The media has a pivotal role in development

By Dev Nadkarni

Most discourse on development initiatives falls rather short on acknowledging the pivotal role the media can play as a catalyst in the development process – at least in the Pacific Islands region.

In my years of teaching, reporting and writing in the region, the lack of importance accorded to the media as an important partner in development has been quite obvious to me. At least when compared to academic development communication programmes in other parts of the developing world such as India.

For one, there is no structured course in development journalism in the media programmes of the region’s tertiary institutions. And this lacuna is not restricted just to media education at the tertiary level. It is rather systemic. The importance of factoring the media in the development communication process at any stage also seems utterly lost on government ministries, departments and agencies involved in grass root development portfolios such as agriculture, fisheries and any initiatives directed at rural uplift.

In the absence of any structured role for the media, therefore, there is little to connect development agencies, government departments and the ultimate recipients of the fruits of development – the people – to encourage a two way flow of information that could make the process both more meaningful and efficient. And this, too, at a time when communication technology is continually content delivery and information mechanisms increasingly decentralised and cheaper as each year passes.

As for the media outlets themselves, there seems to be a sense of apathy wrought by a lack of a chain of communication with the government. Programming aiding development ideas such as farming and environmental issues have therefore languished over the years.

So the Media Planning Seminar organised by the South Pacific Commission in Nadi, Fiji last month, which brought together regional media practitioners, government officials of the agriculture and development sectors and non-government organisations was a welcome development.

I was called to do a presentation on the role of media in development at the seminar and I couldn’t but help go back some 25 years to the days when I was personally involved in agricultural development programmes using non-electronic media in southern India, aided by Swedish and Canadian aided initiatives.

At a time when there were no computers – or for that matter even electricity in the region that we were working – our job was to communicate to unlettered farmers the principles of scientifically planting and growing drumsticks and such other subsistence – not cash – crops.  We designed pictorial ‘visual aids’ that were read out by the government extension officers, who always seemed to have a great rapport with the farmers. Over two years, the project was a success and was replicated in several districts.

I also recalled a couple of other development communication projects devised by the Indian government that involved village barbers and traditional midwives to communicate a range of messages from using fertilisers to making known risks of HIV. Many of these were quite successful in raising awareness and probably would not have been as effective if other mass media were used as the primary mode of dissemination.

The key to success here is the disseminator. In the Indian cases mentioned here these were the extension officer, the barber and the midwife. They were all trusted people and their word carried weight and credibility. This was the most important factor in conveying the message convincingly and ensuring the desired result.

In the case of the Pacific Islands this disseminator is the island governments’ extension officer. Every presenter at the seminar whether from Fiji, Kiribati, the Federated States of Micronesia or the Solomon Islands explained how the extension officer’s word was so trusted by the agriculturists and community members. They had a personal relationship with many of the farmers and their advice was heeded, they said.

But what is alarming is that island governments, in their zeal to ‘streamline’ their departments and control costs, are beginning to cut out this extremely vital link between the development agencies (like the governments themselves) and the people at the grass roots level. The speaker from Vanuatu said that in the new scheme of things, the government was making no allocations for these extension officers any longer and that their numbers were dwindling. Presenters from other countries also echoed this sentiment.

What governments need to realise is that no matter what, the trust people put in a known human face is irreplaceable by anything else including smart, new technological gadgetry. Cutting out this vital link that connects governments, development agencies and communities – in the case of the islands the extension officers – is detrimental to the flow of information in both directions in any development process.

It was good to see the seminar, which was facilitated by funding from the African Caribbean Pacific (ACP) grouping and EU sponsored organisations, highlight these and other factors of importance relating to the media’s role in the grass roots level development process.

While empowering extension officers the mandate to communicate in both directions as well as with the regional media, governments must also include the media in their scheme of things as an inseparable partner in the process. Government functionaries need to learn to appreciate the importance of the media’s role. This needs a change in perspective – the media needs to be seen as a handmaiden to development eschewing the far more prevalent tendency within the powers that be to demonise them.

This calls for media education at all levels of government involved in the development process – especially key decision makers, spokespersons and most importantly extension officers – as well as other stakeholders like NGO development partners and even funding agencies.

The outcomes document at the end of the seminar has outlined the importance of bringing various disparate entities of the development process such as scientists, lawmakers, government decision makers, implementation agencies, funding organisations and communities on to the same page to recognise the importance of the role of the media in turning the wheels of development more smoothly and efficiently.

This realisation and appreciation by all stakeholders of the key roles that trusted extensions officers and the media play could indeed be the basis for the adoption of new unwired technologies in the development process as they are only bound to proliferate with the growth of mobile phone and wireless communication devices as is being increasingly seen around the developing world.

The role of the extension officer and the media can only be enhanced by routing the content deliverable by new communication technologies through them. The sooner the governments realise the indispensability of extension officers and the importance of empowering them to communicate more meaningfully with the media and other stakeholders the better it will be for the development of Pacific communities.

First appeared in Islands Business, June 2010