Local newspaper project puts the community first in rural Tanzania

All over the world, the media plays a big role in holding government to account. In the UK the current panic at the decline of local newspapers is precisely because people recognise the importance of independent local media to local democracy. But in most of rural Tanzania, there’s no meaningful media scrutiny of local government at all. As a result, local government mismanagement and poor performance are the norm.

In the village of Magoda, 15 miles outside the town of Njombe in southern Tanzania, local residents were frustrated. Four years had passed since local government promised them “World Bank” money for a project bringing clean and safe water to the village. So they gave up waiting and decided to take action for themselves. A small dam was constructed in a stream about a mile from the village and distribution pipes were laid, all designed, built and paid for by the villagers themselves, with no government involvement.

The promised project was actually part of a multi-donor programme spending $1bn on Tanzania’s water sector. It is struggling, and there are hundreds of villages like Magoda, with promises made and not yet fulfilled, all over Tanzania. Only a handful has Magoda’s advantages – relatively easy access to a water source and a reliable income from potato farming – making it possible for them to go it alone. Most simply sit and wait.

And there are similar programmes in other sectors, all facing similar challenges. Promised funds for primary and secondary schools don’t arrive, leaving schools short of basic supplies such as chalk and textbooks. Agents distributing subsidised farm inputs demand “a bit extra” from farmers before handing over the goods. Some rural clinics are well staffed but lack essential medicines, while others have the medicines but lack staff.

The main challenge here is not a lack of funds, but rather a lack of accountability. When government doesn’t deliver on its promises, a teacher doesn’t show up for work, or an unscrupulous middleman tricks farmers out of their money, nothing happens. People get angry, but take no action as they’ve learned not to expect anything different, “Government is like the rain, when it rains we’re grateful, when it doesn’t there’s nothing we can do.”

Local media in Tanzania mostly means radio, but the vast majority of airtime is devoted to music. National newspapers are lively and have a strong record of holding government to account, but are dominated by news from Tanzania’s political and commercial capitals – Dodoma and Dar es Salaam. The profit motive doesn’t support expensive, low-return rural journalism, so it doesn’t happen.

This is why we decided to set up Daraja (‘Bridge’ in Swahili), a non-profit organisation working on local government accountability. Under the brand Kwanza Jamii (‘Community First’ in Swahili) and with support from the Department For International Development (DFID) and the Tanzania Media Fund, Daraja runs a chain of local newspapers with the specific aim of making local government more accountable to the community. Our first paper, Kwanza Jamii Njombe was launched in 2010 and covers the Njombe region, with the story of Magoda on the first page. Our second, Kwanza Jamii Iringa, got started a year later and Kwanza Jamii Mbeya will be launched in 2012.

We cover local news, politics, business and sport, but never forgetting our primary focus: local government accountability. Our investigative journalism, for example, monitors whether local government is meeting its commitments and reporting its achievements honestly. We make sure we cover the whole region, not just the urban centres and each issue includes an in-depth focus on a different rural community. We provide space to readers and community groups to raise their voices, and use both new methods such as mobile phones and Facebook and old methods such as letters and readers’ competitions to engage local citizens in the discussion. We have a very popular “Shoot the Question” feature, for example, where citizens can send questions for local government by text message. We take the questions to the relevant official and publish their answer in the paper. And to many people’s surprise, we give editorial control of one page per issue to local councils, to publicise their work. This helps build good relations, but also recognises the very real challenge faced by local government in communicating to local residents.

When we started we had little idea of what kind of response we were going to get. There isn’t an established culture of local newspapers in Tanzania, which meant starting from scratch with everything from distribution networks and advertising systems to rural news gathering.

And with a project that’s deliberately designed to challenge people in authority, how would those people react? Our attitude is that if we aren’t provoking a reaction, we probably aren’t achieving the kind of changes we’re hoping for. But at the same time, we have to maintain good relations with those in authority, who could otherwise make our work very difficult. Media freedoms in Tanzania are still tightly controlled.

Several times I’ve found myself in some local government office on best diplomatic behaviour, trying to rebuild a strained relationship without compromising our values. Early on, a figure with considerable local authority who is not used to being contradicted suggested that we should be sending him a copy of the paper for approval before it goes to press. That required delicate handling, but we came through it. And we’ve had our first legal threats – an experience to get the heart pounding.

Despite this, I think we’ve done pretty well at holding local government to account. We’ve published stories on poor practices at local hospitals and clinics, misuse of public funds in the education sector, problems with the distribution of subsidised farm inputs, and improper sales of community-owned land. We looked into the complaints of protesters angry at the state of Njombe bus station, finding they had good reason to be upset. And we reported on allegations of sexual abuse made against a school teacher. All of these things have drawn responses from local government.

In some cases, local government has come out to publicly defend it actions, or disciplinary action has been taken against public employees who were the focus of complaints. Repairs at the bus station began immediately after our article came out, and internal investigations have been launched into problems at the local hospital, and to find out why money wasn’t reaching schools.

Our article on Magoda hasn’t yet delivered the results we would like most to see – public funding for new water projects reaching the villages where it’s needed. But Njombe Water Department is feeling the pressure, and in turn pressing for answers from the Ministry of Water. And the same article produced an unexpected benefit. Since it was published, at least four other villages are now in the process of setting up their own water supply schemes. We’ve created a space where people can learn from (and copy) what others are doing elsewhere.

But our primary focus is still accountability. We would prefer that Magoda and their imitators get their promised “World Bank” money, that schools get the funds they’re entitled to, and that farm subsidies reach those who need them most.

It’s a long road, and a difficult one, but we’ve taken the first steps. And while we still have a lot to learn, we’re pretty confident that we’re on the right track.

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Originally posted on The Journalism Foundation, January 5, 2012.