MAZI Articles

The Babel Challenge

What made the World Congress of Communication for Development (WCCD), held in Rome this past October, so unique? Alfonso Gumucio Dagron, the Consortium's managing director of programmes offers his opinions.

The World Congress of Communication for Development (WCCD), which took place this past October, in Rome, at FAO headquarters, was unique. I've attended, during the past two decades, countless international conferences on communication, but this one was different: It was organized by the World Bank, FAO and the Communication Initiative, institutions of very different nature that have little in common in their approach to development. Among the 700 participants, there were officials from governments and from international development organizations, from NGOs and communication networks, from every single region in the world. One, among many, challenges of the WCCD was how to avoid being a type of Tower of Babel, with each delegate speaking his/her own language and ideas without caring about what others were saying.

The experience of earlier gatherings was not encouraging. The two summits of the so-called information society held in Geneva (2003) and Tunis (2005) left a taste of frustration when governments and multilateral agencies decided to focus the discussions on new technologies, leaving out the issue of communication rights [1]. The meetings of the Roundtable of Communication for Development, which every two years gathers United Nations agencies, international foundations and networks working on this theme, have been by far more constructive. In fact this first World Congress on Communication for Development no doubt built upon these previous roundtables.

The congress in Rome was preceded by shadows and uncertainty, in part due to the conflicting interests of the three sponsoring organisations.

Meanwhile, the international communication for development community hoped that the congress would shatter, once and for all, barriers of misunderstanding, especially those concerning communication for development and which approaches are dominant within the large aid agencies.

I have to say it in plain words: The communication model still dominant in most of the international development and cooperation agencies, both bilateral and multilateral, is vertical. It focuses much of the time on how to gain visibility for the organisations.

There are exceptions: UNESCO, as well as FAO, have contributed with important reflections on communication for development and have supported concrete programmes in developing countries. In spite of institutional changes, FAO has maintained the direction inspired by Colin Fraser and Silvia Balit in the 1970s. The record of other multilateral and bilateral agencies is less admirable: For most, communication has never been a real priority.

The ignorance about communication that persists within development organisations is one of the factors that contributes to the stagnation and backward movement in recent years. It was pointed by out by Colin Fraser himself during one of the WCCD plenary sessions"”I am paraphrasing here"”"Now everybody seems to confuse communication with advertising, marketing or anything else. Twenty years ago we knew the differences."¯ And he is right. The first confusion is between communication and information. Many development agencies invest in information activities, but not in communication; they prioritise the diffusion of messages through mass media instead of participatory communication processes that allow communities to appropriate communication as a right. Unfortunately the principles of communication for social change, based on dialogue and participation, are not well understood by most of the larger development agencies.

Which is why it was a risky bet to meet in Rome and prompt the dialogue between old- fashioned development officials, who conceive development purely in economic and vertical terms, and activists and promoters of a different approach to communication: another communication for another development? Within organisations such as the World Bank and even FAO, deep conceptual differences still exist that became apparent during the WCCD and earlier, when it was being planned. There are bureaucrats within the World Bank who do not want to hear the word "participation,"¯ in spite of the fact that James Wolfensohn himself, the former president of the World Bank, made participation a priority. There are, on the other hand, some progressive World Bank officials trying to change the organisation from within, supporting communication for social change and participatory approaches, such as community radio. Similar differences of opinion can be found within FAO, in spite of this organisation's leading role in the past.

The presence of the Communication Initiative among the organizers of the WCCD was an element of balance and openness. This virtual organization is responsible for the most important Web site on communication for development in the world, with thousands of pages on experiences, theory, debate and specialised information on health, environment, children, human rights, etc. As a place to meet for dialogue among all communicators for development, the CI's contributions to reflection are central.

The three days of the conference suggested that some ground has been gained. To start, the list of 700 guests and participants showed that "“unlike other international conferences, at which governments, development and civil society organisations compete for visibility"”what we had was a balanced participation from all regions in the world, with a great diversity of organisations and, above all, with a wide range of points of view. Certainly, the purpose was not to gather all those already converted, to congratulate ourselves, as we usually do in our monothematic meetings, but to favour dialogue and debate among those who do not think alike.

Within the meeting, there was plenty of room for dialogue and debate, although some plenary sessions"”such as the live BBC transmission"”left many unsatisfied. This media "showcase"¯ seemed only to provide a higher public profile to the congress, so that the discussions within the walls of FAO would reach an international audience. I was not the only one irritated by this session: Substantive discussion of communication for development was pushed aside by a televised journalistic approach to "freedom of expression."¯ It was a show that, except for Kumi Naidoo's interventions, did not reflect well what the Congress was about, or even cover the three main conference themes: governance, sustainable development and health.

The CFSC Consortium used the time well, however. We debuted the Communication for Social Change Anthology: Historical and Contemporary Readings, a two-volume edition bound as one, which I edited with Thomas Tufte. We also premiered the video documentary "Voices from the Magdalena: Communication for Peace,"¯ produced by Amparo Cadavid and directed by me.

Despite what I've observed so far, the WCCD had a positive outcome.

First, the concept of communication for social change gained more attention on development agendas. For the first time, decision makers and officials from development organisations had the opportunity to have dialogue around communication approaches that are different from what they are used to. More people with the World Bank see the value of democratic participation in development, and the role of communication as an essential tool. Though often recommendations from international events remain no more than a salute to the flag, it is possible that changes take place if the final document is promoted as a tool for accountability. Those in FAO who keep alive the principles of communication for development and promote the voices of those whose voices are not heard also saw their position strengthened throughout the Congress.

For the Communication Initiative the WCCD was a kind of baptism by fire, a successful conversion: Until now a virtual organisation, with no other face than the computer screen, the Communication Initiative suddenly became a real organisation, with undeniable influence in the development world and the capacity to facilitate the dialogue among the larger players and decision makers.

For the rest of us, including communication activists and scholars of participatory communication approaches and for our organisations, networks and universities, the WCCD also had a positive result because it legitimated our work and helped to position us as key actors in development. Besides, the three-day congress was an opportunity to meet or to meet again, to exchange ideas and continue designing the communication strategy that, we hope, will make the difference between development without participation and development as a process where people appropriate their future and their communication.

The final recommendations of the WCCD certainly prove that some ground was gained. They clearly mention the need for development agencies and governments to review their position on communication as a factor of sustainable development and to consider participatory approaches. Governments and development organisations are called to equip themselves with communication policies and strategies --other than information and institutional visibility activities"”as an integral part of their programmes. They are encouraged to prove their genuine interest in communication for development by hiring specialised staff with strategic vision to higher posts. Finally, the recommendations mention the need to allocate more money to communication for development budgets, so that communication is not just a symbolic addition to ongoing activities. The very last lines of the recommendations underline that processes have to put in the centre of the right to communicate, a fundamental step forward from previous declarations, which mention only "access to information."¯

This Congress was not a gathering of those already convinced, but it was a dialogue opening new doors to communication policies and strategies based on participatory approaches. I think that this was achieved.

[1] Gumucio, A,. "From the Summit to the People,"¯

Click here to return to Mazi 9