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Aid agencies should use local journalists to get message across

By Prue Clarke

Mae Azango is one courageous reporter. But she is also a potent weapon in the fight for human rights. Azango’s reporting on female genital cutting (FGC) in her native Liberia earlier this year, brought death threats and sent her and her nine-year-old daughter into hiding. Three weeks later, the Liberian government, having never dared risk votes by speaking publicly about the traditional practice, had taken steps to end it. Hundreds of thousands of international aid dollars, maybe millions, have been spent tackling female genital cutting in west Africa. But Azango’s reporting, which cost about $1 000 (R8 671), achieved as much as or more than all the other efforts.

Azango started a conversation in Liberia that has not been had before. Many leaders are now talking publicly of the huge risks posed to girls by FGC. Until now, parents often thought cutting was the right thing to do. They were told daughters could not be married without having their genitals cut and, in a patriarchal society such as Liberia, marriage is often all that stands between a girl and destitution. Now parents are hearing for the first time of the lasting psychological trauma of cutting; of the risks that the girl may die from bleeding or infection; that FGC, which can prevent a mother’s vagina stretching far enough for a baby to pass, is a big factor in Liberia’s high rate of maternal mortality.

Soon after Azango’s reporting and the international outcry that followed the threats against her, she began receiving offers of public-relations jobs from the aid world. This has put Mae in a difficult position. Should she take an aid job in another region of Africa, at a grossly higher income than she, a single mother, earns as a journalist? The money would allow Azango to provide a safer financial future for her son and daughter but she would have little of the impact on the lives of women and children in her native Liberia that she is having now. Or should she stay in her lower-paid journalism job and continue her work opening the eyes of Liberian people and their leaders to the truth, and empowering them to make the changes that will improve their lives?

Azango is luckier than others. Her reporting is funded by an independent publisher at her newspaper FrontPage Africa and by New Narratives – Africans Reporting Africa, the NGO that I run to support courageous journalists such as Azango in Africa. With our support, Azango contributes to international media such as the GlobalPost and the Christian Science Monitor, and she has won a Pulitzer Centre grant to report on reproductive health issues in Liberia. Her combined income often runs to about $500 (R4 335) a month, a good sum in Liberia. Many journalists there and throughout Africa, make as little as $40 a month. Journalism is not seen as a respectable long-term career, but as a stepping stone to a better job, often in the aid world.

That was the case for another New Narratives reporter, Sonnie Morris. Morris was a radio reporter in Liberia who exposed the widespread problem of child prostitution, a legacy of the country’s civil war. Her reporting prompted an outpouring of support for street children, and measures to curb child prostitution from the government and the UN mission in the country. Shortly after that Morris was offered a job with the UN at 16 times her previous salary. She left her job with a Monrovia radio station – as a single mother with two children whose father died in the war, she had no choice. Morris is now a “public information officer” with the UN radio station in a border town.

Morris’s former boss at SkyFM told me he has repeatedly asked the UN to shut its radio station down. Nine years since fighting ended in Liberia he says UN Radio has long since stopped serving its mandate as the only voice bringing information to the Liberian people. Now the multimillion-dollar operation simply steals the best staff from local businesses and undercuts their ability to compete in the marketplace. Without their grossly over-resourced competitor, the SkyFM boss says, local media might actually be able to make enough advertising revenue to pay their journalists better.

In our efforts to promote our reporters’ work and fund our operations, we repeatedly meet fantastic aid groups that are driven to improve the lives of poor people in Africa, particularly women. They fund every manner of effort to end violence against women, improve maternal health, increase the number of girls in education, prevent exploitation by foreign resources companies and so on. But time and time again we are told: “We do not fund media.”

I can’t help comparing this strategy with successful behaviour-changing campaigns in the West. Would an advocacy campaign in the UK or the US say, trying to tackle an epidemic of drink-driving, confine its efforts to working with small groups in communities around the country? Wouldn’t it strive to get stories on national television and radio, and in the major papers, in order to start a national conversation that brings about change?

We all know the media is a critical force in our own democracies. By bringing (mostly) truthful information to the public, the media helps to keep leaders accountable. It spreads information and ideas that people can use to improve their lives. Maybe aid agencies take the media for granted in advanced democracies. Maybe they have forgotten the important role the media plays in protecting our peace and standard of living.

