LAST week, I spent an hour with journalism students at the University of the South Pacific during their Friday Forum session; a talanoa session during lunch-hour.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) works mainly through its programmes with 14 Pacific island countries but this was an invitation we wouldn't have missed. We anticipated sharing our mandate with the students because for us, it was an invaluable opportunity to continuing inter-generational conversations so we have as correct a reflection as possible of contemporary realities.
UNFPA has been in existence since 1967 and that fact in itself implies a rich collection of experience and information which informs our work plans. But we are also very much aware of dramatic changes to our ways of life,virtually teleported if you will via extraordinary advances in the sciences and technology. This has, as I had hinted during my discussions with the journalism students, unwittingly stranded social issues as they were abandoned for 'flasher' sectors; social issues were pretty much left on a back-burner and forced to play catch-up. This is a challenge for all of us who work in fields which work towards ensuring our people are better prepared for today's future.
For UNFPA in this context, we are talking about funding projects that will ensure pregnant women can access better health care and facilities or the development of qualification for pharmacist assistants so patients get appropriate counselling and better service when medication is being dispensed, and supporting a census from which data will be used by policy makers who advise governments on development programmes, e.g. for housing or medical facilities. When development advice is backed by data, the development programme is then much more effective because it is a targeted intervention; it is important of course to have up-to-date data but because it is an expensive exercise, census are usually conducted every decade.
The Friday Forum also discussed family planning which I had emphasised is not just about contraceptives. Family planning is about how a young couple can plan a life they can afford from the outset. Whether they have six or two children, this is every couple's basic human right to decide. UNFPA comes in as an agency that can assist couples in planning for example, spacing their children so that women have sufficiently healed, physically and psychologically, and be prepared for a pregnancy.
When women are well-cared for in this manner, this dramatically reduces complications which for example would lead to deaths of mothers and/or infants or both during the birthing process.
At the Forum, I used an illustration from last week's The Economist, which depicts a woman with many children and one coin in her pocket, and another with one child but a bag of coins: a simplistic albeit apt way of looking at the benefits of lower fertility (rates) to our families, communities, economies and countries as a whole.
We value intergenerational conversations because it allows us to contribute to the youth's preparedness for tomorrow but having it with journalism student was especially opportune because as future players of the Fourth Estate, they have a social responsibility and can partner with us in nation-building. The Fourth Estate refers to the print media as a fourth branch of governance. Advances in technology and a platform like the internet have however blurred the lines and generally-speaking, the Fourth Estate now includes all mediums. The Fourth Estate is borne out of an 'old' English system which postulates that while there are essentially three branches of governance, the media merits the entitlement of being the fourth. The first, the Lords Spiritual, members of the House of Lords are representatives of the clergy which initially comprised archbishops, bishops and mitred abbots.
With the dissolution of monasteries in the 16th Century and a restriction on 'membership' or peerage, spiritual peers now comprise archbishops and bishops and number 26. The Lords' Temporal is representative of a hereditary peerage (nobility); they are also members of the House of Lords and number 92. The third, the House of Commons, is the British Parliament, the seat of government. The Fourth Estate or the media is an acknowledgement of its function as a guardian of the public interest, ensuring the general public is informed of developments in the running of the state, so that also the government can depend on an objective media to be informed of the people's mood. This designation comes with responsibility; one is reminded of the adage 'the power of the pen' — what the media churns out influences and can sway public opinion. Ponder on this for a moment: Do you think Michael Jordon would have become the commercial entity he is without the media?
We at the UNFPA Pacific Sub-Regional Office believe that the media has a social responsibility to partner with us in development; case in point is how this newspaper allows me to write a fortnightly column. The media is free to do what it wants of course. If journalists were to take a personal interest in our mandate for example, they could assist us in correcting the public perception that contraceptives are there not to lessen your people but a positive tool that couples can use to space their children and ensure the health of both mother and child and to an extent, the village, the town and nation.
Some countries where we work in are actually encouraging child-bearing because their island communities are shrinking because of migration. This is where planning child-bearing and government development plans collaborate to ensure there is incentive for people to remain here, or return home after working overseas. Critical however is changing the mind-set of our people to collectively work towards building a healthy populace; and essential to this process is the media and its responsibility to report objectively on how organisations like us exist to complement nation-building, not undermine governments who host us.
On March 28 this year, the President of the United States of America Barak Obama said "If you truly value families, you shouldn't play politics with a woman's health". While he touches the core of one of our mandate areas — maternal health — I would also like to apply it to the media's potential partnership in development and/or nation-building. The media can make or break a programme that ultimately aims to create a healthy people. With one phrase or even a word, the media can break a trust that we have spent years, developing. We cannot afford such misunderstandings anymore.
For Fiji and for most of our island nations, we have never needed a more responsible Fourth Estate as we do now — we can contribute to nation-building as partners.
* Dirk Jena is the United Nations
Population Fund's Pacific sub-regional
office director and representative.