MAZI Articles

Looking into the Eyes of Those We Serve: Reflections on Future Challenges
Message from Denise Gray-Felder

We are entering our sixth year as the Communication for Social Change Consortium. It is a time of expansion, with our opening the Consortium’s European office in London. We welcome new board members Nick Ishmael Perkins, who’s at the Institute of Development Studies in the United Kingdom and Dilip Cherian, chairman of Perfect Relations in India.

It is also a time of serious reflection and for meeting new challenges.

Much of our work continues to be focused on such persistent problems as childhood immunization, education for all and AIDS. As we enter the discourse and communication problem solving about social issues, we often view them through lenses different from those used in the past.

Since our inception in 1997, when we were a special grants programme of the Rockefeller Foundation, we asked the tougher questions, demanded communication accountability to the people affected by development initiatives and argued for expanded ways of thinking about the power and influence of communication for development. It has been a tough uphill battle to change entrenched practice and minds. But we’re doing it.

It is tremendously gratifying to see the convergence of our passion, advocacy and persuasion with the realities of trying to move social issues forward in ways that truly make a real, concrete difference. Early on, we thought we had to defend our advocacy for “human rights oriented, people-centred communication” against the conventional approach, which argued for “instructive, directive, expert-driven communication.” We deliberately took on a “broadening the debate” mission in which—thanks to our earliest supporters, such as Alan Alda, Sushmita Ghosh, John Perry Barlow, Palagummi Sainath and Muhammad Yunus—we had the courage to see the possibilities an expanded form of communication for development can bring. For example, we have moved from the possibility that we can listen to voices of people previously unheard to the certainty that we cannot operate in development without substantive, ongoing dialogue with the people most affected by social problems.

Armed with the courage to stay focused on the people most likely to benefit from open and inclusive dialogue —people living in poverty or on the margins of societies—our approach enters its second decade committed more than ever to communication for social change. We like to think of it as “our life of looking into their eyes.”

When I entered the communication field in the late 1970s as a young journalist, I did not realize the importance of looking into my interview subjects’ eyes. I had yet to learn people communicate so much through glances, averted gazes or outright staring. I remember telling my editor one afternoon that I believed the person I had interviewed was not telling the truth. My editor’s advice: “Check out the eyes.”

Several years later, when speechwriting for a major multinational corporation, my boss would counsel me: “It’s the stories that make the speech. You want the listener to see what the person giving the speech has seen.”

By that time, I better understood the power of really reaching inside a person to find the universal human dimensions in each of us when communicating with them.

So it is, now, that we at the Consortium spend so much time thinking and working on the area of convergence: the point where communication theory, good practice, solid skills and strong professionalism align with social values, public attitudes, belief systems and cultural norms. Bringing together the practical focus with those factors that move most of us, as human beings, to believe what we believe and to do what we do.

Few issues highlight the need for convergence more than AIDS. Few communicators today will even try to argue solely for information and education as the most effective means of preventing HIV and for treating or caring for AIDS patients. AIDS as a social issue cuts to the complexity of development: When we communicate, we must get to the essence of what people believe about sexuality, power within relationships, gender equity, the role and value of women and youth in societies, intergenerational relationships, their level of trust of their countries’ health systems and the people running them, to name just a few.

There are many social drivers of the AIDS pandemic, be they economic, political, social, environmental or structural within governments. How each is understood and what can be done to influence commonly held social norms are critical communication challenges.

The Consortium is honoured to be leading the communication working group for aids2031, a global and interdisciplinary collaboration of people and institutions who have come together to consider how best to respond to AIDS in a changing world environment. This work gives the Consortium a wonderful opportunity to test the assumptions of communication for social change as well as to help bring about the convergence of our vision with community-based realities. Among some of the questions the aids2031 initiative is asking and researching:

  1. What are the major concerns about managing AIDS communication today and tomorrow among key groups: young people, high risk groups, people in cities, people living in poverty?
  2. What should governments (local, regional or national) and community leaders do to use communication (interpersonal) and communication technology?
  3. Is AIDS still on the radar screen of the general populace? If not, why not?
  4. Is AIDS perceived as primarily a medical or a social problem among youth, high-risk groups, people in cities, people living in poverty?
  5. How can we engage communities in collective planning for the communication challenges ahead, including ways to catalyse shifts in social norms and expectations?

