Conceptual Background of the Research School MEDAS 21 - Global Media Assistance

Media development assistance (MDA) often is a vague future promise where traditional and digital media are constantly associated with social and democratic progress, with the potential to resolve conflicts and with the idea of promoting economic prosperity. Independent, professional and critical media are, according to a Western understanding, indispensable elements of democratically developing societies. The promotion of journalism and the media in transitional societies is therefore an established field of Western development cooperation.

 

But in recent years, the international political and media conditions for development cooperation projects have changed fundamentally: New actors like China are pushing for the international marketplace for MDA in Africa and Asia. The importance of “social media” and “citizen journalism” grows, the promotion of traditional media has been called into question, the world is increasingly shaped by globalization, mediatization and international conflicts. Consequently the role of media in transformation societies becomes increasingly apparent.

  

The question is where, in the context of these conflicting political and economic interests, a responsible international media development cooperation in the 21st century should begin. This is a crucial issue for the whole MEDAS 21 project. Within its seven PhD projects, MEDAS 21 will contribute to the basic research on a field which has been insufficiently researched so far. It will address current issues of practice scientifically and develop concrete options for action. 

Impact Scepticism

The huge investments in media development cooperation currently go along with a controversial debate about the effectiveness of previous development efforts. There is a lack of interest in an independent evaluation which could only be achieved by impartial communication study experts. At the moment, a systematic, comprehensive and transparent discussion is still pending even though it is essential to reach a new level of quality in media development assistance.

Fragmentation

In the context of the effectivness debate, the concept of fragmentation of international cooperation efforts gains importance. MEDAS 21 attempts to describe the current situation and the proliferation of media development actors (international: China, Japan, Qatar, Turkey, Russia; regional: Thailand, Indonesia) as well as the growing atomization of objectives, instruments, modalities and activities. 

Securitization

"No security without development – no development without security”:  Merging development cooperation with distinct security narratives increase the likelihood of military interventions and indicate the loss of the neutral position of the development sector. In order to analyse the deeper implications of prevailing security imperatives and donors’ national interests on (media) development cooperation, it seems necessary to examine current discourses, financial flows and institutional structures. 

Fragility

Another key aspect of global development cooperation has been the discussion about fragile states: The common assumption is that effective development cooperation requires functioning state structures and a stable economic environment. That is why development budget for fragile states is comparatively underfunded and extremely selective so far. Approaches and projects of media development cooperation have to face this aspect, should ask for alternatives and comprehensively revaluate their basic assumptions.

Public Diplomacy Supremacy

Furthermore, it appears necessary to examine the fusion of strategic communication and development communication. This is particularly the case when development-specific aspects and discussions are subordinated to questions of reputation and image or political and economic objectives. The clarification of fundamental priority shifts or the establishment of a completely new understanding of media development assistance is becoming increasingly important.

Digital Transformation

The strategic inclusion of digitization in media development cooperation is a highly discussed aspects, especially with regard to the potential for political, economic and social impulses associated with digital transformation. The African continent, once framed as “hopeless”, now fulfils a leap to the digital age. Nevertheless, the double-edged potential of digital media innovations needs to be analysed - especially in crisis and conflict situations. On the one hand, they can cause polarization besides possible de-escalating effects. On the other hand, they could be used as surveillance tools or to manipulate public discourses by fake news.

Political Economy of Communication

We are currently facing a lack of unbiased perspectives on the incentives, resources and restrictions of national and international actors involved in the field of media development practice. A new interdisciplinary perspective, not only including media and communication studies, but also theoretical models from political and economic sciences, can lead to a more sophisticated understanding of the actors' motives. Consequently, it could also contribute to recommendations for pragmatic and efficiency-oriented actions. 

Evaluation and Methodology Challenges

The field of media development projects faces even greater expectations in terms of methodological effectiveness: The discussion of conceptual assumptions remains crucial. The relationship of qualitative and quantitative methods in MDA evaluations is still contested. A rather case-related, problem-solving understanding might lead to new ways of effective media development cooperation projects. Also, the integration of regional studies that go beyond the Western horizons could be fruitful. 

Constructive/Peace Journalism

The role of the media in conflicts and wars and their potential in the formation of stable, peaceful social formations remains an important aspect of media development cooperation. In this context, interdisciplinary perspectives should be taken into consideration. Furthermore, it is necessary to clarify the perspectives of a solution-oriented and public-interest-oriented “Constructive Journalism” in situations of a profound erosion of confidence between media and citizens, especially in conflict and war contexts.

Communication for Social/Political Change

The vast area of media communication aims to initiate social (cultural, political, economic) change. It deals with inter- and intra-national inequalities and the significance of communicative processes for structural transformations of existing (global) social-political hegemonic relations. In the analysis of structures, actors and cultural aspects, it can help to include peripheral perspectives to decentralize the current elite-centred discourses of the common good. 

Paradigm Rivaly/Conceptual Ambiguity

The conception and evaluation of media development projects is still characterized by a competition between different development perspectives. This often leads to a situation of contradictory objectives, incoherent project designs and unsustainable effects. These striking discrepancies between communication and media studies and the field of practice call for a detailed examination and a dialogical sensitization in order to map differing expectations and horizons in politics, media practice and research.

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