Consortium Dialogues

Conversation with George Atkins: Don't be so darn sure that we are right!

You've often described how the idea of creating the Developing Countries Farm Radio Network (DCFRN) came to you while on a bus trip in Africa. Can you tell that anecdote again?

Atkins : It was a turning point in my life. Back in 1975, I was a farm commentator with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The CBC, All India Radio and the BBC selected me to put together a workshop in Zambia for the benefit of farm broadcasters in Africa. That was a great thrill to be selected by the CBC. I had had a little experience working in Canada with broadcasters from developing countries, and I guess that's why they decided I could go.

I went to the University of Zambia and was assigned a classroom there. About one day a week, we'd take the farm broadcasters with us by bus to demonstration and experimental farms. They had tape recorders loaned to them by the Zambia Broadcasting Service, and they would interview people on the farms, return with their recordings and, at the Zambia Broadcasting Service Studios, they'd edit the tapes and write their scripts. This was before the days of community radio.

On one of these trips, we were driving along in a very packed bus, so packed that there were little folding aisle seats, two seats on both sides and an aisle seat in the middle. Oyewole Erinle, from Nigeria, was sitting next to the window on my right side. On my left, on one of the aisle seats, was Abdul Sessay, from Sierra Leone.

People from Nigeria are a proud people and, on an occasion like this, Oyewole was wearing his hat and a robe made of beautiful cotton material. He cut quite a figure. Abdul, a very modest kind of fellow and a lovely personality, wore only a shirt and pants. As we rode along, we had the following dialogue:

"Oyewole, what do you tell your farmers in your broadcasts?" I asked.

"I tell them all about the great advances in agriculture, all about fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides. They need to know about these things. "

Then I asked Abdul, "What did you tell farmers in the last broadcast you made before you came to this workshop?

"I told them how to clean and adjust the spark plugs on their tractors."

So I asked Abdul, "How many farmers in Sierra Leone have tractors?"

"Maybe one in 80,000 farmers."

"Do you have any idea of the size of your audience in your broadcast area?"

"About 800,000 listeners."

I said, "Out of 800,000 listeners, you're telling ten of them about tractors. What about all the others? Surely this information isn't of any use to them. Why don't you tell them about how to raise oxen? They wouldn't need to buy gasoline or spark plugs. They can feed grass to the oxen."

Then I turned to Oyewole and said, "Instead of talking about commercial fertilizers and all things to buy, some of which aren't good for the environment, why don't you talk about fertilizers using animal manure?

Almost together both of them replied, "We don't have that kind of information. Our ministries of agriculture want to operate agriculture and to bring farmers to understand what is going on."

"If the information is irrelevant, surely you're wasting your time and their time," I said.

Then I said, "If I find the information I'm talking about, about raising oxen, or about making compost, and I send it to you in some kind of form you can use, would you use it?

And both of them said they would. There, on that bus, out on the road in rural Zambia, this idea for the Developing Countries Farm Radio Network (DCFRN) was born.

I said to myself, "George, maybe you can get this information and send it to them." These broadcasters speak English, so they would need to interpret the information in local languages.

We started with 34 broadcasters in 27 countries. On May 1, 1979, we sent the first tape and set of scripts, of a package of nine scripts in English,

With every package of scripts, which we sent out four times a year, we included an information poll, asking which of those topics they liked best and which they were able to use in the circumstances of their country. In addition, we'd ask them for suggestions. We tabulated all this information and tried to improve each package after.

Currently, we're sending out some 70 packages. They are able to look at them, read them, listen to the tape and then interpret it in their local language. We continue to update the scripts and add new ones, changing the focus to keep in touch with what's going on. That is such a thrill to me; I pinch myself when I think about what has happened.

You are a pioneer of communication for social change. However, the discipline didn't exist until fairly recently. What made you think, back in the 1950's that you wanted to be a development communication specialist?

Atkins : I've never considered myself a pioneer. It's funny. I guess most pioneers are so darn busy doing what they have to do that they never think of themselves as pioneers. They've seen a job that needs to be done, a place that needs to be looked over, or something that needs to be established, and they just do it!

