Written by CommsConsult Director, Megan Lloyd-Laney.
Transitions to new years/decades/centuries are a little like being on a playground seesaw: one minute you’re high up on one side enjoying the view and the very next minute, the switch has been made and the view is completely different. So, we enter a new decade and look ahead.
When we set up CommsConsult in our youthful, heady, ambitious days in a very different Zimbabwe of 1996, we wanted to change the world and we thought we had the tools to do so. The power of communication then, as now, seemed limitless in its capacity to be the catalyst for change both within the development sector and between the sector and others in the broader ecosystem – communities, decision-makers, power-brokers, the media.
Ineffective and inefficient communication seemed to lie at the root of so much that was going wrong: projects not listening to the very people they were meant to be working with and for; successful projects not advocating with the evidence of their success; communities receiving services and technical assistance from many aid agencies at the same time – resulting in duplication, contradictory advice, competition for people’s time; ordinary citizens being ignored and invisible, their stories not being heard.
NEARLY A QUARTER OF A CENTURY ON, WHAT HAS CHANGED?
On the one (pessimistic) hand; not much. In many ways, we have moved ourselves away from the communities we serve. Digital technologies and mobile phones have allowed us to believe that ordinary people’s voices e.g. in rural Binga will be heard because they have the means to communicate through their mobile phones. And indeed, these devices potentially connect the people to the power-holders and to the media to get the stories told. Stories of crushed dreams and determined survival; of economic hardship and community spirit; of resilience tested and hardships worn silently. But who is listening?
On the other (optimistic) hand; a lot! The enormous potential of communication – to change the dynamics of power; to put ordinary people at the centre of their stories of change; to hold power to account; to forge connections and synergies with anyone with shared interests and visions for a better world; to build movements and campaigns and social change using evidence of what works – remains.
Communication is a prime facilitator of change. In a world where we’re asking big questions about how we got here (the global recession; the rise of populist politics; the crises of global inequality; the increasing number of fragile and failed states – the list is seemingly endless) and not hearing adequate answers, there is plenty of room for improved listening and communication skills. Despite the threats to the media sector and journalists all over the world, the potential for everyone to be ‘citizen journalists’ is a cause for both excitement and concern.
THE LAST TEN YEARS
CommsConsult has been privileged enough to work with some massively smart people and organisations in the last decade who are doing important work to alleviate poverty; to trigger social change; to generate evidence that is sufficiently robust to guide the architecture of our collective futures. You can read about some of these partnerships in our case studies on the website. Over these ten years, we worked with a wider diversity of clients than ever before on a journey that often took us outside of our traditional communication and storytelling ‘comfort zones’. But through that journey we learned so much – about ourselves, about the richness of different collaborations and partnerships, about the requirements, opportunities and indeed the challenges of taking on big contracts and being coopted into an aid industry.
We got burned (more than once!). We learned what we’re good at, and what we’re not particularly great at. And we learned resilience. We watch a frightening number of small, specialist agencies such as CommsConsult disappear from view. Many of them were gobbled up by the bigger companies wanting to own a niche brand. Some of them dissolved out of choice or necessity, exhausted by diminishing success rates on bids for work in the face of the big, slick commercial development companies with large, dedicated commercial teams. No-one is more surprised than us that we are still standing. Just about.
We stood by our principles of supporting initiatives and working on projects that are not necessarily going to be very profitable. We are proud to have nurtured and become ‘proud parents’ to the Research to Action (R2A) website, aimed at people trying to improve the way development research is communicated and used. The site began as a ‘twinkle in the eye’ of an initiative started way back in 2005 when DFID wanted to provide access to their invaluable back catalogue of publicly-funded research.
We were part of a consortium that built the database and communicated its contents globally (indeed we set up and launched the @DFID_Research twitter account back in 2009 that now has an impressive 66K followers!). We responded to a growing and urgent need from researchers to find out how to effectively communicate evidence throughout the research cycle – and developed a very humble ‘Communications Corner’ within the DFID Research4Development portal. When the contract ended, and the portal was absorbed into a broader cross-government website, CommsConsult pledged to grow and develop the site as a kind of public service. We engage a small team of social media and editorial associates to do this for us. We’ve never received a penny of public funds to support the platform: maybe 2020 is the year we try harder to raise funds to support further innovation and outreach.
We watch as globally funded research programmes with innovative and often ground-breaking approaches to research uptake and engagement reach their end of life, and the resources and lessons generated are lost in an invisible dusty archive that is at best, not actively promoted or curated and at worst, disappear behind a dead link. We are frustrated not only by the waste of money this demonstrates, but by the waste of lessons learned that will inevitably turn into a re-invention of the wheel down the line.
If you are a reader interested in supporting R2A – because you think we should all be able to learn how to effectively communicate and engage around evidence (throughout the research cycle and not just at the end when the findings were published!) and want to connect with a global community who think the same way as you – please get in touch!
We had the enormously good fortune to work repeatedly with clients that had become friends and colleagues, such as IDRC, DFID, Global Development Network and the Africa Economic Research Centre (AERC). We discovered the freedoms of being trusted to experiment with new communication techniques, new approaches and ‘untested’ forms of partnership and collaboration. We learned that working for new clients such as Mastercard Foundation, C&A Foundation, Thomson Reuters Foundation, is thrilling and exhilarating and humbling. Framework Agreements are an area of interest and offer potential for partnerships that can make a difference. CommsConsult will continue to explore this mechanism for finding and forging fruitful collaboration with like-minded agencies.
THE NEXT TEN YEARS?
One of the great outputs of effective communication is the raising of warning flags, but these are only useful when they are being seen, and heard, and acted upon. Communication is powerful, but it is only a tool. When people have access to information they enhance their knowledge and this can spur them into action – to hold leaders to account; to fight for recognition of their preferred identity; to be counted; to be witnessed; to assert a preferred path of development.
But communication often needs an ‘enabling environment’ to be truly effective. It is difficult for people to speak out if they will be arrested, imprisoned, tortured for doing so. I might not join my community marching for change if I lose my job – and am primary income provider – as a result. I am inhibited from listening and responding to what a community says it wants and needs if, in fact, my budget only covers delivery of one kind of service e.g. agriculture training. The world is noisier than ever with information on demand, but not all of it is ‘real’. We will reward ‘honest brokers’ who can distinguish between truth and lies for us; whose interpretations and explanations of the world we trust and respect; and whose opinions we co-opt as our own.
We said at our launch more than two decades ago that we could help people to ‘Be clever. Be clear. Be heard.’ We will continue to do this with our cadre of smart, engaged, dedicated communications professionals who act as our Associates in more than 12 countries. As the world gets increasingly noisier, with more digital tools and virtual platforms than ever before on which to play – all of which compete for our audience’s attention – our job is increasingly to help clients to navigate those choices and not to get overwhelmed. We hope you will join us in that journey.