In Ghana, Development Journalism Has a Troubled History

Jun 22010

I stand in front of a sea of eager young faces expecting wisdom. There is a moment of panic when I feel that I don’t know anything worthwhile. But soon passion replaces the panic and I surprise even myself.

You really made development journalism simple for us. You brought to the fore the need to make people the central characters of our articles. I have written several articles on telecom but most of it focuses on the issues rather than the people affected by those issues. Thanks again. I will cherish this experience forever.

The writer, Samuel Duwuona of Accra’s Adom FM radio station, is one of a group of 26 journalists who took part in a one-day seminar I coordinated in collaboration with the GJA.

The journalists came from the Ghana News Agency, the major broadcast and print media houses as well as from a rural community radio station in the far North.

It was Ghana’s first ever Development Journalism Seminar and in places I learned more than I imparted. At the start of the day I encountered a problem that I had not anticipated and that has been impacting on my work without my knowledge.

Our very first Resource Person, Professor Kwame Karikari, Executive Director of the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), talked about the history of ‘development journalism’ in Ghana.

Suddenly the origins of some problems I’ve been having became clear. When I use the term development it means one thing but in countries like Ghana it has a strong history of advocacy, of supporting government programmes and by extension government policy. No wonder the Fellowship training was so slow getting off the ground some days.

Some local journalists visualise old-fashioned, sycophantic party hacks when they hear the term. As I sat listening to Professor Karikari trace the history of Ghanaian journalists’ support for Kwame Nkrumah and the new wave of African leadership of the post colonial Fifties, I understood why it has taken me so long to get the journalists on my side.

I also thought about the parallels in South Africa. In the years before the first democratic elections in the Nineties, journalists were divided into two main camps… those who opposed apartheid and made it known in their approach to their stories and those who supported the status quo actively or passively.

At the time I resented the label ‘advocacy journalism’. When the ANC came to power some of us couldn’t wait to cut the human rights ties that connected us to the liberation struggle and put a healthy distance between the politicians and ourselves.

So, I can understand the discomfort Ghanaian journalists feel with the term development journalism when it has a history of support for the status quo. When, in order to prove your patriotism you had to nail your journalistic colors to the government’s development mast.

At the end of the day as 26 journalists were discussing a range of stories they will now be working on as a follow-up to the seminar, I felt we had all laid some ghosts to rest.

Before parting ways we screened the award winning documentary, BANANAS*! ( This film by Swedish journalist Fredrick Gertten is a compelling story of a lone lawyer’s landmark case in the US courts. The lawyer took on America’s Dole Food Company for using illegal pesticides on banana plantations in Nicaragua.

Even though it’s been a long day the journalists and the guests, invited specially for the screening, hang around afterwards sharing their enthusiastic support for an excellent story well told.

In the next few days several of them start working immediately on their development feature stories for print, radio and TV.

Perhaps that fleeting panic at the start is about knowing that I’m required to learn with as much enthusiasm as I teach.

Editors Note: Sylvia Vollenhoven organizes Ghana's first ever Development Journalism Seminar which makes impact on journalists.