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Creating Global Debate with a Focus on Africa

With both monthly and weekly series on topics ranging from economics and international affairs to science and philosophy, the international organisation Project Syndicate provides newspapers worldwide with commentaries current topics. The special “Into Africa” series brings the voices of leading African thinkers, politicians, economists and writers to the world at large. RAP 21 spoke to Nicolas Chatara-Morse, Vice President of Development, about Project Syndicate and how African newspapers can benefit from its activities.

RAP 21: What are the main activities of Project Syndicate?

Chatara-Morse: Project Syndicate is an international, not-for-profit association of newspapers dedicated to hosting global debate. We bring leaders in every field – Nobel laureates, activists, presidents and economists – to local newspaper audiences, through the syndication of opinion pieces. Project Syndicate now consists of 244 member newspapers in 114 countries, with a total circulation of nearly 40 million copies.

Project Syndicate is unique because as well as reaching the world’s best minds and publications, we also link areas that often struggle to come together. For example, newspapers in developing countries are ignored by commercial syndicates because they are not profitable, whereas we work hard to give them our material. This is not a one-way transfer of information, however. We also bring voices from developing regions to mainstream publications across the world. It is a two-way channel.

To further this mission, we have just launched a new African initiative. Africa is much spoken about; we want to foster closer ties with editors in order to see what Africa wants to say about itself and the rest of the world. Through member editors, we hope to build direct links with African leaders, thinkers and activists, so we can bring their concerns to the global media.

RAP 21: What are your activities in Africa?

Chatara-Morse: Besides our African initiative, there are three other ongoing aspects. First, we distribute articles for free to our member newspapers across the African continent. Second, in 2002 we developed a special series, “Into Africa” in order to bring the voices of Africa’s leaders to mainstream newspapers. The series, which is edited by Sara Sievers, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, features the thoughts of African politicians, economists, social critics, writers and artists. We translate these opinions into Chinese, Arabic, French, Russian, Spanish, Czech and German and distribute them to our member newspapers across the world. As a consequence, commentaries from “Into Africa” have appeared in papers from “Le Monde” in France to “Valor” in Brazil. Third, our non-profit status puts us in a central position regarding Africa and other international organisations. An ordinary syndication agency only sends information in one direction. As we are in frequent contact with both African papers and non-profit, press freedom and aid organisations, we are able to bring them together when a match of needs arises. Some papers are struggling to find experienced journalists, others labour under censorious regimes. We distribute details about training programs, free press conferences or even send opinion articles on the issue at hand.

RAP 21: How can African newspapers benefit from Project Syndicate?

Chatara-Morse: When they become a member, African newspapers gain free access to our articles and international connections. We send up to 30 opinion and commentary articles (800-1000 words) every month, and each member receives some or all of these, depending on its interests. Project Syndicate’s commentaries come from for example Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, Mikhail Gorbachev and Sergei Kyrienko of Russia, Donald Rumsfeld of the USA, Jasjit Singh of India.

However, the core of Project Syndicate’s contributors are thinkers, those who breathe new insights into the world of newspaper readers. They include economists such as Jeffrey Sachs, George Soros, J Bradford Delong and Joseph Stiglitz; sociologists and political scientists like Ralf Dahrendorf, Francis Fukuyama and Robert D. Putnam; political activists such as Emma Bonino, Adam Michnik, Wole Soyinka, Morgan Tsvangerai, and Bao Tong. Any paper that is part of our network receives these influential perspectives, information about relevant media events, and an opportunity to bring important issues to international attention. In return, our needs are simple – papers must tell us when they publish our articles.

RAP 21: In what ways do Africans contribute to Project Syndicate?

Chatara-Morse: In terms of opinion contributions, we have syndicated articles by Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s opposition leader; Okwir Raboni, a member of Uganda’s parliament and a former child soldier; Alex de Waal, a commentator on humanitarian disasters; Abdoulage Wade, Senegal’s President; Nobel Laureate novelist Nadine Gordimer; and Ghana’s President John Kufour, on rebuilding democracy after dictatorship.

Our most recent articles were by Dr Berhanu Nega, vice chairman of Ethiopia’s main opposition party, and HRH the Aga Khan. A column by Wole Soyinka, Nobel laureate in Literature, was distributed at the beginning of this month. In addition, our member editors help shape Project Syndicate’s editorial decisions. Our membership pool in Africa consists of nearly 100 editors, some of whom contact us to give their views on global events or alert us when something important is happening in their region. This input has been of such great value that we began our Africa initiative, to formalise this sort of relationship. It is at the heart of what Project Syndicate represents. Africans also contribute to Project Syndicate as donors. Without the support of The Nation in Kenya, Business Day in South Africa, and the Financial Standard in Nigeria we would not be able to distribute our content for free in many countries around the globe.

RAP 21: What are your greatest areas of interest in Africa?

Chatara-Morse: Ultimately, we want Africans to tell us what they are interested in. By the time stories of Africa reach the international press, they have often been simplified into an old stereotype. This problem is removed when Africa speaks about itself, and there is much the rest of the world can learn from these stories – not only in terms of Africa, but in terms of itself. True creativity arises when resources are inconsistent. Our column by Dr Nega, about the Ethiopian election, shows how something as difficult as a transition to democracy is managed on a human level. We want to champion Africa’s perspective.

Most other topics are caught by this net. It is vital that the opinions of Africans are heard when decisions are being made about their continent, such as the relationship between aid and trade policies. Africa also has much to offer on issues that are not specifically African. There are some powerfully effective environmental campaigns in Kenya, for example. We are interested in opinions that are newsworthy, and significant enough to resonate internationally.

Finally, Project Syndicate is concerned with press freedom. We can widely distribute a voice that is silenced in its home country. Our network can ensure that such news is received by both surrounding African regions and centres of decision-making, such as Western Europe. We have a proud history of similar work in other parts of the world. When the Ukrainian elections were in jeopardy, we distributed Yulia Tymoshenko’s plea for democracy. We syndicated editor Bambang Harymurti’s plight when his paper was charged with defamation in Indonesia.

RAP 21: How would you like to develop your activities in Africa?

Chatara-Morse: Project Syndicate’s new African initiative is aimed at member newspaper editors. We invite editors and newspaper owners to tell us about the national or international issues that concern them, with a view to identifying which statesman, artist, academic or activist needs to be added to the global debate. We will choose the most effective voices, commission articles from them, and inject their words into the worldwide media.

Newspaper editors have a deep understanding of the problems in their region. This is an opportunity for them to amplify Africa’s perspective, and at the same time give us a wish-list of thinkers that they would like to receive articles from. In this way we will provide articles that as a relevant as possible to each African region. Editors are also at the heart of news and intellectual culture, and in the past, they have helped us with contact details or introductions, because they already in touch with the leaders in their country.

We are actively looking to expand our membership base in Africa and we invite papers to become part of our network. However, we do not distribute articles by reporters, journalists or editors. We syndicate articles by those who are in the news, not those who already have an outlet for publication.

To apply for Project Syndicate membership, send an email to: expansion@project-syndicate.org

African writers often appear in other series besides “Into Africa”. If you are interested in reading more, you will find additional articles listed in some of the series below:

Weekly World in Words http://www.project-syndicate.org/se… Economics and Justice by Jeffrey Sa…

Human Rights http://www.project-syndicate.org/se…

Islam and the World http://www.project-syndicate.org/se…

For more information, visit the website http://www.project-syndicate.org/

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