Sunday, 16 December 2007

Panos: using media for development

Today Panos is a network of 8 organizations.
In September 2007 they released a report called Making poverty the story - Time to involve the media in poverty reduction

Brief history of Panos

Panos may officially have been founded in 1986, but our origins go back to the early 1970s when the environmental movement was gathering pace.

In 1974, UK journalist Jon Tinker started Earthscan, a unit of the International Institute for Environment and Development which offered journalists (and later NGOs) objective information on key global issues and on policy options for addressing them.

By 1986 Jon had transformed Earthscan’s Southern media programme into a new independent institution: Panos.

From the outset, as part of its commitment to Southern-led development, Panos aimed to build a network of independent institutes around the world.

During the late 1990s offices opened in Zambia, Haiti, Nepal, Ethiopia and India, among others. In 2000 West Africa became the first autonomous Southern institute, and six years later Eastern Africa completed the transition.

Twenty years after the creation of Panos, the vision of a global network of institutes striving towards a common goal - ensuring that information is effectively used to foster public debate, pluralism and democracy - has become a reality.

Why communication? Panos' approach to development

The capacity to receive information, to debate, and to express one’s own ideas and needs is a right in itself and an essential part of people’s ability to lift themselves out of poverty and participate in the life of their society.

Communication is part of the fabric of societies. By receiving, giving and discussing information and ideas we are able to make decisions and form opinions – parents decide if their child will go to school, an HIV positive person decides whether to declare his or her status, and individuals decide how to vote in an election.

Communication enables health services to ensure the supply of medicines in their clinics, farmers to find out the price of their crops, and diaspora communities to send remittances back home. Communication underpins development.

The opportunities for communicating have increased enormously, especially over the past two decades. A technological revolution has brought us digital communication, satellites, the internet and mobile phones.

And many countries have become more democratic, allowing greater freedom of speech and a more varied and independent media.

So why should development agencies, donor organisations and civil society groups focus on communication? Because there are still many gaps:

1) mass media (newspapers, radio and TV stations, and online news services) may have increased in number, but this is not always matched by the quality, variety, or relevance of their content

2) poor people in rural areas of many developing countries still lack access to telephones, the internet and other forms of media, even if they could afford them

3) the English language continues to dominate the internet, which is primarily geared towards people in rich countries – little content is produced by and for people in developing countries

4) the potential of communication to be “bottom-up” - empowering poor people to speak for themselves and participate in democratic processes, not just to receive information - has not been fully exploited

5) development planners often neglect communication, failing to appreciate how essential it is for sustainable development strategies; fragmented approaches to communication for development have led to confusion, poor decision-making and missed opportunities

How Panos is helping to address these gaps

Panos believes that a communication environment that promotes development is one that enables poor people to make their voices heard, that helps people to participate in decision-making, and that encourages public debate – from the community level all the way to international policy.

We promote and support a broad and integrated view of communication. We have pioneered the use of oral testimony – training local people to conduct interviews that draw out direct personal experience and memory – as a way for ordinary men and women to articulate their perspectives on development and change.

Much of our work supports the media – especially radio, the medium that in many countries reaches poor people most easily - and analyses the role it can play in development.

As the Commission for Africa's 2005 report, Our Common Ground, noted: “The media is an educator and key information source that can help deliver the Millennium Development Goals, promote transparent governance and, through balanced reporting, help prevent conflicts. The wide benefits from plural media means it acts as a public good in development.”

For example, we help radio stations produce programmes on issues of local public concern, and we enhance the skills of journalists to report on development issues. We also endeavour to strengthen the legal and regulatory environments which allow an independent and quality media to flourish – for instance by supporting local organisations to lobby against high taxes on small radio stations.

Making the internet and other telecommunications more accessible and affordable to poor and rural people is key. At the national policy level we host debates between governments, private sector providers and researchers, for example on the pros and cons of allowing greater competition between internet service providers.

Finally, we have built up a solid reputation for our expertise and analysis on the role of communication in development. We collaborate with major international development agencies – such as the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS, the UK’s Department for International Development and the UN Economic Commission for Africa – encouraging them to devote more resources and effort to communication.

By working in a variety of ways with a range of stakeholders we aim to strengthen the voices of poor people and enable them to participate in development.

