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A Major Challenge in Good Governance: The End of Communication as We Know It (Part I)

Paolo Mefalopulos's picture

The reason I chose such a title is due to the difficulty of mainstreaming (i.e., understanding and institutionalizing) the emerging conception of communication in development required to support and address the challenges in the current process of democratization, especially when dealing with governance issues. It has been difficult to transform into reality what Rogers in 1976 had saluted as the passing of the dominant paradigm – that is, abandoning the linear, top-down communication model with pre-defined objectives and messages to persuade individuals to change, and substitute it with a more horizontal, open-ended one to engage individuals in defining change and act on it.

If good governance is largely about strengthening citizens' voices on the demand side, which in turn will also help enhance accountability and transparency on the supply side, it is clear that the traditional conception of communication – transmitting messages through given channels to “target audiences” – is not enough to achieve the intended results.

What is needed to strengthen citizens’ voices and enable their active participation is a space where individuals feel safe and stimulated to be part of the processes leading to change. Achieving this requires a different kind of communication and a different kind of thinking about communication.

Those working in the development context should be among those most familiar and most prone to change, since development is all about change. Yet, too many of us find it difficult to adjust to the fast-changing concepts and lessons coming from new studies and practical experiences. Certainly it feels safer to stick with the known than venture into new concepts and approaches that are outside of outside of our comfort zone and thus potentially riskier. Yet, there are times when we need to acknowledge the implications of new conceptions and abandon past certainties and revaluate what we know and how we do things. If not, one day we might suddenly realize that things that make sense to us may no longer make sense to others or that they simply do not pass the reality test.

In this respect, I would like to introduce a couple of concepts which have come from learning by doing training courses I have been involved with. The first is known as Clear Only If Known (COIK). The second, which I will present in the next blog, has been labeled Only Apparently Making Sense (OAMS).

By COIK I intend to describe the situation where a certain issue or explanation makes perfect sense to those who are familiar with it and have done it many times, but then fail to convey the same clearness to those who are not familiar with it. I used to do this in my training classes or when writing publications. By going so deep and becoming so familiar with a topic, I would often make a number of assumptions that were not met by reality (e.g., assuming that everybody was familiar with the basic steps to design a communication strategy).

The result was poor understanding; that is poor learning caused by poor communication. In other words, by having myself as the central reference for the learning experience, I neglected to listen and understand what trainees, readers or other kind of participants knew and understood and that impeded effective communication.

Photo Credit: Flickr User Guacamole Goalie

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