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The end of Panos London: a reflection

James Deane 2012

Part of an organisation I helped create is no longer going to exist.

The Panos Institute London has announced that it does not have the resources to continue.  It’s been struggling for some time, project income appears to have dried up, its executive director has left. Panos London’s trustees have decided understandably that after almost exactly 26 years it needs to fold.

It’s a sad moment but – and I know I am biased – it seems an important one.  Other Panos institutes will continue its good work, at least in Africa and Asia.  Other organisations will serve some of the functions that Panos London had once made its own.  But the curtain has come down on a small but important part of development history and, arguably, it has also diminished an important idea. This blog started as a brief tribute to its work and has turned into a long and rambling reminiscence of some of my memories of Panos.  Clearly its denouement hit a nerve.

The reason Panos London was founded in 1986 was to help ensure that those most affected by poverty and marginalisation had access to information on the issues that most shaped their lives. It believed that development agendas needed to be defined and driven from within developing countries and that was made possible through better access to information, and better means of communication.

Panos’s purpose was to support a free and plural media capable of providing the platforms and opportunities for public debate in developing countries; to provide information itself on key development issues and support others to do so; to catalyse public debate on those issues without trying to tell people what to think. In essence, its work was to create an information and communication environment most conducive to people taking control of their own lives.

Access to trusted information is even more important

In an age where access to information even in the poorest countries is now near ubiquitous as mobile telephony spreads and liberalised media environments saturate the airwaves, that idea may now sound dated.  I’m inclined to think the opposite … access to trusted information that doesn’t tell people what to think but does provide the facts they need to make up their own minds about an issue, and to have their say and argue about it in public, seems to be more, not less, important.

Panos has been a curious blend of independent journalism and participatory communication, but it has never been about advocacy.  The development world is full of advocates keen to communicate their analysis and their prescriptions.  This has been responsible for much of the energy and success of development in recent years but there is – or at least was – room too for development analysis that seeks to explain not to persuade. As advocacy fills the development sphere, that role seems more relevant now than ever. More relevant to many in many developing countries.

We have witnessed an extraordinary upsurge in free and social media worldwide but it’s true too that many media environments in developing countries are highly fragmented, with both broadcast and print media increasingly focused on reflecting the agendas of their owners or backers.  The development sector is more crowded, information-filled and dynamic than it ever was a quarter of a century ago, but it’s not clear to me that if you are a rural citizen in Malawi who needs to know whether genetically modified organisms are good news or bad news for their country how you go about making sense of that.

That’s what Panos did in 1990, launching a programme whose kernel was a report Miracle or Menace? Biotechnology and the Third World. It outlined in accessible forms the advantages and disadvantages of genetic modification, it got as much analysis and as many perspectives from developing country experts and publics as possible, and it made that information available by publishing features, briefings and radio shorts which were used by media across the developing world. It also it brought journalists together to be briefed and exposed to different perspectives on the issues and it catalysed its own public debates so the argument could be thrashed out in front of, and by those, who had most to win or lose from their outcome.  It did the same thing on many other issues from its foundation in 1986.

Serious journalism to inform the debate

Panos did not campaign and sought to inform and ensure rational and inclusive debate, rather than be an agent in that debate.  It was always going to be an actor behind the scenes and rarely centre stage of development debate.  But that role, of using serious, independent and often investigative journalism designed to inform but not shape the public debate on development issues, still, I feel, has currency.  I think there may still be a role for specialised environment and development journalism whose principal focus is on those who are at the sharp end of environment and development concerns.

The real birth of Panos was in 1975 when Jon Tinker, the first environmental journalist in the world, set up Earthscan as part of the International Institute for Environment and Development. Tinker’s vision was to use journalism and work with journalists to make environment and development issues – and particularly ‘neglected or poorly understood’ issues – accessible to those people and those countries who had most at stake in them.  Some of the issues Earthscan focused on – acid rain, nuclear winter (anyone remember that) – reflected the environmental scares of the time.

Most were more enduring – one of my first tasks when I joined in 1983 was to market a book by John Gribbin, Carbon dioxide, climate and mankind.  Some of them sought to make the boring engaging.  I am sufficiently nerdy still that my favourite book title of all time was a report looking at whether the new enthusiasm for cookers in Africa really did save fuel.

Tinker came up with Stoves and Trees: How much wood would a wood stove save if a wood stove could save wood?.  That title got him a piece in the UK Times newspaper.  And some of them, such as the ground-breaking analysis made in Natural Disasters: Acts of God or Acts of Man? And Africa in Crisis: the causes, the cures of environmental bankruptcy (both written by Lloyd Timberlake) were ahead of their time.

