Development in Media and Media Development: Toward a New African Narrative for New Times


Speech by Her Excellency Dr. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim President, Republic of Mauritius; At the Opening of the 7th AMLF




Distinguished Guests,

Members of the Media, Citizen Journalists and Bloggers
following this Conference

Ladies and Gentlemen:


Good morning.  It is a pleasure to be back in South Africa, and a privilege to address the Seventh African Media Leaders Forum (AMLF).


I congratulate AMLF and the African Media Initiative on their choice of locale. South Africa occupies a unique position in the African imagination and ethos.


South Africa’s political transition – from a reviled apartheid state to a beacon of democracy – is a remarkable story, and a continuing source of inspiration for all Africans and the world.


As South Africa’s evolution shows, the path to democracy can be rocky but at such times it is reassuring to recall how South Africans have demonstrated that truth and reconciliation can go hand in hand, and how some of the deepest scars of the past can be erased.


Through generosity of spirit, South Africans have shown how adversity and racial division can be overcome with compassion, determination and empathy allowing for greater fulfilment of the human potential.


The recent discovery of Homo Naledi in the Rising Star caves – not far from the venue of this Forum – has added a completely new dimension to our understanding of our own origins and evolution while once again underscoring the centrality of South Africa in human affairs.


When Eric Chinje invited me to address this Forum, I accepted his kind invitation with trepidation.


As a newly-elected President of Mauritius, former business entrepreneur and lifelong scientist, I pondered what new insights could I share with the African continent’s media leaders and add value to the deliberations at this Forum?


After all, I am more at home in the quietude of medicinal plants than in the frenzied 24/7 world of media headlines, bylines and deadlines.


Well, Eric was his usual persuasive self and quickly dispelled any residual doubts by convincing me that the overarching purpose of this Forum is to shape conversations on development in Africa and chart a new, more hopeful narrative about the African continent.


So, I am here to help with that task, and appreciate the opportunity to address this distinguished Forum.


To set the context for my remarks, I would like to begin by describing the current development landscape. Since the Forum is looking at media in a digital environment, I will outline the profound nature of the ICT revolution and its potential, and conclude by highlighting the common areas where science and media intersect, and how they can be natural allies for achieving the common good.


Seen against this backdrop, the time is opportune to ask several key questions. What role African media can play in shaping evidence-based conversations about development?  At a time of rapid transformation, how can a more positive and hopeful narrative emerge? Are African media up to the task of creating the space for participatory citizenship to take hold and drive the conversations needed to sustain Africa’s positive trends?


Finally, I would like to use my pulpit to call for a more hopeful, people- and development-centered narrative that can be embraced by all Africans.


Ladies and Gentlemen, we meet at a consequential time in Africa’s evolution. 


Africa, south of the Sahara, is undergoing unprecedented economic, social and cultural transformations.


Let me begin with the good news.


Economic growth rates are up – the World Bank projects Sub-Saharan Africa’s (SSA) GDP growth rate to average 4.1 percent in 2015.  Estimates show that growth will remain strong in Africa’s low-income countries, which bodes well for the fight against poverty, hunger, malnutrition and disease.


A commodities boom, improved governance, sound macroeconomic fundamentals, commitment to reform and new resource discoveries have all contributed to this robust growth trend, helping to reverse 20 years of economic decline.


We are making progress in education and health.  Between 2000 and 2008, secondary school enrollment increased by 50 percent, and life expectancy has increased by 10%.


The continent is open for business.


I was particularly pleased that Mauritius, with a global ranking of 32, was cited as the region’s highest ranked economy in terms of ease of doing business.


As we all know, Ebola has dominated the headlines and exacted a heavy toll in human suffering on the populations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.  Economic losses alone from the Ebola crisis are expected to top $30 billion with far reaching impacts.


And there is good news from West Africa. In early September, the World Health Organization declared Liberia to be free of the Ebola virus.  And last week, Sierra Leone has also been declared Ebola free.