Azango and her people do not take the media for granted. After living through 14 years of civil war where leaders used propaganda to convince thousands of Liberians to take up arms against their own people – often their own families – Liberians have a better appreciation of the power of truth than most.

Donor support to media development makes up just 0.5% of the overall aid to developing countries according to the excellent new report “Making Media Development More Effective” by Tara Susman-Pena for the Centre for International Media Assistance. That’s simply not enough to build what is one of the central pillars of any effective democracy.

Aid agencies should support journalists in their journalist jobs. I am not advocating the one-off payments or “expenses” to individual journalists that aid agencies, including the UN, government aid agencies and almost every major international charity, currently engage in. These are purely and simply bribes. They undercut local media markets and ensure biased reporting that does nothing to inform the public and build their trust in the media as a tool for advancing democracy.

Instead aid agencies should take the money they pay buying up the best journalists and paying bribes and buy advertising in the best local media houses. Donors should increase their support to those media houses to build independent business models until advertising revenue is such that they don’t need support anymore. By targeting these “standard setting” media houses (definition: pay their journalists well, fire those that take bribes, and strive to build businesses based on independent sources of revenue) the aid world can create a virtuous cycle that rewards independent, honest reporting in the market rather than discouraging it.

In Liberia New Narratives has helped our major partner achieve a 300% increase in circulation to become the major media in the market. Journalists have repeatedly forced government to act on a range of issues. They have garnered public respect for their integrity along with a host of national and international awards. Their success has persuaded other journalists to emulate their high standards. Media across the board has improved.

Aid groups that focus on individual areas such as gender-based violence, women’s empowerment, resource extraction, climate change, agriculture etc should deploy the same smart media strategies deployed to inform and encourage change in the West. Engage the local media, pitch them with good stories, help them tell stories in a way that will engage and inform their audiences. Start a national conversation that will open eyes, change destructive attitudes and inspire innovation.

Azango met a major international donor that invests heavily in violence against women in Liberia during a visit to New York earlier this year. After detailing her three-week ordeal and the triumphant end result, she was stunned when the group told her: “We don’t fund media.”

“What are they doing then?” Azango asked me afterwards. “They’re fighting with one hand tied behind their backs.”

Prue Clarke is the executive director of New Narratives – Africans Reporting Africa.

This blog was first posted in The Guardian and has been amended by the author.

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    • Oldfox

      Does Liberia not have a female head of state? So she condoned FGM/FGC too.

    • The Creator

      If journalists are on the payroll of foreign-funded political organisations, doesn’t this basically mean kissing media freedom goodbye? The author seems to see journalists as, essentially, hired PR flacks.

      There was a time when they were supposed to be something more than that.

    • Lennon

      @ The Creator: You’re right about that.

      If you get a chance, you should look into how CNN became a mouthpiece for Bahrain and how they screwed one of their reporters over for covering the pro-democracy protests which have been taking place for almost two years.

    • Sussie

      Journalists don/t seem to be too interested lately in what is going on in there own backyard. There is a case now pending before the Court of Appeals in New Orleans that will have a far reaching affect on all US citizens. They heard oral arguments last Wed on a case that has violated a litigants 4th amendment right among others, but the oral arguments were based on the illegal activity of a Federal Judge, Royal Furgeson against Jeff Baron. The Appeals court panel of judges understand that if they rule in favor of Judge Furgeson, then they will be making new law. This new law will allow a Fed Judge to exparte, seize your property, personal and otherwise without due process. This is a very important case pending.

    • http://www.newnarratives.org Prue Clarke

      Thanks for your responses to my article. I want to clarify I am absolutely NOT advocating journalists be on the payroll of foreign funded political organizations. Quite the opposite. Large amounts are spent by aid agencies on bribing journalists in Africa to write stories about their projects. I would like to see that money go to advertising or at least “promotional” supplements labelled as such so the media houses can pay their journalists themselves. Then journalists can write independently and not have to rely on aid agencies for income. Until we break that toxic ecosystem there will be no incentive for even the most highly trained journalists, to write the independent, honest reporting that Africans need.