I decided to postpone the second blog on the ten key issues about (development) communication in favor of an issue that emerged during the XI United Nations Round Table (UNRT) on Communication for Development (C4D). The UN Round Tables began in 1988 as an inter-agency ‘professional consultation mechanism on communication for development.’ During the early stages, this event was restricted to a few actors, but it gradually opened up to broader participation, even outside the UN system.
The XI Round Table on C4D took place in Washington DC on March 11 – 13, 2009 and was hosted at the World Bank by the Development Communication Division, in partnership with UNDP, through the Oslo Governance Center. The overarching theme of this event was the mainstreaming of C4D in development policies and practices in the UN system (and possibly also in the broader setting). Two issues were identified as key in this respect: 1) developing and/or enhancing a common framework to monitor and evaluate the impact of communication in a rigorous manner, and 2) promoting the institutionalization of C4D in UN agencies through a number of strategic actions.
Without going into too many details on the work and the deliberations of the XI Round Table, I would like to reflect on the overall tone and focus of this event. First let me mention that not only have I been directly involved in four of these Round Tables, but I have also been following and studying them extensively as part of my dissertation research. Their development seems to closely resemble my own professional path, since they have been increasingly shifting their focus from communication products to communication processes, and from one-way persuasion to two-way participation.
My career started in the field of mass communications, working for a major Italian public television network. Next I was hired by a major corporation to develop learning programs through media and advanced information technologies. As time went by, I became increasingly aware of the limitation of media in changing behaviors. But the real change of heart occurred when I got my first international assignment and I was posted in the Middle East, working mostly in West Bank and the Gaza Strip. At that point I went through what can be labeled a ‘cognitive dissonance’ process. I soon realized that many of the theories I studied and the beliefs I held on media and information technologies were clashing with the reality I encountered in my daily work.
I realized that media had seldom, if ever, the capacity to change people’s attitudes and behaviors, unless there was already an ‘enabling environment.’ While working in that situation of open conflict and mistrust, I realized that the only way to create that enabling environment was to find ways to use communication to build trust among different stakeholders, to assess the situation and to seek a broad consensus towards best course of actions. Of course, this is easier said than done, but in my experience, it is also the only way to achieve sustainable results.
It was extremely rewarding to hear so many representatives at the UNRT emphasizing that the focus of communication at country level should be to ensure country ownership, and at local level facilitate stakeholders’ participation, empowerment and transparency. There was a broad consensus among participants of the Round Table that even while keeping the focus on results, C4D should place an equal emphasis on the process. Real sustainable change can only happen when every major player is part of the decision-making process leading to that change, and the only way to make that happen is to use two-way communication to open up public spaces for dialogue where to confront ideas, explore options and decide on best course of action.
This is why the core conception of C4D needs to be broadened, moving beyond the common vision of messages, media and linear persuasion, towards the adoption of dialogic communication methods and tools to promote change in partnership with local stakeholders. Even when striving for short-term results, C4D should be about giving voice to the voiceless and facilitating the empowerment of people, especially the marginalized ones. C4D is not only about knowledge and skills, but it is also about commitment and, as one of the UNRT participants put it, ‘the dignity of how we work.’
Photo Credit: Flickr user star5112