What Kind of Media for Development in Sub Saharan Africa? – a post-symposium reflection

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What Kind of Media for Development in Sub Saharan Africa? – a post-symposium reflection

By Yungong Theo Jong, Contributor


Theo Yungong PhotoOn November 30th 2015, the Cameroon Cultural Center played host to a Denis & Lenora Foretia Foundation symposium on “Media and Development in Cameroon”. Its distinguished group of panelists dwelt on the role of media in development, media and sustainable development, media’s civic and social responsibilities and media and rural development. Cutting across all sub themes, were expansive views on the role of the media in enhancing development processes and outcomes in Cameroon and the wider Sub Saharan Africa (SSA). This article suggests that a more forward-looking perspective will be to consider “what kind of media for development in SSA”.

Timing and relevance of the event

The timing to explore this subject could not have been more relevant – taking place on the sidelines of COP21 and on the eve of the take off point of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These events are all happening at a moment when a quick glance at development outcomes in SSA, perhaps, could revive the impasse that made its mark on development discourse about three decades ago. This is the idea that ever since entering public consciousness, contemporary development has stalled. The empirically evidence to support this lies in widespread poverty in many parts of the developing world and in the increasing economic rift between ‘richer’ and ‘poorer’ countries. This stalling development process received highlights in Paul Collier’s work “The Bottom Billion,” which sketches “a rich world of one billion people facing a poor world of five billion”.

On very provocative terms, Collier characterises the plight of the “The Bottom Billion’ countries as living the 21st century in 14th century conditions. These countries are not only “falling behind” in their development process, but also caught in one or more development traps – amongst them the trap of bad governance, the natural resource trap, the conflict trap and global hostile markets for countries that have attempted to escape these traps. [See Collier P, 2007; The Bottom Billion]. While it may look extreme and outdated to characterise Africa’s development on such provocative terms, considering increasing development gains made during the last decade, the facts still point out that progress has not only been slow but painfully so.

The relevance and timeliness of the Media and Development theme has its place. However, what requires further reflection goes beyond the stale debates on the role of media in development. A more appropriate way to further discuss the subject would be to engage in deeper reflections on “what kind of media for development in SSA?”. This leaves us with a momentous question on the potential of the African media in helping its poor countries overturn their development misfortunes. This is not only a challenging task but also daunting one for an Africa with relatively nascent sense of ideology challenged by the more sophisticated and sometimes aggressive intellectual forces of the west with strong media conglomerates to project their own perspectives of events around the world.

Africa’s development performance – yet a steep-hill-climb

There is no denying that development efforts have been yielding fruits but scenarios and figures are telling of yet huge development gaps for Africa with long steep hill climbs. Africa from time immemorial has given so much in contribution to global development and to the unprecedentedly bountiful generation of wealth that has accompanied it. Unfortunately, this has not been effective in resolving the myriad of development problems facing the continent. Its vast store of natural resource wealth provides a strong development potential that should lift its multitudes out of poverty and underdevelopment, but which has rather created profound poverty in the midst of riches – a situation which in many ways lend greater credence to the much heralded resource curse.

The figures speak even much louder. The number of people living in extreme poverty in Africa rose from 290 million in 1990 to 415 million in 2011. Likewise, the extreme poverty rate in the continent at 1990 level did not begin to decline until 2002 – a decline that has been painfully slow and lagging behind all other regions [World Bank Group Development Indicators, 2015]. Africa trails the rest of the world in global competitiveness with significant underperformance in the provision of social amenities like health care and education. More than half of the 20 lowest ranked countries in the Global Competitiveness Index are from SSA – with profound infrastructural deficits which impede competitiveness. This signals the need for increased efforts to place the region on a firmly sustainable growth and development path and to make its abundant resource reserves work for common good. [see Schwab, Klaus, ed., The World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index, 2012, 2013, 2014].

Africa’s development woes are further portrayed in the severe inequalities between ‘the haves’ and ‘the haves not’. Economists estimate that Gross World Product (GWP) has soared 240 times in the age of modern economic growth (from 1820). It reached 41 trillion USD in 2010 with an average per capita GWP of 5942 USD. In just 5 years, average GWP per head for the 7.2 billion people in the world climbed to 12000 USD [see Sachs, The Age of Sustainable Development 2015]. The fruits of growth that come with rising global GDP levels are however heavily skewed by the uneven distribution of global wealth. Depending on annual fluctuations, average GDP per capita in developed countries is above 12000 USD and more – with some countries the United States, Canada and Australia reaching as high as 30000 US dollars per head. This is in sharp contrast with 1000 USD and less for many low income countries in Equatorial Africa. A very quick glance on African map put this group of countries at above 45 to 50 percent of countries in the region. The greater majority of countries in this category are confronted with economies that are in a bad shape. Infrastructural development is very poor, access to improved water and energy sources as well as sanitation facilities are scarce, and the availability of sustainable economic opportunities for improving human wellbeing is in acute shortage. They are trapped in Paul Collier’s provocative bottom billion.

