Panos London goes South

I can see why James Deane describes Panos as a “curious blend of independent journalism and participatory communication,” in his kind, reflective eulogy for the agency’s just shuttered London office, but I don’t see why he thinks Panos was not about advocacy.

At its best Panos routinely achieved something that few advocacy organisations ever do. It took an under-appreciated, barely-understood issue and gave it the global import that it deserved: genetically modified foods, the impact of climate change and HIV-AIDS to name but three from many.

But accessible digital communications makes anyone with a smartphone or seat in a web café a “curious blend” of independent journalist and participatory communicator in their own right. Panos’ role as interlocutor meant it had to get nearer to where the newly curiously blended are standing, in societies most affected by poverty and marginalisation.

So the shift in resources was inevitable. A cycle of birth and rebirth can be refreshing. That’s the takeaway message from the rest of the ICT world by the way. Tech start-ups and bootstrap data journalists can work as well or better on development communication than NGOs with scale, big offices and big staffs to fill them.

To me Panos London sometimes felt too academic, corralled by the practices of the UK’s vast ‘development policy development’ industry that it served. It is hard to extract accessibility, timeliness and an occasional iconoclasm from a literary form based around accretions of footnoted association with approved likeminds.

Accessibility, timeliness and an occasional iconoclasm is what I like, so I didn’t really get on with writing for Panos whenever I tried, no matter how useful its background references were and how much of it I took on the road. (Charlie Beckett has a interesting quick think about the twin tracks of journalism and academia here, by the way).

In fairness though, while I think the Panos approach tended to value authority over impact, it did give its work intellectual weight – something sometimes lacking in the online work of Inter Press Service or Index on Censorship.

Addressing that small fault can only serve to make it perfect. (I am enjoying communciation for development academic papers again for the first time in years. It’s all new thinking, nothing to validate against but new research. It’ll be a few years before the sclerosis of peer review sets in.)

Chair of Panos London Birgitte Jallov put it simply: “International development funding is increasingly being targeted directly to operations in developing countries. Given this funding shift, and today’s extremely competitive funding environment, it is becoming more difficult financially and less strategic to sustain a London base.”

I think that is completely logical and frankly, fair. Other Panos Institutes will continue London’s work, but more directly and synergistcally in closer connection with its “core beneficiaries, those most affected by poverty and marginalisation denied access to information on the issues that most shape their lives”.

I will miss their company in Islington, but welcome their growth in the Global South. There’s the place, as James would say, to generate and provide the facts people need to make up their own minds about an issue. Safe travels.

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