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CFSC Analysis and Opinion: Mobilizing Resources for Social Change Communication: Is This the Best of Times or the Worst?

In this essay, James Deane, the CFSC Consortium's managing director of strategy, explains why our times are the best and the worst, in terms of optimism that humanity will finally defeat poverty.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
(From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, referring to the year 1775)

Dickens' words, describing the prelude to what historians call the age of revolutions, resonate in our own time. In terms of making real impact on global poverty, the year 2005 may indeed be the best and worst of times; a season of affluence set in one of poverty.

Is this the best of times in development assistance? Nelson Mandela recently urged world leaders to support the Make Poverty History campaign. The United Kingdom has made the issue central to its presidency of the G8 group of countries. Concerted and coordinated international government action may be coming together to topple three of the pillars of global poverty "“ debt, unfair terms of trade and insufficient development assistance.

The new International Finance Facility proposes an increase of $50 billion for development assistance to the world's poorest countries from now until 2015; new money sources are essential if we are going to meet the Millennium Development Goals.

The Africa Commission, initiated by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, is due to report in March with the aim of placing the continent at the top of the international political agenda. The UN Millennium Commission, headed by Jeffrey Sachs, published its report in January concluding that not only could extreme poverty be halved by 2015, it could be eradicated altogether by 2025.

And, due to the Asian Tsunami disaster late last year, we entered this year coping with the worst human tragedy of recent times. But the world responded with the greatest public response to a development issue in human history.

Underpinning the opportunities as well as the disasters are renewed ambition, commitment and determination among many in the international development community to learn from the "worst of times"¯ failures and to polarize new thinking and action into "best of times"¯ results.

It is ironic that given hopeful solutions and real funding momentum, there is a deepening sense of gloom among some communication practitioners who, while welcoming increased political commitment and money, fear the basis on which it will be spent. The long history of development assistance is littered with failures, which calls for analysis of what is missing from today's policies.

For many decades now, communication professionals have argued that unless the perspectives and voices of people most affected by development are placed at the centre of designing and implementing development strategies, they will fail. Unless people understand, can discuss and bring their own perspective to the issues and initiatives designed to benefit them, development initiatives tend to fail. This is as true of a small community project to install a well as it is of a nationwide effort to improve rural agriculture.

This principle is now, at least in theory, at the core of development orthodoxy, Major steps have been made to increase and improve participation in development. The gap between rhetoric and practice however is huge and widening.

The mainstream development community committed itself most prominently to participatory principles when the World Bank initiated its poverty reduction strategy paper process (PRSP) in 1999. PRSPs are a key methodology used within the international development community to engage poorer countries with their donors to attack poverty. For many, they are essential to meeting the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2015.

At the heart of the PRSP processes is the principle of ownership. For any poverty reduction strategy to succeed, it must first be understood, debated and owned by the society it's supposed to benefit. This fundamental principle underpins PRSPs. It underpins the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), and it underpins all current mainstream development policy.

The experience of five years of implementation of poverty reduction strategies has demonstrated repeatedly that the development of such strategies is rarely characterised by the kind of public understanding, public debate and ownership that is necessary for them to succeed. Creating such ownership requires implementing communication strategies that can both enable people from all parts of society to understand and debate policies proposed through PRSPs and similar strategies; and it requires communication strategies that can enable them to communicate their perspectives into policy and public debate. Such public debate, or even discourse, is rare. So the resulting ownership of the strategies"”and often the strategies themselves"”are thin, and political and public commitment to implementing them is weak.

Given that PRSPs are such a central pillar to meeting the first Millennium Development Goal, and given evidence to suggest that poor and inadequate communication strategies are largely responsible for their weakness, it is remarkable that development institutions are paying so little attention to strategies that can strengthen ownership.

In fact, institutions and practitioners who favour participatory communication approaches continue to have to fight for equitable distribution of budget funds, adequate training and staffing, and support to gather evidence and evaluate impact.

While most organizations say they endorse participatory communication and communication for social change principles, their actual practice often contradicts their assertions. Development assistance communication budgets continue to reward communication approaches that are message-driven, short term and top down. Encouraging public discourse and engaging affected people in decision-making about their own futures are still too rarely a top priority in development budgets.

Committed to the premise that communication is essential to poverty alleviation, the Communication for Social Change Consortium, with the support of the UK's Department for International Development, sponsored a symposium in November 2004 to address these critical issues. Held at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Study and Conference Centre on Lake Como, Italy, representatives from major bilateral donors and multilateral organisations addressed the topic "Communication and Poverty Reduction: Utilizing Communication Effectively to Accelerate Progress on the Millennium Development Goals."¯

The participants addressed three questions: What role for donor organisations does communication, and particularly social change communication, have in meeting the Millennium Development Goals? How can greater resources be mobilised for it? And what are the strategies that these organisations deploy in supporting such efforts?

Participants were from major bilateral agencies, including the UK Department for International Development, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United States Agency for International Development, the Swiss Development Cooperation agency and the Finland Ministry of Foreign Affairs; from UN organisations such as UNICEF, the Food and Agricultural Organization and UNESCO, as well as from communication NGOs working in developing countries.

In an initial mapping exercise, participants outlined the strategic thinking and action on communication in support of the Millennium Development Goals. A series of distinct common trends was, while not universal, clearly dominant.

