World Bank Cautious on Media Development

2 December 2009

By Toby McIntosh

The goal of strengthening the media as one way to fight corruption was adopted by the World Bank in 2006, but the promise has gone virtually unfulfilled, according to research by  

“Media development” was supposed to be incorporated into customized, country-specific strategies for fighting corruption.  But in the 26 countries targeted for intensive anticorruption effort, almost no media development activities are evident, based on a review of Bank documents.  This inactivity was confirmed in interviews with a dozen past and present Bank officials.

“Nothing,” was the one-word answer from one official when asked what the Bank has done on media development. “Between you and me, it wasn’t supposed to,” said a former official.

What scattered efforts the Bank is making, primarily via research, are rarely integrated into the anticorruption agenda.  

There are a few glimmers that the media development goal is still alive.

Institutional Obstacles, Political Sensitivities

Various factors have influenced the failure of media development to gain much traction as a Bank priority.

Media development lacks an institutional focal point or internal champion within the Bank bureaucracy in Washington, officials noted, and there is no media development strategy. “I don’t think there was any specific reason for this—no prohibition—but it hasn’t been the priority in getting those going,” according to one Bank official.

The lack of headquarters’ leadership or a plan made it unlikely that media development would be incorporated into anticorruption programs in specific countries. Bank officials working outside Washington are unfamiliar with media development. Lacking central office guidance or technical support, they concentrated on other fronts, officials said. Further, the absence of examples of pro-media work is limited by what one Bank veteran termed a “learn-by-example culture.”

Advocates of media development within the Bank said they faced difficulties in selling their agenda internally and there was little outside pressure urging the Bank to get more involved in the media sector. One person said internal advocates “run into a phalanx of economists,” who question whether the research methodology is rigorous enough. “There needs to be more research,” he said, “but no one should use that as an excuse.”

“The biggest obstacle is that [Bank] country people see these things as risky, and they don’t like risk, and it’s outside their areas of expertise,” summarized a Bank official.

The political sensitivity by governments toward efforts to support the media is deterrent, according to Bank officials and outside observers. One non-Bank expert familiar with the issue commented, Naturally a lot of governments are not enamored with strengthening the media system.” But there is some complexity in this picture. A Bank official familiar with the area noted that governments seem quite interested in upgrading their own communications abilities.

The original ideas for what the Bank could do were broad. Advocates said the Bank could use its influence to help create an “enabling environment” of laws and regulations that would support the media. The notion of encouraging more “demand” for information also was discussed.

Some Green Shoots

Although the promise of more Bank involvement with media development seems unrealized, some seeds may be sprouting. Various media-related research projects involve Bank personnel, although they are not funded by the Bank, and hint at possible movement toward more media development work.

“Communication environment studies” have been conducted in five African countries, mostly with funding from the United Kingdom’s Department of International Development (DFID), which has a substantial initiative on transparency in governance.

Another DFID-backed project at the Bank is to create a “tool kit” for governance experts about media development strategies. This is geared mainly for other donors, however, not for the Bank’s anticorruption strategy, officials said.

Whether these efforts will be integrated into the Bank anticorruption program is unclear. In fact, a year ago DFID evaluators raised this as a concern. Bank officials indicated that there is no roadmap for media development.

Is the Bank poised to do more?

At a recent international conference in Salzburg on “Strengthening Independent Media,” Brian Levy, a Bank adviser on public sector governance, seemed to invite proposals. He “explained that his organisation’s new policies, including a strong focus on more engagement with civil society when developing governance programmes, provide more opportunities to engage with the media,” according to an article on the website of the Global Fund for Media Development, which sponsored the meeting of major players in media development.

“He said key decisions on what programmes the World Bank will run are taken at country level,” the article continued, “so media assistance NGOs need to contact World Bank offices to suggest ways to become part of the Bank’s governance strategies.”

Promises of the Anticorruption Strategy

The handful of media development supporters in the Bank who believe more can be done are disappointed as they look back a few years to 2006 when media development was added into the governance and anticorruption strategy (GAC).

The rationale was to create stronger voices against corruption among the citizenry and in the media. “Enabling the development of independent and competitive media that can investigate, monitor, and provide feedback on governmental performance, including corruption,” according to the strategy.

