Canada has a role helping overcome information poverty

Feb. 5 to Feb. 11 is International Development Week in Canada. This week aims to draw attention to international development and shine a spotlight on Canadians’ contributions to eradicating poverty and building a more peaceful, inclusive and prosperous world. This year, the week features a call to action for Canadians to support the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including an end to poverty, halving hunger and much more.

These goals cannot be achieved without eradicating a type of poverty that most of us wouldn’t think twice about: information poverty.

What is information poverty? It’s when individuals don’t have access to reliable, trustworthy and accurate information that can help them make informed decisions about their everyday lives. Combatting information poverty is fundamental to eradicating other forms of poverty and inequalities for those living in the most vulnerable of existences.

Overcoming information poverty: Canada’s role

Overcoming information poverty depends on strong and independent media organizations. The delivery of accurate, relevant and audience-friendly information needs skilled communicators — journalists, radio stations, community media — working within a conducive policy environment. Talented and dedicated journalists gather the views and experiences of people, both urban and rural, and bring those experiences to the attention of the powerful through strong stories and programs.

Canada is taking a leadership role in this. It is one of the co-chairs of the Media Freedom Coalition founded in 2019, and has pledged $3 million in support for projects “that seek to bolster journalists’ legal protection and/or enhance media freedom through relevant investigative journalism and/or strategic litigation.” Canada’s pledge is second only to that of the United Kingdom.

But a study commissioned by Farm Radio International and carried out by AidWatch Canada showed that investment in media and communication for development projects is low … shockingly low. Canada’s total Official Development Assistance disbursements to media support were under $9 million in 2021 — about 0.1% of overall development spending. For the period 2015 to 2019, Canada’s Media Support ranked 18th out of 22 countries that provide communications for development assistance.

Canada and the world: What can we do to fight information poverty around the world?

Why should Canada (and the world) want to invest more in media and communication for development?

The COVID-19 pandemic sparked what the World Health Organization termed an “infodemic”: an inundation of mis- and disinformation about the disease. Local journalists across the Global South played a critical role in communicating public health measures while combating this infodemic of misinformation. NGOs like Journalists for Human Rights and Farm Radio International trained and supported local journalists to provide credible information, especially on vaccinations, and debunk misinformation across sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Over 120 million people were reached with accurate information on COVID-19 guidelines and vaccinations. Journalists focused on the impact of the pandemic on women and girls’ rights, raising issues such as maternal health access, gender-based violence and education for girls. They interviewed medical experts, published testimonials from people receiving vaccinations, broadcast advisories and guidelines, and encouraged citizens to support each other through the pandemic. Local authorities reacted to media coverage by improving access to vaccinations for those most vulnerable to COVID.

Media and communication also helps people like Doonyo Mensah and her husband Teye Mensah (not their real names) cope with the effects of climate change. Small-scale farmers in the African country of Ghana, Doonyo and Teye regularly listen to a two-way radio program called the Green Leaf Magazine broadcast on a Ghanaian radio station called Trust FM. Heard by up to 72% of people that live within its broadcast range, this program offers information prosperity to the farmers it serves. The program provides a lively and informative communication service that helps them make better farming decisions in the context of a changing climate — and gives them a chance to share their own views over the airwaves through their mobile phones and other media. Through these media services, Doonyo and Teye (and millions of others) receive, process, apply and share information in their own language at a time and place that is accessible to them, helping them boost the productivity of their farm, generate more income, improve health and nutrition, and send their children to school.

WAN-IFRA’s Women in News Social Impact Reporting Initiative provided grants to support reporters like Margaret Chinowaita in Zimbabwe, bringing to light instances of women having their rights violated during COVID-19 — ultimately having these issues brought up to the Gender Commission in Zimbabwe. This became a rallying point for campaigns for better treatment of women during a crisis.

Over the years, Canadians and our government have pioneered new approaches to communication for development that have influenced practice across the globe — initiatives like the Farm Radio Forum serving farming families across the country, the “Fogo Process” of the National Film Board, CBC’s Northern Service. Now Canada can be even more of a leader in making information poverty history. Canada needs to do more — now — by investing more in media and communication as part of development projects around the world: we need to be consistent with our commitments in the Media Freedom Declaration as we build a world in which all people enjoy information prosperity.

Kevin Perkins, Executive Director, Farm Radio International
Rachel Pulfer, Executive Director, Journalists for Human Rights
Philip Lee, General Secretary, World Association for Christian Communication
Melanie Walker, Executive Director, Media Development & Women in News | WAN-IFRA

Reprinted with permission from The Hill Times.

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