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A Pen in the Dark

By Pierpaolo Barbieri and Cormac A. Early

Last Friday, the spring sun warmed the air and a gentle breeze rustled trees in Radcliffe Yard. Too cheerful a setting for “The Future of Humans Rights Practice: Innovations in Africa” conference? Not if one follows the latest evolution in development aid standards—in fact, a miracle can happen: “Africa,” “human rights,” and “optimism” can indeed be used in the same sentence.

It may not surprise many that Paul Wolfowitz, the newly anointed chief of the World Bank, has ruffled feathers in his brief tenure. Quite brusquely, Wolfowitz suspended more than $800 million worth of loans in an effort to fight what his predecessor characterized as the “cancer” of corruption, upsetting not only third world governments, but also officials within his own organization. Whatever the other merits of his approach, however, he has made at least one immensely significant improvement: a willingness to speak and perhaps act in support of press freedom, where before the World Bank has been silent.

Although the Bank has yet to officially make loans contingent on press freedom, it may do so in the near future. The rationale is simple: A strong, independent media is a better check on corruption and human rights abuse than any conditions the World Bank can impose. Ideally, all major donors can agree to impose strict and uniform standards of open governance and press freedom as a condition for any non-emergency aid. However, the World Bank can achieve much single-handedly, not least by encouraging other donors to adopt similar positions.

In fact, the rights-based approach, which was explained at the conference last week, depends on a general extension of these principles. According to Peter Uvin, a writer and professor at Tufts University, the new strategy is “more political, more principled, and more structural.” The overall goal is to permanently consign the link between development aid and strategic self-interest—the “he may be a sonofabitch but he’s our sonofabitch” school of foreign policy that dominated aid during the Cold War—to the dustbin of history.

The World Bank’s traditional reluctance to speak out against breaches of press freedom stemmed from concern for the sovereignty of the offending country. Press freedom, however, is more than just a matter of domestic policy; independent scrutiny of the government is a fundamental human right, and a vital part of any functioning democratic society. After all, it was journalists who discovered many of the mass graves resulting from Serbian ethnic cleansing in the nineties and a myriad of corruption cases in Latin America over the decades. Just as loans are suspended to nations that engage in terrorism, weapons proliferation, or genocide, closure of media outlets must be seen as a similar assault on basic freedoms. Without the press, digging out human rights abuses becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Insisting on press freedom will do more, however, than simply upholding minimum standards of human rights. The power of the press to combat corruption and promote government integrity holds the key to long-term prosperity. Self-regulation by well-intentioned governments is a useful, but inherently limited, means of battling corruption. A failure of will or coordination can derail attempts by a government to set its own house in order.

Moreover, whistleblowers in third world governments, even more so than those in the West, often face threats and intransigence. John Githongo, appointed by Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki to root out corruption, ended up fleeing the country after exposing what he called “looting and grand corruption.” The best way to encourage and sustain the work of whistleblowers is to subject the government to thoroughgoing media scrutiny.

Finally, focusing on press freedom emphasizes the power of indigenous groups to reform a country, instead of depending on continuous intervention and supervision by foreign governments. The failure of foreign aid provides a useful parallel. Constant and reliable inflows of foreign cash crowd out native innovation and entrepreneurship, preventing the development of indigenous industries. The same is true for the fight against corruption: Assistance from foreign governments or non-governmental organizations can be a temporary help for a country transitioning from an authoritarian regime, but in the long term only a powerful domestic media can act as an effective check on dishonest governments.

Freedom of the press is only one of the many conditions on the creation of self-sustaining growth in the Third World. Education, for example, is equally important—independent newspapers require a literate readership. However, unlike education, press freedom is often overlooked in development programs. As it stands, many international organizations have a mandate to intervene when a journalist is abducted, but not if a newspaper is closed. Sending a strong message to governments that closing newspapers or intimidating journalists will jeopardize aid income is an important step towards fostering genuine independence, self-sufficiency, and protecting human rights.

Cormac A. Early ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, and Pierpaolo Barbieri ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, both live in Thayer Hall.

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