The inclusion of pro-media language was opposed by some countries, especially China, but also by some western countries, according to Bank officials. The language was watered down during the drafting process. Dropped were statements supporting freedom of the press.

But the final language nevertheless cracked open the door for more work on media development as part of the broader governance agenda. The Bank, with its influence on governments, was seen as being in a unique position to encourage favorable legal, regulatory, economic, and political frameworks for free expression and the media.

The Bank brought some relevant experience to the task: giving advice on creating right-to-know laws, training journalists, and media research. Besides, the Bank’s own research linked a strong media and good governance with better development records.

GAC Implementation Flags

The 2007 “implementation plan” for the anticorruption strategy reiterated the media development goal, but did not expand on a way forward.

The creation of the anticorruption strategies for individual countries was to be a collaboration of governments with Bank officials, with the plans tailored to local situations.

The first efforts were centered on 26 countries. The strategies tended to prioritize procurement and budget reforms. Searching for references to media development in Bank documents related to those countries turned up almost nothing.

Ironically, one rather dejected comment appears to make the case for helping citizens fight corruption, possibly via a stronger media.

The March 31, 2009, Country Assistance Strategy for Liberia for 2009-2011 states at one point: “In principle, civil society will have an important role to play in curbing corruption in Liberia, by holding government to account and demanding transparency, but at present it lacks the necessary capacity.”

An October 2009 “Second Year Progress Report” summarizing GAC work does not mention media development.

But the topic does come up in a related document, albeit with a note of caution.

A Hint of Caution

The progress report cites as “a second demand-side milestone” the finalization of a “guidance note” on multistakeholder engagement. The note is not apparent on the Bank’s website, but a copy was obtained by

The guidance note stresses the importance of the media, stating that “good practice” involves two stages: first, “diagnostic work to assess country conditions” to whether it “would be productive to engage in supporting development of the media sector,” and second, “managing potential political and reputational risks of media work and promoting good practice in media development….”

The July 2009 guidance note, however, displays some sensitivity about getting into media development, but also suggests broad areas for engagement.

It stresses that media programs must be tailored to the country setting and depend on “the government’s interest.” The guidance states, “As a practical matter, the prognosis for a productive engagement depends on the government’s interest in improving sustainable means for people to access information from diverse sources and without government control, to communicate and articulate issues from concern, and engage with each other and with public officials in transparent fora.”

The guidance is cautionary about involvement with internet-based media, indicating that “this is an emerging area where practices are rapidly evolving and internationally accepted good practices are less stable.”

A Suggestion of Boldness

Only in Appendix E of the progress report are there hints about three upcoming projects that include media-related activities. These are funded by grants from the Governance Partnership Facility (GFP), a multidonor fund from non-Bank sources but administered by the Bank. It was designed to support activities that the Bank could not otherwise finance because of prohibitions against funding nongovernmental organizations. The projects are in Honduras, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Paraguay.

In Honduras, GPF funding “is supporting the public service function of mainstream media, piloting new local-level governance approaches to service delivery, and developing a strategy for smart project supervision with local oversight and participation.” In Paraguay,the grant will support the creation of a plural system of communications, including national public media, promotion of access to public information, and the development and implementation of strategic plan and tools to improve accountability.”
The Kyrgyz project is not primarily aimed at helping the media, but it involves an unusually activist approach to create more governmental transparency. The project would begin by assessing “the structure and content of the present information environment in the Kyrgyz Republic. Researchers will evaluate such things as the level of awareness and knowledge of citizens regarding their right to information as well as bottlenecks and obstacles that hinder citizen’s effective access to information.

This will lead to “a pro-information strategy and action plan” including the creation of “a broad-based pro-information coalition” that will seek to work constructively with officials, but also “to exert pressure on them if they fail to attend to their duties.” Also contemplated is a “national advocacy campaign” with the slogan “Information Matters” and a telephone line for citizens whose information requests were denied.

Even more assertively, the “Information Officer” at the center of the process “will also perform lifestyle checks of public officials, crosschecking the information contained in the published Income and Assets Declarations with their own observations of officials’ standard of living.”

Such a campaigning approach would be a departure for the Bank.

Bank officials for some years have been intrigued by the idea of creating “demand” for good governance and better information. A 2008 project in Cambodia, funded by the multidonor Global Partnership Facility, looks to create “demand” for better governance, including access to information and a better media.

