Number 6: Sustainable Development Part 2
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT AND THE PRESS IN AFRICA
by Sandra Mbanefo Obiago
Sustainable development is a much used phrase in international circles, but it is a concept that still has no clear definition nor clear time frame (what is a sustainable period?) and is little understood by the African press.
According to the World Resources Institute's 1994-95 Guide to the Global Environment, "Sustainable development is based on the recognition that a nation cannot reach its economic goals without also achieving social and environmental goals;that is, universal education and employment opportunity, universal health and reproductive care, equitable access to and distribution of resources, stable populations, and a sustained natural resource base." Although this definition is as broad as it is imprecise, we shall use it within the context of this article.
One reason that the African press doesn't write much about sustainable development is probably that there are few good examples of sustainable development projects to report. Another is that the press rarely gets the opportunity to visit examples of sustainable development and to see what it's all about first-hand.
Another reason sustainable development issues are not in the media spotlight is that major media houses across Africa are cash-strapped. There is no money for journalists to leave the city and visit sustainable development projects in the field. Furthermore, news and information have been forced into a commercial straightjacket. Ninety percent of what gets into the newspapers, television and radio is heavily sponsored. So cash-strapped developmental NGOs feel the necessity to wine and dine journalists to ensure that their message gets into print.
But even this is no assurance, as the information gatekeepers or editors often don't see the relevance of publishing the developmental story. Disaster, crime, and politics always beat the sustainable development story to the end-goal, unless of course there is some national controversy, in which case the story usually takes another twist and the controversy is pushed to the foreground.
An editor of a Nigerian newspaper asked a press officer of an environmental NGO about the relevance of a press release on the biodiversity convention. When the press officer explained that the biodiversity convention covered topics such as sustainable agriculture, equitable trade, technology transfer, and intellectual property rights and that it was important for developing countries to be active in the biodiversity dialogue, the editor insisted that while interesting, this was not a pressing news story.
Another obstacle to developmental reporting is that development, like the environment, often crosses into the area of human rights. A case in point is the massive oil exploration in Nigeria's Niger River delta. Everyone is aware that the oil exploration activities are unsustainable and that huge areas of the delta are being destroyed by oil pollution.
Niger Delta communities are crying out for international help as their soil, rivers, streams, and fish stocks are polluted and their livelihoods gravely threatened. But government is cracking down on this protest and the worst hit communities have been zoned off as national security areas. Journalists and human rights workers undertaking investigative work in the area have been labelled "unpatriotic" and have encountered difficulties in getting information.
And this is not an isolated case. Many African countries lack press freedom and when criticism of governments' unsustainable development practices and human rights violations becomes too sharp, media houses are proscribed and journalists become "security risks."
At the end of 1994 the organization Journalistes Sans Frontières reported that 103 journalists had lost their lives in the line of duty that year, up from 63 in 1993. Many were killed covering wars and civil unrest, but a large proportion also died while investigating controversial stories.
Also in the wake of wars and political turmoil in many African countries, sustainable development reporting takes a back seat within a context of political instability.
But before we go further in criticizing the African press, it is only fair to note that the non-African press also understand very little about sustainable development in Africa.
A case in point is the environment and development project called Campfire (Communal Areas Management Plan for Indigenous Resources) in Zimbabwe (see p. 33). Campfire is a national programme which gives local communities control of the natural resources in their area. The most notable natural resource with the highest income generating potential is wildlife;which, conversely, causes the greatest amount of poverty.
Communities which are rich in wildlife and want to join the Campfire programme register with the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). Wildlife surveys are subsequently carried out within the Campfire communal areas, and sustainable wildlife quotas are set by the NPWS. Village committees decide if they want to kill and eat the wildlife on their quota, or if they want to sell the quota as hunting rights to safari hunters.
And this is the beginning of sustainable development. Villagers earn significant revenues from safari hunting (a tourist pays as much as US$12,000 to shoot an elephant), which they plough back into community development projects like schools and clinics.
But non-African press have a problem with this form of sustainable development. While they understand that shooting a few elephants will increase Africans' standard of living and alleviate poverty in rural areas where the land is poor, they often cannot reconcile killing a majestic elephant or lion as sustainable development or advancement.