A large part of the aids2031 success will depend on our ability to spark meaningful discourse that can lead to new questions being asked and new voices being heard. Among the areas we suspect are of critical concern: Where will leadership for AIDS in the future come from? Can poorer countries sustain the impact on individual villages, communities, districts and provinces for the long term? How has AIDS shifted the dominant cultural beliefs and social norms about being young or being a woman?

Along with others on the aids2031 steering committee, the Consortium will engage in a number of community dialogues and larger public conversations in several regions of the world this year and next. We also will be soliciting input to the key inquiries online through our Web site e and through the aids2031 Web site. We also hope to use video, community radio and mobile telephony to catalyse and document dialogue on the key questions.

The first public conversation in the United States will take place March 11 in San Francisco, a city that’s historically significant to the AIDS pandemic. Future conversations will take place in southern and Western Africa, Latin America and Asia, as well as in connection with the August 2008 International AIDS Conference.

On another front, in three African countries and two Asian countries (Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Laos and Nepal) the Consortium is looking at the convergence of communication and information systems and how they can influence governments to be more accountable. This issue of Mazi includes a story by Birgitte Jallov about our partnership with UNDP Oslo Governance Centre on Communication for Empowerment. Early results suggest that communities that are better equipped to use communication systems and processes are in a better position to take needed social changes into their own hands. They embrace access to reliable information and seek channels for dialogue and debate. Such acceptance of communication processes can be at the centre of their understanding of themselves, their families and their communities. It also makes them more effective advocates for accountable government and democratic principles. Perhaps people living in such communities have come to realize the power of “looking into the eyes” of their elected and appointed officials.

And, elsewhere in Africa, in Nigeria, our communication work on polio immunization continues with John Snow International. After years of trying virtually all communication approaches in the northern part of this country, a focus on community dialogues still remains a priority approach among many communication players in the region. Nigerians have accepted the power of face-to-face interpersonal communication especially in an era when the new national government is trying to turn around the national psyche and alter expectations about government and government service. It feels like a somewhat different country: Average citizens from the north and the south say that repositioning the country in the world’s eyes is not only possible: It’s essential. Staring down the debilitating effects of corruption, poor parents in the north are beginning to ask themselves and their local officials: “Is right to vaccinate our children with polio only because we get vitamins or pain killers or bed nets in return?” One goal of our work in Nigeria is to strengthen the ability of high polio risk communities to conduct dialogues and to measure their impact on immunization uptake. And to plant the seeds for enhanced community and individual parental responsibility for vaccinating children.

Despite the good feelings I get as I reflect on the Consortium’s first five years as an independent organization, there is no question that the challenges ahead for us as an organization, and for our field of communication for development, remain daunting. We have moved beyond being advocates. We are not doers. We have moved beyond theory to improved practice—and then beyond improved practice to new means of capturing and assessing impact. We see more clearly ways to bring together assumptions with local knowledge. We realize the need to systematize and create standards of training, performance and measurement, and we are committed to leading in these areas as well. Our networks of practitioners and universities must become even wider and grow in impact, as must our ability to engage grassroots networks of people in poor communities. As we look to the South, those of us living in the North can never forget that people living in poverty in our own neighbourhoods, right outside our doors, have a need and appreciation for communication for social change just as great as those across the globe. .

So, as we look deep into our future for the coming 5, 10 or 15 years, we likely will see a future dominated by a convergence of ideas with ideals, possibility with pragmatism, and scientific systems with culture.

Editor’s note: To share your opinions, ideas and concerns about aids2031 communication, please visit Consortium Dialogues on the CFSC Consortium website:

Click here to return to MAZI 14