TRUST… BUT VERIFY: Building stronger media collaborations to advance social accountability

TRUST… BUT VERIFY: Building stronger media collaborations to advance social accountability

One book, Many Learners. Students from Malimbwe Primary School, Malawi


By Thomas R Lansner, Project Director, Social Accountability Media Initiative (SAMI), Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications (GSMC

“Our school has no books.”

Standard six student Esther Chakwana had a poem ready for the morning’s visitors to her rural Malimbwe Primary School in Mitundu District, down a dusty red dirt road about 40 kilometers from Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe:

Shyly, she announced its title: “Our school has no books.”

Whole classes at Malimbwe shared a single textbook, or had none at all. “How can we learn without books?” Esther asked in her poem (please see Esther read her poem here).

We all know the answer to this seemingly rhetorical, yet in Esther’s young eyes, entirely sincere and pressing question: much too little learning will be done.

But how do we raise the concerns of Esther and her fellow students from a footnote on the public record to a priority on the public agenda?

Citizen engagement in governance grows from trust that official bodies can and are willing to be effective and accountable in their core mission to improve people’s lives. Empowering people to make their voices heard to monitor and improve governmental performance through “social accountability” (SAcc) is a key challenge for sustainable, pluralistic development.

Building advocacy communications skills—a primary activity of the Social Accountability Media Initiative [SAMI], allows communities, civil society organizations (CSOs), and particularly traditionally marginalized groups, to more effectively participate with, and make demands on, officials and media to promote SAcc activities from grass-roots to global levels. SAMI, a project of the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications (GSMC), is a collaboration with GPSA, with funding and guidance from the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF). SAMI was launched in February 2015, working and supporting the communications for advocacy skills of nine GPSA partners in seven countries. More about SAMI can be found here, and here.

Staff from the Malawi Economic Justice Network [MEJN], a partner of the GPSA, were visiting Malimbwe on this warm November 2015 morning. MEJN’s GPSA project helps communities monitor textbook deliveries to their schools, and to present their concerns and demands to local government.

Community Committees Raise Local Voices

Volunteers of a local committee formed to oversee textbook delivery were gathered in the school courtyard beneath the welcome shade of a leafy jacaranda tree. They voiced frustration that books promised by local education officials had not appeared. With MEJN’s guidance, the community had learned that funds were allocated for books for their school, and were increasingly irate that their children had none.

In Malawi, GPSA-sponsored textbook monitoring exercises are underway in 60 schools in 12 districts across the country. At the Malimbwe School, community committee members were this morning discussing with MEJN staff how to press for their children’s allocated textbooks to be supplied.

Reaching out again to the government is one avenue; MEJN has been building good relations with sympathetic Ministry of Education officials who appreciate such problems being flagged. And this sometimes produces positive results. For example, in this case, MEJN provided data gathered by the community committee in Malimbwe to the Malawi Ministry of Education Supply Unit, which expedited textbook delivery to the school in February 2016.

Raising public awareness and demanding action through media is another very important route. MEJN has strong ties with many journalists and media outlets. One of the SAMI activities during our visit to Malawi was a day-long workshop with media practitioners on covering SAcc issues.

Getting media interested in reporting on SAcc is not a tough sell, as Malawian media colleagues confirmed. That is, if SAcc is presented plainly and simply as a way that people can make demands to help improve their own lives. Every SAcc project is at core a story of how real people can gain if they are empowered to press demands for delivery of services to which they are entitled.

This means first not telling the story of SAcc in that strange and dreaded global language—too well-known to most readers of this blog—of “NGO-ese”. If you wish to see journalists’ eyes glaze over very very rapidly, pitch them a story about “Duty-bearers responding to concerns of rights-holders in a multi-stakeholder webinar on IDA18 goals….”

Gathering evidence of the impact of SAcc that can be communicated clearly to media, and to others such as government official or donors, is crucial. How did a project empower communities to monitor services? What were the results if people presented information or demands to officials?  Did people’s participation improve service delivery? Try to offer statistics and other data that support the SAcc story. Also, keep in mind that facts and figures are most convincingly when they are tied to a human story.

“Go Tell Grandma”

“Our school has no books!” “Our clinic has no doctor!” “Our village has no water!”

In too many countries, these everyday realities should concern every citizen. We must offer a narrative that shows SAcc efforts in a way Grandma will understand. A human story that engages our emotional as well as intellectual curiosity is crucial. In fact, one of our exercises in SAMI Workshops for civil society partners in various countries is: “Go Tell Grandma”. We work at describing the rationale of SAcc efforts—and offering compelling evidence that these work—in a story-telling context that the broad public can understand, and embrace.

Too often, civil society advocates shy away from fully engaging with media or with government because they find the process difficult and even intimidating. There is sometimes mistrust and often misunderstanding of each other’s roles and intentions.

SAMI Roundtables including media, government and CSO representatives in Malawi and during other country visits have helped to build the trust needed to collaborate on promoting SAcc goals. These meetings gather these three actors for frank exchanges on obstacles to and opportunities for greater collaboration. More of these roundtables under SAMI auspices are planned in several countries during the next two years.


From the SAMI Workshops and Roundtable in Malawi, it was clear that all sides see advantages to working better together. MEJN, and GPSA’s other partner in Malawi, CARE, are growing their engagement to tell SAcc stories through a variety of outlets, from national newspapers to community radio to social media.[1] And there are other examples.  GPSA grantees in several countries have reached out to media to promote SAcc. CONCERN Universal Mozambique works closely with regional and community media, especially radio, in their project area of Niassa Province in Mozambique’s far north to be sure their message reaches rural communities. CARE Bangladesh conducted several training sessions for journalists regarding its JATRA project , Journey for Advancement in Transparency, Representation and Accountability and earned positive coverage.

Grantees are also exploring which social media platforms can reach various target audiences.  Yet local conditions must not be ignored. In many contexts, the most appropriate means of communication may not belong to the Internet age. CARE Bangladesh has deployed traditional music troupes to sing and dance the SAcc message (Here you can watch the troupe performing).

And in Kyrgyzstan, a horseman with a megaphone roams villages, especially when people are inside in the dark cold winter, to remind them to gather for community meetings about health budgets and priorities organized by GPSA’s partner, Development Policy Institute, under the Voice of Village Health Committees and social accountability of local self-government bodies on health determinants of rural communities of Kyrgyzstan project.

Yet even in honest and productive collaborations, media’s role as a watchdog must not be dismissed, nor CSOs’ work as impartial advocates abandoned. We must build trust by all means… but a trust that is verified by evidence of SAcc performance that genuinely improves people lives.

Source: Global Partnership for Social Accountability