The four-year $20 million initiative in Cambodia is intended in part to encourage a “demand for good governance” (DFGG) and contrasts fundamentally from the traditional supply-side approach of providing technical assistance and other aid to governments. A Bank document called the effort in Cambodia “the first free-standing and full-scale effort in this area.”

Studies of the “Communication Environment”

In a completely separate section of the Bank, another kind of assessment is being done, more directly about the media, but with no plans for Bank activism.

“Communication environment studies” have been conducted in five African countries, again mostly with British funding. These evaluations were done in Liberia, Mozambique, Cote d’Ivoire, and Ghana, all with DFID funds, except for the Cote d’Ivoire effort, which was supported from another type of trust fund. A related Tanzania project was funded by DIFD and the Bank. The lengthy reports, which include recommendations, have been shown to governments and donors, but have not been released publicly.

A multidonor Bank trust fund, called the State and Peace-Building Fund, has backed a new $1.4 million project in Cote d’Ivoire, about a third of which is devoted to a multifaceted media development project, largely being done by Search for Common Ground, a civil society organization.

Longer term, the goal is to create a template for doing more such assessments, and eventually to incorporate their use into the anticorruption strategy.

The comprehensiveness of the reports flows from the theory that creation of an “empowered communication environment” can improve governance and economic development. Such an approach envisions many reforms working together. Strengthening governments’ capacity to communicate with citizens is one ingredient, along with increasing government transparency, empowering parliaments, and strengthening civil society groups.

All the laws related to the communications sector need examination, too, according to this strategy, including broadcast regulations and licensing, taxation and import regimes, freedom of information laws, public order acts, and criminal libel laws. Attention also needs to be paid to the market conditions for the media and how to help private media be profitable. Attention to the role of new media is increasingly mentioned as a necessary part of any strategy.

Although these studies would appear to lay the groundwork for follow-up Bank efforts, various officials said there is no strategy for this.

Broader Ferment over Media Development Policy

The Bank, even if it were to get more involved in media development, would play only a small part in a much larger arena of media development, where governments and private foundations play the major role. A 2007 survey estimated that just US-based support for media development abroad, from public and private sources, was $142 million in 2006.

Debate about the best strategies, future directions, coordination, and measurement of effectiveness are vibrant if inconclusive, according to media development experts.

The BBC Trust did a major report that surveyed 23 policymakers, academics, and practitioners, concluding, “It is widely acknowledged that media is not yet receiving sufficient attention from the development community, despite a growing perception of its growing importance as an issue.”

The BBC report goes on to say that “there is an ‘engagement gap’ between the value assigned to its role by policymakers and the practical provision made for it in development planning, thinking and spending.” It also identifies barriers or constraints contributing to this gap, including conceptual difficulties, issues of aid architecture, organizational issues within development agencies, perceptions that media work is difficult, lingering concerns that media work isn’t part of the development mandate, a wide range of environmental factors, and a lack of serious research in the area.

A 2008 report, Empowering Independent Media, U.S. Efforts to Foster Free and Independent News Around the World “strongly recommended a holistic approach the media development, saying: “Change will happen faster if all the factors—professional development, economic sustainability, legal-enabling environment, and media literacy—are addressed simultaneously.” The report was supported by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) in Washington, which is funded by the US government.

Quite a number of other studies on the media and development have been produced.

There are many challenges, according to a new survey of the media development landscape recently written for CIMA by Anne Nelson, an international media consultant based in New York.

Nelson suggested that the declining fortunes of US media companies will constrain future international funding. She also reviewed the challenges of new media and noted among her conclusions that “international media assistance in the 21st Century is not for the faint of heart.”

Nevertheless, new funders are becoming engaged, she documented. One such innovator is the Omidyar Network, started by the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam, which among other things is examining how the media holds government accountable in four African countries and considering direct investment in media businesses. This strategy, Nelson said, was pioneered by another relatively new fund, the Media Development Loan Fund.

What works in media development is much debated. To help answer this question, several former World Bank researchers are heading a $660,000 study to gather empirical evidence on media development. Announced August 7, 2009, the project by the Internews Network is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Tool Kit, But Not For Bank

The UK’s DFID trust fund money has supported an effort by Bank staffers to prepare a “tool kit” for “governance officials” on media reform, but its intended audience is not Bank staff working on anticorruption strategies. Instead, the tool kit is intended to help governance experts with private donor organizations and country-level development agencies.

