Democratization of information and imperatives of sustainable development

Democratization of information and imperatives of sustainable development in Africa: A nexus of people, press, peace, and public policy.
Excerpts from a paper presented by Dr. Uchenna Ekwo at the International Conference on Management, Policy, and Development in Windhoek, Namibia.

Introduction/Background to Study:

The mass media including the old and new media are undoubtedly indispensable part of the public sphere in modern societies fragmented and connected by the Internet and wireless communication networks (Thompson, 2000; McChesney, 2007). Democratization of information ensures the free flow of ideas, opinions, and knowledge that informs public debate and dialogue in contemporary society. In an era of multimedia and convergence of media platforms, democratization of information facilitates access to different ideas, opinions, cultural diversity, knowledge, and education anywhere, anytime, anyhow, and to everybody. In other words, the agitation for media freedom is no longer a privilege for journalists but also a necessity for everyone who can lay hands on a mobile phone or access the Internet (Ekwo,2011). This means that in the knowledge age, the power of knowledge is profound and the ownership of knowledge is no more exclusive to a few. For example Stein (2013) acknowledged the potential of the Internet in democratizing opportunities for young people and providing unprecedented access to information that hitherto was exclusive only to the rich. Similarly, Schmidt and Cohen(2010) in the article “Digital disruption: connectivity and diffusion of power” used the term ‘interconnected estate’ to describe an emerging public space with guaranteed entrance to all regardless of social status or nationality. The platform, Schmidt and Cohen pointed out give citizens voice and power that can bring about social change .Today all citizens deserve a life with full knowledge of issues and events around them.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes freedom of communication and democratization of information as a human right. In the analysis of the new public sphere, Castells (2008) argued that the free flow of information between citizens, civil society, and the state was essential for systemic balance in the conduct of public affairs. Castells viewed the relationship between civil society and the state as the cornerstone of democracy. As an important part of civil society, the media constitutes a warehouse of some sort that stores ideas that propel public debate that enriches democratic governance. “Without an effective civil society capable of structuring and channeling citizen debates over diverse ideas and conflicting interests, writes Castells, the state drifts away from its subjects”.
The connection between information flow and sustainable development in Africa can therefore be understood from the prism of Brundtland’s (1987) conceptualization of sustainability. According to the Brundtland Report sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. For people to make up their minds on the issues that affect their lives, as well as the future of humankind, the global/local communication media system including television, radio, newspapers, magazines, as well as a variety of multimedia and communications systems are pivotal (Bennett 2004; Dahlgren 2005; Tremayne 2007). Shifts in public opinion reflected in the mass media or what (Castells, 2008) termed “mass self-communication” have led to the explosion of literature on sustainable development. The buzz around the concept of sustainability is more political than any concrete form of a sustainable path towards development (Freedom Advocates, 2012). However, such phrases as “sustainable business,” “sustainable technology,” “sustainable agriculture,” “sustainable economics,” etc suggest an ubiquitous concept that has captured the maze of development paradigm. Banon Gomis et al (2011) rationalized the trend towards sustainability and insisted that the unprecedented concern for sustainability was because of the emergence of serious problems associated with the human impact on the environment. The spread of information both horizontally and vertically across different media platforms has helped to create greater awareness of the threat of global warming and the quest for sustainability or sustainable development.
However, the literature on sustainable development seems to be skewed towards environmental issues such as the “going green” campaign that has captured the consciousness of millions of people especially environmental activists. Admittedly, the idea of sustainability or sustainable development gained steam following the internationally acclaimed Agenda 21 – the document that emerged from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

Dr. Harvey White of University of Pittsburgh and Dr. Mary Bruce of Governor's State University at the conference

Dr. Harvey White of University of Pittsburgh and Dr. Mary Bruce of Governor’s State University at the conference


