“Like many of you, we have the experience of reading glowing reports about projects that did not reflect the reality as we knew it. Who did they think they were kidding?”

Communication for Another Development: Listening Before Telling

When it comes to communications in the aid and development sector, what we tend to think of first are donor reports. I have many in my own bookcase. They’re beautifully laid-out, telling glowing tales of project successes, but are often not read because they are too long, written in development-speak, and are often criticized for not reflecting the reality on the ground.

The discipline of Communication for Development (or sometimes C4D, for short) is something different to this. Wikipedia explains that “it is a broad term used to refer to all the types of communication that need to take place in societies if sustainable development is to occur”. As a set of practices, Communication for Development has been around since the end of World War II. But it came to the fore more recently with the First World Congress on Communication for Development, organized in 2006 by the World Bank, FAO and the Communication Initiative.

But outside of the hallowed arena of communications specialists, Communication for Development is an obtuse field. Maybe a bit confusing. Certainly at the edges of what we consider normal development theory and practice.

A few years ago, Wendy Quarry and Ricardo Ramirez wrote a book to help everyday aid and development practitioners make sense of this field: Communications for another Development: Listening Before Telling.

Central to the book is the idea that information does not equal communication. If we’re implementing a project which is intended to have an impact on people’s lives – perhaps installing drainage and irrigation infrastructure, or providing a new approach to education – giving information is not nearly enough. As Quarry and Ramirez show, what we need to do more of is to listen. To open up a two-way dialogue with the people we’re looking to engage with.

As they put it, at the center of effective communication for development is context:

“Context matters and solutions need to be designed to fit the local situation. Without an understanding of context communication initiatives will fall short of their objectives.”

What is most refreshing about the book is Quarry and Ramirez’s story-telling approach. Both authors have significant experience to draw on working in the aid and development industry for decades, and share this experience liberally:

“We share what we have to say through stories. Our stories are about what we know best – the mistakes, fleeting triumphs and many frustrations that have dogged us throughout our practice.”

It’s an entertaining read: for those of us who have worked in the sector a while, many of these stories resonate with our own experiences. Some of the stories are funny, like the first in-country Administrative Support Unit for a major donor that was set up in a local bar, because that was the easiest and most efficient way for consultants to find him. Other stories are insightful, like an energetic task manager in Uganda who thought he knew the right messaging and wanted to get straight to delivering a communications campaign on water rights, but who didn’t yet know his audience. Yet others are downright scathing, as with a consultant who spoke of a donor office in Nigeria as “disappearing up their own arses on matrix management”.

But together, they tell a broader story of what good, participatory communication in the development sector could look like.

Good development practice (and, I might add, good community engagement) is not found in ‘telling’ others what to do. It is found in the art of listening. Quarry and Ramirez are well worth listening to.