Finding and Securing Africa`s Second Voice
A Challenge for the Africa Media Leaders’ Forum
The vast majority of Africans are at the receiving end of policies that define how they live their lives. Even in the most representative and participatory of African governments, the articulation of policy frequently rests with an elite group that generally includes a handful of government officials, "experts" from major international donor agencies, and some modicum of representation from civil society. It is this group - the “First Voice” - that invariably determines how each nation addresses the most daunting of its development challenges.
The “First Voice,” dominates national budget processes in Africa. For example, the International Monetary Fund weighs in on monetary, fiscal policy and financial sector issues. The World Bank, under the rubric of poverty reduction strategy papers, contributes to determining which specific sectors get funding prominence in national budgets. Further broadening the reach of multilateral institutions in the policy space, the European Union participates along the entire spectrum of fiscal and monetary activities. Next are bilateral agencies who then determine what projects merit support, based on their own national priorities and strategic interests. To complete the circle, a few international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) occasionally succeed in finding channels of influence that give them a say in the determination of national policy. Government capability, where it exists, is frequently fragmented catering to donor demands. The end result is that African people are subject to the outcomes of these policies, victims of the errors of judgment or analysis by individuals, or agents, who are twice removed from the theaters of poverty that are an everyday reality in African lives.
Most Africans do not contribute to policymaking in their countries. Lacking channels of ‘conveyance,’ their voices are not heard and, therefore, not taken into account. Peoples’ representatives in parliament more often than not simply rubber-stamp the decisions of the elite group, or end up being quietly ignored when they do not. Faith groups and some civil society organizations occasionally articulate positions on issues that, in one form or other, get factored into policymaking. Their occasional successes have been the result of intense advocacy by concerned international NGOs. Progress in securing women`s and children`s rights are among their notable achievements.
The advocacy groups are not an obvious part of the policymaking elites that essentially function like a closed club. Their success in shaping policy direction has been the result of a combination of factors: strategic thinking, persistence, savvy use of the media, placing of gentle but palpable pressure on donors, all of which is matched by an unalloyed commitment to the cause. It is in this modus operandi that exists the formula for finding and securing Africa`s ‘Second Voice.’
African media leaders, working together, can identify issues of common interest to Africans everywhere, generate an inclusive debate on the issues, and persistently make the case using the full power of media. That has been the approach adopted by international NGOs as they pursue action on issues ranging from climate change to child labor and post-conflict de-mining. Africans everywhere have some major and common concerns that are critical to improving life on the continent. Many of these are well known and have been the object of intellectual debate in many countries in the region. Many have been adequately captured in the framework known as the New Partnership for Africa`s Development (NEPAD). If none of the issues have had traction regionally, it is precisely because they have either lacked committed advocacy, or have not been the subject of popular discourse, or have not benefited from the largesse of donors.
Addressing Africa’s development deficits is urgent. For example, one could ask why is Africa still the "dark" continent even though it has more power-generating potential in its rivers and coal fields than it could possibly need? Why are its market routes still based on a concept developed by colonial masters to serve colonial economies? Why is the region the least interconnected stretch of geography on earth? Why are diseases that have been eradicated elsewhere still a harbinger of death in many African countries?
The world is still in the throes of a triple crisis that saw skyrocketing of food and fuel prices during most of 2008, followed by the meltdown of the global financial system. Africa suffered from the ripple effects of all three crises and will continue to pay the price long after the countries from which they originated have recovered from their effects. There is an important difference between regions in how the crises played out. In Europe, the Americas and parts of Asia, media was very much a player in the search for homegrown solutions to these problems. In Africa, this has not always been the case. Solutions to the food and fuel crises were hotly debated on the airwaves and the print and online media in the North America and Europe. The voices of specialists and non-specialists were heard, as were those of concerned citizens and citizen groups. Public opinion polls were closely monitored for signs of public preferences as politicians and other national leaders battled to address what was projected as a major national crisis. Gallup polls and Nielsen ratings have become the new guide posts for legions of politicians, and are frequently a good indicator of political longevity. There have been no organized, persistent and vocal demands from Africans for solutions that are homegrown. The response to these crises has, once again, come from that exclusive elite club of donors and donor-dependent governments. The voice of Africa has not been heard!
The health care system in the United States is almost broken and the country is currently embroiled in a passionate debate on how to fix it. National leaders and industry groups had ideas on how to approach the problem and moved aggressively to table those solutions. The national media stepped into the arena and gave play to the diverse currents of opinion in this diverse country and immediately changed the dynamics of the debate. Health care reform took a different turn over the summer of 2009 as the debate moved from the halls of the US Congress and the White House to main street and town halls across the country. Newspapers, television, radio and online blogs provided the platform for a richer exchange of ideas and for ensuring that whatever solution emerges to the health care crisis, it will be a reflection of the will of the majority of Americans, not of the country`s equivalent of the exclusive elite club.
Media in Africa have a direct stake in efforts to achieve profound changes to the status quo in the region. Generating and sustaining an informed debate on harnessing the region`s energy potential, on improving its health and educational systems, on investing in infrastructures that enhance regional integration, and on ensuring food security is all within the power of media professionals. More than just about everyone else, the AMLF has the power to give voice to Africa`s voiceless, to counter the views of African elites, to build powerful constituencies for change, and to keep searching for answers to the region`s most intricate and intractable problems.
In his magisterial work, “The Idea of Justice,” Amartya Sen argues that a free, energetic and efficient media can facilitate the needed discursive process significantly, noting that the media is important not only for democracy, but also for the pursuit of justice. ‘Discussion-less justice’ can be an incarcerating idea, he warns.
The AMLF must strive to give Africa its ‘Second Voice.’