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How About a Free Press to Hold Aid to Africa Accountable?

Courageous independent Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda was featured in a mass circulation magazine last weekend, getting some well-deserved recognition.


Mwenda has been in and out of jail for his criticism of the (aid-supported) authoritarian Ugandan government. He was a recipient of the International Press Freedom Award for 2008.

Mwenda started his own independent newspaper (known appropriately as the Independent) in Uganda, after complaining the government was curtailing the freedom of the newspaper where he previously worked.

He also is a frequent critic of aid agencies’ operations in Africa for tolerating corruption and poor results, which caused Bono to heckle him in a famous confrontation at the TED conference in Tanzania in 2007.

A free press is an important way in which we hold our governments accountable in rich democratic countries. Why shouldn’t Africans have the right to freedom of the press as well?

Mwenda will be speaking at the NYU conference “What Would the Poor Say? Debates in Aid Evalution” this Friday, February 6.

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  1. jina wrote:

    Will anything of the proceedings of the Friday conference be published anywhere? Perhaps, even, this blog?

    Posted February 4, 2009 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  2. Cho wrote:


    Good to see you blogging!!

    A free press is certainly important as Daniel Kauffman demonstrates :

    But there are degrees of “press freedom” and its unclear what we really mean by press freedom and the extent to which it becomes critical for fighting corruption. The USA has a relatively free press that has not prevent corrupt practices.

    In Zambia, we think we have a free press but actually, what we have is lots of free and poorly organised independent newspapers and televisions, free from intimidation but the information flow remains dominated by government and controlled papers and televisions.

    Which leads to me to think that really “information” is more important to fighting corruption than the “press” per se. I prefer to focus on information because it is more dynamic and involves many other strands. From bloggers to those using SMS to organise rallies etc.

    The challenge of course is how to ensure the poor and oppressed have access to cheap and unfiltered information to be able to challenge their leaders. This is where technology can play a crucial role!

    Posted February 4, 2009 at 7:49 pm | Permalink
  3. Matt wrote:

    Here’s the video. Bono heckling comes at 6:20

    Posted February 4, 2009 at 10:28 pm | Permalink
  4. Ben Parker wrote:

    Depressing blow:

    The director of HornAfrik, one of Somalia’s leading radio and TV stations, was killed by three masked gunmen in the Bakara Market area of Mogadishu on 4 February.

    The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said the attackers shot Said Tahlil repeatedly as he and six other senior journalists were walking to a meeting with members of the militant Al-Shabaab group.

    Tahlil became director of HornAfrik after its founder, Ali Sharmarke, was killed in a roadside bomb attack in Mogadishu in August 2007. He is the second Somali journalist killed this year and the fourth HornAfrik journalist killed since 2007.


    More on Somalia:

    Posted February 5, 2009 at 9:26 am | Permalink
  5. Johhny wrote:

    What exactly did Bono say?

    Posted February 5, 2009 at 2:08 pm | Permalink
  6. Okey Nwoke wrote:

    I would love if the talks from the conference could be recorded and put on the blog.

    Posted February 6, 2009 at 8:52 am | Permalink
  7. Okey Nwoke wrote:

    Thanks for posting the video Matt.

    Posted February 6, 2009 at 9:25 am | Permalink
  8. Lure D. Lou wrote:

    I would like to echo the sentiment that open and diverse means of communication is more important than a free press for activities like exposing corruption and promoting development. The sad fact is that most of the “free”-press corps in West Africa, for example, exhibit both a high degree of corruption in their own practices and a profound lack of skill in exposing anything except if they are fed info by ‘unnamed’ sources. The money wasted on journalist training schemes would be laughable except for all the money that could have been spent to feed people or buy medicines. I have come to the conclusion, after several years of studying the topic, that if the west wants quality journalism in places like West Africa is should simply pay for it by underwriting the full costs of operating newspapers and radio stations. Simply training journalists is useless if journalists are getting 20 dollars a month to live on…I am currently sitting in a hotel in an unnamed African country as I write this…this morning I heard an incredible exchange…three Spanish economic consultants were approached by a local citizen who said he had a great desire to resume his fishing career and all he needed was some nets…the three Spanish gentlemen looked uncomfortably at each other then said, we’re sorry sir, but we are not in the fishing business…we have no nets. (Meanwhile it is likely that Spanish fishing trawlers are offshore poaching this country’s fish stocks.)

    The man was crestfallen…how could the representatives of one of the richest countries have nothing so simple as a fishing net?….)….and therein lies the problem which Dr. Easterly is so brilliant on…

    My advice to people seeking a ‘career’ on the backs of the world’s poor:

    1. If all you do is talk and work on your computer stay home…your skills are not really needed and may in fact be counter-productive.

    2. Unless you have cash-in-hand (or equipment, or supplies) that you are going to introduce into the local situation then stay home. The only people benefiting from your presence are the hotel owners and airline companies…and they don’t need your money as much as the people whom you have been sent to serve.

    3. If you are under 40 years old and find yourself lecturing to government officials about good governance and the need to stamp out corruption you obviously don’t know how ridiculous you are unless you are a) an experienced political operative with a deep experience of the target country gained by years of living there or b) see. no 2. Money talks…bullshit walks…especially your own.

    Posted February 7, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink
  9. Jeff Barnes wrote:

    Andrew Mwenda is one of my heroes and Africa needs a lot more Andrews– be it in journalism or not. The sad fact is most African countries have a very small literate population that are able to read newspapers, much less pay for them. In Ivory Coast, like many other countries, most of the newspapers are financed by political parties which do more to obscure the truth than to broadcast it.

    Posted February 21, 2009 at 10:55 pm | Permalink
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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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