October 7, 2008

Feeding those who bite your hand

On dark days, the average international aid worker wonders whether she is doing more harm than good. Meddling in other cultures, she thinks, is quixotic at best and idiotic at worst, and the best thing the international community can do is to sit back and wait for a country to find its own path to development.

On dark days, the average international aid worker wonders whether she is doing more harm than good. Meddling in other cultures, she thinks, is quixotic at best and idiotic at worst, and the best thing the international community can do is to sit back and wait for a country to find its own path to development.


Jean MacKenzie

Feeding those who bite your hand

On dark days, the average international aid worker wonders whether she is doing more harm than good. Meddling in other cultures, she thinks, is quixotic at best and idiotic at worst, and the best thing the international community can do is to sit back and wait for a country to find its own path to development.

Fortunately, the dark days do not come very often.
I have been engaged in international development for the past five years, spearheading media assistance projects for a variety of NGOs in the former Soviet Union and, now, Afghanistan.
During that time I have seen numerous examples of international assistance gone wrong. All too often governments use their aid dollars to push an agenda that may or may not be good for the recipient country.
Nowhere is this truer than in media development. We Western nations are in a dreadful hurry to have things go our way; funds intended to stimulate the media sector can be increased or withdrawn depending on how the message sits with the donor.
But sometimes what the donor wants to see is not what the country is ready to hear. And not infrequently aid recipients use their foreign-sponsored independence to bite the hand that is feeding them. It takes a rare funder to revel in criticism or outright attack; but if we media assistance workers are doing our jobs, we have to welcome any balanced, fair reporting, whether it flatters our host countries or not.
Recent reports in the Afghan media on alleged American abuse of prisoners, accusations of illegal crop spraying by American planes, harsh criticism of the Coalition Forces for their practice of interrogating the wives of suspected Al Qaeda members, may be unpleasant to read, but they are a positive sign that what we are doing is having its effect.
A journalist by training, I have spent much of the last half-decade trying to combat the Soviet legacy in countries that had been either directly or tangentially affected by 80 years of Russian-style communism.
It is not difficult to find reasons to criticize the dreary agitprop that passed for journalism during the Soviet years. A steady diet of opinion over fact, and harangue over reasoned argument left many would-be reporters completely in the dark about how to produce a news story. This, combined with authoritarian governments for whom any uncontrolled media product was perceived as a direct threat, created a dire media landscape in the majority of post-Soviet countries.
But a free, independent media is not something that can be created overnight. In fact, there is some doubt as to whether it can be created at all. Generous monetary contributions may be able to short-cut the torturous path that Western journalism took to reach its current level; television and radio stations can be funded, newspapers created, training provided.
Less clear is whether there is a quick road to the development of an indigenous media with a genuine link to its audience.
The media, in most countries, is a largely commercial venture. No matter how much we journalists like to consider ourselves above the fray as conveyors of truth and watchdogs on the government, we are very quickly brought down to earth by harsh economic realities. Like it or not, we shape our coverage to the popular taste. Those who find a niche survive, whether it be as newspaper of record for an educated, discriminating populace, or as a garish tabloid for those who prefer to believe in mind control by space aliens.
Ideally, this system ensures that all segments of the population receive the coverage they deserve; at times, it seems that pandering to the least common denominator has put the Western media on a downward spiral of cheap sensationalism.
But whatever its faults or merits, this system has resulted in a vibrant, tenacious media that has kept many a government relatively honest over the past century. The media encourages and shapes public debate, conveys the popular mood to those in power, exposes corruption and stimulates social change.
This process is somewhat skewed in developing nations, where there is much less connection between the media and its intended audience. Partly this is the fault of history: journalists in the Soviet era did not have to worry overmuch whether their readers or listeners liked what they had to say. They were more concerned with the powers-that- be, who funded their media outlets but controlled their coverage. Journalists, editors, and managers got used to looking upward, to their funder, rather than outward, to their audience.
Sometimes it seems that little has changed. Media outlets will always orient themselves toward their source of funding; if, as in the West, that source is the consumer, then, for good or ill, popular demand will rule. But when the funding source is an international donor, it is more difficult to ensure that the message being conveyed is one that will resonate with the supposed beneficiary of foreign largesse, i.e. the reader, viewer, or listener.
Many Western governments, with the best intentions in the world, give money ostensibly so that the media in so-called “developing” nations can “get the message out.” But the message that may be palatable to a foreign donor may be completely unacceptable to the vast majority of the population.
