Why can working with NGOs sometimes seem so frustrating?

As a journalism trainer interested primarily in being of service to strengthening journalism wherever there is a need, I find myself often frustrated by the seemingly misdirected priorities of those who often employ me. I recently came across this interview of a French scholar who watches NGO development in a Foundation Hirondelle newsletter. Hirondelle is a Swiss NGO that specializes in radio in post-conflict zones. It does good work. The article helped me to better understand the source of my frustration. I still don’t have to like it, but it does help to understand. Enjoy.

NGOs: Amateurs or pros?

Western NGOs are following a more and more professionalized management model. This is necessary to stay in the game. This is an interview with Pascal Dauvin, Senior Political Science Lecturer at the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin in France, by Dominique Jaccard of Foundation Hirondelle.

Dominique  Jaccard:  What  characterizes the development of a Western NGO?

Pascal Dauvin: We can observe three phases. In the beginning there is a phase of amateurism. The brand new organization functions on a model of networking and personal relations characterized by emotional connections. People give themselves entirely to the project, driven by a sort of faith in the cause they want to defend. Then they realize that the organization needs to be structured. This need is also linked to an external pressure: those who fund the projects are more and more exacting with regard to the way projects are put together, human resources and evaluation. They impose managerial practices, which constitute the main mode of organization today, whether in a private company, in the public sector, social and humanitarian work or   associations. And as the market of defending causes is an economic and competitive market, if you want to stay in the market to defend the cause that is close to   your   heart, you are obliged to fall into line with this way of operating.

DJ: And that is a passage to what?

PD: To a phase of neo-professionalization. It will give rise to a sort of coexistence between what was the pioneering spirit and the arrival of new blood, which you have to manage.  Interpersonal relations, emotional connections, the dedicating of oneself to the cause remain important, but the organization starts to make things more and more impersonal through the establishment of procedures. There are a whole lot of support functions that start to develop. So we see logistics and communications specialists arriving. We enter a phase where all-round skills give way to specialization of tasks, so as to arrive gradually at a phase of professionalization.

DJ: Is that the last phase?

PD: Professionalization is not the final phase, but today it is considered the natural phase in Western companies. It means in practice an attempt to introduce procedures under which the division of work is more and more complex and where it is considered that the ethic of conviction of the early days must take a back seat to an ethic of responsibility. So it means people are motivated less by the idea of “changing the world” and more by the idea of being useful. That means taking on board the system of constraints in which one operates, accepting a certain pragmatism and the necessity to compromise in order to stay in the game. Much energy is spent to stay in the game, because it’s the only way to be able to still work for the cause. If you don’t stay in the game, the goal to which you have dedicated yourself will disappear.

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Michelle Foster’s reflections after a March UNESCO media conference in Yangon

Yangon, Burma, March 19-20, 2012

The “Conference on Media Development in Myanmar” was surprising – surprising that it took place, took place on short notice, took place in Yangon, and took place under the combined auspices of Myanmar’s Ministry of Information and UNESCO.

The hotel meeting room was filled to the gills with journalists, internationals, reporters, officials and watchers.  Local independent media representatives and government officials, asked to speak or participate, were all dressed in formal Burmese clothes:  slim white linen jackets closed with “frogs” in front and wearing subtle silk longyi – a type of tailored floor-length sarong wrapped around their hips.

When the Minister of Information stood up to pronounce that Burma is moving forward on enacting press reforms, the throng of journalist pressed to the front of the room, cameras snapping wildly, microphones pushed forward, film taping.  His words … on the record.

The audience was alert to every nuance, to every carefully crafted sentence.  Present were exiles, home for the first time in 20+ years.  Former political prisoners, tortured and abused at the hand of the junta.  Asylees given protection by other governments.  Secret reporters.  Secret media trainers.  Independent journalists. Government reporters.  Officials and former junta members.  It was like that 1864 Edward Hicks painting, Peaceable Kingdom, where the lions, bears, foxes and leopards are resting with infants, sheep, oxen and lambs.

In a structured and disciplined and measured way, the conference moved forward, session by session.  Each panel was organized around one of UNESCO’s Media Development Indicators – things like “media as a platform for democratic discourse,” or “media legislation and regulation.”

My panel – at the end of the day – was on “media pluralism and sustainability.”