I was a radio broadcaster and I knew how effective radio is in getting word out to people who are remote from other sources of information, but who have time"perhaps when they're eating, or whatever"to listen to the radio, just as I did when I was on the farm. I used to turn on the radio at noon and get the farm broadcast; when I had a shipment of hogs ready to go to market, I'd listen to the broadcast and I'd know what the prices were, and I'd be able to decide whether to take the hogs to market. Also, when new technologies developed, I would learn about them while listening to the radio. If it hadn't been for the radio, I probably wouldn't have heard of them.

So, I knew what radio could do and how important it was.

Back in those days, the National Farm Radio Forum was a program developed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). It was part of a system of broadcasting to farmers coast to coast in Canada. As a young farmer, I used to listen to the broadcast. Every week the CBC would broadcast a discussion on a topic of special interest to farmers"for instance, about the freight rates for moving grain from western to eastern Canada, where there were a lot of livestock. Another topic might be how the rural schoolhouses could be used for community centres. In fact, some of the farm forum broadcasts actually were transmitted from little schoolhouses.

The CBC got people to come to its Toronto headquarters to do a 25-minute discussion on the topics. We farmers would get together in local farm forum groups and listen to the broadcast, in a farmer's kitchen or dining room, wherever the radio was. We did this before a broadcast, which was always on Mondays, at 8 p.m.

CBC mailed a small newspaper, The Farm Forum Guide, to every participating farmer. We received The Guide on Thursdays, and it outlined the topic to be discussed the following Monday evening. We would have the whole weekend to read the Guide and be ready to get together Monday night to listen to the broadcast. Afterwards, we would discuss the topic and come to our own conclusions.

And indeed, the Guide always provided three questions each farmer had to answer on the subject. A secretary would write up its answers to these questions and send them in to the provincial farm forum secretary. That secretary would go over all these reports and then choose the salient points of discussion and their conclusions.

That model of broadcast was taken overseas. "The Archers" in England, known worldwide because it was on BBC World, was modelled after the Canadian Farm Families. And I believe the National Farm Radio Forum still exists in India.

So I knew about that successful programmes, and I knew the power of radio.

Then, in 1955, I was invited to the CBC to be a farm commentator because I'd been to college, I was a farmer, I knew farming problems and I knew what farmers needed in their broadcasts. By Christmas of that year, I knew this was the career for me. Sure, I was a good farmer and I had a lot of abilities in that area, innovative different things that I would do, but I could see that perhaps I could help more people using my voice and using the radio. I wasn't planning to be a communication for social change specialist: I didn't know anything about development communication. I don't think there was such a term in those days. I just wanted to do what I could to help people in developing countries.

I guess it's true. Maybe I was a pioneer. But, tell you, I've enjoyed it so very much.

What qualities must a communication for social change person have? Is it just a matter of training and knowledge? Or is there something else that makes a good development communicator?

Atkins : Well, I'd say it's a hell of a lot more than training. I think that training probably is the least important.

To be a good development communicator, you've got to have an innate feeling that you want to help others. It's not a "me-first" thing at all. In fact, a person usually has to do a fair amount of sacrificing, one way or another.

I always remember Father Corbeil, whom I met in Zambia. He said, "If you want to do something, first you have to know the people, you have to sit down and listen to them, get to know them, learn about their culture, learn what they do and what they don't do. The first thing you'll probably find out is that there's an awful lot that you can learn from them, not that they can learn from you. You can learn some marvellous things about their culture, and the way they do things, and their deep-seated philosophy, their beliefs, the richness of their culture, and the values that have been passed on to them for many hundreds generations. You can learn why they look at certain aspects of life in a particular way, and things that we just don't know anything about at all in our culture. After you get to know them and these things, from then, actually, they'll enrich your life".

That's some philosophy!