But these welcome trends have to be seen against the backdrop of sobering facts, making the proverbial glass half-full.


Changes in demography, high population growth rates, rapid urbanization, slumping commodity prices are all posing major challenges, threatening to reverse hard-won development gains.


I would be remiss if I did not address climate change and the fundamental threat it poses to balanced development in SSA.


Food production in SSA will need to increase by 60% over the next 15 years, and yet the agriculture sector will be hit hardest. Without adaptation, Africa will suffer severe yield declines in important food growing areas. Extreme weather events are increasing, in frequency as well as intensity.


Ladies and Gentlemen, this is only a fleeting snapshot of the major challenges facing our continent.  There are more.  As a scientist, I lament that SSA with 12% of the global population only accounts for less than 1% of the world’s research output. And that no African nation was among the top 20 countries filing for patent applications in 2013.


Let me now turn briefly to the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) revolution underway, and the portents it holds for sustainable development of the African continent.


ICT Revolution


One of the dominating features of the 21st century is the remarkable growth and ubiquity of global communications, affecting all facets of human endeavor.  Today, we take instantaneous communication for granted.


The rapid rise of social media has been breathtaking, with Facebook ready to enter the history books as the third largest “country” of “netizens” numbering over one billion and counting. New ICT technologies have led to the new field of bioinformatics and genomics, a development that was instrumental in the decoding of the human genome.


According to the McKinsey Global Institute’s report “Big Data: the next frontier for innovation, competition and productivity” in 2010, people stored enough data to fill 60,000 Libraries of Congress.  YouTube uploads more than 24 hours of video every minute.  The world’s 4 billion users of mobile phones – 12 percent of whom own smart phones – have turned themselves into data streams.


The World Bank’s next World Development Report will focus on the theme of “Digital Dividends.” Some of its early findings: there are 4.2 billion Google searches each day. 6000 tweets go out every second.


Success stories abound.  From Kenya’s M-pesa to Senegal’s Sonatel and Mali’s Ikon telemedicine program, we are witnessing remarkable strides African countries are taking in mobilizing ICT for national development, improving governance, boosting accountability and positively impacting people’s lives.


And we are yet to see the full contours of the “Internet of Things” that is fast emerging, linking devices, people and data in ways unthinkable a few years ago.


The surge in communication capability is unprecedented in human history.  Our collective challenge is to mold these tremendous forces and bring them to bear on the common, everyday problems facing Africans.




Science and Media


The famous mathematician and scientist, late Alfred North Whitehead, said “The aims of scientific thought are to see the general in the particular and the eternal in the transitory.”


The key words are about seeing the “general” in the “particular” and the “eternal” in the “transitory.”


Like science, media can be a powerful force for the common good.  The ability to search for truth, based on evidence, is a fundamental aspect of journalism.  Discerning trends, locating stories in their local contexts, connecting the dots, speaking truth to power without fear of retribution, these are all about seeing the general in the particular.  Similarly, development is about people.  That fact is eternal.


Back to the Future


I have painted a broad canvas so to conclude let me take recourse to the writings of Rabindranath Tagore, India’s famous literary giant, poet and Nobel laureate who described the quest for a promised land in his magisterial poem “Gitanjali”:


Where the mind is held without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the  desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led … into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom … let my country awake.


Ladies and Gentlemen, I believe that science and the practice of journalism, supported by a new, more hopeful, Africa-centric narrative can help propel us forward in the journey to our promised land.


Both science and journalism can play an important role in Africa’s transformation by paving the journey with words that draw their strength from truth, where the search for perfection and quality reporting is never-ending, and where evidence is used to strengthen stories, influence policies and backstop our research endeavors, whether at the news desk, in laboratories or class rooms.


Like science, the best of journalism can only arise when it is practiced without fear of retribution.


