Governments around the globe spend billions on laudable development programs, but while the charitable industry comes up with endless new acronyms and sophisticated concepts, one of the most powerful and simple tools to enhance change and foster development in societies remains underestimated at best, and perhaps even ignored at worst: the media.
The impact of media on developing nations even with low literacy rates has never been demonstrated more dramatically than by the case of Rwanda's Radio Mille Collines, whose hate-laden broadcasts were described by U.N. investigators as having played a decisive role in creating the atmosphere of racial hostility that led to the barbaric genocide in 1994.
One of the brightest examples of the media's power for goos, in turn, was their pivotal role in triggering the upheaval in the Maghreb and the greater Middle East which has so far toppled or brought to the brink at least four regimes – in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya – while others, such as Syria and Bahrain, are holding on desperately, hoping to crush the "Arab Spring" with the help of riot police and tanks.
In this issue, Bijan Kafi describes the importance of bloggers, Twitter and Facebook in shaping Egypt's revolution, while Oualid Hamdi of Tunisia tells us in an interview that "access to independent information was only possible through the internet," and that "Facebook became the media of the people".
But it's not always about toppling the government right away. Media also play a key role in fostering "good governance," one of the central goals now cherished by donors and aid groups as crucial to sustainable development. But good governance remains a distant goal if there is no accountability of those in power on all levels of government. Creating strong institutions in some countries is proving to be a daunting task that will take years or decades, but supporting the development of independent local media outlets holding those in power to account is a fast and effective means still too much neglected.
Word has long spread that building schools isn't enough. Sustainable development also needs to achieve cultural change when it comes to issues such as good governance, schooling children, family-planning, or the position of women in society. To achieve the desired change in attitudes and behavior, independent media can help most effectively by shifting public opinion.
In this issue, Fawzia Ihsan states that "there is no doubt" that the media in Afghanistan have raised awareness of women’s woes such as forced marriages, underage marriages, women’s rights and violence against women since the Taliban were ousted. “For illiterate women media are more than a source of entertainment,” Ihsan notes, media are “one of the most important tools for teaching them how to reach their goals and higher positions.”
Finally, in remote rural areas with low literacy rates, local radio stations can play an important role not only in influencing public opinion, but also in transferring knowledge – be it about the use of mosquito nets or farming techniques. “I am [...] convinced that poverty in Tanzania is basically due to a lack of information,” Joseph Sekiku of FADECO radio tells us. The broadcaster aims to help small-scale farmers in the country’s remote north-west, and ideas as simple as teaching people how to dry their tomatoes cheaply and effectively in the sun before they rot can make a huge difference for a family of subsistence farmers.
Sekiku struggles to fund his initiative, and FADECO is only one small example of a wider mismatch. Large development organizations and donor countries often seem reluctant to embrace funding, supporting or cooperating with media initiatives for various reasons – perhaps because they cannot fully control what messages such independent media outlets convey or that they doubt their quality and effectiveness altogether, fearing that such endeavors won’t make good bullet points in their annual progress reports.
The media can be a transformative force, an effective development tool that allows for the spreading of knowledge and the fostering of cultural and behavioral changes. However, policymakers in donor countries and aid organizations still underestimate the extent of their role in the success of development strategies.
The examples cited here, along with other aspects discussed in this issue, therefore aim to highlight the media’s crucial role, making it plainly clear that they should no longer be seen as an appendix to development programs, but as a vital part of any sustainable development strategy.