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Saturday, 19 March 2011

Does Local Radio Access Improve Public Accountability?

Prior research has argued that citizens with greater access to mass media receive greater benefits from targeted government welfare programs, but has not addressed these questions for public services such as in education and health. Using unique data from Benin, this paper finds that literacy rates among school children are higher in villages exposed to signals from a larger number of community radio stations. The effect is identified based on a “natural experiment” in the northern communes of Benin where within-commune variation in village access to radio stations is exogenous to observed and unobserved village characteristics. In contrast to prior research, the authors find that this media effect does not operate through government accountability: government inputs into village schools and household knowledge of government education policies are no different in villages with greater access to community radio. Instead, households with greater access are more likely to make financial investments in the education of their children.

One of the interesting things that the authors draw out is the potential impact of advertising. Where government advertising dominates local radio station revenue streams this is likely to influence the content of radio stations perhaps further weakening the possibility of having programming that would hold government account. Access to non-government revenue therefore might be one way to minimise government capture and ensure their editorial independence. This does mean that urban radio stations are likely to be more independent than rural ones which because of their broader advertising revenue sources.

The other point related to the role of collective action. The authors note that what stops citizens from holding government accountable may not necessarily be lack of policy information. Rather the constraint might be weak incentives for collective action. For example their may coordination failure among citizens: citizens believe that all other citizens demand clientelist transfers from politicians rather than broad public goods, and therefore vote only the basis of clientelist performance. Such coordination failures may be linked to the absence of organizations, particularly political parties, capable of mobilizing citizens for collective action. In short for information to be useful local organisations need to emerge that uses it to push for change.

All of this matters to us because Zambia is experience something of a rise in local radio. We should continue to celebrate this development but also keep our eye on how to ensure that such radio stations are independent of government and local people start using the information to hold government to account. As the paper notes having more local radios does not necessarily lead to more accountability.

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