Making poverty the story - Time to involve the media in poverty reduction

This 68-page report is the culmination of Raising Debate, a three-year pilot project on the media and poverty reduction in six countries, coordinated by Panos London with members of the international Panos network and partners in Africa and South Asia. It focuses on the role of media in poverty reduction, through its ability to raise public awareness and debate, and shift public and political opinion, with the possible result of policy change. It asks for recognition and support of high quality public interest journalism that plays a role in coverage relevant to poverty reduction. According to the report, media has boosted poverty reduction from a cause to a challenge, resulting in public action on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The report makes a case for stronger media involvement on poverty reduction through citing the introduction of World Bank-approved and -supported Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs)as the main instrument for dealing with poverty in low-income countries. The PRSP policy-making process, in principle, engages stakeholder participation and ‘national ownership', requiring communication strategies involving the public, including economically poor people. Because of the need for transparency and participation on issues at stake in the PRSP policy-making process, the document recommends engaging journalists to bring these issues to the public through the media and highlights these media functions:
  1. "communicating with and informing a wide range of audiences on poverty reduction issues;
  2. providing an open forum to reflect different public views, including those of economically poor people;
  3. communicating with and informing a wide range of audiences on poverty reduction issues;
  4. providing an inclusive platform for public debate; and
  5. scrutinising and holding all actors to account for their actions, acting as a force for more transparent and accountable decision-making relevant to poverty reduction."
As stated in the document's second section, the challenges and constraints to media development require cognisance of the needs of the media in many of the economically poorest countries, particularly countries in Africa. Competition in the wake of liberalisation from state controls has brought a struggle for commercial survival to media in a number of regions. Because poverty reduction is not seen as a subject that is attractive to readership and advertisers, it is often not given media attention. This view limits editorial discussion of poverty issues. Also, these issues may cause media to be more subject to political pressures.

Structural problems of media finance often result in precarious employment and lack of sufficient salary and training for journalists. Time and resources for research on poverty reduction are scarce. Possible skill deficits in deciphering the existing range of information and analysis coupled with a tendency to rely on government-produced information sources exclusively, despite degrees of official secrecy and red tape, can lead to problematic professional practices. The report recognises that there are training needs in the area of analysis.

Given this context, the report identifies opportunities, some of which have opened because, as a result of the PRSP process making more information available for public analysis. It highlights the importance of policy actors needing not only to recognise media potential and strengthen engagement with individual journalists, but also needing to support the media more effectively. These policy actors include: civil society organisations (CSOs) and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), national governments, international donors, and media leaders and media support organisations. The document calls for a structural approach to strengthening the media sector, including comprehensive public policies on the media, and, in its conclusions, lists specific recommendations to these policy actors for structural change.

There is, as stated here, "unrealised potential of better understanding and working relations between civil society and the media." However, both national CSOs and international NGOs must better understand journalists' constraints and strengthen their approach to engaging and working with the media as independent partners. The report argues that media also has much to gain by engaging the public on poverty reduction issues, including sources, insights, and contacts, and greater familiarity with the issues at stake, as seen by those often working closely with or seeking to represent the economically poor. It lists fifteen specific strategies for national CSOs and seven for international NGOs to use to engage and support the media, including, for example, sharpening policy messages with accurate information, proposing story ideas that meet media values of noteworthiness, and organising public meetings to be well run and media friendly, as well as exploring partnerships and launching research initiatives.

Further, the document argues the importance of engaging media owners, managers, and editors in discussions of how to strengthen the level and quality of coverage of issues related to poverty reduction. Their understanding of what will resonate with audiences is an important starting point. Questions are raised on promoting poverty reduction stories through specialist topics such as national development plans or the institutional mechanics of policy development in the PRSPs. Recognising that the media attracts its public through controversy, the report suggests using the pros and cons of contentious decisions, such as state reform or privatisation, especially bringing together local and national politics and their real-life relevance. Also, a focus on a key aspect of policymaking relevant to poverty reduction, with links, inconsistencies, and gaps relevant to the public, may engage media that are searching for topicality, newsworthiness, and audience impact.

The concluding portion lists 17 recommendations for national governments regarding strengthening and enabling the media, particularly on effective reporting of poverty-reduction-related issues and efforts. Among these are:

  • "develop public information and consultation systems, strengthening
    a participatory focus on poverty as governments develop their own homegrown strategies and national development plans;
  • involve the media in helping to communicate the findings of official surveys and research exercises on poverty and poverty reduction ...;
  • engage the media to provide stronger coverage of key moments in official policymaking and decision-making ...; and
  • enable the development of independent media regulation and media support systems ..."

The report stresses the role of alternative media, such as community radio, oral testimonies, community theatre, and other inclusive forms of communication in amplifying the voices of the economically poor and scaling up their impact.

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