In their minds, elephants are best kept protected, even at the cost of human suffering. In a similar vein the western press can't understand why some of Zimbabwe's elephants should be culled even if they destroy overpopulated national parks by ripping up tree trunks and destroying park vegetation, continuing on to ravage farmland and terrorize villagers outside park boundaries.
No, most of the international press, supported by animal rights activists, would rather see 70,000 elephants protected in Zimbabwe at the expense of sustainable development. The fact that Zimbabwe's land does not have the carrying capacity to sustain this massive elephant population falls mostly on deaf ears. All the international press are interested in are sensational photographs of elephants being slaughtered, accompanied by a few simplistic captions.
But from at least an African perspective, how can we ensure that sustainable development stories get into the African press?
The most obvious point is that sustainable development stories need to have a strong African slant and relevance to an African audience. For example, an international conference on the world's dwindling fish stocks will have little relevance to a Malawian, unless parallels can be drawn to the lack of sustainable fishing practices in Lake Malawi.
Development NGOs often work hand in hand with their international sister organizations and jointly publish press releases with a northern bias and non-African examples. If a story has a strong local lead and contains local examples and local quotes, there is a greater chance of having the information picked up.
Well-respected Kenyan educator and journalist Hilary Ng'weno recently commented that environment and development NGOs need to communicate, not just to the media but to all stakeholders in society. A concerted effort needs to be made to find strong, well-respected development spokespeople in such sectors as the religious community, the legal profession, the industrial and business sector and other professional groups. These spokespeople will not only ensure that the message reaches their target audience, but they also stand a better chance of getting picked up by the media.
Likewise, if newsworthy information is being released during a press conference, it increases the development NGO's credibility if nationally recognized content experts (not only staff members) also take part on the panel.
Bryna Brennan, a veteran American journalist experienced in conducting environmental reporting seminars in the developing world, advises NGOs to put media contacts on their mailing lists and encourages NGOs to write press releases with a local human interest angle free of scientific jargon.
A propos "jargon," Tom McShane, Africa Programme Officer with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said recently, "I suggest that the word "sustainable development" is jargon. The scientific, NGO, development and environment community really don't know what the term means;ask ten people and you will get ten definitions."
Development NGOs should also consider organizing awareness raising seminars for journalists to increase their understanding of development issues and to put the media in contact with development experts; journalists often don't know who the leading experts in various fields are.
Field trips to projects are another good way of impressing journalists with three-dimensional examples of exemplary sustainable development projects, as well as showing them examples of unsustainable development practices.
Furthermore, the environment and development community needs to support development courses in African universities, to sensitize students to sustainable development issues.
And in conclusion the best development medium in Africa is still radio. Radio is the most cost-effective and widespread medium for reaching Africa's 744 million people. Especially in highly populated urban areas and in rural communities, most people listen to the radio because it is cheap and doesn't always require electricity.
There are approximately 31.1 million radio receivers in sub-Saharan Africa;compared with 7.73 million television receivers, and a newspaper circulation of 4.8 million.1
Clearly, more Africans receive information through the radio than from any other communications medium. If development NGOs want to get their message across to the African general public, they should invest in radio communications and take a special interest in sensitizing radio journalists and producers to development issues.
I would like to end this brief article with the inspiring words of one of Africa's foremost fighters for sustainable development and environment, Wangari Maathai. Maathai, who is revered for her selfless and fearless struggle for African development said to me during an interview at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992:
"As long as you plant trees and don't ask questions, nobody will bother you. It's when you start looking for the causes of environmental degradation, rather than constantly dealing with the symptoms, that you enter into the arena of politics, human rights, justice and equity. In Kenya the government claims it has a right to encroach on forests;that it wants to create jobs. But forests are important for water security, for example. If the government is going to encroach on forests, people must be informed and must understand the impact... because 20-30 years along the road, they will have no water, streams will dry out, they will not be able to grow their crops, and there will be famine. That's the time we start asking the world to give us aid to feed our people. Instead of waiting until we see starving children, I would rather go to the root cause of the problem."
1. 1992 Africa South of the Sahara report.