Nevertheless, support for sustainable development seems to indicate a predictable pattern whereby subjectivity rather than objectivity trail the analysis of the concept. Therefore, an approach to sustainable development depends on the professional interest or allegiance of different individuals, disciplines, and groups. Conscious of the ambiguity associated with the interpretation of sustainable development Lieberherr-Gardiol (2008) noted that the concept of sustainable development produces “opportunistic meanings as well as opportunities opening to powerful innovations and initiatives” (p. 332). Following Lieberherr-Gardiol line of thought, it is not surprising that in the United States for instance, some conservative pundits conclude that the growing emphasis on sustainable development is an orchestrated effort to trample on civil liberties, impose global governance, restrict land use, control resource extraction, and deny citizens of their rights such as right to property (Freedom Advocates, 2012). The precipitous denial of climate change is probably anchored on the assumption that the demand to curb gas emissions is an affront to the rights businesses that pollute the environment. It is in this connection that media practitioners and society generally can take advantage of the opportunities provided by increased public opinion regarding the application of sustainable development to inform and educate the citizens especially younger generations on how sustainability across all sectors of human endeavor constitutes the future.

Media, Public Policy, and Sustainable Development

To underscore the importance of the media in sustainable development, a conference on Green Media held in Boston in 2008 had as its theme: “How green is my media”? Participants explored practical ideas on overall media sustainability to answer the question posed by the conference theme. The consensus was that the media has an important role to play in sustainable development. Media’s integral role in decision making processes, agenda setting, citizen engagement, and formulation of virile public policy has immense bearing to sustainable development. The process of information gathering, packaging, and dissemination by professional and citizen journalists can further the cause of improving the quality of life. Democratization of information and democratization of policy making have the potential to achieve improved citizen engagement in decision making that supports sustainable development. Cayaban (2003) understands the connection between the media and sustainable development. In the words of Cayaban “if sustainable development is about changing attitudes, adopting new policies and taking action then the media has a major role to play”. In a reference to the Sustainable Development Strategy for the Seas of East Asia (SDS-SEA) adopted by 12 East Asian countries, Cayaban further stated:
“…the media is the most important stakeholder that could spread information about the worth of our seas, the magnitude of environmental challenges, and the opportunities created by the SDS-SEA to address these challenges”. (p. 2)
Media coverage of disasters including earthquakes, tsunami, conflicts, and other natural catastrophes has attracted the attention of scholars as a primary activity that supports the intersection of media, public policy, and sustainable development. In a public opinion survey about the activity of the local mass media after the Caspian earthquake in 2000, Seid-Aliyeva (2006) found that the mass media can contribute to the prevention and reduction of disaster’s consequences by educating vulnerable population on avoiding or escaping from disasters. Seid-Aliyeva’s analysis emphasized the importance of efficient information management in disaster prevention and concluded that the mass media’s role in disaster preparedness is recognized as one strategic disaster prevention methods in many countries of the world.
On the other hand, Ullah, Ahmad and Khan (2012) suggested the utility of social media in fundraising for sustainable community development targeted towards poverty reduction and anti-terrorism measures that could bring about a peaceful but sustained and prosperous community in Pakistan. It therefore follows that if social media could help to minimize violence and terrorism in Pakistan, it could promote measures that can reverse the surge of violence and conflicts in most regions of Africa where terrorist threats could stifle economic and political developments.
