The Role of Media in Development – a speech by World Bank Vice President for Africa Region, Obiageli Ezekwesili

On Monday September 5, 2011, the World Bank Vice President for Africa Region Obiageli Ezekwesili in Lagos gave a speech on ‘The Role of Media in Development’ at a policy dialogue with media top executive and linked with about 30 other African Countries by video conference. See speech below.

The Role of Media in Development

It is a pleasure and an honor for me to welcome to this video conference facilitated dialogue some of Africa’s most important top media executives, editors, content producers and senior reporters and the representatives of the Associations of Journalists from 25 African countries. This is not the first time we are using this platform to exchange views on development. While on previous occasions the media came as a messenger – receiving the message we wanted to share with stakeholders across Africa and helping to interpret and transmit that message – this engagement is in your capacity as a partner in development.

We were guided in convening this conference by the Africa Strategy for the World Bank. Adopted in early March 2011, the foundation of that Strategy (Governance and Public Sector Capacity) and the leading instrument for its implementation (Partnerships) cannot really be implemented without the support of and partnership with the media. The knowledge agenda the Strategy highlights would also be unrealistic without an agreed approach to knowledge dissemination that integrates media.

Without minimizing the work done by other organizations and other players in the field of development, it is clear that media – especially independent or free media – plays a central role in improving governance. And notwithstanding that media across Africa still face very many constraints stemming from a restrictive legal environment stretching from threats of physical harm, to imprisonment and assassination of journalists, media organizations and professionals hold the key to explaining, managing expectations and mobilizing grassroots support for reforms; to generate bottom-up approaches to development by integrating the voices of the poor; to the dissemination of knowledge so essential for development; and in bringing attention to the best policy choices governments can embrace to address specific development challenges.

The Information and Technology revolution and the new gadgets it offers the Facebook and Twitter generation Africans will vastly expand the reach and impact media will have in our lives. The ICT revolution has the additional advantage of giving voice to ordinary citizens – through social media (blogs, tweets, Facebook postings, text messaging, etc.) – to join media professionals in holding up the mirror to society; in forcing us to face up to and address our challenges.

Studies have highlighted the importance of voice. A recent survey of 6,000 poor people from across all regions of the world found that the vast majority of respondents considered that they were poor not because they did not have money, but because they did not have a say in how their fate was determined; in how their countries were run; in how development priorities were decided. They said they were poor and robbed of their dignity because they were denied a voice or denied the opportunity to speak up.

It is you – ladies and gentlemen of the press – that can restore that dignity by giving voice to the poor; by ensuring that their views are conveyed and are taken into account; by listening and speaking on their behalf; by ensuring that the powers that be and that development partners like us take their aspirations into account in the design, financing, and implementation of development programs. Such is the role I see for media in development.

I know these views are shared. The objective of this dialogue is to seek a platform through which these ideals can be better articulated for greater impact. How can we leverage the power of the media to influence not only how people, policy makers, politicians and governments think; but more importantly to help direct the policy choices and reforms critical for fostering development?

As you probably know, can oftentimes be a complex and boring subject for the media outlets. This especially so given the incentives to focus on political brinkmanship and gossip that audiences and readers find exciting. It is easier for editors to headline with the bloodletting in our societies and with the accidents that turn our lives upside down. But deep down I know that you all agree with me that the maternity where your wife goes to deliver your baby; that the hospital where your husband gets treated; that the school where your children are educated; that the water they drink at home or at school; that the roads on which you get transported to and fro work every day need to be of the best quality. Achieving those development outcomes will not come without citizens demanding accountability and transparency in the way services are provided. What we also know is that when our newspapers articles, radio and television programs fail to focus on and break these issues down into bits that influence policy making and are relevant to the national debate, they indirectly give a pass to politicians.