We broke on schedule to numerous side-bar hallway conversations before the evening’s reception.

I arrived in the hotel courtyard when the reception was well underway.  It was a vast space lined with lush trees, flowers, and vines with an enormous pool at the far end. Bunting had been strung around a large patio.

All day I had sat behind an elegant middle-aged Burmese man.  He was slender with an intelligent look and fine features.   He, too, wore the traditional jacket and longyi, and his was subtly patterned in soft blue-grays, ivory and charcoal.

As I walked in, he was standing nearby and I introduced myself and we swung into conversation about the conference, the magic of the times, the reasons Burmese is not search-engine optimizable, the incongruity of the speakers, the message from the minister, the unintended impact that international economic sanctions have on media independence.

We stood at a table off to the side and he called over an associate; the three of us talked for a while, then the associate wandered off.  As the sun fell further and twilight softened the light, a breeze came up.  The bunting billowed and rose on the air; palm fronds danced upwards; leaves stirred and made soft sounds.

“Tomorrow is my birthday,” he said.  He said it as though the past was heavy and the horizon short.

“I can quit now, I can retire.  But I don’t really want to.  I have a wonderful career.  I love what I do.  I believe I’ve made a difference. And after today … I feel like there is more that we can do, that couldn’t be done before.”

He was looking ahead.

“These are better days,” I said.  “So …you are happy?”  It was a statement but came out as a question.

“No,” he replied, then paused.  “I’m not ‘happy.’  It’s not exactly happiness.”  Behind us, music started up.  “It’s something else…..”  His voice trailed off and he stopped, still looking into the distance.  I waited, but he didn’t pick back up.

“For me,” I said “I find hope difficult.  It’s harder than happiness. ”

“Yes,” he agreed.  “Hope is difficult.”

Then, as happens at conferences, someone else came up, small groups formed and broke off, and we parted company.

Michelle Foster is a Washington, D.C.-based media development consultant specializing in helping media outlets optimize their profit potential in part to enhance their independence.

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Back in Juba, South Sudan

Greetings everyone. I am in Juba, South Sudan, during the month of March to follow up on last year’s work with the journalists of Miraya FM radio. The station is a joint UN/Hirondelle Foundation project originally launched to help facilitate the peace as South Sudan fledged from Sudan to the north. Since South Sudan became the world’s newest nation last July, the station has turned its focus to nation-building, although there is still much peace to keep. The nation that cynics here at the UN like to called a pre-failed state faces a cascade of challenges including a bloody cycle of tribal violence over cattle rustling; a new war on and across its northern border between old rebel allies and its arch enemy – Sudan – that threatens to drag it back to war; pervasive corruption; going cold turkey on oil revenues, which has accounted for 98 percent of its income, and inflation flirting with 50 percent. What can a handful of journalists at one radio station hope to accomplish in this environment?

One thing is for sure – Juba (pop. About 600,000) may be the world’s best news town. Konya Konya market, the largest market in city, caught fire last week. The single fire engine in the Juba fire brigade, an antique Russian one that some news reports said lacked brakes, arrived from its station one kilometer away an hour and a half later. But alas, it had no water to throw on the now-raging fire, and the market was reduced to ashes by morning. We’re working on a series of follow up stories now that will examine the capabilities of the fire brigade (including a look at its budget) and the risk of conflagration to the capital, the nascent insurance industry in South Sudan, and how (or if) the market will be rebuilt.

What can Miraya’s journalists hope to accomplish? We can do what every good journalist on the planet does every day – get the story, get it right, and get it to the listeners on deadline so they can use the information to make good decisions about their lives, families and country. So that’s what we’ll do, one day at a time.

Then to Baku, Azerbaijan

I’ll be returning to Baku, Azerbaijan, April 20-May 19 on a Fulbright Senior Specialist Grant, again to follow up on previous work. I had the pleasure to work with three pioneering journalism instructors at Baku State University in 2005-2006. The country’s first Western-style journalism textbook in the Azeri language emerged from the basic journalism skills classes we conducted at BSU. Now, the principal author of that book, Aynur Bashirova, has invited me back to help update the popular text for a second edition. Aynur is now director of the Center for New Technologies and Innovations in Education at Baku Slavic University. The U.S. Embassy in Baku is graciously facilitating this visit.