The tool kit has been in the works for more than a year by CommGAP, a research wing within the Bank’s External Affairs Vice Presidency. CommGAP is short for Communication for Governance & Accountability Program. The effort began with an “assessment” study, showing that many governance advisors aren’t aware of the importance of the media in governance and the few who are described their media-related capabilities as “emerging” or “unsophisticated.”

CommGAP then consulted experts on media development and held a series of private consultations earlier this year in Washington and London. Requests for a copy of the assessment study were turned down and the actual tool kit is still under construction, officials said.

Those assembling the tool kit are not involved with the anticorruption effort, which is conducted from another department. CommGAP engages in other research activities related to media development. Staffers and guests write an academic-toned blog.

Others have developed tool kits on assessing the media environment. Another effort, How to Assess Your Media Landscape: A Toolkit Approach, was published by the Global Forum for Media Development.

An assessment tool was developed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in 2008. UNESCO’s paper suggests five major categories of indicators that can be used to analyze the media development of a country. Each category is broken down into a number of component issues which in turn contain a series of broad

Another instrument is used by IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board) called the Media Sustainability Index.

Communication and Corruption

In a recent blog post, CommGAP consultant Fumiko Nagano reported that country anticorruption officials “were deeply conflicted with the task of working effectively with the media and journalists.”

She wrote that in an effort to equip anticorruption agencies to overcome this challenge, CommGAP partnered with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to produced a white paper entitled Building Public Support for Anti-Corruption Efforts: Why Anti-Corruption Agencies Need to Communicate and How.

CommGap recently sponsored an event in Doha for government officials dealing with corruption to “share lessons learned on techniques for establishing collaborative relationships with the media.”

Bank Supports Right-to-Know Reform

No inventory of Bank media-related activities exists. Compiling the various media-related activities entailed checking in many corners of the Bank, so any tally in this area is likely to be incomplete.

One continuing activity predates the anticorruption strategy—Bank support for passage of right-to-know laws. This usually involves providing expert technical assistance on drafting laws. Several Bank experts and consultants have worked on this in about a dozen countries over the past decade, with some success, but the effort not been expanded as part of the anticorruption campaign.

According to a partial accounting of such efforts provided to, the Bank in recent years has been supporting the implementation of access to information legislation in Argentina, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. It has very quietly provided technical assistance to some governments, including Egypt and Kuwait. Workshops have been held in places including Mexico, Tanzania, Nicaragua, and Kenya.

Publication of a series of “Access to Information Working Papers” recently began.

Separately, an ambitious cataloguing of international right-to-know laws is under way, but its completion is years behind schedule. It is part of a larger effort to create benchmarks—known as Actionable Governance Indicators—for a major database just unveiled in October.

Officials said the right-to-know component of this project would be ready in early 2007, but after discovering data quality problems they went back to the drawing board. Completion isn’t close, Bank officials said recently.

Journalism Training Scaled Back

The training of journalists, once a significant Bank activity, has virtually disappeared in recent years, a reduction influenced by budget pressures and questions about its effectiveness.

Basic training in journalism skills has given way to seminars for journalists around a specific topic. For example, one recent forum was held in Bangladesh. The World Bank Institute helped with a 2008 journalism training project in Honduras.

The Bank’s private sector lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), has a Global Corporate Governance Forum that, with help from other donors, has held six workshops for 130 journalists on corporate governance issues. This effort includes a Facebook-based “Virtual Press Club.”

Another IFC training effort this year was designed to raise awareness among journalists about alternative dispute resolution.

Other media-oriented efforts crop up in the context of specific programs, such a training and press conference in the Ukraine on April 3, 2009, sponsored by the IFC Ukraine Agri-Insurance Development.

The IFC makes loans to companies in the telecommunications area, but it has not loaned to journalistic enterprises, consistent with a deep-seated aversion to the political sensitivities involved, officials said.

Other Activities Scattered

However, there have been Bank engagements in specific situations, officials said, noting low key Bank support to develop a new broadcasting law in Ghana and a community radio policy in Nigeria.