I saw this in Belarus, where donors eager for the ouster of strongman Aleksandr Lukashenka funded a string of marginal, stridently oppositionist publications for years, hoping that they were making headway with a populace that was just not ready for strident anti-government diatribes.
Well-meaning foreign development efforts can also skew a developing market, giving unfair advantage to liberally funded, donor-friendly media, to the detriment of more indigenous organizations who are struggling in dormant economies.
But the rewards of this kind of work are great. I have worked with hundreds of journalists over the past five years, and have been proud to see them grow and develop.
Provided the foreign assistance focuses on the mechanics rather than the message, media assistance is one of the most important components of any democratization project. In Belarus, the training provided by media assistance programs allowed many struggling newspapers and television stations to become thriving businesses, able to stand on their own in the face of increasing government interference. In the last presidential elections, in 2001, cities with an energetic, truly independent media were less likely to cast their vote for Lukashenka.
In Central Asia, with its harsh authoritarian regimes trying to pose as developing democracies, media assistance programs have made it possible for citizens in remote provinces to have access to information; radio networks and television programs that receive monetary and technical support from foreign agencies keep the population informed and the governments off-balance.
But this comes at a price. Journalists trained and supported by foreign donors are much more likely to be targeted by nervous regimes with overeager security forces. Journalists throughout the post-Soviet region, particularly in Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, have been imprisoned, tortured, and murdered because of their work. Those who encourage them to speak out have to bear some responsibility for their fate.
Afghanistan escaped direct absorption into the Soviet orbit, though not from want of trying from Moscow. But proximity to its northern neighbour, combined with over 10 years of sometimes tenuous communist rule left a lasting imprint on the media.
Journalists here are all too apt to report personal prejudice as fact, with sometimes disastrous results. In a deeply divided society, special care must be taken to avoid lighting the fuse on what is an ethnic and political powder keg.
The project I run involves dozens of journalists in training and story production, and the battles range from simply frustrating to completely enraging.
“Pashtuns are at least 75 percent of the population,” said one of my reporters, Pashtun, of course. “Everyone knows this.” When I tried to point out that no census had been taken since 1978, and most estimates put the Pashtun figure at a little over 40 percent, he claimed anti-Pashtun bigotry as the reason for the under-count.
Other firm convictions that have tried to worm their way into ostensibly balanced coverage include slurs on Panjshiris, Hazaras, women, and doctors. It takes painstaking work and infinite patience to convince an enthusiastic reporter that freedom does not mean the license to rush any personal sentiment into print.
But day by day, the coverage improves. Afghans can be stubborn and stiff-necked, but their energy and eagerness to learn is admirable. Of the hundreds of journalists trained through our project, the vast majority have gone on to become highly professional, productive journalists, who are making an appreciable difference in their society.
The victories may be small, but they are numerous: aggressive coverage of the presidential elections in October, 2004, resulted in record numbers of voters turning up at the polls; abuses by police have been documented, and in several cases, it was a journalist’s expose that forced the government to initiate investigations. A census that had been in process for three years may now have to be scrapped because journalists registered and publicized numerous complaints by citizens who had never been counted.
The media assistance projects now underway in Afghanistan are bringing women into the workforce, giving information to far-flung provinces, and enabling the illiterate, who number up to 70 percent of the population, to keep up with events in the country.
Independent radio and television stations are springing up, with foreign training and foreign assistance, to break the government’s monopoly on information. An independent news agency, generously supported by the American government, is emerging as one of the most credible news sources in the country.
This is all highly gratifying for me, personally, and, I’m sure, for all of us engaged in media development.
But there are still those dark days, when the challenges seem too great. An inhospitable geography, a cruel history, and a chaotic present all combine to make media development seem a foolish venture. Who cares about the press when well over half the country can’t read, when life expectancy is a mere 44 years, when girls are married off at nine years old and warlords still rule in much of the country? Why worry about freedom of speech when Afghanistan is in danger of acquiring narco-state status, when women can be traded like chattel and when hundreds of children died this winter from colds because their worried parents dosed them with opium to quiet their coughing?
Then I pause to remember that the only reason I know about all of these horrors is that hundreds of foreign-trained Afghan journalists have written about them, have used their new-found skills to expose the shortcomings in their society, and have put themselves at risk to get the truth out. They are the country’s best hope for change, and I am proud to be working with them.

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