For reasons too complex and tedious to relate here, Earthscan was effectively dissolved in 1985 (later to be refounded as the excellent publisher it is today) and Tinker and small band of the remnants formed Panos. I was one of them.  The mission stayed the same but Tinker, and a remarkable and sadly now departed journalist, Renee Sabatier, were sitting on what I regard as one of the most significant contributions any single organisation has made to any issue in modern development history.

Pushing HIV up the development agenda

Sabatier, a ferociously bright Canadian who had been hired to edit Earthscan’s news features, had since 1985 been buzzing – and occasionally stinging – about the bee in her bonnet: the importance of HIV for developing countries.  More accurately, the virus that causes AIDS at the time was called HTLV-1 or LAV depending on who you believed at the time discovered it, and the illness was near universally considered to be one that presented its greatest danger to industrialised countries.  Sabatier convinced Tinker that the issue was a huge problem for developing countries and, with courageous funding from the Norwegian Red Cross, Panos’s first publication was AIDS and the Third World in 1986.  It was the first reasonably comprehensive analysis of the implications of HIV for Africa and elsewhere in the developing world.  I worked as press officer at the time and we watched dumbfounded as the issue became a major international news story, including thanks to the international media seminars we organised for leading developing country media, a major subject of of media coverage within several of the countries most at risk.

In the years that followed, significantly thanks to Sabatier’s insight and Tinker’s leadership, the issue of HIV in developing countries ratcheted up the priority list of development agencies, of WHO, of developing country governments and publics.  Many, many others were involved in mobilising the global effort against HIV in the developing world but Panos made some huge contributions, two in particular.

Making the connection: disease and marginalisation

The first was to make the analysis fast, make it authoritative and accessible and make it in forms that could be reported and communicated in all countries.  I remember in around 1987 us receiving a package from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta USA containing a set of black floppy computer discs listing the latest HIV prevalence levels in Africa – and finding that Panos was the source of the data in several of them.  The extraordinarily poor tracking of this appalling epidemic was encapsulated for me in the reliance of the globe’s foremost national disease surveillance organisation relying on data on Aids in Africa from a bunch of journalists in London – but it did show just how respected and well researched Sabatier’s work had proved.

The second is that it immediately made the connection between HIV, stigma and marginalisation.  In 1988 Panos published Blaming Others: Prejudice, race and worldwide AIDS, a report mapping how the immediate response to the disease by too many authorities and too many communities was to stigmatise. It made AIDS a rights issue, not just a medical one. It went on to publish highly influential reports on Women and AIDS by other excellent writers and researchers, such as Judy Mirsky and on AIDS and men by Martin Foreman. Later I went on to direct the HIV/AIDS programme, publishing WorldAIDS (edited by Neil McKenna) which among other stories played a key role in highlighting the link between HIV and TB, and publishing the first analysis of the stigma, discrimination and challenges facing men who have sex with men in developing countries.

I remember at one international conference on AIDS after another in the late 1980s,  a lone Panos stall being just about the only organisation focused on HIV in developing countries (another, Healthlink- then called AHRTAG- was led by Andrew Chetley who tragically died this year).  We set out assertively to say that AIDS was a desperately urgent and critical issue and we were partially successful in that, but it took the later aggressive campaigning of others to really galvanise the action that was required to meet the challenge. As their voices grew, Panos’s usefulness, profile and role rightly diminished.

In hindsight, we could have done more.  The story of the response to AIDS was in my view a catastrophic systemic failure by the international community and I have always been puzzled why no real international enquiry has been held into how an epidemic that affected perhaps a few million people in 1985 could end up infecting more than 30 million.

AIDS was Panos’s biggest story and biggest issue, but there were many others.  It produced media briefings, features, radio programmes (through Interworld Radio led by Francesca Silvani with Sameer Padania and others which provided well-produced radio briefings for use by developing country broadcasters to generate debate), published for a while Gemini News Service and hosted Oneworld UK. Fundraising for this kind of journalism proved immensely difficult then, and clearly even more so now.   It was my difficult job to have to close some of those services when we simply ran out of money to support them.

Panos had also founded and later made independent the fantastic Panos Pictures, which remains one of the best specialist photo libraries in the world on development issues. For a while it was one of the most important sources of independent analysis on development around.