I will spend a few days at the end of the contract to poke about Azerbaijan for new material for Case and Flinder – a children’s book in progress that will be illustrated by my daughter, Anna Cosper. The story follows Case, a 9-year-old Dutch boy, and his wondering buddy, Flinder, a giant blue butterfly, as they scour the least known corners of the Earth in search of mysteries to solve, including the mystery of what happened to Case’s explorer father who failed to return from a secret mission. Stay tuned.

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What’s in Store for Burmese Journalism, and What Can Friends of Journalism Do to Help?

As I watch the walls that have held the Burmese people captive in their own country for decades dismantled bit by bit, day by day, I share in the joy of possibilities to come. I have spent 10 months out of the past five years training journalists inside Myanmar and three months working with them in Thailand. Many Burmese journalists have honored me with their friendship, and I can easily say my time there was among the most rewarding, and I hope most productive, in my 12 years as a journalism trainer.

The men and women who have built the private press in Burma, basically from scratch beginning in about 2000, are as dedicated to serving their readers as any I know on the planet. Most are considerably braver, a prerequisite to practicing journalism in Burma under the string of juntas and dictators stretching back 50 years. If the government is serious about bringing Myanmar into the world of nations – and Burmese will tell you from experience that it’s still too early to celebrate – I have no doubt that Burmese journalists stand ready to deliver an accurate, fair and balanced media that can help guide the country toward democracy and make a tidy profit in the doing. But it’s going to take some adjustment, and there are several areas where foreign journalistic colleagues can help.

The good and the bad news about abolishing censorship

Imagine never having to worry about being sued for libel for something published in your pages. Or never needing to be concerned about offending readers with culture-bending photos or about crossing the line of treason. Except for very rare exceptions, these offenses were previously unheard of. Every word of every newspaper, magazine, book and song was cleared by state censors before publication. The bad news was that much, sometimes most, of what editors planned to print came back from the censors unrecognizable – drowned in red ink. If their offense was particularly egregious, their journal was shut down for two weeks or longer. The good news was that the censors took the weight of ethical reporting off of their shoulders, cutting anything critical of the government or controversial (read “news”). Of course, that doesn’t sound like good news, and editors would gladly trade protection from lawsuits and government sanctions for the right to speak the truth to power. But there will be a transition period during which media laws will need to be drafted and understood (and probably changed) by journalists. A new breed of media lawyers will be needed, provided an even playing field arrives at the courts. An editor of the country’s largest newspaper told me that she fears self-censorship by publishers under threat of expensive lawsuits more than state censors’ pens. U Tint Swe, the director of the Press Scrutiny Board and as such the head censor in Myanmar, told me and has said publicly that he doesn’t believe censorship has a place in the future of the country. Unless he’s overruled by his superiors, editors will need to learn how to give the readers the information they need and deserve without risking financial ruin.

On a steep learning curve – Burma needs short-term training and post-secondary journalism programs

Considering the obstacles, Burmese journalists have benefited from lots of training, mostly conducted in secret outside of Myanmar but more recently openly inside the country. Many reporters and editors have a fundamental grasp on journalism standards. A few are adept at practicing them. But most newsrooms are still staffed by green reporters hired off the street with no journalism experience and condemned to learn the craft on the job from colleagues who may have little more experience.

The usual model of editors mentoring reporters hasn’t worked very well in Burma. Most editors came to the job from other professions when the journals were founded a decade ago and in many cases have not received training. They have the authority of an editor, but not the skills. I have heard reporters complain that rather than teach them new skills, their editors will not let them use what they have learned in workshops. Clearly there will be a continuing need for skills training in every newsroom for the short term, for both reporters and editors.

For the long term, the time has come to establish post-secondary journalism programs in Yangon and Mandalay at least. The government’s journalism program bears little resemblance to what most would recognize as a journalism school. So far as I know, there has been no talk of reforming it. I believe the best way forward is for journalists themselves to fund one or more two-year journalism certificate programs. Some publishers have the financial wherewithal to do this, and there is a small pool of professional journalists in the country who could spearhead the curriculum, perhaps with outside consultation at first. A modest program could graduate 20 journalists per year – 20 newsroom-ready young reporters by anyone’s definition to raise the journalistic bar in the nation’s newsrooms. Donors could assist with curriculum development, scholarships and trainers.

