The 10th U.N. Interagency Round Table on communication for Development: A CFSC Consortium Perspective
by James Deane
Some issues in communication stir the imagination and spark inspiration.
The role of community radio in Nepal in helping to mobilise 4 million of the poorest people on the planet in peaceful protest, thus ensuring a transition from monarchical dictatorship to democratic government comes to mind.
The thrilling stories of survival, loss, love and struggle that underpin the Soul City series in South Africa, stories that inspire fundamental changes in social attitudes and behaviours is another.
The experience of journalists"”often hopelessly poorly paid and risking their lives"”investigating, probing and revealing corruption and malfeasance in so many countries of the world is yet another.
These and a thousand other stories provide the incentive to work and engage in this field. The Communication for Development Round Table, 2007, which took place in Addis Ababa February 12-14, does not fall easily into this category. Rather, it falls into that immense domain so characteristic of much of the development system, of being a little boring, deeply worthy but perhaps"”at least in this instance"”really quite important.
The title"”the 10th U.N. Inter-Agency Round Table on Communication for Development"”is dull enough, but its theme, "developing a U.N. system-wide common approach to communication for development in view of achieving the Millennium Development Goals,"¯ is destined to calm the most fevered brow.
Its conclusion, however, may be one of the more important of recent developments to ensure that communication for development issues will become priorities within the development system.
The U.N. Communication Round Table takes place every two years. It should collectively advance communication for development issues within"”and sometimes beyond"”the U.N. system. It is officially sanctioned by, and reports to, the U.N. General Assembly.
This Round Table took place less than six months after the World Congress on Communication for Development, a gathering of more than 700 people. Partly because of this, the host of the Round Table, UNESCO, decided to keep the meeting small, restricted its attendance principally to U.N. organisations, and focused its agenda on a set of specific, concrete issues around how the U.N. and wider development system coordinates, organises and prioritises communication for development.
This is interesting perhaps for the U.N. organisations concerned, but some explanation is required to relate this to the vast majority of organisations working in this field. Ultimately, the issue comes down to one of resources and influence. The stark reality is that without some kind of initiative of the kind discussed at the Round Table, funding and prioritisation of communication for development activities will become even further marginalised than they already are.
The reason: a series of major structural reforms of the international development assistance system, reforms that may profoundly affect support for communication for development activities.
The Round Table takes place against a background of unprecedented consensus in development policy. This consensus is rooted in the Millennium Declaration, which established the Millennium Development Goals, and the Monterrey Consensus on Financing for Development in 2002, which began to increase resources for development and which was re-emphasized by the Gleneagles G-8 Summit (2005).
Underpinning this strategy is a major push for ensuring that development assistance becomes increasingly coherent, aligned and harmonized. In March 2005, more than 100 donors, international agencies and developing country governments met in Paris and agreed to implement the Paris Declaration on Aid Harmonisation and Effectiveness.
This declaration commits all actors to abide by key principles--ownership, alignment, harmonisation, managing for results and mutual accountability"”and committing donors to channelling support through countries' own institutions and procedures. The declaration was made against a background of rapidly increasing aid flows, from around $60 billon a year through the 1990s to $100 billion in 2005 and a projected $130 billion by 2010. The vast majority"”and probably an increasing proportion"”of this funding is likely to be determined and spent through country planning systems.
The Paris Declaration has been followed by the publication in November 2006 of the report of the High Level Panel on U.N. System-Wide Coherence, Delivering as One. The report focuses heavily on how the U.N. is and should be organised at country level and males important recommendations for strengthening development coordination. It recommends the establishment of unified U.N. country teams with one leader, one programme and one budgetary framework; and that this "One U.N."¯ should be based on a consolidation of all of the UN's programme activities.
The extent to which all these recommendations become reality remains to be seen, but the trend in international development is clear. Increased resources are to be available to be prioritised by governments and their development partners at country level. Funding will be spent strategically through increasingly coherent and coordinated development assistance, which will be allocated according to the country's own strategic priorities. These priorities will be determined through a set of centralised planning systems.
So far, so good.
Most people in the development system agree that development assistance has been too fragmented and uncoordinated in the past and has been allocated too often according to donor priorities rather than those of the country concerned.
The challenge for communication for development"”and perhaps for wider civil society activities"”is that only those activities identified through national strategic planning processes are likely to receive support by development assistance in the future. Given that such activities are currently not well prioritised, this presents a major challenge.
The challenge is exacerbated by a series of issues specific to communication for development. These start with a lack of common understanding among most development professionals about what the term "communication for development"¯ means. Most still take it to imply external and public relations and advocacy activities. The Addis Round Table reconfirmed definitions of communication for development adopted at previous round tables, by the U.N. General Assembly and at the World Congress on Communication for Development, all of which stress a definition of communication that enables people, particularly vulnerable groups, to participate in shaping decisions that affect their lives.
There are other challenges facing the inclusion of communication in national level strategic planning processes. Most development funding, for example, and virtually all bilateral and multilateral agencies, work through developing country governments. Most communication for development activities, particularly in the media field, need to operate independently from governments. This presents major and arguably increasing challenges of how such activities can be prioritized in development action. The need for many communication and media for development activities to maintain a distance and capacity to criticize and hold governments to account can present real challenges to development organizations.
The 10th Round Table took some important first steps to prioritising communication for development within national development strategies and planning systems. Two recommendations in particular stand out.
The first is to develop better systems for ensuring that the U.N. resident coordinator system takes greater responsibility for ensuring coherence of communication for development issues at country level. The second is to work to influence current systems used by the U.N. "“ particularly the Common Country Assessment and the U.N. Development Assistance Framework"”to incorporate communication for development issues.
While not, perhaps, a set of earth-shattering conclusions, they do provide part of the answer to addressing the current marginalisation of communication for development in development planning. The bottom line is that unless the mainstream development system starts to ask questions regarding basic communication for development in assessing the nature of development problems, it will never identify communication for development as a critical component of the solution to those problems.
Questions as simple as: "To what extent do vulnerable groups have access to information on issues that shape and affect their lives? And: "To what extent do they have the capacity to articulate and feed their perspectives into debates that shape the decisions that affect their lives?"¯
These questions are not mainstreamed within the development system. It is largely because of this that communication for development is not identified as being a major priority for addressing fundamental development problems. As development systems become ever more integrated, coherent and coordinated, the room for supporting actions outside the mainstream system become more limited.
The Communication for Social Change Consortium has been working with UNDP to develop a series of information and communication needs assessments, or information and communication audits. These have so far focused principally on media strategies, and were developed as part of a practical guidance note for the UNDP Oslo Governance Centre. These are now being piloted with the support of the U.N. Democracy Fund. These, in combination with other broader needs assessment processes, are a potentially important way forward in integrating communication for development concerns into mainstream strategies. They are to be piloted in six countries.
So, the main agenda discussions of the Addis Round Table were not perhaps the most fascinating or compelling to occur on the issue of communication for development. But if anyone was in need of a wake-up call, this may have been it: Unless ways are found of seriously implementing the Round Table's recommendations, resources for this field could be in serious trouble. The Round Table took at least some initial steps towards addressing that issue.
Details of the Communication for Social Change Consortium's work with UNDP on Communication for Empowerment and information and communication audits can be found on the Consortium's Web site.