I will be honest. After four years of working in international development I still get confused by the jargon. So it wasn’t immediately obvious to me what ‘Communications for Development’ meant. Most of the definitions focused on what it’s not. It’s not installing telephones on building sites (‘communications on developments’). It’s not telling people in richer countries that they should care about poorer countries (‘communications about development’). It’s not exactly the same as ‘Media for Development’ (‘tackling poverty with microphones and cameras’ to some).
I presented an example from Restless Development Zambia, and it started a discussion about what ‘Communications for Development’ should mean, if it’s really going to make lasting change.
Not ‘Communications For’ people, but by them…
…because scale needs depth
Restless Development make the case for youth leadership, because we’re an agency for youth-led international development, whatever the tactic. We work with fantastic partners like BBC Media Action, who bring their experience to build the technical and editorial capacity of local journalists and media outlets. Then Restless Development Zambia match that scale with the depth of having young volunteers (like Purity, right) throughout the country who start discussions in their schools. Those topics then feature on TV, radio and social media and become the basis for deeper engagement of those young people.
These shows are emphatically not Public Service Announcements. They feature music that people actually want to listen to, and young people phone in with their real life experiences to have lively discussions – including challenging decision makers about the rights and responsibilities of young people.
….because the messenger matters
We’ve blogged many times about how youth-led social mobilisation turned the tide in the battle against the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone. But one of the lessons that stands out is that the tone-deaf approach to communicating in the early days missed a vital opportunity. ‘Ebola is real’ posters in a font dripping with blood, and the domination of foreign voices failed to cut-through. It was only when young Sierra Leoneans got out into their own communities and onto the airwaves that the life-saving messages started to be heard. If you were a traditional healer and suspicious of foreigners, how much more persuasive is Fatmata, a young member of your own community who is willing to go to the lengths of helping digging up a grave in the middle of the night to make sure the virus had been traced?
Celebrities can help, especially if their ‘brand’ makes sense with your campaign in some way – like when Bollywood’s top choreographer Terence Lewis joined the Knot So Young campaign against child marriage to say “You shouldn’t dance at these weddings”. But it needs to be backed up by ‘unusual allies’ in person. That’s why Restless Development India also support young men to talk to boys about the challenges that young women face, especially when menstruating, and answer that question: “Does it really happen, brother?”
“I have always admired Restless and the work they do, but once you start analyzing, and having the chance to debate and disagree, it sparks a flame in a group of young people that is influential to all.”
“The most wonderful moment I had after the general election was seeing the high vote turn out in 2015 compared to the previous election of 2010. That made me feel good and think that my music has brought a positive contribution to the election and to my nation.”
The truth is that Girl Effect’s Yegna programme was judged ‘innovative and effective’ by independent evaluators, it’s an example of the private sector, media experts and charities working together to help people in a developing country to change their own situation, and it is actually tackling the problem from that other common complaint we often hear about development: “there’s no point giving any aid to these countries until they change their own culture”
The erosion of western public support for international development isn’t inevitable. Look at BOND’s new research showing us what messages (and messengers) work better. It’s not as simple as ‘show photos of babies smiling instead of crying’. The research also warns us that we have a tricky challenge when the public outwardly state that they want to hear more from the people benefiting from aid, but when those people appear as passive, unrelatable foreign ‘recipients’ – the public don’t actually trust them as messengers.
Work that uses communications to tackle poverty should not just be on the defensive, because they are some of the international development achievements which we should be most proud of. Seeing and sharing the vibrant, empowering, and lasting transformation that happens when communications are led by people is our best hope of changing that clunky definition, changing the conversation, and changing people’s minds.