The failing human development indicators highlighted above are further compounded by a severe ecological crisis. Many African countries are experiencing the scourging effects of ecologically fragile Sudano-sahelian climate. Intense human activity is not only altering the natural fabric of the continent’s ecosystems but is also violently pushing the continent and the rest of the globe towards catastrophic planetary limits marked by erratic climatic events and environmental degradation. These epoch-making events have been described as “the anthropocene” [see Crutzen, P.J., 2006. The anthropoceneand Steffen et al, 2007, The anthropocene: are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature]. It features the creation of less harmonious human-induced systems around the earth’s biosphere, which are in a fierce competition with otherwise more harmonious and self-sustaining forces of nature. This leaves people and ecosystems more vulnerable to the effects of changing climatic patterns and environmental degradation. The consequences are food and water scarcity, threatened livelihoods especially in agriculture and deepening poverty in already poor countries.

The precarious situation highlights the fragile state of development in SSA and the dismal failure of both governments and markets to make development work for all. In many ways, the situation lends greater credence to the “resource curse” and has placed humanity on the threshold of life-threatening socioeconomic and ecological crisis that require an urgent fix. This leaves us with the momentous question on the potential of the African media in helping Africa’s poor overturn their development misfortunes. Are there any easy answers in the face of an idea so passionately embraced yet so baffling to mainstream development actors who have development as the main substance of their business?

Media and development – role and challenges

As noted earlier, there is nothing new about the role of the media in development. The answer looks easier but the challenges are enormous. This furthers raises the question of what kind of media is appropriate for promoting African development. The media facilitates two way communication between the masses and policy makers. It enhances sound coordination of development policies, has the potential to reduce political risk and to create stable and democratic societies that are accommodative to new and enterprising ideas which make development work.

In the 2002 World Development Report, titled “Building Institutions for Markets”, the World Bank dedicates an entire chapter to this subject. The Bank notes that media outlets inform and empowers poor and marginalized people. It gives voice and education which permits people to participate in governance processes. According to the Bank Report, experience from successful AIDS education campaigns in Thailand and Uganda shows that the media can improve public health efforts. The media was critical in unveiling corrupt practices in Peru and in improving education in Panama. “The media affects politics and culture and supports institutional change and market development”. Having said that, the Bank argues that “open information flows can promote institutional reform by affecting people’s incentives and by sharing ideas and knowledge. New information can change people and culture and can create demand for new institutions”.

It is the role of the media to x-ray why development efforts are failing in SSA and the global South. The stalling development process in SSA has since beyond the debates of market or state-led approaches to development, pitted the ‘internalist’ and the ‘externalist’ view of why Africa is poor and underdeveloped. Some leading externalist views have come from scholars such as Ali Mazrui [see Mazrui, A., 1986. The Africans. London: BBC Publications] and Walter Rodney [Rodney, W., 1972. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Lagos: Panaf Publishing]. They fix the blame on enslavement and colonial subjugation of the African; destruction of indigenous African systems, civilisation and the establishment of an exploitative world order. However, it becomes intellectually fair to admit that underdevelopment in Africa has been a dialectic process of both internal and external forces. Internal factors often accused include bad governance, corruption that has become entrenched and poor leadership. This has generated “defective political and economic systems in which enormous power has concentrated in the hands of the state” and has been appropriated by individuals and groups for own selfish earns [see George B.N. Ayittey, Why Africa Is Poor].

In effect, society is faced with both internal and external forces of destructive individualism that have bogged down development processes. The responsibility of the media is to sort these facts out in their role as a facilitator of development processes. This is consistent with Mahatma Ghandi‘s quotation that “one of the objects of a newspaper [media] is to understand the popular feeling and give expression to it; another is to arouse among the people certain desirable sentiments; the third is fearlessly to expose popular defects”. [World Bank, 2002 Development Report]

Apparently, this role is not without well-established challenges facing the press all over the world – challenge of media and information glut, ownership structure and degree of independence, limited training opportunities and decent financial packages to sustain media operations. The media, to a very large extent, is defined by industry-standards and context-specific issues. It is not only about the media but also about society in which it operates. These either facilitate or constraint the media’s ability to effectively contribute to productive development processes.

However, often overlooked is the credo that connects the media-development nexus. Put in other words, what does it take to build a media that will effectively contribute to overturning Africa’s the development misfortunes? Does the mere presence of the media with a wider reach suffice? Does everything boil down to its social and ethical responsibilities? A further question would concern whether every responsible media has augured well for development. What about the quality and content of the media? All these raise challenging concerns relating to the media and development and lead to questions on what kind of media for African development.

What kind of media for African development?

