For years, colleagues and I had been plugging away producing a magazine aimed at health and development workers across the world. We thought Footsteps was pretty good and the feedback we got from our readers was encouraging. People in places as diverse as Western Papua and rural DRC were reading our content, being inspired and informed and, most importantly, making changes in their own communities.
After being in the job for a couple of years, I grew curious. ‘There must be others doing similar work’ I thought, ‘but where are they?’ I work for Tearfund, a UK-based NGO so I began my search locally here in London. I went to visit one of the largest NGOs in the country to see if I could find some peers…
Did they do communications work? Yes they did. Lots of it. Without it there was no funding and without funding there was no NGO. And without an NGO, there was no communications work. They fed each other in symbiotic relationship.
Did they use communications for anything else? Yes they did. They wrote reports. About important issues. Mostly for the powerful people they wanted to influence. And they did it well.
It’s not that my organisation didn’t fundraise or advocate. It did and it does. But what my particular team were doing was different. We were writing about development for people actually doing community development work in their own contexts. We aimed our communication at a grassroots level and translated our content into as many languages as we could. And we were working with authors, in countries from Uganda to Peru, to get their ideas in print (and read!) in 125 countries. Our communications were aiming at something else.
I kept on finding myself trying to explain what I did at parties and failing miserably. ‘I work at a charity,’ I would say, ‘in communications’. ‘’Oh, I work in marketing too’, the person might respond and I’d try to explain that my work wasn’t about marketing, more education, except it wasn’t all ‘us’ educating ‘them’… And then when confusion ensued, we’d move on.
One day I was trying to explain this problem to a friend, Mary. And then it happened. She went to her bookshelf and handed me the answer. ‘Communications for Another Development’ by Quarry and Ramirez was a revelation. I felt like I had come home.
It turned out I had been doing something which had a name! And that name was Communication for Development, C4D or ComDev. Quarry and Ramimrez introduced me to Fraser and Restrepo-Estrada’s 1998 definition of the field:
Communication for development is the use of communication processes, techniques and media to help people toward a full awareness of their situation and their options for change, to resolve conflicts, to work towards consensus, to help people plan actions for change and sustainable development, to help people acquire the knowledge and skills they need to improve their condition and that of society and to improve the effectiveness of institutions.
This was communication for a purpose that I could get behind and give my working life to. It’s not that I don’t think fundraising has value. It pays my salary and, in the best case, also enables those giving to be changed in the process of engaging with people in real need. It’s not that influencing the powerful isn’t important. I have seen laws changed through the tireless lobbying of my colleagues.
But for me, those stories of communication producing social change in Western Papua or DRC make me want to go to work. They start with someone sharing an idea with those they live alongside and then, little by little, the world around them begins to shift.
And with this, their own sense of participation shifts as well. They aren’t having development done to them. They have a voice. They are becoming confident agents of their own change.
Communication for Another Development:listening before telling by Quarry and Ramirez, Zed Books, 2009
As Quarry and Ramirez say ‘Each practitioner we know has a similar story: each has entered through a different door’. What’s your story? Share it in the comments section below.
Enjoyable read! And quite different from what I expected (and what I write myself). This is a very personal post, not really presenting any “big issues” or diving into heavy analysis.
And yet – it gives a good impression of how it is to work in a field that is not really recognized, and how important it is to have a name for it, a commonly understood concept.
Maybe that is where development really starts: When you find your place, feel recognized, hear or read someone saying something that make you think “yes, this is it! Now I know exactly what I am doing and why I am doing it”.
Naming and conceptualizing Communication for Development might have been a very important step for development work.
Thank you for sharing! And for motivating me (yet again) to read Communication for another development 🙂
Firstly: thank you very much for this post! It is, indeed, the best explanation of what the communication for development field is all about! Now I can actually explain to the people what I want to do when I grow up 😉
Thank you (and Mary) for the reference! I will definitely track this book!
And, of course, thank you for sharing with us your experience!
Very nice read! Keep a good work and, hopefully, our paths will cross (both privately and professionally).
I am so pleased to read this! It really does give me a deeper and clearer understanding of what you do! We have had the conversation about your work many times and I know about footsteps and thought I understood the purpose- but now am clearer as to communication side of it and how that fits into the ‘communications’ that other friends of mine work in! And I have just twigged that I know someone else who works in comuications – but more the influence, finding side. I can completely see why your type of communication is waht helps you find meaning and purpose in work each day. 125 languages!! You still have just a few to learn