It is always interesting to observe the facial expressions and body language of non-communicators in a meeting when the development communicator present says something along the lines of "what we need is a participatory process!" and/or they assess that the programme that is the focus of the meeting in question is not working because there is "insufficient participation"...or any other variation on those phrases.
There are myriad ways in which the participatory view is marginalised at best and ignored at worst. Cell phones suddenly need to be checked. Bathrooms call. Phrases like 'but on the substantive issues'; 'within the time frame available'; 'measurable'; research driven' etc spout into the ether. Or the meeting just continues on the track it was on before the 'participation' thought was utterred. Well - we wish to highlight to our economist, physical sciences, medical, legal, MBA and other 'respected' discipline colleagues that dominate local, national and international development decision making that they should "move right on over baby - the participation time has come - either help be part of the solution or at best stop being part of the problem!.
Yee haa! Here we come!" OK - that felt good!
But why the irrational [perhaps mad in the view of some people] exhuberance!
Four pieces of recent evidence for the development jury:
1. If it is good enough for the most competitive global businesses then it should be good enough for local, national and international development. The recent, best selling book "Wikinomics - How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything" by Tapscott and Williams clearly demonstrates how the most competitive companies in the harshest market places are using participatory processes to make a lot more money. The new technologies enable and support them to do that of course. But what is most interesting is how these companies - from mining and exploration to service delivery - have harnessed those technologies to improve their effectiveness and efficiency through particpatory communication processes. And they have only just begun. This is the trend. So, when someone says to you that a participatory approach is neither efficient nor effective you can read and quote this book. And then tell them to get in step because this is the wave of the future. They can ride that wave or get dumped in the churning water. [ For information on this book see http://www.wikinomics.com/book/ ]
2. If The World Bank says participation is centrally important for effective HIV/AIDS action then lets ramp up overall participatory action immediately! The World Bank is of course dominated by that very special species known collectively as 'economists'! I think it fair to say that that discipline has been the most dismissive of 'participatory communication'. Those of us rowing the communication boat always seem to be asked to "attribute causality", "quantify impact", "develop metrics" and a full range of other factors before we are even allowed into the same development harbour of luxury yachts skippered and crewed by economists. So, imagine my double take - looked, loooked away, shook my head and looked again through squinting eyes - as I read this in a press release from The World Bank: "A World Bank report on HIV/AIDS launched in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, says the mobilization of empowered 'grassroots' communities, along with delivering condoms and life-saving treatments, are beginning to slow the pace of the continent's epidemic". That is participatory communication my friends - well the World Bank phrase for participatory communication - "empowered grass roots communities"! Not only does it put participatory communication in the same harbour as physical products [condoms] and the bio-medical folks [life saving treatments] but we are the lead boat! And this on HIV/AIDS which is generally recognised as one of the most difficult and serious development issues. [Access this URL for a full summary and links to this research http://www.comminit.com/evaluations/eval2007/evaluations-442.html ]
3. If the past teaches then we should learn from it - lets take the media and Civil Rights for example. A key component of participation is voice - whose voice [experiences, perspectives, ideas, analysis, accents, stresses and roots] is expressed in the debate, dialogue and decision making around key development issues. Too often we hear the "bureaucrat" and the "personality" at the cost of the fisherman, market stall seller and truck driver. But how can we assess the effectiveness [man, I sound like an economist!] of whose voice predominates. In their recent book "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation" authors Roberts and Klibanoff do us all a huge favour. They clearly and compellingly demonstrate the central and vital role of the Black Media for the effectiveness of the USA Civil Rights struggle in the 1940s through the 1970s. A Black media that gave voice to the Black experience, ideas and aspirations. A struggle that countered the most difficult economic and cultural obstacles. One of the great economic and social change struggles and achievements of our era - still much to do of course but lets recognise achievement. And in this Pulitzer Prize winning study and book the authors show beyond any shadow of doubt that it was the voice and organisational platform provide by the Black media, particularly at local level, that was the central driver of this change and development process. [Access this link for information on "Race Beat" http://www.randomhouse.ca/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780679403814 ]
4. Uh Oh - The whole world is participating... OK - that was an admittedly attention grabbing over-exaggeration! But think about the trend. Email - wow - can reach anyone; Instant Messaging - wow again - real time chat; YouTube - share and discuss your video; Message boards; Online communities - "old wooden boat owners"; Blogs - not only read what someone wrote but rate and discuss it; Kids virtual community spaces; playing online games across continents; and so on. For virtually any global interest that you can name there will be an online gathering point[s] where people share, discuss and increasingly organise in pursuit of their interest - from the frivolous to the deadly serious. But we have not seen anything yet - some of the participatory communication plans I saw at a recent Silicon Valley meeting of organisations involved in this work are really remarkable. And as the technologies improve, speed up and spread out and the costs come down - in particular broadband access and cost - more and more people and organisations will participate. Participatory networks will grow and strengthen. Hierarchical organisations will diminish and weaken. And the online will morph with the face-to-face communication.
There we have it - 4 really important trends, arguments, data and history [and far too many water based metaphors] for why participatory communication will become front and center in local, national and international development. Not "should become" or "might become" or "could become" - but "WILL become". Not only because participatory communication is vital from the perspective of principles and ethics. But because it works. And, because the conditions are now right for tremendous growth in this approach to local, national and international development.
Which brings me to that old saying - beware what you wish for! With this trend comes any number of significant challenges. Lets hope that we are not the ones in future who raise eyebrows, check cell phones, head for bathrooms, ignore comments and just move on regardless as our views and ideas are questioned. Should be a hell of a ride!