IMS at 20: More than just work, partnerships

A long term stay at IMS, after joining in January 2012, was not in my plans. I was toying with the idea of further studies and getting back into the trenches, as we colloquially call civic activism in Zimbabwe.

Nine years down the line I am still here, and I often ask myself the question: what happened? More than anything, it’s the space to do things and the partnerships that I have developed in those nine years that have kept me here. It is the small and the big battles won: receiving a call from a partner in the Gambia that the Access to Information law has been passed, seeing a local partner licensed to broadcast as a community radio station in Zimbabwe after 20 years of advocacy work. It’s the stories of dealing with a car breakdown in the middle of nowhere somewhere between Morogoro and Dar-es Salam in Tanzania and mobilising a local teacher to take me to the airport in his creaking truck. Sometimes it’s the adrenalin rash, the fears and disappointments and above all the personal fulfilment of doing something for and with the people of Africa. Far less theories of change and programme matrixes, it is the connections with people that keeps me going.  

Leadership building: trusting where others falter    

Reflecting on IMS’ 20th anniversary, I am privileged to be an insider and an outsider, having worked with IMS as a partner in the early 2000s and later as a staff member. Being out of college and hugely influenced by attaining a quick democratic change for my country, Zimbabwe, ours was unbridled youthful activism. What IMS brought to my and my colleagues’ approach to media work was planning, network building and organisational skills.

At a personal level, it was also a $20,000 grant that IMS approved in 2004, when I assumed the Directorship of the Media Institute of Southern Africa-Zimbabwe, a media advocacy organisation set up in 1991. I sent a desperate plea, was asked to submit a concept and that was it. Our Director had to leave for further studies and none of our traditional donors had confidence in a 26-year-old assuming the leadership of MISA-Zimbabwe.

The $20,000 grant from IMS in 2004 saved MISA-Zimbabwe, and we went on to manage $1 million by the time I left in 2008. That $20,000 was and remains by far the most valuable grant of my career, and its value is more than a million dollars. A key lesson for me is how leadership development is key to the success of the work that IMS does. Often times many assumptions are made that leadership must preexist to implement successful programmes, yet, working for IMS over the years, I appreciate that it is the duty of development partners to develop and assist that leadership in the right path. For these reasons, the IMS Africa department has partner capacity development as a core strategic issue. Change is not only about the substantive media issues, but is also seen in and is about people. In Tanzania, Somalia and Zimbabwe, many people have benefitted from IMS leadership capacity like I did, and they have turned out to be leaders in various areas – in politics, media and civic groups.   

We own the agenda

My generation belongs to the group caught between remaining loyal to the founders of the post-colonial African state and the contradictions of the same state’s failure to deliver on governance and development. We have to carry with us the positives from our past yet embrace the future in a troubled global community. Our fear is navigating a world where our identity could easily be subsumed. These fears of being dominated are political fodder for the old political elite to keep democratisation at bay. This was and remains the dilemma that many pro-democracy activists have to confront daily working in Africa. It is this same question that confronts me daily as I work for IMS: what I am doing is first for Africa and second for the good of the world.  Having worked in IMS for nine years now, our approach maintains local ownership and context-driven interventions based on the needs of the public and our partners. A fundamental programmatic approach is always consultations and joint actions. This has worked in Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Ethiopia. In short, I cannot remember an imposed agenda, we own the agenda. This agenda involves supporting a media in transition. Sub-Saharan African media remain dominated by state owned media, which, however, is now being challenged by fledging digital media. It was inconceivable a decade ago that state media and official positions would be challenged by the public, but over the years African media and audience consumption patterns have transformed, allowing the public to speak out, engage and create new forms of communication. Both the new media as well as a wave of positive media policies, especially access to information laws, are slowly changing the media ecosystem. And yet old habits die hard, hence a new wave of undemocratic cyber laws that seek to limit the online space. While Africans access to the internet remains low, Africans are now more communicative, and have a wider access to sources of information compared to the early 2000s when I joined the sector. It is the agenda of reforms, of empowering the public, that must be maintained by IMS. 

Staying the course amidst storms

IMS’ approach of developing and strengthening relations with local partners came in handy in the 2015-2016 period, when funding for programmes dried up in Zimbabwe as a result of changing donor priorities. What IMS was left with was a few thousands for coordination activities through the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ). Through this very low level, yet high impact coordination activity, IMS and its partners managed to refocus and negotiate for programme funding through various entities, resulting in a rebound of the Zimbabwe programme. It is through these deep-rooted relations that IMS has managed to continue its work in Zimbabwe and other parts of Africa.  

The heart of IMS: personal relationships

It would be amiss to end this without talking about a fundamental character and ethos of IMS, which is personal relations and what I call the heart of IMS. In our Zimbabwe team, the popular office title for fellow staffers is “comrade”, and this we have extended to many of our HQ staffers who we see not only as people we meet at the workplace, but people with whom we share values and a commitment to the change we want to see. Looking into the future and the exponential growth of IMS, my wish is that this heart of IMS – placing people at the centre of what we do – is maintained. It is one of the most valuable assets and values IMS has.