As I mentioned earlier, the revolution in ICTs has expanded opportunities not only for the economic growth, but also for access to services such as mobile money and mobile banking. The ICT revolution holds the promise of democratizing distance learning, of advancing e-Commerce and e-Government in ways that dramatically improve basic service delivery and increase the opportunities for citizen journalism (your blogger, twitter feed provider and i-reporter) to hold their leaders’ feet to the fire. The ICT revolution will bring improvements to health and to other sectors relied on on-line platforms to prosper.

To play its role in development, media must rise above the populist, partisan, and divisive voices that pull the blanket of every reform agenda to their side, and instead of burying its head in the sand along with the side it supports, media can offer the calm analysis needed in the heat of every political debates about development. Today and quite unrelated to the partnership we going to be discussing in break-out sessions during the rest of this video conference, I would like to point out three issues that I feel is critical to advancing the role of the media in development.

First, I believe that the time has come for African governments to reform their ministries of information in ways that will free media outlets and media professionals from the restrictive legal environment in which they are presently forced to operate. In many countries, reform has not been fully implemented to liberalize the media sector; to curb state control of media outlets that have tended to focus on nothing else but spin and propaganda. The reform should expand the space for media ownership and allow the use of media as a platform for advancing Africa’s development.

I believe that Africa needs need public/community radio and television services – that play a role similar to the one played by NPR and C-Span in the United States or by the BBC in the United Kingdom. I do not think it is debatable that state-owned, state-controlled media – funded by taxpayer dollars – have not played the development advocacy role beyond the public relations campaigns of the governing elite. What is debatable is whether private, for-profit media will step out and honor their commitment to serve the public interest. Running the kind of campaigns needed to combat malaria, keep children in school, prevent underage marriages, fight alcohol, cigarette and drug abuse in youngsters has to be a public good provided by both public and private media alike in support of development.

Second, I feel confident that African journalists are as well trained as journalists anywhere in the world and, therefore, are not well-served by those who have kept too narrow a focus on episodic training provided without the rigor of academic setting. Although I believe African journalists are well trained and are as competent as journalists elsewhere but the quality of their reporting and coverage of development issues will not improve if African media professionals continue to operate in an environment of threats, fear and intimidation.

By the way, quality will not improve if journalists cannot have access to information; if they are forced to perform the job of the watchdog at great risk to their lives and the livelihoods their families depend on. The saying goes that no reporter is worth his or her salt unless she or he survives to tell the story. It is critically important therefore for African governments to ensure that freedom of information (recognized as a fundamental human rights by the 14 December 1946 UN General Assembly Resolution) and access to information laws are abided by. The knowledge-based global economy in which Africa must compete will present a major challenge to our continent unless our governments promote the free flow of ideas and of knowledge, and create the environment in which media outlets can facilitate such exchange.

Third, the budding media industry in Africa faces some of the same if not more development challenges as other sectors and will require strategic partnerships and innovative financing to develop. We know the several billion dollar industry that the media represents in the United States, Europe, Latin America and India. We have seen encouraging signs with the advent of the Nollywood film industry in Nigeria and other African infant film industries. Even more important than providing financing, the first part of a win-win partnership must be the acceptance by governments and development partners to engage the African media industry – as a partner – not simply as a messenger – called in to shine the image of politicians, of the private sector or of development partners. Economic, legal, training, political and financing barriers to the establishment of a viable African media industry need to be addressed by governments and development partners, but also by journalists who will earn even more respect if they abide by the highest standards of internationally-recognized professional ethics.

We, at the World Bank Group, especially colleagues at the World Bank Institute who have a program on media development have worked on it with the African Media Initiative – are keen to hear of the creative ways in which you think we can deepen media involvement in and support for Africa’s development. I hope that the partnership this video conference has been convened to help launch will yield the kind of fruits we all truly hope to see and that Africa deserves to get.

Let me thank you all again for coming, thank our partners and co-organizers, and join them in expressing the hope that we will have a fruitful and productive conference.

Thank you for your kind attention.

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