I was recently in an informal discussion with development colleagues regarding the governance of extractive industries in a fragile state, which shall remain unnamed for various reasons. One of them had been working in development for more than three decades and in country X for five years. In terms of governance, he didn't think any of the usual solutions to the widespread and deeply embedded culture of rampant corruption and excessive rent-seeking would work in the country. Things are just that bad. He intimated that the only thing he could think of was to build the capacity of the country’s fractious civil society so that they could become credible interlocutors to government actors, and demand accountability from their elected and appointed leaders. It was quite distressing when he said, “I don’t know what else to do.”
This reminds me of another discussion which happened more than a year ago, with a group of development colleagues working on governance issues in another fragile state, country Y, which, unfortunately, is now in an ever more precarious state. After we provided a political communication and public opinion perspective to the country’s seemingly intractable governance problems, and the corresponding tools we might consider using to mitigate these challenges, the most senior person on the team exclaimed: “This will solve all my problems!”
I think these two examples are inextricably linked. They demonstrate what is perhaps an unwarranted belief, seldom made explicit in technical discussions, in the magical abilities of the demand side of governance. And it seems to arise from extremes -- either a sense of despair or overconfidence. Activating public opinion and helping civil society seem to come up when “we don’t know what else to do” or we need something “to solve all our problems.”
I recently reviewed a government document calling for communication consultants to bid for what is potentially a highly controversial project in country Z. The rationale section of the document states that “Effective internal and external communication… is the basic tool in ensuring good governance… and implementation including fighting corruption." In other words, communication will solve all our problems.
This blog has repeatedly emphasized that communication, done well, can make a contribution to attaining good governance objectives.
It is not a panacea.
It is not a silver bullet.
It is not a cure all.
Effective communication and its contribution to citizen demand for accountability is a necessary, albeit insufficient, condition for good governance. A large number of studies in political and health communication, public opinion research, and even children and media strongly suggest that communication effects are conditional. That is, a host of things come into play, such as source, message, receiver, contextual, institutional, and cultural factors. And thousands of researchers have devoted their professional lives to understanding the conditions under which these factors operate or remain ineffective.
It is obvious that communication will not solve all our problems but it sure can help, especially if we remain cognizant of the conditional relationships that are part and parcel of communication influence processes. But given the complex nature of these processes, it’s probably too late to call on communication when we find ourselves not knowing what else to do.
Photo credit: Flickr user Bohman