Here's another piece of advice from David Kidd, a Canadian from Winnipeg. I met him in Hyderabad, India, at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). David told me, "George, there's so many people who come over here into the developing world with great ideas and all the wonderful things we have in the North. They come here and they want to teach people how to do things and give them equipment, give them techniques and all the rest of it. But before you ever start talking to them, or discussing with them, what you have to do is just sit down beside the road with one of them. If you can't talk to them, or if they can't talk your language, get a good interpreter, and talk about things that they know and that they do and that they like, and methods that they use for different things. After that, after you get to know them that way, then maybe, you can do something to help."

If I were to try to figure out one of the reasons why, perhaps, I was a success as a farm commentator in Canada, it's because I knew whom I was talking to"who my audience was. When you're a development communication specialist you have to know who it is that you're talking to. You ought to have a deep-seated knowledge of them. In the broadcast seminar we did in Zambia in 1975, we knew there was no way that we were going over there to teach people what to do. Instead, to communicate with people, we had to say to them, "You're doing something in the communication business and we'd like to know what you're doing and how you're doing it. If you feel that there's something we can help you with, we'd be glad to tell you about it". Now that's a totally different attitude than going to teach people what to do.

What are the qualities that a development communicator has to have? Well, to communicate in the right way, you've got to do it in a way that's culturally sensitive. You have to be careful.

Here's an example: When I was doing my early scripts, we were establishing the Developing Countries Farm Radio Network in Spanish. We were discussing what to name the network in Latin America. A young woman who worked with us and also worked in Latin America with campesinos, said, "This network is for poor farmers, so why don't we call it "Radio Campesina?'" Well, that was a good idea.

So the first lot of scripts went out in the network with that name. Not long after the first package went out, I was talking to someone in the embassy of one of the countries in the South. I think it was Chile or Argentina. That person told me that if a person was broadcasting this script in his country, and someone looked over his shoulder and saw that word "campesinos" in the heading of our network, that guy might not be broadcasting much longer. Real quickly we changed the name to "Radio Rural," which was quite acceptable.

That's a perfect example of the importance of knowing your audience and knowing the people who are going to be involved with. So I learned a little lesson right there.

Some of the best communication for social change specialists, the most innovative, the most committed, came from the field of agriculture. Why do you think this happens? Is it the work with rural communities that prompts them to become development communicators?

Atkins : What prompts them to becoming development communication workers? I guess the fact that they just like helping other people and are used to it. A lot of young people who grow up on farms have to be very resourceful. They have to think of ways to get out of a fix, or figure out a way to do what needs to be done. And on the farm, people depend on each other. There is a sense of community and of cooperation"everybody helping each other. This leads, perhaps, to better communication skills with people at your own level. And this is the way things work in the developing world. I'm talking about people at the village level: They are the ones I worked with. I did not work with what you might call the operational people.

Another thing: Rural people are usually gregarious. They like visiting each other and meeting with each other. So when you have that background, you're happy when you get out into the work world of development communication. You like people, and you like working with people.

Community radio, or farm radio, has been your option for decades, although you also did video work in the early 1950s. Why do you think community radio has been, and still is, the most effective means of communicating in rural areas?

Atkins : Radio has become a universal way of communicating. I think the reason it is so successful in development communication is that, first of all, it reaches people who are in "remote" areas, where there is no other way that communication can get to them. And they listen to the radio in their own language or local dialect, so they understand it and receive the information that way.

And if it's presented properly they will be interested enough to listen to it. Information can be communicated in a way that's acceptable and accessible. Of course, many of these people can't read or write, so even if there were magazines or newspapers or newsletters or government bulletins, they can't read them. So what good are they?

Radio also is a much more local adaptable way of communicating. Community stations now are smaller and they can be much more local, and people always want to hear about local issues. All the information polls we send out with our scripts, as well as recent surveys we've done, show that people generally are most interested in the issues that touch them directly.