Furthermore, Barkemeyer et al (2009) conducted a study of media coverage of sustainability and related concepts in 115 leading national newspapers worldwide between 1990 and 2008—covering approximately 20,500,000 articles in 340,000 newspaper issues in 39 countries and found increased global media coverage of issues related to sustainable development. In a sample of 112 worldwide newspapers, Holt and Barkemeyer (2012) also noted that coverage of sustainability related concepts within the media shows a clear upward trajectory. A similar study by Haddock-Fraser (2012) investigated how UK print media reported sustainable development activities and concluded that appropriate media behavior towards sustainability issues could bring substantial benefits to corporate and public policy research. Adelekan’s (2009) content analysis of two Nigerian newspapers – Daily Times and The Guardian provided evidence to support public engagement on issues about the environment. While emphasizing what he termed ‘environmental information’ as the bedrock of achieving local environmental sustainability goals, Adelekan found that energy issues dominated media coverage with little attention paid to global climate change issues. This may not be surprising given that oil is the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy.
In an article, Rethinking the Concept of Sustainability, Banon Gomis et al (2011) approached the concept of sustainability with an ethical lens and analyzed the intersection of the different domains— environment, economy, and society with inevitable conflicts among and within the three domains. For example, an environmentalist may disregard the consequences of his/her actions on business, and a social group may consider “going green” campaigners to be nothing but irritable nuisances. The reconciliation of intra and inter domain disagreements within the three pillars of sustainable development, Banon Gomis et al, argued can be achieved through building consensus within “ shared ethics of sustainability” (p . 4). Stretching this argument further, it is possible that media ethics can also contribute to the reconciliation of the competing interests associated with pillars of sustainable development. Since ethics is all about good behavior, doing the right thing and promoting values a given society considers to be appropriate, ethical reporting and news coverage should support sustainability by clarifying values, balancing conflicting values and creating awareness of values in society. In other words, how are the issues related to sustainability framed and focused in the media? For example, the issues of war and peace are not given the same treatment in the news media. Whereas the media give little coverage to peace and more coverage to wars, it is often ignored that peace is what will guarantee the sustainability of the human family. The neglect of issues that advance peace in society is purposeful probably because it is not as dramatic as violence. As many scholars including McChesney (2007) argued, new information and communication technologies allow global networks to selectively connect anyone and anything throughout the world and consequently give visibility to any issue considered important for the future of mankind. The selective processes and activities in the news media led Schudson (2003) to conclude that “news is a representation of the world and all representations are selective (p. 33). Writing on peace journalism, Lynch (2007) maintained that journalists either individually or collectively could make a difference by the issues, events, and processes they choose to report as well as map the effects of their reporting on conflict management. In other words, journalism practice could be pivotal in the course of conflict (escalation or deescalation of conflict) ; it could be the difference between war and peace depending on the degree of information processing by the media that emphasizes nonviolent response to conflict. Seminal works by (McCombs and Shaw 1972, Dearing and Rogers 1992, McCombs 2006) on the agenda-setting function of the mass media also describe the capacity of media professionals in conferring status or salience to issues and by focusing public attention to those issues in news reports.
Consequently, media’s ability to confer status on wide ranging issues related to sustainable development is acknowledged as well as its potential to respond to what peace researchers call ‘conflict dynamics’ (Francis, 2002 p. 28). A specific example is the news coverage of hurricanes or earthquakes whereby global television networks and journalists bring such tragedies to the living rooms and offices of anyone who cared to watch, listen or read. The news media may be good in covering the drama of disasters but not often successful in following up after featuring the ordeals of survivors to prick the conscience of society. The stage at which the media leaves off is picked up by civil society and policy makers to sustain the development and recovery of individuals and society generally.

