Media development as a field within international development has existed for at least 30 years. Broadly speaking, media development organizations provide financial support, training, and resources to groups in developing countries that want build and sustain media organizations. An active and dynamic media ecosystem, the thinking goes, leads to greater government transparency, a more informed public, and greater civic participation. Some of the major players in the field of media development are:

Then there are hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller media development groups at the regional, national, and local level. The Media Institute of Southern Africa, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, CALANDRIA, and the Liberia Media Center are all examples. Many – though not all – of these groups are members of the Global Forum for Media Development, which organizes a global conference once every three years (most recently in Athens in 2008) and, more frequently, smaller regional events.

The transition in the media industry from the broadcast and print era to digital, participatory media has led media development organizations to re-think their strategies and investment priorities. That’s why I’m at the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria this week with a group of media development professionals, new media enthusiasts, and a handful of researchers and funders. We are gathered here for a three-day meeting to make recommendations to funders as to how they can most effectively help bring about a healthy global media ecosystem.

Ivan Sigal – Obstacles to a healthy media ecosystem

Ivan Sigal, executive editor of Global Voices, kicked off the first day’s discussion by pointing out several obstacles that currently stand in the way of healthy media systems on a global level. These include:

  • Public and private telecommunications infrastructure
  • Regulatory and media law issues
  • Language and translation
  • Social and digital divides
  • Technical issues (eg. available fonts in local languages)
  • Access to equipment, training, and tutorials
  • Access to generative technologies

I suggested that 1.) censorship and 2.) audience (or lack thereof) are two other obstacles to a healthy flow of media, information, and participation.

Ivan went on to stress that these different obstacles vary and manifest themselves in different ways in different parts of the world. He noted that ‘country’ is not always the best lens to think about where the obstacles exist and how to confront them, and that culture has an impact on how digital communities are incentivized.

Josh Goldstein – Working against or with telecommunications companies

Josh Goldstein then followed up. He explained that he would present both from his perspective as a fellow this past summer at Appfrica Labs in Kampala, Uganda and in his new position at UNICEF Innovation, which is looking at how to spur and implement more innovation throughout UNICEF’s 191 country offices. Or, as he put it, his summer experience in Uganda revealed to him what obstacles stand in the way of success for tech-savvy web entrepreneurs like Jon Gosier. In his new job he will try to leverage UNICEF’s position to help bring down some of those barriers to entry.

One of the greatest obstacles for a healthy media ecosystem, Josh points out, is simply the cost of access to information. Rwandans, for example, spend an estimated 65% of their disposable income (and 17% of total income) just on mobile access.

In fact, on the tails of The Economist’s recent cheerleading of mobile phones in development, Josh published a cautionary note at VentureBeat explaining that a single text message can run as much as ten cents per message in Uganda, a prohibitively high cost for most Ugandans.

Earlier this year Appfrica Labs programmer Felix Kitaka developed Status.ug, a local Twitter-like clone for Ugandans which allows them to update their Facebook and Twitter statuses directly via text message. The service has yet to really take off, however, because most Ugandans still aren’t able to afford frequent text messaging. Twitter has proven itself to be an important (although often overstated) tool for activists. Those same opportunities aren’t available in Uganda, however, because there is not enough competition in the mobile wireless industry to bring down the price of participation. Josh points out that there are two strategies to lower the cost of access to information. First, you could seek government support for regulation which forces telecommunications companies to lower their fees. This is the type of advocacy work that the Knight Foundation has been involved in with the Federal Communication Commission in the United States. The second option, which Josh seems more enthusiastic about, is meeting directly with the telecommunications companies to convince them that if they lower their costs they will make up for it in greater volume.

Felipe Vaz – LAN houses as informal spaces of digital inclusion

Felipe Vaz of Overmundo shows an example of how informal digital media development is frequently taking place outside of government, education, or civil society organizations. Those more formal organizations must then decide if they will co-opt, support, oppose, or stay away from the informal structures that have developed.

In this case Felipe introduces us to LAN houses, which Paula Goés has written about extensively on Global Voices. These LAN houses initially began as local networks where (mostly) young people would go to play multiplayer games like World of Warcraft. More recently they have connected to the internet and are used for social networking, chatting, and job searching. The estimated 90,000 LAN houses across Brazil account for 50% of available internet access in the country. These are illegal operations which don’t have business permits and don’t pay taxes. The Brazilian government so far has taken an adversarial position toward the LAN houses, arguing that they encourage young people to miss class. But others, like Brazilian blogger Jeimy Remir, think that LAN houses have a positive impact both for their owners and customers:

As a fruit of creativity and entrepreneurship, starting lan houses has changed the lives of their owners. Usually attached to their own houses, the lan houses come in stylized environments, often set up in their home garages with different lighting and decor. […] Another feature of the lan houses is to serve as meeting points for young people, looking to make friends, interact and flirt. With the communication tools currently available, such as instant messaging, orkut and chat, the use of space for similar purposes has increased and confirmed such environments as a reflection of society. […] For this reason, the lan houses assert both their power to bring digital inclusion by providing access to the Internet for people with low-incomes and their unique characteristics: they provide a source of income for those who manage them and meeting points for youngsters.

Felipe reminds us that illegal cyber-cafes are popping up in favelas and neighborhoods where business entrepreneurship is at a low level. Also, peer to peer training – such as how to upload a video to YouTube – takes places at these LAN houses. He believes that the government should legalize their operations and provide tax incentives so that Brazilians in underserved communities still have easy access to the benefits of the internet.

Final Thoughts

The three presentations highlight some of the various obstacles that currently stand in the way of a dynamic, participatory media ecosystem. They also show different ways in which funders can use their resources to promote more inclusive communication and access to information. They could engage at the government level to promote better regulation which brings down the costs of mobile internet access or, for example, starting a cyber-cafe. They could support translation efforts to bridge linguistic divides which prevent the sharing of information across cultures and communities. They could also support training initiatives so that online participation and digital media production is more representative of a community’s entire population.

In the next post I’ll dig deeper into some of the more specific issues related to donors giving money to fund new media development.