Author: Warren Feek, January 2015

Happy New Year! Many best wishes and much support from all in The Communication Initiative for your very important work this year. 

2015 will be a major year for local, national and international development. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will end. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will commence after they are finalized at the UN General Assembly in September.

Much has changed since the MDGs were agreed upon in 2000. Some of those changes affect the very principle of having overarching Development goals for every community, country and continent. The communication world is vastly different, in particular related to friend, family, peer, community and organisation communication processes. There is less intermediary editing and control of the communication processes. Higher levels of engagement and participation are the norm now. There is a much stronger, overt emphasis on local and national decision-making and control. Different parts of the world require very different strategic analyses and problem/opportunity priorities related to their specific development contexts.

In response to those dynamics, as my welcome to 2015 I wanted to share some reflections on the opposite end of the development spectrum to the MDGs/SDGs. Their focus is on the big priority issues we will all be asked to address. Instead, I want to emphasize the processes by which we all help each other to make progress on the issues that we decide are important in our context, culture, community and country.

We have all been in this position. Someone asks - "can you please help/support us to develop a strategy, plan a programme, review some work, write a document, critique a situation, solve a problem … " and so on. No matter our positions, across the range of action from part of a local community group to leading a major international organisation, all of us get these kinds of "can you please help/support" requests.

As local, national and international development moves in the direction of increased local and national decision-making and control over everything from priority issue selections to resource allocations, the numbers of such "help/support" requests are increasing rapidly. In particular there is an increasing level, as there should be, of peer support with a priority on South-South support and co-operation.  

The process of how "help and support" takes place is increasingly important. The now available communication platforms mean that these processes can happen without the constraints of distance, time and intermediate filters. It is decreasingly acceptable for any organization to base its "help/support" conditional on its own perspective, goals or weight/influence. More collaborative approaches are required. 

These are core communication challenges. 

From that perspective I have a set of 10 rules that I seek to follow when in a "please help/support" situation. In my mind I call them the "Taranaki rules" after my home province in New Zealand. Many of them are grounded in that formative working people, small community context and experience. Of course I break the rules below all the time. And each time I break them I kick myself and try to learn!

As an opening contribution for and welcome to 2015 below is my list of "help" rules. Please critique, laugh, challenge, grin, snigger … and submit your own "rules".


1. The "I am a guest" rule - Where I am engaged to "help/support" is not my community, country or organisation. It is "owned" by others. I am there as their guest. I need to act like a good guest. This applies whether I was formally invited or someone else mandated me to be involved. I am in their space. I will affect that space. So, respect and enhance that space.

2. The "I get to leave" rule - Though they have very kindly asked me to be involved, or have accepted my involvement, on whatever issue it is that we will work on, in the end I get to depart that community, country or organisation - that space. It is not me who will have to "pick up the pieces".

3. The "90/10 knowledge" rule - No matter how much I may think that I know about a situation, issue, dynamic or problem I will only know a maximum of 10% and the "locals" will know 90%. This applies to even the most technical of topics. So, I try to create space for the sharing and examination of that "local" knowledge.

4. The "10% talk" rule - If I am talking more than 10% of the time I am doing a really bad job (and I can talk!). If I dominate with "my knowledge" I close the space for engagement, sharing and creativity.

5. The "4 out of 5 are questions" rule - Questions open spaces for engagement. As an outsider I may be able to ask some different questions that open up a process - questions that create space for new or different understandings or relationships. So I try to ensure that my questions outweigh any specific ideas I may share by a ratio of 5 to 1.

6. The "marginal voices" rule - One value of outsiders in a process is that they are not so hidebound by pre-existing, established dynamics, including those related to basic factors such as who is regarded as being the "expert" on an issue, who tends to be the spokesperson, whose opinion carries the most weight, and other dynamics. So I try to change the dynamics in the space by supporting people whose voices have previously counted for less to share their perspectives with more weight and attention.

7. The "would you mind sharing your story with me/us" rule - Some cultures (mine for example) place high value on getting down to business as quickly as possible. I have had to learn that this is not a good way for an outsider to work. So I will try to time (moment and space) opportunities for people to share their stories. This does change the space. It is amazing what even close colleagues do not know about each other. The inclusion of the personal creates a closer and more meaningful space within which we then work. And people come to further appreciate and understand the perspectives and meanings behind people's analysis and ideas.

8. The "5 year" rule - As any outsider to a process knows one big issue faced is getting people to look way past the day-to-day problems, opportunities and tasks in their "to do" lists and to look long term. The time and focus space in any context is dominated by the immediate. Very early in any support or help process I ask everyone to outline where they want to be in 5 years related to the priority issues "on the table". It is an attempt to raise the group gaze. Looking 5 years ahead changes the social space.

9. The "when do I share my ideas and proposals" rule - Almost everyone asked to help or support a group or process is asked this because they are regarded as having some technical knowledge and expertise. Everything in rules 1 to 8 above works against that happening! So we have a dilemma. My rules for when to share my ideas and proposals revolve around being asked at least 3 times by 3 different people; being substantively into the process that is underway; with sufficient time left for them to be critically examined; and, being able to explain my ideas and proposals using the analysis emerging from the process to date.

10. The "what agenda or plan" rule! - If you are 25% into a support/help process and the opening agenda or plan is still being followed - well - that is not good!

These are just my views. As the intro outlines, how we all help and support each other on each of our priorities may be as important, if not more so, as agreeing upon one set of global priorities that we all follow no matter where we are in the world or what we are seeking to change.

Please do comment below. Would love to have your views and opinions. I am most happy to be critiqued!

Look forward to engaging with you in 2015 - Warren

Warren Feek
Executive Director
The Communication Initiative Network and Partnerships
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