Understanding Media Development’s Place in the Post-2015 Development Agenda: How to Measure and Account for the “Golden Threads”?

Susan Abbott, an independent consultant, discusses media development looking towards a post-2015 development agenda.[1]

At the Millennium Summit of the UN in 2000, world leaders and several international institutions set out to create the Millennium Development Goals – the MDGs as they have become known.[2] These eight goals were given an ambitious timeline (an expected accomplishment deadline of 2015) and the ultimate objective of cutting the world’s poverty in half, i.e. to lift more than 500 million out of poverty.  The MDGs have had their fair share of criticism, including frustrations at how unrealistic the targets are, and accusations that they are a project of a neo-liberal agenda, that the data and body of evidence that is needed to support any claims of achieving the goals is weak or non-existent and that there is a lack of an accountability mechanism for developing countries to adopt these goals as their own. Critiques notwithstanding, the MDGs have given the international development community a framework to work with and around, and they have set the tone for a global dialogue around some organizing targets that international actors (donors, implementers, and other engaged in the battle against extreme poverty) can use to gauge the overall progress and impact of their work.

For the media development community, the MDGs have always been somewhat problematic.  While there has been much posturing about the importance of supporting free and independent media, and access to information, it is not exactly clear how institutions that engage in any form of media assistance are able to track and identify how their support and interventions have contributed to the MDGs. Given the prominence and attention that monitoring and evaluation has received in recent years by the media assistance community, outside of the EU context and in discussions driven by BBC Media Action and other key Europe-based actors, it is curious as to why the MDGs are often absent or scarcely discussed in terms of how media development programs contribute to developmental goals and objectives.

Key media development indicators such as those offered by UNESCO, IREX MSI, Freedom House Freedom of the Press, and even the US State Department’s Foreign Assistance Indicators, are most helpful when thinking about the overall capacity and health of the media sector, i.e. in terms of journalistic professionalism, the enabling environment, restrictions on press freedom, the quality of news and information, the relative health of the business side of the media/press industry in studied countries, etc.  However, there has been little empirical research connected these media development indicators with the overall outcomes linked to the MDGs and general development goals. The book Measures of Press Freedom and Media Contributions to Development: Evaluating the Evaluators was an attempt to look more deeply into this issue.[3] What this volume and other research has shown is that there is a noticeable disconnect between the main research instruments and indicators used to track the progress of the programs designed to improve the institutions of free and independent media, and the outcomes or consequences of media assistance, i.e. how the programs have contributed to the alleviation of poverty and other development challenges.  This is not a new challenge for media assistance. The World Bank Institute and Internews, backed by the Gates Foundation, made an impressive foray into trying to understand the connections better and trying to begin grappling with various data sets and ways of studying how media systems contribute to development goals.[4]  The Media Map Project yielded many insights including the need to expand data, diagnostics and learning.  The researchers on this project found that: “Much of the literature on media development has used press freedom as the proxy for progress in media development. While  press freedom may very well be the key indicator for a nation’s commitment to the values of a pluralistic, open society, it may not always be the best indicator for tracking and measuring change in the media sector, and is just one piece of a complex system.”[5] Moreover, the press freedom measures may also fall short in offering adequate explanations of how media development programs specifically contribute to addressing the issues of extreme poverty as outlined in the MDGs.

In tandem with the inherent difficulties and challenges of how one could measure or account for media’s contributions to development, are the vagaries of the MDGs themselves.  For those who work in the media development field, the MDGs have a noticeable lack of specificity surrounding the role of media, communications and information as part of a global development strategy.  Goal number 8,”to develop a global partnership for development,” became the holding place for the relevance and importance of including media as a development issue outright – by virtue of the goal’s stated commitment to good governance, in which free and independent media and access to information are considered essential to bringing about good governance.  In post-2015 discussions, it is not entirely clear that media and information will fare much better.  In discussions and deliberations surrounding what the post-2015 development agenda should look like, the British Prime Minister David Cameron, in a now famous speech to the UN, talked of the importance of the Golden Threads, of which free and independent media are included, as part of an overall strategy, and essential foundation that every society needs in order to alleviate all the problems associated with poverty.  Golden Threads have a rather ambiguous quality to them, leading to a skeptical response from international development commentators, namely journalists and scholars, who would like more specificity and a clearer idea of what the next steps are in the global war against extreme poverty.

Whether media and information will be listed in an elusive manner, i.e.in a vague or implied way or included as an outright, standalone future development goal post-2015, the relevance and place of a free and independent media system, the right to communicate, and have access to information is not outright disputed.  It is hard not to recognize the significance of what free expression and access to information means for our global networked society.  That is not to say that everyone in development policy circles has jumped on the media development bandwagon.  Outside the media development community, it is not clear that media has achieved the prominence or level of recognition that the environment, education, or gender have.  Still, in an era that often gets defined by the role and prominence of social networks, the widespread availability of mobile technology, satellite communication, and the relative ease with which a wide range of various information and communications technologies can be installed or made available, media programming, information campaigns, and journalistic output, are an essential part of participating in and contributing to local, regional, national and international conversations.  The rise of internet-based communications and the ease with which we can communicate and send information via mobile devices have connected the world in ways that one could not have imagined in previous generations.  Where we’ll be in 2030 and beyond holds great promise and potential, especially in terms of the familiar terrains of the media development and communications for development spaces.