The cardinality of an independent, free and responsible media that adheres to the highest ethical standards must not be discounted and must never be compromised. Yet, the value of a press with all these categories that only pay lip service to a development processes should also be questioned. Development is not new. It has been experimented elsewhere and worked impressively. Post World War II Europe was reconstructed on the bases of The Marshall Plan, whose success has informed international development policies and assistance till date. It set the precedence that western modernisation was a hallmark for development. The concern for the media to explore today is to revisit the concept of development, the intellectual environment and motives in which it has taken root. Has development been all about development or has been accompanied by ulterior motives?

To be further explored is whether new development ideas and approaches would be needed; whether a paradigm shift from more than a century of development experiment would be required or may be stay the current course. In all these, who should lead the intellectual environment in which new development ideas are going to the take flight? Is the African media going to lead or be led in the process? How versatile and adaptable will the media be in this dynamic process? The African media will have to demonstrate ownership in terms of productive development ideas and concepts which fit with and are workable in the African context in order to assume its full place in contribution to the continent’s development. A contrary approach entails that society will remain caught in a cyclical development trap where the same results are produced for doing the same things over and over.

The base of achieving this is through the development of knowledge-based media which reflects an African ideology and an African identity – the lack of which the media may just be inexistent or lost in the crowd. The common trend in African media networks is often the replication of ideas and to re-run content generated by Western media houses and conglomerates. While this mutual fusion of ideas and information is primordial in building the information and knowledge base for African media, highlighting a critical African perspective is important in projecting Africa’s own account of events to the world. And it becomes true that if Africans do not assume the responsibility of blowing their own development trumpet, it will be hard for someone else to blow it for them without a heavy price tag.

This is critical for an African person not only sitting on a complicated development trajectory but also coming from a past often too quickly dismissed. The question that becomes very disturbing to an African mind is how to begin to understand and define the present while charting the future without an idea of who an African is in this global setting of things. An African media drowned in the mainstream western ideas that have shaped development this far may lack that power and influence to right the wrongs of the development injustices that have persisted in Africa for as far back as when the idea of development entered public consciousness. This buttresses yet the case for a media with an African ideology.

When former French President Nicloas Sarkozy outraged many Africans in his speech delivered in Senegal in July 26, 2007 that “the tragedy of an African person lies in the failure to make their mark in history”, that “they have never really launched themselves into the future”, it buttressed his observation that “Africans only think what western civilisation has taught them to think, believe what they have been taught to believe and do what they have been thought to do”. It insinuates the failure to recognise the profound riches of African values coming not only from the superiority mentality imposed on the African but also from the African political and intellectual class. The above statement, in fact, represents the inability of Africans to project their own account of events to the rest of the world and to revive its lost glories which ought to put an African in par with the rest of the world in terms of its culture and civilisation. This is the challenging role an African media will have to assume in contribution to overturning Africa’s development misfortunes. It should be a media that does not only consume but also produces and projects its own ideas to the world.

The kind of media for development in Africa is one that renders a true and critical account of why in more than 50 years after independence, the continent is yet the least developed part of the world. It should be one that questions the mainstream account of why this has been the case. This should go beyond debates that have limited this account to the misfortunes of growth and other conceptual issues that are yet to materialize in terms of making Africa’s development process take full flight. Africa needs a media with critical perspectives on puzzling development questions. For example it will be important to want to have a more profound understanding of why the Marshall Plan worked for Europe but several decades of development aid to Africa still leaves the continent tailing the global development process. African need a media with a dispassionate view of why natural resources-led development worked for western offshoots like Canada and Australia but the best Africa seem to have benefitted is the very much heralded resource curse. One question that must be answered in the sidelines of this is whose account of events? Will this be African or what Africans will be told about themselves?

It has been easy for the mainstream to account for why this has been the case – poor governance, corruption, lack of technological development, among others issues often identified as culpable. They do count in the stalling development process in SSA. Yet if development problems were so easy to identify then what stops the application of such seemingly easy wisdom to overturn Africa’s development misfortunes? This goes to indicate the missing link between the mainstream account of why development is stalling in Africa and what is actually true and must be done to make development work in SSA. This is where lies the vision of the kind of media that should be at the fore front of Africa’s development endeavours – a media that identifies the mismatches in development actions for over a half century since development became part of the public discourse.


This article suggests a media with an African vision based on an African ideology and identity. It may not be clear here what that vision and ideology should be and the particular form it has to take but it must be clear that a lack of it is treading a path in the dark. In conceiving a vision, it will be important to consider ownership of the concepts that underlie development. For instance, what will essentially contested concepts like development, governance, corruption and well-being mean for an African and how will they fit in an African context? Will they reflect chiefly western-conceived propositions? Will they be entirely African or a mix?


Yungong Theo Jong is a Contributor at the Nkafu Policy Institute and a Doctoral Researcher in Developmental Studies at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa. He can be reached at tyungong@foretiafoundation.org


2016-01-12T00:56:00+00:00January 12th, 2016|General, Policy|