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.
- 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.
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.
November 8 - 11, 2004
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.
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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