Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Communication for Development - Day 1 summary

Looking through my video tape archive recently, I came across interviews I made at the 2003 World Summit on the Information Society held in Geneva. As with many political conferences, the most interesting people were those in the exhibitions and corridors, rather than the politicians up on a stage reading prepared statements. There were two exhibitions in Geneva, one called ICT4Development, the other was the World Electronic Media Forum, hosted by the European Broadcasting Union. At the time, I remember discovering that the most interesting discussions about broadcasting were actually in the ICT for development halls. People may have been using a different jargon, they were actually talking about the same issue. Communities that are connected are more prosperous. Indeed, those groups that become isolated, very quickly radicalize if they see there is no other way to get the world’s attention for their issues. No broadcasting station these days is built using entirely analogue equipment.

In the production process, computers are now an integrated part of the work flow – the razor blades used to cut magnetic tape are obsolete, being replaced by editing software Having used both, I can tell you I do not miss physically cutting 1/4inch recording tape for second.

In December 2003, it was becoming clear that computer technology was going to play an important role in the advancement any, but especially developing countries. Broadcasters, meanwhile, were talking about freedom of the press, but the whole ICT world was seen as something to do with phones rather than microphones – a different, if not parallel universe.

Last year, the second phase of the WSIS was held in Tunis, Tunisia. It may have been a networking event for some. For many of us, the current state of press freedom in Tunisia – and the ludicrous length to which the Tunisian authorities cracked down on any form of discussion about press freedoms – stalled the discussion. It wasn’t clear from Tunis 2005 what involvement most broadcasters and development agencies would have in future conferences.

That’s why I have been pleased to see genuine progress at a conference put together in Rome by the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and a Canadian based group called the Communication Initiative. It worked because the aim was simply to bring people of different disciplines together to see if the theory that communication is essential for development is really true. After all, some countries like China have managed to grow their economies at remarkable rates but having a very central, controlled media and communications infrastructure? Are there arguments to show that the growth would have been even more sustainable had freedom of the press existed?

Yes there are. China is trying to fight enormous problems of corruption. Since journalists are not encouraged to expose wrong-goings of those in power, the situation is getting worse. In Uganda, on the other hand, Paul Mitchell of the World Bank explained on Wednesday 25th October that

In 1995 for every dollar spent on education by the government in Uganda, only 20 cents reached the schools for which the grants were intended. They then publicised when transfers were made and by 2001, 80 cents of every dollar reached the schools. Targeted communications assisted transparency efforts. Communication empowered people to get the help they wanted and were entitled to.

In short, the audience is up to something. The good news is that people in the broadcast and development “industries” are realisng that technology at its best is a facilitator, or a tool. Successful communications are socially and culturally based, so the context is so important too. ICT has helped some nations to accelerate their growth. But the gap between the have and have not’s is still widening. The right combination of communication techniques could help empower the 854 million people on the planet who count themselves lucky if they get one meal a day. So a lot still needs to be done.
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