The agreement between the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) and the Guardian, the London-based daily newspaper, to document a development program in Kitane, Uganda is leading to interesting and valuable insights into the relationship between the non-profit development organization and the journalists covering the effort.
The interaction between development and journalism has long fascinated and frustrated me. It’s fascinating because the expectations raised by the presence of a journalist in an on-the-ground development program are remarkably diverse, and often so divergent as to be fantastic.
People in the local community often have unrealistically high expectations that the telling of their story will have immediate positive results. It’s as if their lives will change overnight for the better. The development staff are likely to be very skeptical and less-than-transparent for fear the telling of the slightest screw-up or failure will put the whole enterprise at risk. Or, they expect the journalists to be an extension of their public relations efforts, or, even better, to become a de facto fundraiser for the project.
The journalist may also face conflicting choices in reporting. If committed to the idealistic goals of the project–to improve the harsh conditions under which people live–how much of the unsuccessful venture should be reported? On the other hand, it’s neither fair nor accurate to fail to report on it.
This leads to a careful dance and many ethical decisions that all concerned must weigh. And this brief list is only a starting point. Drill deeper and you’ll find much more beyond these simple illustrations.
It’s frustrating because development does not reduce well to simplistic stories of good deeds nor well-intended charity yet it is often framed in precisely this way.
Humanitarian aid does not exist in a vacuum. Aid agencies and journalists operate in an environment of living, breathing, ever-changing cultural, social and political interactions. And these introduce competition, conflict and ambiguity as well as cooperation, community-building and civic responsibility. And, of course, there are power relationships, sometimes so obvious they are blinding and sometimes so opaque it’s impossible to discern who’s on first, on or top.
The conversation on the Kitane blogs is revealing. These different expectations well up and create new learnings and present the ethical dilemmas in striking relief.
Among the most interesting conversations is about transparency. As I read the comments I recalled that covering development isn’t as simple nor as benign as sometimes assumed.
Development isn’t normally a front page story. It’s a slow, unfolding progression of steps unlike the cataclysm of war, famine or other shattering events. As a result, development gets short shrift. The drama of development is measured in small increments and the whole story can only be told after years of effort pay off in a functioning community with a sound economic base. These aren’t the ingredients of front-page drama.
The discussion on the Kitane blogs probes these issues with greater depth and with considerably more insight than we’re likely to see anywhere outside of scholarly journals or internal reports of development agencies.
For that reason, the Kitane project is a great contribution to both development journalism and development practice.