, including by agents of the state (as claimed for example in the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya) demonstrates the fragility of democracy and human rights in many countries.

Much discourse on media and democratisation is focused on how free media—often free commercial media—can be encouraged. Free media are not, however, the same as plural media. Free media are a fundamental, non-negotiable component of plural media, but they are not the same thing. Media can be entirely free of government control but completely inaccessible to more than, say, 30 percent of a population. They can be free, but owned by a handful of powerful commercial or other special interests. It can be free but entirely disinterested in covering issues of concern to people living in poverty or reflecting the perspectives of people living in poverty. The concept of plural media is one that takes these concepts of access, content and ownership into account.

Free media can, then, be a critical part of procedural democracy, and even play an important watchdog role on government, but can do so in the interest of the small urban elite. The more the focus on notions of a substantive democracy, the more the need to focus on the plurality as well as the freedom of the media.

Why Should Media Fulfill a Democratic Function in Resource-poor States?

At the start of this paper, I argued that development policy was increasingly dependent on media informing citizens—particularly poor citizens—on the issues that shape their lives, and dependent on them providing spaces and channels for people to communicate their perspectives. The question then becomes why on earth should the media fulfill these functions?

One answer is that most journalists have historically always defined their mission as speaking truth to power—in other words playing precisely the role that development actors interested in citizens holding governments to account would have them play.

Another answer is the fact that the enabling environment both for speaking truth to power and for broader public debate has arguably increased immensely over the last two decades. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we witnessed a massive wave of democratization felt throughout most of the world, and with that wave went an unprecedented opening up of media. Liberalisation of broadcasting in dozens of countries, especially in Africa, led to a proliferation of radio stations and with them—through talk shows, discussion programmes and phone-ins—public debate that was accessible to an unprecedented number of people. Television has exploded in terms of numbers of channels and in reach (through satellite and falling costs of ownership). New technologies have made control of information far more difficult, and an explosion of newspapers and magazines added to an increasingly vibrant and complex culture of political and public debate in many countries (Deane 2007).

Now, however, the wave that saw an increasingly enabling environment for flourishing plural media is passing, and the traditional notion of journalism as essentially one that speaks truth to power, is arguably fading. There are several reasons for this.

Foremost among these: the job of investigating and uncovering truth becomes more risky every year, with the International Federation of Journalists and other media freedom organisations tracking record numbers of attacks on journalists (IFJ 2007). This is well documented.

In the context of development, however, the risk of attack is not the only disincentive to journalists and media organisations exploring and covering the concerns of people living in poverty, investigating those concerns or highlighting the voices of those people.

Covering development is not a glamorous or high status beat. More fundamentally, competitive pressures in most countries are becoming more acute, and the focus on maximising profit or even economic survival demands a focus on issues that attract audiences of interest to advertisers. Media are often owned by people attached to special interests, whether political, commercial or religious. In such a climate, the incentives for independent journalists to cover poverty-related issues in independent investigative ways become very difficult to discern. Why would all but the most committed and courageous journalist do that?

Democracy and Media: Poorly Researched, Poorly Understood, Poorly Supported, and Increasingly Critical

The degree to which media in developing countries report on the issues faced by people living in poverty reflect their perspectives fairly in their coverage and provide spaces for public debate that reach and are informed by such people is very poorly researched. Data are scarce, evidence poorly systematized. What evidence does exist, however, points to a media environment that is under increasing economic as well as political pressure. As competitive forces bite, the pressure to move towards lifestyle journalism and focus on journalism that caters to consumers and advertisers intensifies, with people living in poverty and other social concerns increasingly marginalised.

This, ultimately, is why development actors should take a more active interest in the role of media and development and in sustaining democracy. There is a clear assumption in current development policy that media will play a certain role in society, holding governments to account and enabling informed public debate. Unless they play that role, current development strategies are likely to be undermined just as earlier development strategies (such as poverty reduction strategies) were. Democracies will exist in name, but not in substance, and are unlikely to prove sustainable or successful.