If you talk about world affairs, world events, they don't have reference points. I was in a small village in Zambia, and the villagers saw me"a white man coming into their village"and they had no idea where Canada is. They just knew that I was somebody who came from a place far away. So why would they be particularly interested in what happens in Canada, or even where it is? They're interested in the things that are close to them. Even here, in the community I live in, Ontario, there are many people who don't listen to Canadian Broadcasting Corporation because the CBC talks about things taking place elsewhere. They are interested in what happened in Ontario or in the next county. They spend most of their time listening to that kind of thing.

We have a woman broadcaster in Otavalo, Ecuador, who is a Quechua Indian. She speaks the Quechua language but understands Spanish, even if she can't read or write. We send cassettes to such people. She listens to the cassette in Spanish, and then, every morning, goes on the radio and talks to a hundred thousand Quechua Indians; telling them how to keep weevils out of their grain. That's a local issue. It doesn't matter that the story originated in southern Africa. Well, if that isn't development communication I don't know what is.

The thing about community radio is that you can have participation by so many local people. You can have village leaders, or you can have the members of the community. You can have people express their views, and when they hear the ideas of their neighbours, they are prompted to speak up. When they're able to record and listen to a broadcast, they get so excited about having been part of a broadcasting. This is something that cannot be done by state radio. It empowers the local people in a way they have never been empowered before. I've been in so many villages where the people thought that nobody cared about them, but when the radio managed to do things at their level, that made all the difference in the world. I guess maybe that is why community radio has been, and still is, the most effective means of communication in rural areas.

You've travelled extensively through 35 developing countries as a consultant and communication for social change specialist. You've taken your experience, knowledge and ideas on communication and culture to those countries. What have you learned in return?

Atkins : Oh boy! I have learned so much.

Throughout my experience in visiting all these countries and meeting all these people, in all walks of life, I learned so much more about my inner self and came to respect the richness of their culture, their beliefs, attitudes as well s their art, music, ways of expressing themselves, body language, the kindness they show to each other, and also their kindness to visitors like me. And once they understood what I was doing there, finding out information that would help other farmers, other rural people around the world, that made it all the better.

When you're right on the ground with the village people, as I was in that Zambian village, the villagers don't know much about other places in the world, but they are happy to show me what they do for the benefit of others. That experience in Zambia was such a revelation to me.

Can you tell the young generation of development communicators why communication is so important for development?

Atkins : Well, what does development mean? I guess it means developing ways of doing things that will make life better for people in a certain group, or area, or country. But who is to say what makes life better for them?

There are lots of times when people are pretty happy the way they are. As long as they have food and shelter, and pleasant cultural things, who are we, in some other part of the world, to say they need the kind of things we have? I think there is an awful lot of "development" that doesn't need to be done. However, in communication, it all depends if you got the right kind of people doing the development work, people who have empathy for the people they're working with, who realize their side of the picture.

If we're going to do the right kind of development, certainly you've got to have communication for it. It has to be well done. It has to be done with people who have the right attitude and understand what they're doing, and who realize that they don't want to destroy a culture that is already so beautiful. They want to be able to help those people so that they can have some of the best things that we have on our side of the world while retaining their cultural identity.

There's an old saying that if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, and if you teach him how to fish you feed him for a lifetime. Well, the thing is, they've already learned how to fish in these countries, so you don't need to teach them that.

I would say that the top-down teaching is something I would never do myself. I would say to the young development communicators, "Show people what the benefits may be to them, and then take the attitude that if they are interested in learning, well then, you are there to help them learn. But do it in a sensitive way, so it is not going to make the people feel that their culture is inferior to some culture in the other side of the world."

I would like to tell young communicators for development, "Always keep your eyes open. When you go to a village in a developing country, you will have culture shock. But you're going to have a much stronger shock when you come back. Don't be so darn sure that we are right! And make sure that you think about those things and just remember that an awful lot of other people know an awful lot more that we do. Be a bit humble and just take it easy when you go into other countries. Make sure you understand them and know what they are all about before you start telling them anything."

Now, I'll sign off with the signature I used when I was a farm radio commentator, "Serving agriculture, the basic industry, this is George Atkins."

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