The Bank also has supported surveys of the media environment conducted by IREX, most recently one concerning Africa. IREX is an international nonprofit organization concerned with media issues. The Bank in November, 2008, co-sponsored a conference of media executives from Africa.

Bank officials participate in international programs on the related topic of communications in development.

Bank research over the past decade, particularly by the World Bank Institute, has focused more and more on “governance” issues, including the value of the media. See, for example, the list of available CommGap publications.

The positive value of strong media and supportive legal environments—laws on the right to know and free expression—was highlighted in various studies and reports, including a 2008 book, Broadcasting, Voice and Accountability, that recommends the value of creating an “enabling environment for the media.”

Blog Highlights Rationale for Media Development

Posts on CommGAP’s “People, Spaces, Deliberation” blog provide additional insight into possible Bank media development options, and the perceived obstacles.

In a June 2008 commentary, Paul Mitchell, manager in the Bank’s Operational Communication Division of External Affairs, pointed to findings of the Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group supportive of fighting corruption by “breaking the culture of secrecy that pervades the government functioning and empowering people to demand. Mitchell commented, “Yet, people running Bank operations rarely seem to accept this premise—that communication is an important content side of governance and anticorruption work and should form an integral component of any governance intervention. Instead, the focus continues to be on the policy, administrative, or organizational aspects of governance reforms.”

CommGAP Program Director Sina Odugbemi in February 2009 suggested that nongovernmental organizations take up the task of trying “strengthen media systems,” and he urged locally driven coalition efforts. He commented, “Successful and sustainable reform in this as in other areas is shaped by the realities of domestic political processes. Donors alone cannot do much.” His six points of advice included, “Pick your reform target (e.g., broadcasting regulation)” and “Don’t try to do everything all at once.”

Odugbemi wrote:

“There is one big reason why donors alone cannot strengthen media systems, especially in authoritarian political systems. And that is power… the acquisition and retention of power. I remember once talking to a government minister in a major European donor country and pressing him to do more to strengthen media systems in the countries in which his donor agency worked. He replied: ‘You know, I would love to do so and I do try. But media is so sensitive that it is the one issue that when I raise it with the presidents or prime ministers of many of these countries they become quite agitated and aggressive. It is a tough one, I tell you!’

And that is the crux of the matter. Efforts to strengthen media systems around the world must take politics seriously. For whatever change we seek can only be delivered—and sustained—by the domestic political system.”

Book Endorses Holistic Prescription

A just-issued multiauthor book was developed by CommGAP‘s Odugbemi and Harvard University professor Pippa Norris entitled Public Sentinel: News Media & Governance Reform. It endorses the ambitions that fueled inclusion of the media development clause in the anticorruption strategy. A version was available earlier this year on the CommGAP website.

The value of the media development work also was highlighted in a June 2009 blog entry by Odugbemi who wrote that “the greatest argument for efforts to make the news media independent and plural everywhere we can is the determination of unaccountable regimes to muzzle the media.”

In an earlier 2009 posting, Odugbemi reflected on a CommGAP workshop on governance reform held at Harvard. He noted that “the one thing that has stayed with me is the extent to which most colleagues working in international development think of support for the media as little more than training journalists.”

“Media development is supposed to be about the structural or institutional view of the media,” Odugbemi continued. He said that a free, pluralistic, and independent media system “ought to be seen in the same way as an independent judiciary, legislative bodies, free and fair elections, vibrant civil society and so on.”

He said advocates of this position need to show what kind of media system is fit for purpose and “to incorporate these ideal roles of the media system … into the diagnostic frameworks we use to decide what initiatives to push for in Country X.”

The new book includes many recommendations. Norris and Odugbemi contend, for example, that most of the training of journalists “is episodic and unsustainable, apart from ignoring the structural constraints on the quality of journalism.”

A main conclusion of the final chapter could be read as a critique of Bank efforts:

 “One of the greatest identifiable weaknesses in much of the existing work on media reforms is the lack of a holistic approach by most donors. The primacy of the overall enabling environment is not receiving the attention it deserves. The evidence suggests slow progress in the areas of legal and regulatory reform, yet this is the heart of the matter.”


Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: , ,

Filed under: IFTI Watch


In this column, Washington, D.C.-based journalist Toby J. McIntosh reports on the latest developments in information disclosure in International Financial and Trade Institutions (IFTI).
Contact: or
1-(703) 276-7748