Understanding the ties that bind global media development

A superficial skim of Adam Saffer’s initial network study of the Global Forum for Media Development appears worrying. A handful of ‘cliques’ in the west holding the ties that bind its 50 members, in a network dedicated, it seems, to managing their smaller partners’ roles in their big ticket funding applications.

Presenting his results to the September 20-22 GFMD meeting in Jakarta, Saffer, an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina, takes a more positive view of the GFMD from his data. He sees his kind of network research as moving towards a “more relational, contextual and systematic understanding 1” of our social world, and the work of the GFMD itself. It’s an understanding that can only benefit the GFMD – indeed any media rights or media development alliance – and deserves a measured, patient response.

Saffer’s focus is on the relationships that exist among members of GFMD, and the opportunities and constraints that the network prescribes. He began his study of the GFMD with an assessment of its capacity to organise in support of its commitment to monitor and help deliver the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal on access to information (SDG 16.10). Survey participants were asked to identify those members whom they had worked with on GFMD activities in the past year. Thirty-one members, or 78%, replied.

The survey, Mapping the Global Forum for Media Development: A Network Analysis of Members, found that the GFMD network had a limited outreach. Only 2.6% of all the different possible relationships between the network members had been taken up. “Members are selective with their relationships to other members,” Saffer found. “There is a high degree of centralisation that indicates a majority of the relationships are coming from a few select members.”


In fairness the GFMD is not – not yet anyway – organised around relationships based on joint communications and advocacy in the way that the similarly structured freedom of expression rights network IFEX is. Media rights, especially journalist safety issues remain important, but the GFMD has evolved as a kind of trade organisation, where the ‘trade’ involves managing its members’ share of the estimated $625m provided by the world’s governments and foundations for media development support yearly. The objective is to do this more efficiently, with better results, and, naturally enough, to generate more business.

GFMD coordination goes a long way towards mitigating the core problems of the wider non-profit sector, critically described by social entrepreneur Jake Hayman for Forbes this month, as an “economy that rewards individual performance instead of collective impact, and short-term activities over long-term learning”. Yet inevitably it is funding partnerships that are the ties that bind GFMD members, not joint advocacy, or the various kinds of innovation research or situational analysis that it could do.

The number of larger partnership-based projects has increased in the last ten years, requiring members with the capacity to manage these programmes to international audit standards to take the lead. It’s these organisations that predominate amongst Saffer’s ‘cliques’. Not in the pejorative lay meaning, but ‘cliques’ in network terms, based on the number of common connections between network members.

His analysis revealed 109 ‘cliques’ in the network, primarily formed by six northern NGOs with the most connections and thus the most influential in the network. (GFMD Coordinator/Secretariat (n = 106), Free Press Unlimited (n = 101), Deutsche Welle Akademie (n = 58), ARTICLE 19 (n = 34), International Media Support (n = 34) and Ethical Journalism Network (n = 22). ) “It is just a matter of identifying who is connecting with whom to see the groups,” Saffer clarified later by e-mail. “In theory, these members of this group are critical for disseminating information or organising other members.”

While the amount cliques is not uncommon for a network of this size, as Saffer himself wrote later, it is not sustainable for six members to be members in a majority of the cliques. “An effort needs to be made to bring other members to the center of the network to form more relationships and reduce the load of these cliques.” cliques-min-5_size-by-overlap-freq

Adam Saffer’s map marking the key members of the GFMD’s communications network.

From my perspective, a network as diverse as the GFMD ought to have a larger number of critical members sharing and organising communications, not least because all of them are NGOs in the communications sector. “Through engagement and taking on strategic responsibilities,” Saffer wrote, “members can become positioned more centrally and join existing cliques to begin distributing the overlapping relationships (i.e. cliques) more equitably across the network.” And as Tom King ‏of the Organized Crime & Corruption Reporting Project tweeted: “Whether or not you agree some orgs in @GFMD are over-mighty, it’s surely still beneficial for other orgs to step up and do more #mediadev16”

This is only the first round of studies. Saffer has not yet collected the data on shared donors, strategic partners and the balance of network ties between media development NGOs in the north and the global south. This will be quite a challenge, but one worth taking on. The network study doesn’t yet allow for the distorting effect that the demands and practices of the donors have on the topology of the GFMD’s network, and the formation of sub-networks.

“Charities are pitted against each other in competitive processes with their success judged by annual organisational growth and delivery numbers,” writes Hayman about the non-profit sector as a whole, “not long-term value, learning or dissemination.”

The donors’ preference for consortia to handle major investments in non-profit media development is welcome in many ways, as it facilitates bigger ambitions, but it does create sub-networks of its own. One example: The EU is granting 4.55m to a major three-year initiative to promote freedom of expression online & off, and access to information, in 11 target countries from next year. Yet the EU’s on-going bid process divides at least five GFMD members with shared objectives into different consortia (and doesn’t seem to include any of the several GFMD members already based in the list of target nations).

Interestingly the only ‘real’ funder tracked by the survey, the Open Society Foundation, which presumably relates its network ties to its grant portfolio, participates in fewer cliques (13) than most. That arguably illustrates focus rather than elitism. To its further credit OSF rated much higher than most when judged as a communication partner.

Competition for shrinking funds among the membership might qualify other members’ willingness to advertise existing relationships. But the ‘big six’ tend to have more demanding public disclosure requirements in their home countries, and a closer study of their networking habits might give a clue to problems and solutions. Meanwhile, out on the far edges of the GFMD network map, the smaller, mainly southern media development NGOs remain largely dependent on the bigger players to stake them in the game.

GFMD director Ayman Mhanna

And while the bigger northern NGOs rely on the smaller southern groups to give their project funding bids both credibility and viability, the majority of the relationships in GFMD mainly link the global north’s membership. This tends to be a one-way affair: Only 20.1% of the traced network relationships were reported to be reciprocated.

Nevertheless, of these relationships, Saffer found that their ‘social capital’ or value, was seen as fairly strong. “On three measures of social capital, members indicated others as being ‘somewhat’ trustworthy, cooperative and worth exchanging information,” he noted. “However, a few select members were identified as being significantly important to communicate with.”

More needs to be done before recommendations can be finalised. But the results so far suggest that the GFMD membership’s inter-relationships are based on perceptions of dependency rather than expectations of shared growth, whether in capacity, impact or relevance. That, if true, would be a problem. As said, a second round of surveys and a narrowing of focus is planned. In the meantime, presenting his opening assessments to the GFMD Global Forum in Jakarta last month, Saffer came up with three initial recommendations:

  • Continue meeting around the world: Members are able to establish new relationships and foster on-going relationships with other members at these meetings.
  • Create opportunities for engagement: A low amount of reciprocity was found, which suggests that many of the well-connected members are not reciprocating relationships to those less involved.
  • Need for regional leads: A closer analysis found that many members do not have relationships with other members from the same region, and in some cases from the same country.

But ultimately the true value of the study will be in further identifying the social capital generated by the network: The personal relationships; the emotional, material, practical, financial, intellectual or professional resources it enhances; the engagement and participation it fosters; and finally the trust it engenders, measured by standards of cooperation, reciprocity and non-discrimination.

(1) Borgatti, S.P. and Foster, P.C., 2003. The network paradigm in organisational research: A review and typology. Journal of Management, 29(6), pp.991-1013.

This article was updated on 10 October to include additional data and comments from Adam Saffer.

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