The challenge for development actors who embrace media, communication and information as a key force in the war against poverty, conflict, stopping the spread of disease, supporting gender equality and human rights for all, amongst the many other development goals, remains much the same now as was the case in 2000. The real difficulty is showing how and when media matter, and more to the point how to measure it and capture it for a wider audience.

Towards this end, media development actors, notably the Global Forum for Media Development and Article 19 have spearheaded a global campaign to help lend focus to ensuring that free and independent media and access to information are included in the post-2015 development agenda.  Their campaign has gained considerable traction.  As the Committee to Project Journalists wrote in a letter of support to the UN committee that is considering how the post-2015 development goals should be shaped and worded: “We were heartened to see that the 27 prominent political leaders and experts commissioned by the U.N. to suggest ways of ending poverty placed freedom of expression and access to information at the center of any strategy to improve the way people are governed and served by the state. More than 190 civil society groups have similarly called on the U.N. to ensure government accountability and independent media are at the heart of the new global development framework.”[6]

GFMD and Article 19 will be joined by hundreds of other free expression and access to information activists at the upcoming World Press Freedom Day, which is organized by UNESCO, and will take place in Paris, May 5-6, 2014.  Amongst the many issues to be discussed will be how to best advocate for free and independent media and access to information as part of the post-2015 agenda. UNESCO has formed a special working group to deal with questions related to media development’s role and inclusion in the future development goals, targets, and indicators that will track what comes next in the global effort to tackle poverty and most relevant social, economic, and political challenges that encumber development progress.

In order for the media development community to move beyond being bundled amongst a long list of Golden Threads,[7] it will be necessary for the working group in Paris to come up with sound answers to questions such as, how does freedom of expression and independent media factor into development, and is there really an evidence-base that supports the claims of the champions of including media freedom as part of the post 2015 Development agenda claim?  To move to the next phase of this long and complicated conversation, it would be useful for those working in the media development community to collectively take stock of their programs and interventions to date, and outline specific examples of where assistance programs have contributed to the MDGs.  This would be a good start in moving from more theoretical, abstract discussions on the importance of free and independent media system to  a conversation geared toward the development of a concrete, empirical understanding of how to assess and evaluate how and when media matters to advancing development goals.


[1] Golden Threads is in reference to a speech David Cameron gave to the wherein he talked of the importance of the golden threads to combat global poverty and the post 2015 development agenda, see for instance: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2012/aug/27/david-cameron-development-theory-convenient as well as the text of the original speech at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/david-camerons-speech-to-un

[2] The eight MDGs as they were established in 2000 are: 1) To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; 2) To achieve universal primary education; 3) To promote gender equality and empowering women; 4) To reduce child mortality rates; 5) To improve maternal health; 6) To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; 7) To ensure environmental sustainability; and 8) To develop a global partnership for development.  For further background on the MDGs see: http://www.unmillenniumproject.org/goals/.

[3] Monroe Price and Susan Abbott (eds.) Evaluating the Evaluators: Measures of Press Freedom and Media Contributions to Development (Peter Lang, 2011).

[5] See Mark Nelson and Tara Susman-Pena, in Re-Thinking Media Development: A Report on The Media Map Project, January 2012, available at: http://www.mediamapresource.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/1.9-Rethinking-Media-Dev.web_.pdf

[6] See “CPJ urges free expression be part of post-2015 MDG agenda” Available at: http://www.cpj.org/2014/04/cpj-urges-free-expression-be-part-of-post-2015-mdg.php

[7] Cameron’s speech and reference to the golden thread appears in many of his speeches and writings.  As The Guardian writes, “Although the idea has never been set out in detail, he has described in speeches what he calls “enablers” of development: transparency, openness, accountability, empowerment, freedom, rule of law, property rights, absence of corruption, free media, free and fair elections, trade, flexibility and civil society.” For further reference see: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2012/aug/27/david-cameron-development-theory-convenient



  1. Basilio Monteiro

    The Millennium Development Goals were problematic in their conceptualization. The notion of GOALS is very seductive, because it gives us a sense of “accomplishability” and of course it can be assessed, to some extent, in a quantifiable manner (usually to satisfy the donor community). However, setting global GOALS is non-productive. Development is LOCAL and CULTURE matters. The United Nations must develop THEMES rather than goals. It must encourage individual countries to develop GOALS according to their needs and capabilities. The NGOs instead of pressurizing the United Nations must pressurize the local Governments to develop appropriate GOALS. Homogenization of GOALS established by the United Nations is “un-accomplishable.”

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