AIDS though did shape much of its later strategy.  The organisation became known for its championing of participatory approaches to communication, including its much respected Oral Testimony programme.  That participatory focus, for some a departure from its original journalistic remit, was as much pragmatic as it was principled. By the mid 1990s, it was clear that the big social marketing and other large-scale communication programmes focused on preventing the spread of HIV were failing. The approaches that were working were those where those most affected by HIV around the world were able to create their own media and exert their own influence.  Panos never campaigned in that sense, but it did increasingly see the need to enable media that were accessible to and reflected the perspectives of those most affected by development, seeing them as agents rather than subjects of change.  It deployed its experience actively by trying to inform and influence the strategies of development agencies arguing that they too often neglected the power latent in making access to information available to those in poverty.  It played an important role too in the early debates on communication technologies, with publications like the Internet and Poverty published in 1998 and a long record of reports and contributions to debates on the issue to the present day.

When I became director of Panos London, I amplified its focus on new technologies and analysis of shifting media trends, boosted its editorial offer as an organisation, created new editorial partnerships and above all sought to decentralise and democratise the organisation. Increasingly we described our work as generating informed debate on the issues that most mattered to the people of developing countries.  By the early 1990s, with more liberalised media environments sweeping much of the developing world and more democratic environments emerging, we could no longer legitimately determine those issues by sitting in an office in London.

We created regional Panos Institutes, accountable to their own boards drawn from journalists and others from the countries in which we worked.  They increasingly shaped the agenda, and the debate and dialogue that we continued to work to generate was increasingly shaped and implemented by them. Panos West Africa had already been established for many years playing a critical role in creating the environment for a more plural and democratic media in that region.  Panos Paris, its parent, had done the same in Central Africa with both supporting media freedom and opening up media systems – with much of their work in the 1980s and 1990s and beyond, having a discernible long term legacy.  That work happily continues but Panos Paris’ inspiring and wonderful director, Francoise Havelange, tragically died this summer.  The good dying young – never was that aphorism truer than of Francoise. Much earlier, David Horowitz, the director of Panos Washington in the 1980s, was another terrible loss.

Panos South Asia went on to grow substantially and dynamically, with an especially strong record in enabling dialogue between senior editors and publishers of the often highly nationalistic media of the nuclear armed superpowers of India and Pakistan. Panos South Asia too suffered from the tragic death from asthma of Saneeya Hussein, its Pakistani director and while it has achieved great things under AS Paneerselvan, the memory of just how many truly remarkable people have been lost to the organisation over the years is truly heartbreaking.

They were joined by Panos Eastern Africa and Panos Southern Africa.  The new architecture proved challenging as any attempt to translate a uniform command structure into a more networked relationship often does, but it made the organisation more legitimate, more resilient to the difficulties facing any one member of the network.  It was also necessary to sustain funding, especially given the questions I kept on being asked by our loyal Scandinavian donors of why they should support an organisation based in London.

I left Panos after 20 years in 2004, having secured for the first time institutional funding from DFID to join other institutional funding frameworks from the governments of Sweden, Norway and elsewhere.  It’s no surprise that in current economic conditions that the funding conditions have become unsustainable and in particular the organisation had been unable to afford what I considered to be its heartbeat – its journalism combined with reflecting the voices of those normally unheard in media debate.  I’ve kept my distance from the organisation in recent years.  I think it’s unhelpful when former directors of organisations provide unasked advice to their successors and since I haven’t been asked for that advice (not surprisingly given I work for an organisation now that could be seen as a rival) I haven’t given it.

Much of the development landscape is now populated with organisations working to apply communication technologies to development, by access to information movements, budget monitoring initiatives, information and data based transparency and accountability initiatives.  All those who worked at Panos can reflect they played their part in the development of a set of ideas that are now mainstream.

Twenty five years ago the idea that information might be as valuable to changing the lives of the poorest as a medical drug, or that the poorest might value the opportunity to communicate so much that they would be prepared to spend a goodly amount of their scarce income on something like a mobile phone would have been considered laughable.  Panos, and organisations like Earthscan before them, believed that the foundation of human progress is built on people having access to the information that shapes their lives, and to communicate with each other and to those in authority.

It’s a fine but mournful epitaph that history has proved the organisation right and that it, like too many who have worked for it, has died too young.

James Deane is now Director of Policy and Learning, BBC Media Action. This blog was first published on the Communication Initiative website where you can read a range of reactions and responses.

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James Deane

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Dec 17, 2012

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