In the meantime, there are many worthy and capable Burmese journalists who could be offered scholarships to study overseas for Master’s degrees in journalism. They will be needed to build and oversee training efforts and post-secondary education soon, if all goes well. I can think of only one Burmese journalist with a Master’s degree in journalism currently working in Myanmar.

The business side

The Burmese journals are ahead of many of their counterparts who are struggling to stay in business as their countries emerge from darker times. Burmese editors enjoy a literate public that loves to read. There is a growing advertising industry, even without the benefit of American marketing dollars, absent because of sanctions. Somehow more than 300 weekly journals manage to publish, even if some of them need benefactors to stay afloat. 7-Day News, the largest weekly news journal, surpassed 100,000 circulation last year. It and others are making money, sometimes a good deal of money. But they need to improve their products, pay their staff better, and remain or become independent of benefactors. Myanmar does not have a tradition of aggressive advertising sales, and the easing of government restrictions could offer opportunities to expand circulation. There is more money, and more independence, to be had.

Wanted: Photojournalists

With few exceptions, Burmese journalists take their own photos to accompany their stories. These are generally lifeless shots, sometimes with no people in the frame. And when there are people in the picture, they are ineffectively tiny in the background. Photojournalism workshops so far, I believe, have attracted professional and amateur (often non-journalist) participants. While these workshops are useful, especially for the photojournalists who shoot for journals, they don’t have an effect on the vast majority of photos in the journals – those shot by reporters. It might be interesting to try brief photojournalism workshops, maybe 2-3 days, in the newsrooms.

Add voices to the debate

Although it has been possible since about 2009 to train journalists openly in Yangon, the same cannot be said for the states, where Myanmar’s ethnic peoples struggle for a voice. The Burmese army has been very effective in keeping the ethnic peoples from establishing media. Some ethnic journalists have received training outside Burma, but if the country opens up and it becomes safe to speak and publish, I anticipate a ravenous demand for assistance throughout the rest of the country. Launching newspapers in these areas will most likely start from scratch.

Radio and TV

There are talented journalists waiting in the shadows for the government to begin granting private broadcast licenses – not only to cronies and families of the generals – but to those interested in building the country. As of last summer, the authorities did not allow news to be broadcast by private radio, and the only “private” TV station was firmly in the government sphere. If the media become free or at least freer, demand for Burmese news broadcasts coming from the outside from the likes of the VOA, RFA, DVB and possibly even the venerated BBC can be expected to wane in favor of locally-produced programming. These stations, too, will need to start largely from scratch.

A word to my Burmese colleagues

I’d like to leave my Burmese journalism colleagues with one word of caution. If the country continues to open up, Burma will likely become the darling of the journalism development industry. NGOs bearing program proposals will be flooding into the country, competing for your cooperation. There will be many worthy colleagues among them. Nevertheless, make sure you really need what they are offering, and do some internet research on the people and organizations to learn how they performed in previous countries. In short, do the reporting. Keep up the great work that you do.

Warmest regards, Doug Cosper

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Welcome to my site

Greetings all, I’ve launched this website to share what I do as a journalism trainer and consultant in developing democracies around the world and to offer some background to those who are interested in contracting my services. It will also serve to keep my friends and colleagues abreast of what I’m up to professionally.

You will find via the heading bar above:

– A blog space where I will record notes on my training missions and perhaps a journalistic reflection or two.

– A statement of my journalism training and development philosophy and a current curriculum vitae.

– A photo blog from each country (13 so far) whose journalists I have trained since 2002. These pages will introduce the uninitiated visitor to the field of journalism development.

– A page featuring some of the publications I have helped students launch at national universities and journalism centers.

– A set of my trustiest training materials for free use by fellow journalism trainers and editors. If you need something you don’t see here, please ask.

– And finally, a way to send me an email – “contact me.” Comments, suggestions and questions are always welcome.

Thanks to Jerry Redfern, photojournalist extraordinaire and friend, who took the very cool bus photo at the top of this page in Yangon, Myanmar.

And my thanks to you for visiting. I hope you find something here that you can take away.

Keep me informed, and keep up the good work out there.

All best, Doug Cosper

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