Even when the purpose is clear and everyone understands what should happen and how, you have to be open to some variations based on different and changing perceptions about criteria and priorities.

What? Let's get out of "Jargon City". Try this...

As someone infatuated by all sports, I love to throw a ball around with my children and their friends. There is some sense of weird fun and accomplishment in one person throwing and the other catching. A rhythm is developed. People are connected as the ball moves from one to the other. Skills are learned and refined. Discussion can take place. I find it a wonderful, complete thing to do.

Nothing is more annoying, to me, than the ball being wildly thrown and rolling, for example, over a bank, through the undergrowth and down into a creek. Such events break the purpose, rhythm and boundaries of the simple beauty of throwing and catching a ball. So, this was one cranky Dad a few days ago as two of my children and two of their friends, after ten minutes of blissful throw and catch with me, started throwing the ball, "by accident" as the 7 year old put it, over the bank hard enough to go through the undergrowth and down to the stream. If that was not bad enough, Dad's irritable mood was worsened by the whooping, hollering and glees of delight as 4 kids sped past me and followed the ball over the bank, through the undergrowth and down to the stream!

Now, I can be a little slow at this parenting game, so it took me a while to realise that for the kids this was all part of the fun. Their purpose and understanding of catch and throw were very different from mine. Whilst I wallowed in the rhythm and connections, they viewed racing over a bank, through the undergrowth and down to the stream (preferably as a race and getting dirty and wet in the process) as all part of what constitutes the delights of throw and catch!

How many times have you suggested a communication strategy or activity that you believe will make a significant contribution to positive action on a difficult development issue, only to be told that, though the idea is a very good one - creative, well thought through, full of merit and likely to make a big difference - it does not come within the boundaries or mandate of the present programme? Perhaps you have received replies along these lines:

"Yes, your idea for addressing HIV/AIDS by supporting the involvement of people living with AIDS as local sensitisers and mobilisers in the public gathering points of local communities is a good one but we are funded to support teachers."

"OK, we understand how supporting the network of local travelling drama groups to address environment issues would be really effective with some of the most crucial communities and their "influencers", but this is an initiative based around television."

"Wow, we wish we could set up a local community Bank because it is badly needed for economic regeneration but what this programme is all about is a marketing campaign to encourage economic entrepreneurship."

"Oh my, why did we not think of X [your idea] when we put this programme together, but we didn't and we are not funded to do your idea, even though it is excellent and would make a real difference."

This is a dynamic that also applies across and between development issues. Why can't an HIV/AIDS programme also address malaria issues - after all it would be the same people in the same context? Isn't poverty alleviation just as crucial to raising education standards as direct work with teachers? Just measles communication in this initiative - what about other vaccine-preventable diseases? Take any issue you want, combine it with another priority development concern, and probably a few more, and it is possible to justify a whole range of connected initiatives.

There is a real conundrum here. In order for funders and organisations to have a sense of direction and order to their work, it is necessary to draw some reasonably firm boundaries around what constitutes the programme in question. This also helps with formal accountability for programme implementation and financial spending. Such factors are vital.

But maybe we have the balance wrong. Because it is equally important that the nature of the programmes we do matches the reality of people's lives. At present most development organisations organise their programming around sectoral (e.g.: Health, Education, Environment, Economic Development) boundaries. But in real life these are not such clear divisions. Everyone knows that these are all connected. They feed and bounce off each other. They do not exist in isolation. They do not even have separate antecedents.

The same assessment applies within sectors. One of the jobs that I think is the most difficult in the whole world is District Health Officer in an economically struggling country. Whilst the big agencies might have separate teams for the range of health issues - child health, polio, immunisation, maternal health, HIV/AIDS, TB, etc. - the District Health Officer (DHO) often has to deal with all of these issues by him or herself. The laser beams of the various sector teams in the international development agencies are all locked in on the DHOs in an effort to influence them to take on their agenda as the priority concern in the DHO's district, and yet this person has few, if any, resources at their disposal.

Maybe this conundrum - the apparent conflict between the very legitimate organisational and accountability demands of development agencies and the reality of people's lives, including the strongly threaded links between all priority issues in those communities - suggests a very important role for the development communication community. Perhaps we should be the kids going over the bank, through the undergrowth and down to the river chasing the really important development priorities. We should not be the cranky Dad enforcing and following the accepted rules. There are enough "cranky Dads" in development enforcing rules and procedures. A vital element of our contribution is to see the possibilities for a better match between the real nature of the issues on the ground and the ways that development organisations organise. Let's be the whooping and hollering kids getting excited over the new and creative ideas and brokering the possibility for those to be put into action.

I very much look forward to your response. Please do complete the page review form with your thoughts and comments.


Warren Feek
October 1 2005