Environmental Connections

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
6 March, 2018
Editorial: 181
Fecha de publicación original: 21 septiembre, 1999

No pain, no gain

Last week I attended a meeting of the World Bank in Washington. The World Bank Institute’s Environment and Nature Divison (WBIEN) organised a get-together of experts in environmental journalism to work out a programme for improving the dissemination of information of this kind in the media. Journalists from South Africa, China, India, England, the USA and Spain (one representative from each country, except for China with two), observers from Washington’s World Resources Institute, and the Deutsche Bank, as well as officials of the World Bank, were there. In short, a microcosm of the present situation of communication in the context of rich countries, developing countries and global institutions with top decision-making power and financial resources to put it into practice, but lacking the “eyes and ears” needed to work within the complex framework in which news is generated and the opinions of a large sector of humanity formed. All this combined with the supersonic and explosive impact of new information technology. A phenomenon which added a peculiar note of perplexity to the discussion, depending on whether they came from the rich or poor countries. These were the ingredients of the meeting and they will, to a large extent, decide the outcome of the above-mentioned programme for improving information related to the environment in the media.

The first point that was agreed upon was that there was a lot of room for improvement in the quality and quantity of this information. How to achieve this goal quickly became a point of contention. The second aspect, not necessarily related to the previous one, but certainly of concern to all those present, was the need for creating mechanisms to enable the dissemination of environmental information in the context of greater participation on environmental issues. This implied the creation of the means for making sure that the process of the generation, processing and distribution of information complies with certain requisites and would not be subject to present policies in the traditional media. In other words, the challenge lies in designing a new model for the use and consumption of information where it is not viewed as “manna from heaven” distributed despite people (passivity), but with their direct involvement in its production and distribution (activity). Not an easy thing to swallow at the headquarters of the World Bank.

The debate lasted two days and a couple of things became clear (whether so much travelling was necessary for them to reach the discussion table is another matter):

The ability of journalists to “sell” their information in newsrooms has little to do with the quality of this information or their perception of what burning issues their media should be dealing with in order to remain in tune with social concerns. There are other variables and circumstances that carry as much weight or more as these, such as the cultural biases of those who decide editorial policies and the limits imposed by lack of space and the diversity and variability of the information. What came out of this discussion was that there is a clear need for training, not just for environmental journalists, and the recognition that this is a considerable problem.

The need for creating new information and knowledge systems to increase resources and aid the circulation of information. Systems need to be made available not only to journalists but to NGOs, public administration, business, in short, everyone concerned with environmental problems.

Training, skills and resource creation. And the need to use information technology, in particular the Internet, to promote these skills –especially on-line– to aid the dissemination of information. Nevertheless, as experts from the World Bank and representatives from some of the other institutions present pointed out, all the emphasis could not be laid entirely on the Internet because the Net does not exist to the same extent in every country and problems of telecommunications infrastructure are considerable. So we need to rack our brains to try and develop other methods which would take these differences and inadequacies into account.

At the end of the debate I proposed that the World Bank shoulder the responsibility on a global scale of bringing these differences to an end – after all their slogan is “A World Free of Poverty”. The tool common to all journalists, in rich and poor countries alike, apart from something to write on, is the telephone. They all have one. Consequently, all of them could connect their telephones to computers and, in principle anyway, access the Internet. What they don’t all have is a computer, modem and connection to the Net, which in many countries for many journalists means undergoing personal financial hardship or fighting arduous cultural battles to raise the funds needed to get these resources. And the difference between rich and poor countries, amongst other things, is that the former are able to take advantage of those resources at a relatively low, or even very low, cost.

So, here we have the bare bones of a policy -and an action plan– that would fully respond to the process of globalisation. Together with the support of different on-line training schemes in different parts of the world, the World Bank now has the opportunity –I would say, almost the obligation, after all we fill their coffers– to finance a programme of free distribution of computers, modems and Internet connections to journalists covering environmental issues in developing countries, at least until the present situation changes. I am sure that Microsoft, IBM, Compaq, Epson, Sony, etc., and many other companies of this type would jump at the chance to participate and be seen as leaders of this kind of project. Getting such projects off the ground would not only mean that the journalists concerned would have access to global information, but also that they would stimulate their own information from which we could all benefit. And, for the first time, we would create an information context in which we would be able to hear, straight from the horses’ mouth, about the intrinsic problems of developing countries (something we do not pay much attention to usually unless we tell the stories ourselves from our own perspective) and, at the same time, make it possible for the message to be the product of interaction not only with their own people, but also with people in developed countries.

This is going to be a great challenge, of course. But, as World Bank officials and experts themselves said in the meeting, this is exactly what it is all about. Otherwise, we will continue to cling to the mentality that “they can’t do it themselves because they don’t have the means to do it”. On this occasion we are not dealing with such expensive and complex factors such as the transfer of strategic technology, that bastion so fiercely defended by the big corporations and the governments of industrialised countries, but, instead, with turning information and knowledge into a strategic resource for combating poverty cheaply with tools such as an Internet connection. It is now time for the World Bank to make a move. Meantime, it would be a good idea for journalists specialised in the environment to keep in touch and keep their eyes peeled for the next move. If anyone would like more information, please contact me.

​Translation: Bridget King​