Good journalism is a barometer of society.  It can shine the light of scrutiny on Africa’s efforts to achieve sustainable development, showcasing development successes and pinpointing failures so that we can learn from them, adapt and innovate.


Done right, journalism with a social purpose and geared toward the common good can help transform our economies, spur innovation in newsrooms and laboratories, improve our economic and social prospects and help the continent to thrive so that all Africans can dream of better tomorrows.  It will also help media owners to meet corporate objectives and make a profit.


So what will it take to craft a more hopeful, Africa-centric narrative?


To media owners, I urge you to invest in your journalists, they are the future of the news business. By building journalism capacity, you will unleash talent, build human capability and lay the foundations for viable businesses and deliver profits.


Africa needs a cadre of young people, brimming with ideas and zeal, with story-telling skills who choose media and journalism not for the glamor it holds – but for its potential to nurture development and positively impact society.


Why is it important to attract youth?  Let me cite an example from the world of science.  By age 23, Issac Newton had made three of the greatest discoveries in science: the Differential Calculus, the Composition of Light and the Laws of Gravitation.  All this when in the summer of 1665, his academic base in Cambridge had to be evacuated on account of the plague!


To journalists, both current and aspiring, I implore you to focus your reporting skills on promoting sustainable development in Africa.  There are scores of human-interest stories waiting to be told, every day people who are beating the odds and making improvements in the lives of their families.


The development challenges confronting Africa far surpass the capability of any one country to tackle them alone.  African journalists can and must become the voice of change and help the continent to become a producer, not just a consumer of knowledge.


It is said the media cannot help us to think, but that media can be stunningly successful in telling us what to think about!


Here the agenda-setting function of the media can serve media owners and journalists alike.


African media – owners and practitioners – must be active, not passive in tackling development topics, generating local solutions while nurturing citizen engagement and development debate.  We must all become activists, not pacifists in the search for Africa-centric development solutions that are economically viable, socially relevant and environmentally benign. Increasing the participation of women in media is key.


Next month, the international community will gather in Paris for the 21st meeting of the Convention of Parties to discuss climate change.  I will have the privilege of leading my country’s delegation and making the case for the extreme vulnerability that a changing climate poses to the well-being of small island developing states.


Africa’s voice must be heard loudly and media have a central role to play in articulating positions and enabling African voices to be heard.  Mobilizing cutting-edge knowledge and forging partnerships anchored in the common good for the benefit of all must become our guiding mantra.


And we must dare to dream and bend technology for social purpose.  How can we increase development content in African media?  And will it be mobile friendly, designed for a small screen?


Perceptions of Africa have changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Frequently viewed as a continent of wars, famines, and entrenched poverty in the late 1990s, there is now a focus on “Africa Rising” and an “African 21st Century.”  Let us wrest this momentum and craft a positive, hopeful narrative and bend it for social purpose.


In September 2015, world leaders adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and helped set a bold, new development agenda for the next 15 years.


I believe now is the time to rededicate ourselves to achieving these goals by 2030.  African media have a role – a significant one – to play in achieving the goals.  Because sustainable development takes time, we cannot afford to fail yet another generation.  In the words of President Obama, our actions must be guided by the ‘fierce urgency of now.’


Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen,


To conclude, let me say unequivocally that media matter, both in development and for societal advance.


Let this Seventh edition of the AMLF become the launch pad for new ideas, new momentum, and a new narrative that takes us forward, toward greater transparency, more effective government and more engaged citizens.


Let us all strive to put the “D” of development firmly back in media.  In doing so, we would also have furthered the cause of media development.


As Kofi Annan has said, “Africa is on its way to becoming a preferred investment destination, a potential pole of global growth, and a place of immense innovation and creativity. But there is also a long way to go — and Africa’s governments must as a matter of urgency turn their attention to those who are being left behind. I believe Africa and its leaders can rise to this challenge. If they do, Africa will become more prosperous, stable and equitable.”


Our time for action is now.


Thank you for your attention.  I now formally declare the Forum open.