These were:
  • Almost all bilateral agencies are increasingly orienting their work around the MDGs, and working increasingly with other donors to implement PRSPs and other strategies to support the MDGs.
  • Almost all bilateral agencies are rapidly decentralising their operations and capabilities to bring their spending and staff as close to country level operations as possible. Increasingly, spending was being invested in budget support to countries in support of the government's own budgetary priorities and through sector-wide approaches.
  • In this environment, institutional strategic thinking on issues such as communication and development has been substantially lessened with staff, budgets and knowledge sharing on communication substantially weakened;
  • The funds to invest in creative communication initiatives at a country level have increased, but the capacity to understand a series of common trends and ensure that mistakes so common in communication programming were not repeated again and again, is weak.
  • Many multilateral organisations had similarly suffered a weakening in a core capacity and strategic competence in communication.
This meeting marked a key acknowledgment that greater prioritisation of communication programming is essential to meeting the MDGs. But participants also recognized just how difficult this work is. The group produced an action plan that included commitments to gather evidence of the impact of communication, and each committed to the statement of support included below.

It is one of the best of times in development assistance against a backdrop of the worst of times for much of humanity. The extent to which the efforts and energy of 2005 herald wisdom over foolishness, belief over incredulity, light over darkness and hope over despair rest on current development strategies being rooted in a far stronger environment where people most affected by development can be heard. This is a central development challenge of the century, and the central challenge of all of us in the communication community.

Statement on the Role of Communication in Meeting the Millennium Development Goals

November 8 - 11, 2004
In 2000, the world committed to the Millennium Declaration, and to meeting eight Millennium Development Goals by 2015. In 2004, prospects for achieving these goals are already in doubt.

To a large degree, success in achieving them rests on participation and ownership. Communication is fundamental to helping people change the societies in which they live, particularly communication strategies which both inform and amplify the voices of those with most at stake and which address the structural impediments to achieving these goals. However, such strategies remain a low priority on development agendas, undermining achievement of the MDGs.

For example:
  • The principal strategy for meeting the primary MDG of halving poverty by 2015 is the implementation of poverty reduction strategies. Despite an emphasis in the PRSP process on participation, poor public understanding, limited public debate and low levels of country ownership threaten successful implementation of this strategy. Similar problems threaten sector wide approaches and budget support programmes.
  • The goal of halving extreme poverty and hunger by 2015 will not be met unless rural poverty is addressed. Knowledge, communication and participation are essential to this process. Rural people need to be able to collectively identify and articulate their aspirations, to analyse the options available from rural service providers and to take action. Rural service providers face obstacles to engaging with rural people to identify their priorities and options, as well as to support the articulation of these issues to policy makers. Development agencies and international donors need information about rural poverty for policy development and implementation. Inclusive communication strategies can facilitate the participation and sharing of knowledge between these various stakeholders.
  • The goal of containing HIV/AIDS by 2015, and allied efforts to increase access to anti retroviral drugs, will not be reached unless more priority is given to communication. Successful HIV/AIDS strategies depend on communication to help people construct a social environment in which behaviour change becomes possible. Through dialogue and discussion, they can convert stigma to support. Where less than 10% of people know their HIV status, communication is needed to ensure that ARVs reach and benefit those who need them. Strategies which place the voices of those affected by HIV/AIDS at the core are essential to effect community based demand for prevention and treatment.
  • The goal of reducing child mortality is challenged by increasing, rather than decreasing child mortality rates. The global effort to eliminate polio, for example, has been undermined by anti immunization campaigns. Communication strategies that engage dialogue on the issues are critical to successful responses to this challenge. The development of new vaccines is likely to face a similar challenge, rooted in distrust, poor public understanding and lack of public debate if not introduced with appropriate communication.
  • High priority on the Development Cooperation agenda is given to enhancing democracy, enlarging participation and strengthening of human rights for poor people. To reach this goal the importance of a two way development communication where the poor populations are given possibilities to share information and have a channel to voice their needs cannot be overestimated.
Several development agencies are reconsidering and reprioritising communication strategies in response to these and many similar challenges. A Communication for Development Congress, initiated by the World Bank, is planned in 2005. At the same time, communication strategies in many development agencies are fragile, fragmented and unstrategic.

New strategic thinking around meeting the MDGs is now taking place, and communication should be central to this thinking.


In this context, effective communication can no longer be seen as information dissemination alone. If communication practitioners create and nurture forums for public discussion, they can build support for the MDGs and produce social energy to achieve them. Communication is a two-way process rooted in principles of ownership, participation and voice. These principles were reaffirmed at the United Nations' Roundtable on Communication for Development held in Rome, Italy in 2004.

The changing and complex information and communication environment reinforces this emphasis and creates new communication opportunities, especially if information and communication technologies are used to support people-centred development. Attempts to achieve the MDGs should be based on core principles of development thinking, such as equity, gender sensitivity, inclusion, and cultural sensitivity. Such principles must be reflected in funding and practice of the communication strategies used by development agencies to meet the MDGs.

Agencies represented were:

Communication for Social Change Consortium, Department for International Development, UK, Food and Agriculture Organization, FEMNET, Finnish Development Cooperation Agency, Netherlands Foreign Ministry, International Fund for Agricultural Development, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, UNESCO, UNICEF, US Mission to the UN (Rome), US Agency for International Development (USAID), World Bank, World Bank Institute

This statement was developed by representatives from these agencies but has not been subject to formal approval processes and should not necessarily be taken to reflect the official policy of each of these agencies .

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