Governance, Civil Society, and Development Policy in Africa

Development policy in Africa may be uncoordinated but at its core is the support for participation and decentralization in building capacity for social change and collective action (Mansuri, Rao, & World Bank, 2013). The interaction between citizens, civil society, and the state through the platform of the mass media, Internet, and other wireless communication devices are critical in maintaining stability and social cohesion in all democratic societies. Democratic governance or decision making in most African countries are largely vertical rather than horizontal. This trend defies the evidence that messages and debates that occur in the public sphere help citizens to make decisions on the issues that affect their lives, as well as the future of humankind (Bennett 2004; Dahlgren 2005; Tremayne 2007). Yet, many leaders in Africa continue to make unilateral and arbitrary decisions on behalf of the citizens with adverse consequences to sustainable development. The desirability of involving citizens in determining their future informed Castells’ (2008) assertion that the institutions of governance face four distinct, but interrelated political crises namely crisis of efficiency; crisis of legitimacy; crisis of identity; and crisis of equity. All four categories of crises have conspiratorial manifestations in Africa’s political and socioeconomic development. Castells further argued that crisis of efficiency was responsible for the inability to resolve major global challenges such as environmental issues notably global warming. Efficiency and effectiveness are concepts used by scholars to explain why some efforts at developing and implementing joint solutions to international problems succeed while others do not (Kaasa, 2007). Other challenges or predicaments such as political representation, alienation of cultures, and growing inequality exacerbated by globalization inevitably force civil society to be the vanguard of citizens’ needs, interests, and values.
So, the influence of nongovernmental organizations (also called the third sector) in supporting sustainable development is recognized across regions. For example Kaasa (2007) concluded that nongovernmental organizations might boost the “achievements of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) by providing information, creativity, new ideas,…framing issues for collective debate; proposing specific policies and identifying important issues for negotiation” (p. 111). Murphy ( 2000) outlined several contributions of NGOs towards sustainable development ranging from the management of refugee camps, provision of disaster relief, design and implementation of development projects to monitoring and fighting the spread of diseases as wells as environmental sanitation.
In Africa, a growing civil society is transforming governance and participatory democracy in the continent. Civil society organizations diffuse sustainable development norms and promoting environmental norms in different ways notably by spreading their core values and activities (Park, 2007). The common tools at the disposal of civil society to mobilize citizens are mostly information and communication technologies. Surely, ICTs are helpful for collective action and civil society activists utilize them to minimize pervasive incidence of capture and rent-seeking within African societies. The 2007 post election violence in Kenya and collective opposition to violence in 2013 presidential election revealed the impact of civil society in mobilizing for action. In all circumstances, free flow of information enabled by multimedia and wireless communication devices facilitated the citizen mobilization and engagement towards sustainable democracy.
As found across the literature, democratization of information is a critical component of sustainable development. The mass media as purveyors of information are effective platforms for citizens’ mobilization to participate in governance and support sustainability in society. The literature raises fundamental questions that guided the study:
1. What is the perception of African immigrants regarding the relationship between open society and sustainable development?
2. How do Africans in Diaspora perceive their involvement in sustainability related to poverty reduction, economic development, environment, and social change in continental Africa?

Method

The study is based heavily on interviews conducted among African immigrants in New York City most of whom are professionals of diverse backgrounds. Availability and convenience were important factors in the selection of respondents as well as perceived familiarity with development concepts in Africa and around the world. Consequently, the study’s shortcoming is obvious because a small and unrepresentative sample of 20 interviewees might not be an accurate reflection of reality. However, such snap shots of opinion provided some clues into the understanding of sustainable development in Africa.
Results:

