29 Nov 2011

If NGOs were a Newspaper, by Rakesh Rajani

Rakesh Rajani founded HakiElimu in 2001 and is now the Head of Twaweza (a key partner of Daraja). This column was published in HakiElimu's regular "Hard Questions" slot in The Citizen newspaper on August 27, 2007, Rakesh's final column as HakiElimu's Executive Director.

Unlike his similar and more well-known column, If Government was a Restaurant, this column is not currently available online, which is why I am posting it here. And I do so also with the idea in mind of commenting in future on how Daraja's experience of operating an NGO-run newspaper compares to Rakesh's critique of NGO culture and practices.

If NGOs were a Newspaper
by Rakesh Rajani

Once upon a time world leaders at the UN declared a year of the press. In response, the NGOs resolved to all turn themselves into newspapers. This is what happened.

All over the world, including Tanzania, there was a drastic change.

Suddenly it was difficult to buy newspapers on the morning commute to work. One of the papers kindly arranges to put up signs saying, "We regret that today's issue has been postponed due to unavoidable circumstances beyond our control." But several others went one better and offered tea-breaks while people were waiting. So all over Dar es Salaam groups of people would huddle at 9am for fried chicken and mishikaki, waiting for the postponed newspaper to arrive.

While some newspapers would be postponed until the next day, other dailies got published as a jumbo edition, with 3-4 days news packed into one. 

The papers, which were distributed free of charge, were full of information on poverty reduction. Many of the headlines exclaimed the important progress that had been made, such as "Stakeholders sensitized on the importance of poverty alleviation", "NGO director travels to Scotland for capacity building on MDGs," and "Activist cautions on gender". The stories were thorough, often providing detailed log-frames and schedules of workshops. There was no shortage of recommendations and calls for action; with a quiet underground competition on who could come up with the most bullet points.

Many of the papers, because of their commitment to democracy, had established 'voices of the people' sections. Various stakeholders were given a chance to express their concerns, and 'facilitated' to do so. Every now and then, one would read of something said from a faraway village, but with deadlines and whatnot, this was often difficult. So for practical reasons most ideas had to represented by NGO leaders recently returned from upcountry field trips or conferences in Porto Alegre and New York.

The features sections carried NGO research findings. Usually these pages were very reliable, because you knew the information before you had read it. Typical headlines included "Health services need to be improved", "Research shows country needs more roads" and "Existence of corruption confirmed". These stories often led to editorials that sternly exhorted the government to do more and spend more money and listen more and become less donor-dependent. Donors on the other hand were told to fulfil their pledge to give 0.7% of GDP for aid. 

One challenge was that several pages were regularly blank because the editors were away on training. Thankfully, the donors stepped in to solve this problem by offering money and technical assistance. Consequently, a lot of pages were dedicated to talking about fighting corruption in the context of MKUKUTA and aid harmonisation. But the most prominent coverage was on HIV/AIDS, because everybody knew the issue was central to development. Several papers carried a red ribbon on every page (many of which were also emblazoned with the warm reminded that the page was a "Gift from the American People"), next to inspirational messages such as "Be careful, AIDS Kills!" and "Wait until Marriage to Have Sex". Care was taken not to corrupt tender minds with any allusion that sex could be fun or indeed sexy.

The papers were lively with lots of photographs. New technology enabled them to be in full colour. They shoed exciting scenes of people posing in seminars or discussion serious issues. The front pages splashed group photographs of workshop participants, many carrying a large leather bag that had been specially designed for the meeting. But despite these good efforts, there was a small problem. Many of the readers did not seem to be interested in reading the papers, and would leave soon after the tea breaks.

Thankfully the problem did not last long, after a smart NGO executive came up with the idea of giving out 'reading allowances'. The idea caught fire, and educated people all over the capital city would crowd around to receive their reading allowances. Some particularly entrepreneurial sorts managed to read 5-6 papers daily, earning a lot of reading allowances. These were soon supplemented with transport allowances to enable readers to get to their reading allowances. The idea was clearly successful, as was soon confirmed by Tanzania moving up three places on a World Bank Transparency Index. An observant child was bewildered by this all. "Don't worry", an expert comforted, "we have PEDP, we have SEDP. Just wait for your education. Then it will all make sense." But it wasn't so clear whether the child was going to wait. Because from the corner of her eye she could see some readers moving on, towards something interesting, full of imagination.