I was recently in a fascinating conversation with Yenny Wahid, peace advocate and former special adviser on political communication to two Indonesian Presidents. We were attending the closing dinner of BMW Foundation’s 10th Europe-Asia Young Leaders Forum in Jakarta, Indonesia a few days ago. Over an eclectic spread of local and foreign delicacies, we had a wide ranging discussion on what Southeast Asian countries can learn from each other in areas such as governance and anti-corruption, interreligious dialogue, and the role of political communication in engaging citizens and cultivating informed public opinion on issues of public consequence. We also talked about the broader challenges of cultivating social and political norms in sustaining support for public policies that tend to be contentious and controversial.
This conversation brought me back to another deeply memorable chat from last year, also over a meal, but half a world away, in Washington, D.C. Shortly before his untimely passing, I had the privilege of having a relaxed weekend lunch with Peter Oriare in a popular D.C. burger joint. Dr. Oriare was a world-class scholar at the University of Nairobi, savvy adviser to high-level officials, and a practitioner, in his own right, in Kenyan politics and policy-making. He made serious contributions to the study and application of political communication and pubic opinion research to real-world governance issues in his home country. Similar to my conversation with Yenny Wahid, Peter and I kicked around ideas regarding the role of communication in enabling citizen engagement and participation toward meaningful change.
What strikes me now is that ideas shared over burgers in the U.S. Capital resonated deeply with what was discussed in a historic Jakarta restaurant. From these conversations, it was obvious that Peter, a public intellectual in Kenya, and Yenny, a public servant in Indonesia, learned from applied research and actual experience about the necessary role of effective communication in engaging and persuading stakeholders to work towards shared goals. Both received excellent world-class educations and both actually tested their beliefs in the public arena. They had internalized the role of communication in making change happen and resulting gains stick.
“Be inclusive; and don’t let people exclude themselves”, Yenny advised when I asked what might be learned from progress toward interreligious harmony in her country. As if in the same conversation, I remember Peter saying “but we need to be realistic regarding how long these processes (of inclusion) take.” During the course of our exchange, I told Yenny about the burgeoning Global Expert Network in Communication and Governance Reform, of which Peter was a founding member, and where she would find like-minded individuals from all over the world. The group is comprised of senior communication and public engagement professionals based in Africa, the Middle East, and a few Asian countries, and was originally convened last year during the pilot delivery of the World Bank-Annenberg Executive Course in Communication and Governance Reform.*
The expert network is envisioned to contribute to improved development outcomes by increasing the availability of in-country and in-region professionals who know how to use communication in including key stakeholders in processes of change and reform. Peter and Yenny’s professional lives and contributions to the improvement of their own countries are testaments to the aspirations of this joint initiative.
* The 2011 executive course pilot was co-designed and co-delivered by the Communication for Governance and Accountability Program (CommGAP) in the World Bank’s Operational Communications Unit, the World Bank Institute’s Leadership and Governance Cluster, the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. Applications for the 2012 Summer Institute in Communication and Governance Reform are currently being accepted.