Communicating Development: An Exercise in Accountability.

Hello and welcome to engagingdevelopment. Here I hope to explore issues of development and communication, i.e. how to communicate effectively in order to engage people in development issues – and also how communication aids development. I’d really welcome any feedback – ideally, substantive and constructive (but who am I to be so picky!)

The textbook example of communication for development – let’s call it C4D for short – is the Keralan fishermen. Know this story? It goes like this.

A researcher found out a cellphone mast was to be installed along the coast of Kerala, providing cellphone coverage for fishing villages for the first time. The researcher studied the poor fisherfolk before and after. He found that, with cellphones, the fishermen could exchange information about where the biggest shoals were, when storms were coming in, which ports were offering the best prices each day, etc. The result was that they caught more fish, were less at risk from dangerous sea conditions and wasted less fish sailing from port to port looking for the best prices. The supply of fish for consumers went up, so prices went down, but the fishermen made more money because they sold more fish. Their incomes rose and their lives improved – because they could exchange information effectively. Communication aided development. QED as they say. It’s a great discrete case study but, globally, things are more complicated.

The communications revolution allows us to venture into the farthest reaches of the globe. Smartphones and social media allow us to get involved in issues far away. The world has become a huge echo chamber. Ordinary people are now both consumers of news and producers of it. It’s a challenge and an opportunity for all organisations in the business of information – news media, governments, corporations, aid agencies seeking public support, etc – as it means traditional top-down, one-way information flows are no longer acceptable. People ask more questions and seek more answers. They can organise into online communities that are virtual, transnational and powerful. And they apply bottom-up pressure on those in control.

There is a crisis of legitimacy in the world thanks to the democratisation of information. Communicating development these days is not just about demonstrating suffering and showcasing solutions – it is also an exercise in accountability. True communication is a two-way process – it requires listening as well. It’s up to the traditional organs of control – governments, news organisations, corporations, aid agencies – to decide whether they rise to that challenge. That way lies true development.