, NAIROBI, Kenya, Jun 22 – Policy-making processes are not always a clean cut-and-dry exercise in the best of times, even when the procedures for enacting legislation and formulating policies are clearly spelt out in national constitutions.
With this reality, there is a renewed recognition and interest amongst research organisations on the role of media as a critical partner in the intersection between health communication, education, research and policy given that the glamour and excitement of African national politics tends to divert attention from the fundamental importance local level development and its relation to national policies and institutions.
The media matter in policy making because they enable the convergence of politicians, government officials, journalists, policy beneficiaries and interest groups by providing a debating ground for public enlightenment in the marketplace of ideas as well as shaping the public opinion battles for the minds of people.
Simply put, policy is a guide to action used to achieve a desirable outcome in the public or private realm whereas laws or rules can be applied to compel or prohibit certain behaviours.
African researchers and thinkers led by the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC) are keen on enhancing a continuous dialogue between researchers, media and policy makers to address the continent’s public health, population and development challenges.
Speaking at a media and policy consultation last week, Dr Alex Ezeh, APHRC’s executive director, noted that the failure of African policy decision processes can be attributed to the minimal role of sound research to inform policy.
Although external parties such as the World Bank and bi-lateral partners have largely been the big initiators of policy decisions in Africa, followed by political god-fathers the national research institutions are at the bottom of the rung in policy influence and decisions.
Why is this so? According to Dr Ezeh when research is treated as a consultancy that ends up in reports as opposed to being published in peer reviewed outlets and applied as evidence to inform key decisions for public good, it is unlikely that Africa’s influence on global knowledge will be felt. Until African governments initiate investments in research institutions, the sector will continue to be further marginalized.
“Most African research is not recognized internationally and Africa’s contribution to global knowledge has dropped from 0.5 percent in the mid 1980s to 0.3 percent today,” he adds.
On the one hand, the special advisor to the Ministry of Planning, Prof Michael Chege, noted that Africa might do well to adopt policy advisory units next to ministers and directors of government departments to ensure that decisions and actions are based on evidence-based research.
On the other hand, Prof Chege challenged researchers to make themselves heard in a coherent language.
“Why have African think tanks not been prominent?” he posed. “It is because they have been ineffective in communicating information to governments and media alike.”
However, he was also critical of media for squandering their potential to influence policy due to their limited capacity to translate social, economic, science and technology information effectively. Key among the African actors in policy making are politicians, donors, public service institutions, the private sector, civil society groups and the media.
The head of policy engagement and communication at APHRC, Dr Charles Okigbo, noted that the media revolution was well underway and a vehicle for disseminating knowledge.
“The media emphasise the dominant ideas and give them prominence, and that is why the media matter in policy-making,” he added. The role of the media cannot be understated in agenda-building, coalition-building in public policy partnerships and creating space for debate and public enlightenment.
APHRC is an international non-governmental organization committed to conducting policy-relevant research on population, health and development challenges as they affect sub-Saharan Africa.