Friday, October 27, 2006

Day 3 : Possible Next Steps Towards WCCD 2.0

Brochure Chaos - the competition for attention
Originally uploaded by Jonathan Marks.

Today, the final day of WCCD, a lot of time has been spent on trying to come to some final statement or consensus. For most of us, it is clear that broadcasters, IT, donors and development agencies are going to need to work more closely together. Jargon and a lot of competition between agencies in the development world will take some getting used to.

Here are my observations and suggestions for how to move forward after the excellent World Congress on Communication for Development.

The goal was to lay the foundations to ensure communications becomes a central pillar for development projects, rather than an after-thought. In that respect, I think it was a great first step. The fact that the organizers brought together a broad cross-section of practitioners made it interesting for me. Everyone brought a different set of perspectives and disciplines. In total there were 24 thematic sessions, 13 special events and 680 participants, policy makers, academic, grass roots organizations. The log shows around 140 journalists were covering the event. If anyone found it boring, then they came for the wrong reasons.

What did the conference achieve?

Although there was a Rome Consensus issued at the end of the conference, the biggest benefit was the cross-disciplinary exchange between people really on the ground. Too many politicians would have confused the discussion. The idea of having Nobel prizewinners attending was much better. The best speakers had plenty of real-cases to share – especially advice on what works and didn’t work. The fact that people were willing to share their mistakes was a bold move for a conference like this.

The fact that many directors of aid agencies and donors were present was great. I am sure it was an eye-opener for many. Unless they implement policy from the top, it will never empower the ideas coming from the bottom-up.

What needs to happen next?

1. Ideally, we would see a series of regional discussions involving the same broad-cross section of people. These meetings would focus on ways to pull communications higher up the agenda of priorities, especially the communication between agencies on the ground and the people they are trying to assist. But the context and methods to do this are very different depending on where you are. Especially in Africa, there are huge differences even within a region like West Africa.

2. The next phase of regional meetings would start as on-line discussions (using wikis, blogs, and other social software tools) and then turn into a face-to-face meeting. The conversations should have a longer lifetime than the few days when people meet each other. Active participation can be rewarded in the form of grants to meet colleagues face to face.

3. More sharing of good practice (and things that didn’t work) would be extremely useful. I realize that some agencies are concerned that if they share their mistakes, journalists present may create negative publicity in the search for a story. But my experience was that people were willing to be far more candid than I expected - in the workshops rather than in the plenary sessions. In 2-3 years time, there will be enough case studies to make a global meeting like in Rome worthwhile. People learn more from role models with practical stories to tell. It would also be great to hear stories of how partnerships have held up – and what can be done when, inevitably, they come under strain. Does 1+1 always have to equal 2.5? These stories should fit on a few sides of A4. Everyone in the conference was allergic to 50 page justifications which hit the dustbin at airports when you’re trying to go home.

4. I didn’t hear anyone disagree with the premise that communication is essential for any country’s development. How and when that is done needs more study. It is clear to me that ICT and broadcast are rapidly becoming areas where there is overlap. No broadcast station can survive without ICT – it is an essential production and aggregation too.

5. Radio (especially) and TV provide the point to multi-point contact with the community. The clever organizations use such tools to be a catalyst for a conversation inside that community. Broadcasting is not shouting a message – it is finding ways to share it. Broadcasters are becoming more content production houses. There are now plenty of examples of cross-media concepts, where a combination of radio, TV, mobile and web is making a more effective mix.

6. Just as there are different ways of communicating inside a community, so there are different phases in the lifetime of a communications plan. Communication to raise funds and awareness in donor countries is a completely different stream to the task of communicating in the area where an agency is active. And the communications plan for helping immediately after a disaster should go through several distinct phases as time progresses. Otherwise, as people pick up their lives, the information flow does not adapt to their changing needs.

7. Broadcasters also need a clear “exit strategy”, showing at what point they will trust the people they have trained. I heard several complaints about how foreign broadcasters/NGOs were now distorting local markets because their initial goal had been fulfilled. Local broadcasters also need help in working on realistic business models, with or without sustained subsidy. Each solution will depend on the local context.

8. Aid agencies also need to understand how to work with the commercial media sector. In many countries, there is an assumption that the local public/state broadcaster is the natural partner for NGO’s. In some countries, the market share of the government broadcaster has dropped to an all time low – often because of a lack of press freedom and/or transparency. Commercial broadcasters, on the other hand, have a completely different business case immediately after a disaster, when 50-100% of their advertising revenue goes away.

9. The media studies currently being done by various agencies (USAID, BBC World Service Trust to name a few) will be extremely useful in making more practical communications plans. Hopefully, they will be in the public domain.

10. Content is important. But so is the context. Each concept needs to be adapted to fit the cultural context. And the future is broader than broadcasting – what happens in a country with radio and TV is becoming closely linked to a country’s policy on Internet and mobile telephony. It is very important that people think sideways.

11. The community radio sector needs to provide more documented cases of why rural radio can empower a community. Many of the presentations I saw were too defensive and concentrated on how they had built a station and what they were doing with the money. Working from the premise “this community does not need a radio station unless….” is a better starting point.

12. Donors need to have a clearer understanding of the costs involved in making useful, interesting content. Many regional/local stations in Europe cannot produce community news/current affairs programmes without a subsidy from regional or national government. Yet, many donors believe it is possible to do the same in remote parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa. Often, locals come up with ingenious ways of working towards sustainability (acting as a communications hub for the village, offering SMS market info, having shares in mobile phone companies). May be the World Bank can offer prizes to reward those with the best business plan that has been shown to work?

13. Convergence is creating new professions. One emerging profession is the development communicator – someone who understands how the development/donor industry works and has journalistic skills to understand the context in which stories need to be told. You need an overview of the various communication channels emerging in developing countries and how they can interact. That means you need to look sideways as well as forward. I know of no institution that is training in this way. The World Bank and/or Communication Initiative could be a catalyst in this respect – convening rather than doing the training themselves.

14. Practical Point; Make sure that workshop sessions are held in a room with chairs in a circle, not a lecture theatre. The round-table encourages people to see others as equals and it is much easier to communicate. The role of the chairperson is much easier too, as he or she can drive the discussion much better when they are not up on a stage. I thought the quality of discussion after the presentations was better in rooms with a forum layout.

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