Turns out that the best development communication sometimes has nothing to do with communicating about your development organization. A few weeks ago, I went on a field visit for diplomats, organized by the advocacy manager of a well-known international NGO. Once at the Bedouin community, the community spokesperson, the school’s principal and a local NGOs held their briefings while the advocacy manager, an international, stayed in the back. After the visit, she handed out a fact sheet with some data, statistics and factual background notes. The sheet had a tiny logo in the corner. That’s it. The advocacy manager had chosen her role to be that of a connector who facilitates the access of local voices to potential donors and decision makers. For that, I remember her and her organization more than for any mind-blowing presentation she herself could have given.
“But what about visibility?”, you may ask. Isn’t it the goal of development communication to make your own work and approaches known? Well, welcome to the crossroad where development communication parts into institutional communication and communication for development.
Advocacy in Development Communication – Institutional Communication vs. C4D
Just like a TV audience, donors often determine which project gets funded (Yeoh, 2016, p. 40). In institutional communication, we ask ourselves how to best advocate towards the donor and how to give him or her a positive feeling about our organization. Pursuing this goal, many INGOs, have decided to only tell the positive stories. (Lombardi, 2016, p. 45).
In her article “Don’t create a mood, just tell good stories”, Lombardi rightfully argues that this approach often fails to do justice to the story we want to tell. Here, C4D opts for a different approach: the storytelling process is based on the needs of the story, rather than that of the audience. Instead of choosing only the misery, or only enthusiastic accounts, they tell the whole story, acknowledging its complexity and the broad spectrum of emotions involved (Seay 2012, p.12). Something else sets C4D advocacy apart from institutional advocacy: Rather than narrating on their protagonist’s behalf, the NGO takes the role of a connector that brings the storytellers own words directly to the audience. Here are two mind-blowing stories that were told by NGOs using this approach:
These stories are so powerful and captivating because they are told with the voices of those we never hear in such length. The protagonists do not only contribute through a one-liner about how organization x changed their life, and these are not the two minutes upbeat videos we have grown so used to. But through these stories, distant others become real people, with complex, yet relatable emotions. Meanwhile, and perhaps without knowing, those who facilitate these processes become smart advocates.
The Power of Smart Advocacy: 4 Examples
Smart advocacy as defined by Seay (2012) centers on the idea of empowering local voices to participate in advocacy that concerns them, to decide which stories they want to tell and to take part in the way they are told. I believe that smart advocacy goes hand in hand with C4D and that almost every C4D practice can be turned into smart advocacy. Here are four examples:
1) Participatory Digital Storytelling
Participatory communication uses different media, such as film, photography, audio, writing and drawings to foster self-representation and a plurality of narratives; people tell their own stories through their own images, words and voices. Methods range from participatory videos, community-published zines, or recording people’s memories of a specific event. These processes of storytelling are as important as the results, which can be used for both, advocacy and to spark dialogues within and between communities.
2) Addressing (Mis)representations in the Development Sector
An important mandate of C4D is to open up conversations about the development sector itself and to dismantle one-sided representations in advocacy material. This can include multimedia-campaigns that draw attention to negative stereotypes, capacity buildings on participatory advocacy for NGOs, and initiatives that let aid beneficiaries comment on the way in which they are representation towards donor communities.
In her amazing article “We need to stop telling people they’re doing development wrong” Rachel Kuzyp reveals a hidden trend in the development sector: While we are quick in telling young, motivated people that voluntourism is wrong, we leave little opportunities for them to respond to our advocacy campaigns beyond monetary donations. Here Crowd-Solving becomes an incredibly useful tool for smart advocacy. Crowd-Solving uses a bottom-up approach to problem-solving and gives many individuals the chance to contribute solutions to development challenges following an advocacy campaign. Usually, crowd-solving works similar to crowd-funding; it uses digital platforms that make it easy for eager young people to participate through their minds rather than their pocket money.
4) Organizing Tours and Visits
Just as I wrote in my introduction, NGOs can take up the role of connectors that facilitate exchange and meetings between decision makers or the media and community members who are willing to speak out. Helping people to access the right channels and to convey their own needs and perspective will always make a stronger case then speaking for them.
Kurzyp, R. (2016). We need to stop telling people they’re doing development wrong. In Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty (pp. 49-54). WhyDev.
Lombardi, D. (2016). Don’t create a mood, just tell good stories. In Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty (pp. 45-49). WhyDev.
Seay, L. (2012.). Avoiding “Badvocacy”: How to Do No Harm While Doing Good. In Beyond Kony2012. (pp. 109-118). Leanpub book.