Development discourse over many years has been increasingly focused on notions of empowerment and participation. The logic of a new focus on ownership and accountability accentuates the need for such a focus. It complements and reinforces existing debates around rights based approaches to development and suggests a far more intensive interest in the role of media and communication in development.

Unfortunately, with a fairly small number of exceptions (such as DFID's Governance and Transparency Fund), there seems to be little evidence that development decision-makers are taking a more sustained interest in the role of media in development (Deane 2006) and are not prioritizing the development and implementation of strategies designed to strengthen media capacities. The area is relatively poorly supported, certainly poorly researched and the degree of coordination and coherence of media support measures at country level is often negligible. There is little expertise within most development agencies focused on the role of media and communication in development (a role often conflated with press offices which exist to increase organizational or issue profile). Budget support, which constitutes how increasing development assistance is disbursed, is an inappropriate mechanism through which to support media capacities.

The net result may be a looming crisis in development assistance, where the essential media mechanisms that can ensure greater ownership and accountability that development strategies need to be underpinned by are assumed to exist, but where in reality, those roles are under intense political and economic pressure. Development policy arguably needs this role to be played, but development actors show limited strategic engagement in understanding or supporting such a role. The media themselves may be too distracted by their own problems to engage substantively in such a debate. The alarming, and potentially highly damaging result for development efforts, is a vacuum of debate, action and leadership.

Editor’s note:
This paper was originally prepared for the conference Whose Voices? Media and Pluralism in the Context of Democratisation, arranged in Uppsala, Sweden, by the Collegium for Development Studies at Uppsala University and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), September 20-21, 2007. It is presently being edited for publication in No 30 of the report series Utsikt mot uveckling. The paper is pre-printed here with the permission of the publishers.

Denise Gray-Felder was also a featured speaker at this Uppsala conference. Her remarks will be included in the next issue of Mazi.


Castells, Manuel (2007), Communication, Power and Counter-Power in the Network Society, International Journal of Communication, 1.1, 238-266.
Cooley, H (1909), Social Organization: a study of the larger mind, New York, Charles Scribner
Department for International Development Eliminating World Poverty: Making Governance Work for the Poor: A White Paper on International Development, DFID 2006
Deane, James Why the media matters: the relevance of the media to tackling poverty in Media Matters: Perspectives on Advancing Governance and Development from the Global Forum for Media Development, Internews/GFMD, 2006
Deane, James, Democratic advance or retreat? Communicative power and current media developments, in Global Civil Society 2007/8: Communicative Power and Democracy, Sage/London School of Economics, 2007
Scribner quoted in Price, Vincent, “Democracy, Global Publics and World Opinion”, in
Global Civil Society 2007/8: Communicative Power and Democracy, Sage/London School of Economics, 2007
International Federation of Journalists, Journalism put to the sword in 2006: the IFJ report on journalists and media staff killed in 2006, IFJ 2007
Kaldor, Mary, “Democracy and Globalisation”, in Global Civil Society 2007/8:
Communicative Power and Democracy, Sage/London School of Economics, 2007, p35
Mozammel, Masud, and Odugbemi, Sina (Ed.), With the support of multitudes: Using strategic communication to fight poverty through PRSPs, Department for International Development and World Bank, 2005
Our Common Interest: Report of the Commission for Africa, Commission for Africa, 2005, p.29
Orwell, George, Selected Essays, London, Penguin books with Secker and Warburg, (1957), quoted in Kaldor (ibid).
Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness: Ownership, Harmonisation, Alignment, Results and Mutual Accountability, OECD, 2005
Rudebeck, Lars, (2003) ”Democracy in Actual Practice”” in Collegium for Development Studies at Uppsala University, Utsikt mot Utveckling 20, 2002:b, pp 5 - 15
SIDA (2006) Culture and Media: policy in development cooperation, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency
United Nations Millennium Declaration (55/2), 8 September 2000, United Nations

Click here to return to Mazi 13

Click here to return to the main listing