The ultimate stress test for international support

Since its inception, IMS has seen that media freedom can be best defended and advanced by local, regional and international organisations with shared interests working together to effect change. This has become a core component of IMS’ approach to media development. Here, independent consultant Michael Randall reflects on the role of international organisaitions like IMS in coalition-building in light of learning from the Coalitions for Change workshop IMS organised for the PRIMED programme.

You could be forgiven for thinking (as I did) that coalition-building is a field of media development where international organisations can play only a modest role. However, the experiences of local stakeholders who have been involved in long-running advocacy initiatives suggest otherwise and the Coalitions for Change workshop held by the PRIMED programme in September 2021 offered a unique insight into the potential for balanced partnerships between international and local actors to bring about systemic change. 

The challenges are daunting. Coalition-building is a complex set of moving parts that is, to a large extent, hostage to the vagaries of the given political, economic and social landscape – and multiple factors over which international organisations have limited influence or control. There are no shrink-wrapped solutions or off-the-shelf frameworks; success relies on an in-depth understanding of the local operating environment as well as trust-based relationships with key stakeholders. And plenty of political legerdemain. 

At first glance, it is difficult to see how international organisations can bring added value to what the French would call “an internal kitchen”. It could even be argued that external support is counterproductive since there is a danger that it will be perceived as interventionist or agenda-driven. Furthermore, top-down approaches can damage the sense of ownership and buy-in which are crucial to locally-driven initiatives. 

Yet the PRIMED workshop showcased several examples of successful coalitions which have been steered – and, in two cases, initiated – by international partners. The mutual benefits of these relationships were clearly articulated. First and foremost, such partners can provide unique access to experience and expertise from comparable environments. The value of these peer-to-peer exchanges is self-evident. Local stakeholders are given the chance to see how similar challenges have been addressed and overcome by their counterparts in other countries. This approach works well when it comes to developing new legislation, regulatory structures or ethical codes. 

Furthermore, the exchanges can be instrumental in building ownership for the results as local stakeholders are empowered to decide what works for them and to choose appropriate solutions. These capacity-building efforts can be rolled out in different ways – through remote exchanges between peers, through on-site mentoring or, in the case of the International Federation of Journalists’ efforts to develop a Declaration on Media Freedom in the Arab World, through an extensive online consultation bringing together experts from across the region. 

Secondly, international support can be highly effective in boosting the confidence of local actors. Media practitioners often experience a sense of isolation: they believe their problems to be unique and that, in any case, the outside world is largely indifferent to the challenges they face. External support helps to demonstrate that they are not alone, that they have loyal allies in what can be a gruelling battle of wills between civil society actors and political elites. As noted Jane Chirwa, at MISA Zambia, these partnerships can also help promote “international benchmarks” which serve to set the aspirations of industry players and government stakeholders alike. 

The third area highlighted by PRIMED workshop participants was the role of international partners in unlocking funding streams and coordinating the efforts of the wider development community. The latter is, in my view, crucial for international support efforts worldwide and is sadly lacking in many regions. Frictions exist between implementing organisations competing for grants. There is also a spirit of competition between donor agencies which share an understandable desire to fund the most innovative projects and remain ahead of the curve. The result is widespread duplication and a limited appetite for pooling resources.  

But, for me, one of the most interesting takeaways from the PRIMED workshop was the observation that local partners should feel empowered to request the kind of support they need. Too often donors and international agencies base their programmes on assumptions and preconceptions. In extreme cases, the unwritten mantra seems to be: “Our experience in similar environments tells us that this is what you need.” Moreover, an insistence on quick wins and time-bound results means that donors are often unwilling to invest in a slow burn, even if it has greater potential to deliver long-term impact.  

Coalition-building is the ultimate stress test for effective partnerships between international partners and local beneficiaries. Coalitions require a joined-up approach that takes full advantage of the unique qualities and assets that each stakeholder has to offer. They require an ability to adapt to changing circumstances and seize opportunities as and when they arise. Most of all, they depend on long-term support from international partners who are prepared to acknowledge that progress will be slow and the rewards may be very different from those which were initially envisaged. 

Donors are not known for having limitless patience or sharing an appetite for risk, but if they do not invest in initiatives which can foster an enabling environment for independent media to operate, their efforts to build capacity in other areas are likely to have muted resonance. 

Michael Randall has worked in the media development sector for more than 20 years, mostly for BBC Media Action where he led large-scale projects aimed at promoting public interest journalism in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Michael currently works as an independent consultant, focusing on project design and development as well as monitoring, evaluation and learning.