This week, I had opportunity to participate in a workshop organised by the Rural Support Program Network (RSPN) under its EU-funded Sindh Union Council and Community Economic Strengthening Support (SUCCESS) programme.
The workshop was convened in the remote district of Qambar Shahdadkot of Sindh where the programme is being implemented by the Sindh Rural Support Organisation under the technical supervision of the RSPN. The workshop was aimed to deliberate upon the role of journalists in grassroots development, and to explore the potential of collaboration between development practitioners, journalists and the local community in the process of socioeconomic transformation. Before I discuss the role of journalists in development, let me give a summary of the programme to set the context of transformational processes where journalists can play a vital role to promote the voice of the voiceless.
The programme is underway in eight districts of Sindh – Qambar Shahdadkot, Larkana, Dadu, Jamshoro, Matiari, Sujawal, Tando Allahyar and Tando Muhammad Khan – where the National Rural Support Programme (NRSP), Sindh Rural Support Organisation (SRSO) and Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP) are engaged in implementing it. This programme is founded on the classical rural development model of building social, human, financial and physical capitals to help expedite the socioeconomic transformation of the rural poor.
Social capital formation is the most fundamental part of the overall framework of socioeconomic transformation in that the rural communities are organised into their own institutions at the hamlet level. These community institutions have been given the generic name of community organisations (COs), which are mandated to represent at least 80 percent households of the hamlet to qualify for development support.
These COs of all hamlets are federated at the revenue village level as village organisations (VOs) and these VOs then come together to form local support organisations (LSOs) at the Union Council level. COs directly represent households while VOs and LSOs are the representative local institutions of the poor.
These institutions must meet the stringent criterion of four fundamental principles – inclusion, transparency, accountability and good governance – so as to be rated as viable for development support. In other words, these institutions must be inclusive, transparent, accountable and well-governed, with some sort of strategic planning of sustainability.
The SUCCESS programme focuses exclusively on women’s empowerment by investing in the formation of three-tiered women’s institutions at the hamlet, village and union council levels. Development support includes formation of institutions for women, building their capacity and skills to govern these institutions and providing grants and trainings to help promote local entrepreneurship for the sustainability of these institutions.
Once these institutions become well-governed, transparent (with a sound financial transaction and book-keeping system), inclusive (representing the poor and minorities) the SUCCESS team – after a thorough assessment – provides them a grant as Community Investment Fund (CIF). This fund is managed by these institutions with the technical supervision of the programme team. It is allocated as an income-generating loan to the poor once they develop their own investment plans. The idea is to revolve this fund as a means for income generation for the poor as well as to allow women’s organisations to become self-reliant and sustainable in the long run.
Members of COs are also encouraged to save some amount on a regular basis which can then be circulated as productive loans, and its proceeds can help enhance the household income of members of the organisation. Under the SUCCESS programme, special grants are also provided as Income Generating Grants (IGGs) for the poorest of the poor women so that they are able to break free from the intergenerational vicious cycle of poverty. The programme team undertakes a poverty assessment survey to identify household poverty by using a measurable time-tested and practical tool of poverty measurement. The poverty scorecard also helps track the progress of each beneficiary to move out of poverty in real time by calculating the poverty score of a member at any given time.
This programme is one of those success stories which remain unreported in the mass media and therefore do not reach the tables of policymakers. This is partly because there is a huge disconnect between development practitioners and local journalists. In the workshop, it was quite evident that for most of the journalists this was their first exposure to a grassroots development programme. In general too, there is no effort towards development journalism in Pakistan. None of our prime-time TV talk shows discuss grassroots development issues, and hence the voices of the voiceless do not find space in mainstream media.
The idea of development journalism was conceived as early as the 1960s as a process of decolonising knowledge production. The Western theories and practices of journalism which were taught and adopted in the postcolonial developing world continued to offer a top-down and elitist form of reporting and reflection of developing societies, and their culture and political realities. Western-educated mediapersons dominated the discourse of change, which was disconnected from the real world of poverty and wretchedness in Asia, Africa and Latin America. It was, therefore, vital to liberate the discourse and practices of journalism from Western communication ideals and the influence of intellectual and political tendencies of the colonial era. The Press Foundation of Asia provided the platform for alternative and home-grown perspectives of mass communication and journalism which is now encapsulated in the term ‘development journalism’.
‘Development journalism’ is an emerging field of specialisation – as an important instrument of promoting the transformative change in human society. It advocates the role of journalism as a process of delving, debunking and decoding rather than merely describing. A good reporter must be able to appreciate and explore the interplay of diverse realms of society which shape the political, social and cultural realities. Being one of the most effective actors of civil society, journalists must play the role of mediator between the voiceless and the policymakers. There is an emerging need for a New World Information Order today to help build a world of authenticity, as opposed to the simulated realities of corporate media and the frivolity of social media.
In an age of the increasing dominance of sensational and yellow journalism, which is promoted through private media as a sellable public narrative, the challenges for effective development journalism are manifold in this country. During the workshop in Qamabr Shahdadkot, local journalists shared their experiences of how they are coerced to report sellable news without delving into the ingenuity of a social issue. Apart from the lack of technical capacity and professional skills, local journalists also face threats and persecution from the influential local elite if they report genuine factors of poverty and underdevelopment.
During the workshop’s brainstorming session, it was revealed that most of the journalists were not aware of local development initiatives and had never reported on the successes or failures of such grassroots development programmes. During the discussion, the local journalists shared eye-opening accounts of how they had to compromise their independence to make a decent living. Most of these journalists are not paid at all by the organisations they work for and therefore they are easily exploited by powerful private interests.
It was a timely and commendable effort by the RSPN to engage local journalists so that they become the eyes and ears of the poor whose voices matter but who remain unheard in our Lilliputian world of politics. Development agencies and donors must allocate funds for the capacity-building of development journalists so that the voices of the poor find space in our mainstream media and influence policymaking.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.