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CFSC Analysis and Opinion: Understanding the Mission of the Partnership for Communication in Africa by Peter daCosta

Peter daCosta, a communication for development consultant, argues that the scope and creativity of today's communication initiatives in Africa give reason for optimism. He argues, though, that, practitioners must take advantage of this historic opportunity"”or they risk not being taken seriously.


The environment in which communication for development today is practiced in Africa is changing fast. Throughout the continent space continues to open up for Africans to engage around issues that affect them. As media pluralism spreads, old technologies are juxtaposed with new, as the exponential growth of the Internet, mobile phones and other information and communication technologies helps usher in a more inclusive communication paradigm. The sheer scope and creativity of today's communication initiatives, building on decades of practice, must be seen to be believed.

Nevertheless, despite the multiplicity of communication for development-related initiatives under way in African countries and years of innovative practice, what remains absent is a coherent program of support in Africa to develop and consolidate the field further. In large part, this situation results from a lack of understanding of how communication can help ensure stronger development impact. This is a serious concern, for which we as practitioners must take much of the responsibility. We have not been able to tell a compelling story that shows how communication can help fight poverty and bring about social change. Part of the problem is that it is a broad approach with many different disciplines, and thus difficult to nail down. But all in all, we have buried our heads in the sand, hoping that some day people will "get it."¯

But not all of the blame lies with us. One would expect the development industry, after several decades of mixed results and wasted resources, to have woken up and smelled the coffee. After all, progressive development agencies in a number of Northern countries have, to differing degrees in different aspects, supported communication for development and seen their small investments reap dividends. Many of today's communication and media support nongovernmental organisations founded in 1970s, 1980s and 1990s have benefited from such enlightened support. Today, communication, never well understood, is fast dropping off the development agenda, even as the aid industry has realized that in a world where results matter, and where experience has shown that development will happen only if its primary beneficiaries are in the driver's seat, new ways must be found to improve development effectiveness.

In all this, communication support organizations in Africa and beyond are hoping that last year's unprecedented interest in African development"”demonstrated in the United Kingdom by the launch of the Commission for Africa Report, the G8 Gleneagles Summit and Live8"”will lead to greater understanding in the development industry as to the centrality of communication in achieving development effectiveness. Depending on how you look at the outcomes of 2005, there is much to celebrate: the pledges to double aid towards meeting the 2015 Millennium Development targets; the cancellation of debts owed by many of the world's poorest countries; the promise, however paper-thin, to give developing countries a chance to trade their way out of poverty; and the promise by rich countries to be more coherent in their prosecution of the aid relationship and to allow more space for Africa to "own"¯ its own development. All this was long overdue.

For communicators, the biggest 2005 dividend of all came from the Commission for Africa, set up by United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair to undertake fresh thinking and give new impetus to African development. The Commission's report, launched on March 11, 2005, won applause when it identified the media in Africa as a key agent of good governance, highlighted the role of information technology in moving Africa forward and called for the creation of an Africa Media Development Facility. This created a considerable buzz among African and United Kingdom-based support organizations, which see the report as providing an important window of opportunity for renewed and sustained engagement on communication for development in Africa.

A number of initiatives have emerged since the Commission for Africa Report was published, all of which speak to a new momentum behind communication for development, in all its different manifestations, in Africa.

In May 2005, the BBC World Service Trust ( WST), a key United Kingdom player in media development and development communication whose proposal for an African Media Development Fund made it into the final Commission for Africa Report, hosted, together with the Communication Initiative, a meeting of diverse stakeholders to discuss how, building on the momentum brought about by the report, things could be taken to a new level. The meeting reflected precisely why we as communicators find it hard to convince others: a multiplicity of institutions and agendas and a general lack of clarity as to what should happen next. Nevertheless, the strong attendance at the WST/CI-convened meeting demonstrated the high level of interest among UK-based organizations in taking communication for development forward.

In September 2005, a number of organizations who participated in the earlier meeting formed a Partnership for Communication in Africa (PCA), an informal network whose objective was to try to do what we as communicators had failed to do thus far"”put forward a strong and easily understood argument as to why communication should be taken more seriously as a means of delivering development. Members of the network also felt strongly that UK-based organizations should support, rather than seek to lead, any new initiatives in and on Africa, and saw the second PCA objective as ""¦ support[ing] a genuinely African driven process for identifying and implementing information and communication strategies in Africa."¯ The Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD), which took place in Amman, Jordan, in October 2005, also added to the sense of urgency that inspired the formation of the PCA.

The PCA's first act was to unify the discipline by developing a draft Platform for Action encompassing all the various aspects of communication for development, including media development, communication in support of sectoral development objectives such as health, information and communication technologies, rights and enabling environment. Recognizing that participation by Africans and their ownership of the development process as an emerging reality, the Platform seeks to ""¦ encourage donors, African governments and development actors to prioritise information and communication for development (ICD) in their work and provide sufficient resources to ensure that they contribute effectively in meeting the MDGs."¯ That is, the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals."¯

Arguing that any new strategic framework must draw on existing treatises, including the African Charter on broadcasting, the Declaration on Freedom of Expression of the African Commission on Human and People's Rights, and the World Summit on the Information Society, the Platform calls for investment in the following elements of communication for development: reform and improvement of the communication regulatory environment; investment in ICD (information and communication for development) facilities, infrastructure and processes; and building skills and capacity for public interest communications and ICD content. While implementation of any strategic framework developed would happen mainly at country level, regional and sub-regional initiatives would also add value.

At least 15 organizations have signed on to the draft Platform so far"”among them the Panos Institute ( London), Communication for Social Change Consortium, AMARC, Internews Europe, Healthlink, BBC WST, Television Trust for the Environment and FEMNET Africa. Other organizations supportive of the process include Oneworld, the Reuters Foundation, the Commonwealth Press Union, the Association of Progressive Communication and Media for Development. New organizations continue to declare an interest in signing up to the PCA Platform.

Critically, and in line with the founding principle of African ownership, the Platform proposes the establishment of an ICD Task Force, led by Africans, to develop further the strategic framework through a multi-stakeholder consultation process leading to ""¦ a clear and comprehensive strategy for investment in ICD in Africa, with a timeline, including financial commitments."¯ The idea is for the Task Force to be high-level and to include representatives of governments, the private sector and civil society organizations. United Kingdom-based NGOs working in ICD are exhorted to ""¦ keep up the pressure on governments not only to deliver additional investment, but to do so strategically, untied to trade and responsive to African strategies."¯

Now, a fresh new initiative initiated by the U.K.'s Department for International Development (DfID) and building on these efforts, looks set to provide the basis for African communication for development actors to assert their priorities. DfID, keen to ensure that the Commission for Africa Report results in concrete initiatives that will strengthen Africa's media as an agent of good governance, has asked the Economic Commission for Africa ( ECA), to facilitate a process of consultation among African stakeholders and their Northern counterparts. The idea is to build a strong repository of ongoing and planned initiatives and develop a strategic proposal for the way forward that DfID and other donor agencies can consider supporting in a coherent and sustained way.

In addition to providing a platform for stakeholders to discuss the PCA draft Platform, the Africa consultation process, due to start in March 2006 and end with a stakeholder conference, will provide a platform for a number of exciting ICD initiatives"”among them the BBC World Service Trust's efforts to lay the groundwork for an African Media Development Facility (AMDF).

The key here is effective partnership. Unless organizations set aside their institutional agendas and grasp the historic opportunity that 2006 affords us to take communication for development to a new level in Africa, no one in the development industry will take us the least bit seriously.

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