What the mainstream media gets wrong about development: basically, everything

That’s not how it works.
That’s not how it works.
Image: AP Photo/Thibault Camus
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Most international news stories are also about global development. They just aren’t reported that way. Whether it’s coverage of Nigeria’s missing girls, Syria’s civil war, or southeast Asia’s race against climate change, what’s at stake isn’t just our understanding of the global challenges we face—but also of the resources and resolve that already exist to address them. International news coverage can perpetuate a sense of inevitability, too often falling back on descriptions of a crisis met with a disorganized response or a distant country rife with corruption. Sure, we want to #BringBackOurGirls, but social media outcry doesn’t exactly translate to concrete action.

For individuals and organizations working on the ground in places like Nairobi or New Delhi, issues like gender-based violence aren’t novel or mysterious. Global development is a $200 billion dollar industry, with marquee names like the Gates Foundation and vast sums of money chasing efforts to address problems like extreme poverty, malaria, and water access. It’s a hotly contested foreign policy arena, as many of the world’s wealthiest countries fail to live up to foreign aid pledges while emerging powers like China increase their investment in the developing world.

So how can the mainstream media get global development right? Digital platforms will be part of the solution, by giving everyone from aid workers to protesters the chance to tell their stories on their own terms and rapidly share information. It would also help to clear up a few key misconceptions.

Aid from the West is just part of the story  

The conventional view of foreign aid as rich, Western countries giving to poorer ones is dwindling in relevance. With the onset of global recession in 2008, the world’s developed countries found their aid budgets imperiled. After two years of declining aid spending, developed countries increased their spending slightly in 2013. Of the 29 developed countries comprising the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, only five—Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom—met the agreed-upon UN goal of spending a minimum of 0.7%of gross national income on aid.

Emerging market donors, on the other hand, are scaling up their investment. Brookings predicted aid from growing economic powerhouses like China and India will double between 2012 and 2017. China recently announced a $12 billion aid package for Africa, just as its costly investments in infrastructure, mineral extraction, and land purchases are coming under fire from African civil society. As emerging economies continue to gain steam in the coming decades, we’ll only see aid spending from these countries increase.

Global development is good for business

Last August, Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook was teaming up with six other tech companies for a project called, which aims to bring web access to the 4 billion unconnected people around the world. Facebook isn’t alone. Energy giant Chevron established a semi-independent development organization in the Niger Delta, where it has significant operations. M-Pesa, a mobile payment service used by more than 17 million Kenyans, has proven a breakout success for its parent company Safaricom, Kenya’s largest mobile network operator. Mobile money has grown quickly in Africa as a way to split dinner or pay electric bills—a 2012 report found that 16% of adults in sub-Saharan Africa using a mobile payment service, compared to less than 5% in all other regions. Entrepreneurs in the developing world are finding ways to fill market needs created by poverty or scarcity, and corporations are realizing that their business interests are aligned with improved infrastructure and expanded access in emerging markets.

Waste and corruption are bad, but not as bad as we think

Not all development spending reaches its desired target. Abuse and corruption are by no means unique to the developing world, and there are serious debates about how to make aid spending more effective. However, the outsized focus on specific cases of waste or fraud overshadows other important challenges. Australia, for example, has a troubled recent history when it comes to development, and in May it announced $7 billion in foreign aid cuts over the next five years. The cuts come four years after the country’s aid community was rocked when a newspaper alleged that a foreign aid contractor was being paid more than the prime minister.

But the Australian government’s aid spending review found abuse during the year of the scandal was a rather minor issue, accounting for 0.021% its appropriated funds, or 21 cents lost for every thousand dollars spent. In most cases, development work isn’t a high-margin business, particularly given the stringent requirements under which organizations and contractors often operate. Uproar over abuse can obscure less flashy problems like the misreporting of commercial transactions or  important questions about how billions in funding gets distributed.

Focusing on crisis means missing context

Humanitarian crises and natural disasters command people’s attention and provide fodder for TV news reels and front-page headlines. When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in November 2013, it killed more than 6,000 and registered as the strongest storm ever recorded at landfall. Chances are the disaster didn’t get as much primetime coverage as it would have a few decades ago—according to Pew, the amount of airtime network evening newscasts spent on overseas reporting in 2013 was less than half the time devoted in the late 1980s.

What’s more, news organizations overwhelmingly neglected to mention the story’s connection to climate change. Progressive research group Media Matters reported that less than 5% of Haiyan coverage mentioned climate change, even as the Philippine representative to a United Nations conference made an emotional appeal for a link in the days following the disaster. In addition to providing much-needed context, media organizations must invest in follow-up coverage that holds governments and aid groups accountable and alerts international audiences to outcomes for vulnerable populations in the wake of a crisis.

Fundraising is often more talk than substance

Pledging aid is one thing. But actually spending that money is another. Wealthy donor countries often promise a portion of their budgets to foreign aid, but that doesn’t mean the money will actually fund development projects. In the case of Haiyan, more than $760 million in aid has been pledged to relief efforts, but less than half of that has been disbursed. The 2005 Gleneagles summit offers another recent example. At the summit, the West’s seven wealthiest countries agreed to donate an additional $25 billion each year to Africa, as part of a $50 billion overall aid increase. Five years later, the pledge remained unfulfilled, having fallen nearly $20 billion short.
Development work is a combined effort by stakeholders like local groups, international agencies, and NGOs and not just a matter of doling out funds. And in a world where half of humanity lives in poverty and millions are engulfed in humanitarian crises, zeroing in on high-profile but empty aid promises or intermittent scandals means glossing over some of the biggest stories of our time.