How can the media address global poverty? This paper from the Global Forum for Media Development argues that the media has a critical role in poverty reduction, particularly by fostering country ownership of development strategies and the accountability of governments to their citizens. However, the media operates in a politically and economically hostile environment with only fragmented, inconsistent and short-term support from donors. It therefore remains largely peripheral to development action. The media can and must enable people with the most to win or lose from development debates to access, understand and contribute to them.
The media can: (1) provide access to information that is essential to peoples’ lives; (2) cover topics relevant to poor and marginalised people; (3) reflect the perspectives and concerns of such people; and (4) provide a public space where issues relating to poverty and marginalisation can be discussed to catalyse social change.
The media therefore has the potential to help address significant gaps in development strategies in relation to participation and ownership and government accountability:
- Participation and ownership: Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) were intended to facilitate broad consultation and participation in the design of development strategies. However, so-called ‘participatory’ exercises are too often sporadic, top-down public information campaigns, and PRSPs are failing because of a lack of ownership. The media is vital to the kind of public debate that can foster ownership, but it has not fulfilled this facilitation role.
- Accountability: Reduced conditionality makes aid increasingly reliant on beneficiary governments (rather than donors) setting priorities that best promote the interests of their people. It is assumed that governments will be held to account by their citizens, yet the importance of an independent, informed and engaged media for accountability is often unacknowledged.
Such links between the media and development are difficult to establish, however. The media’s ability and desire to foster ownership and accountability is open to question: research data is limited, and commercial incentives militate against public interest journalism. Further, media support remains a low priority in donor strategies, and international efforts are incoherent and short-term.
- Contributory factors to inadequate donor support include: the increase in funding decisions made at country level (leading to inconsistent and unstrategic media-related initiatives); the growing use of general budget support to governments; and limited donor coordination.
- Proliferation of the media has led to positive changes – such as increased public debate and civic engagement – but with growing competition, content is increasingly shaped by advertisers and sponsors. Media coverage thus has less relevance or concern for poor and marginalised people.
Both donors and media organisations should ensure that the media is central to development strategies. Those in the media should pay more attention to their role in relation to development, and those in development should engage seriously with the complexities of the public sphere:
- The media must protect public interest, and must view its audience as the whole population of developing countries (not just those living in urban areas or those who constitute a market for advertisers).
- Donors must give greater attention to citizens’ access to information, and their capacity and opportunity to communicate in the public domain.
- More international debate is needed on the links between media and development.
- The international agenda on the media and development must be shaped by the media itself, especially from developing countries, as well as by groups that support free, independent and plural media.
- An evidence base for the impact of media support needs to be developed.