The study revealed a clear understanding of sustainable development as a concept but the methods to achieve sustainable development vary according individual perspectives and backgrounds. The majority of respondents viewed sustainable development as forms of development that are sensitive and responsive to the renewal of natural resources/raw materials, so that they can be conserved for the needs of future generations of humanity. The underlying principle is not to exhaust or degrade the earth’s limited stock of renewable and non-renewable natural resources and ecosystems. A respondent conceptualized sustainable development as “having policy, plan, programs and actionable strategies with outputs and outcomes that minimize inequality and poverty in any society”. Obviously, policy inputs, outputs,and outcomes can only be meaningful and measurable through the participation of citizens and civil society utilizing the opportunities provided by the multimedia platforms in the modern ‘interconnected estate’. Horizontal flow of information gives a voice to hitherto voiceless majority.
Additionally, the study data emphasized the strategic role of Africans in diaspora particularly the influence this category of Africans in networking with Africans and non Africans. Africans in diaspora especially voluntary African immigrants in the United States and other western countries who are highly skilled and educated inspire hope in the future of Africa through a commitment to trade and investment and support to openness, pluralism, and free speech in African societies. In the words of a respondent, “African immigrants can provide information and education and invest in environment-friendly technologies and industries, and contribute to the promotion of an eco-friendly culture where development is not at the expense of the ability of nature to recover and renew itself”. The emphasis on sustainability underscores the key element of development – the fact that development is a continuum. Although the development gap in Africa is probably wider than most advanced countries, there is evidence to argue that sustainable development does not accept the dichotomous notions of development reflected in such phrases as ‘developing and developed countries’: the quest for sustainable development is worldwide.
The universality of sustainable development therefore implies that the active participation of citizens and the media is pivotal in making progress towards preserving the environment for future generations. As one respondent aptly noted Africa must exploit the potential of ongoing green revolution and information revolution for human progress. Going green campaign or consciousness and the empowerment of citizens in the Information Age provides a unique opportunity for a synergy between people and press. The ability for citizens to express their views freely through multimedia including mobile devices such as cell phones and social media can sustain the momentum towards positive social change in all aspects of human endeavor. Free flow of information, according to the study data, is very important in Africa as a way of raising awareness on the need to conserve nature and protect the environment and not over-exploit natural resources of the continent. Freedom of expression and free flow of information were perceived as key ingredients in democracy that provide the basis for sustainable development. In the words of one respondent “underdevelopment begets stagnation in the flow of information; and constraints in the free flow of information hinder the knowledge necessary for development… limitations placed on free expression and the free flow of information are to blame for stunted development in Africa”.
But, the rise in citizen power in Africa is shaping governance and fostering alliances for the embrace of civil society, nongovernmental organizations, and business sector in sustainable development.
The remote communication possibilities made possible by developments in ICT and increased broad band Internet access in Africa can at the same time create opportunities to support democratic governance and conflict resolution in the continent. For example, massive and coordinated media coverage of the actions of Liberian women in advancing the cause of peace could have a ripple effects on other parts of Africa because the practice can be replicated with some modifications. The extent to which the Liberian women’s unconventional method earned a Nobel Prize underscores the legitimacy of the method. Consequently, diffusion of similar ideas and methods through free flow of information related to information and knowledge sharing, capacity building and the sharing and transfer of best practices is desirable.

Although the study data identified a correlation between free flow of ideas and knowledge as inputs to policy and as feedback to outputs and outcomes, Africa faces unique challenges such as the disregard of home grown ideas and preference of alien ideas not suited for the African condition by policy makers in the continent.
Besides, African governments and businesses do not provide necessary resources for research and development while many individuals, academics, and thought leaders are afraid to challenge the status quo or western models, policies, and practices that are unsuitable for Africa.
Therefore it is not the lack of free flow of ideas, but a lack of the institutional mechanism to transform ideas to policy and practice.
Moreover, the study data revealed the impact of diaspora Africans in economic development of the continent and propagation of African culture around the world. The role of Africans abroad and Descendants is already happening by sending remittances home. Some of them have gone back home to set up institutes and businesses. They can do more through Venture Capital, crowd funding, setting up institutions for innovation in science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics, setting up philanthropic institutions with focus on providing resources knowledge production, and transformation, policy and practices. New markets can be discovered and exchanges happen thanks to the growth of the ICT sector. Private companies interested in investing or trading with these countries will be greatly assisted by combining the use of ICT and the cultural guidance of the diaspora originating from their foreign national interests living in the US, the inter-university cooperation and the use of new modeling tools for planning for sustainable development in cooperation with local stakeholders.
Today, with migration and exile, new diasporas emerge around the world shortening the distances between cultures. This is going to contribute to the sustainability of our cooperation when we learn to tap this resource. Modern communications and transportation and major imbalances are behind these migrations. If we want to learn to manage the planet in more sustainable ways, the mediation of diasporas between the United States and the rest of the world would be greatly enriching. Since sustainable development is based on a harmonious relationship between human cultures and their planetary habitats, continual arrival to the United states of the people of the world is becoming a new resource for international communication and governance, by eliminating distances between cultures. This adds effectiveness to our cooperation in environmental, social and economic fields of activity. This is the shortest road to a culture of peace.

To be continued …

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