Isolated geography, customary practices and gender roles often limit rural populations, particularly women and indigenous groups, from accessing relevant information and gaining adequate skills to effectively participate in development interventions. As a consequence, the wealth of knowledge that these communities possess goes unsolicited and undervalued. In fact, gender activists argue that rural women rarely serve as the primary source of information in communication for development initiatives and that such practices risk perpetuating elite capture and exacerbating existing inequalities.
In recognition of this issue, many communications for development initiatives have emphasized “listeners’ clubs” as a way of amplifying the voice and impact of rural populations. One such project (Dimitra  and its partner in Niger, ONG VIE Kande ni Bayra ) initiated a campaign that focused on the informational needs and potentials of rural women in Niger. The endeavor built upon the existing network of literacy groups to start “listeners’ clubs,” where women and other socially marginalized communities in rural Niger come together to share and discuss events and issues they encounter in their everyday life. The listener’s clubs are encouraged to identify and prioritize issues that are important to them, analyze their root causes and consequences, and propose strategies and actions to resolve or expand on those issues. What is unique about this project is that communication radio stations are established as an intermediary to connect these groups with one another and with relevant entities to further the cause.
Ali Abdoulaye , the coordinator for the program explains that designated experts in radio stations develop programs based on the issues prioritized by the listeners’ clubs. A range of practical information is covered by the radio programs, including agricultural practices and inputs, weather updates, prices of food commodities, services for maternity and child care, HIV prevention and treatment, domestic violence, etc. Donors such as FAO, UNICEF, UNIFEM and several other bilateral agencies have joined the initiative and are providing support both financially and content-wise. This has helped expand the reach and networking among the listeners’ clubs in different regions of the country. Today, the network is said to consist of over 500 clubs with close to 10,000 members, and 13 community radio stations. Men’s groups have also been established to bring men into the dialogue, in supporting and facilitating the cause of women.
In this way, the communication initiative has not only provided informational access to rural populations in Niger, but has also given them a voice to express their knowledge, ideas and opinions - and most importantly, helping them become leaders by making and shaping decisions that affect their lives. Likewise, the roles and capacities of women are increasingly being recognized and seen as integral parts of development efforts by both the government and donors alike, as has been explained by Ali Abdoulaye, in his interview with Team Celebration .
For all of their strengths, the listener’s clubs are not without issue. Critics question the long term sustainability of the movement, given the project’s heavy dependence on external funding. For instance, the clubs use solar-powered radios and cell phones provided by the project to connect to the radio-stations, all of which are products of donor support. The growing popularity of the radio programs, on the other hand, has attracted an increasing number of communities who have voluntarily organized new listeners’ clubs and used their own communication equipment to partake in the programs. If their popularity continues to grow, there may come a time when these radio-stations are run solely through community contributions.
Photo Credit: Internews Network (Flickr User)