One of these projects is a Tanzanian newspaper, which aims to hold authority to account, scrutinise the activities of local politicians and engage its local community in the democratic process.
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.
“I realised that if those in authority felt they were being scrutinized, it would be much harder for them to abuse their position.” Says Ben Taylor, the man behind the project.
Taylor first came to Tanzania in 1999 as a volunteer directly after leaving university. He was meant to stay for six months, but it turned into six years. After completing his Masters, he returned to the country to work for WaterAid and it was during this time that he properly fell in love – with the country, and specifically with a Tanzanian woman, now his wife – and that he also became dismayed with the way civic life was organised.
“I began to see a lot of NGO anti-poverty initiatives in a different light,” he explains. “So much thought was put into coming up with new ideas and so much money was being directed into implementing them and yet a huge amount of this effort and expense was wasted because of petty corruption on a local level and a lack of accountability.”
The newspaper Kwanza Jamii – the translation from Swahili means “Community First” – was established as part of Daraja (‘Bridge’ in Swahili), a non-profit organization working on local government accountability. Based in Njombe, the nearest big town, the newspaper has a mandate to serve the interests of its readers in a sizeable and remote catchment area – the paper circulates anywhere within 60 miles of its main office – and, for Lupembe, this has had very tangible benefits. The first paper, Kwanza Jamii Njombe was launched in 2010 and covers the Njombe region, with the story of Magoda on the first page. The second, Kwanza Jamii Iringa, got started a year later and Kwanza Jamii Mbeya will be launched in 2012.
The paper covers local news, politics, business and sport, but keeps an interest in local government accountability. Its investigative journalism, for example, monitors whether local government is meeting its commitments and reporting its achievements honestly. The whole region is covered, not just the urban centres, and each issue includes an in-depth focus on a different rural community. There is space dedicated to readers and community groups, and new methods such as mobile phones and Facebook are employed as well as old methods such as letters and readers’ competitions to engage local citizens in the discussion. The paper features a “Shoot the Question” feature where citizens can send questions for local government by text message. The questions are then taken to the relevant official and the answer is published in the paper. To many people’s surprise, editorial control is given to local councils on one page per issue, so they can publicise their work. This helps build good relations, but also recognises the very real challenge faced by local government in communicating to local residents.
By shining a light on poor practices at clinics, or the misuse of funds directed to schools, or the improper sale of community-owned, the Kwanza Jamii papers have fulfilled their ambition to spur the authorities into action, and to improve the living conditions of the community.
Independent journalism is still in its infancy in Tanzania – freedom of the press is a relatively recent concept, going back only to the mid-1990s, when the country emerged from the hegemony of a one-party state – and newspapers do not attract the brightest and the best.
The Journalism Foundation is now working with Taylor and Kwanza Jamii to raise funds in an effort to extend the reach of the papers, to bring community-first journalism to more people in the poorest areas of rural Tanzania, to educate, engage and empower them and, ultimately, to help change lives.