Whilst much of the world has been focused on the recent elections in the UK, with its rare outcome for that country of a hung Parliament and a coalition government, from a development perspective the more important election may be taking place in Colombia.
For the first time that I am aware, a country may elect a President who made his name as a social communicator with a genuine track record of success in addressing some fundamental development challenges. So - not a business person, lawyer, full-time politician or any of the other traditional routes to a Presidency. No, this is someone who made his name by reducing crime, addressing poverty, fomenting social cohesion, and expanding public debate and dialogue through strategies that included mass yoga in the park, clowns at pedestrian crossings, strong local media and public media, Sunday cycle routes on "no car" roads, and a bunch of other innovative communication stuff.
This all took place in Bogota, Colombia when Antanas Mockus was Mayor. What he was intending to do in this often very difficult city was not, of course, about the apparently frivolous stuff of clowns, bikes, and group yoga, but instead was about the really serious goal of strengthening citizenship. To do that, Mockus worked with an understanding of communication as "creating space" - the physical, social, and psychological space for people to engage in the decisions that affect their lives. It was a set of principles that also drove the transformation (rocky at times, but getting there) in Medellin, Colombia - see "Scaling Steep Slopes" (there is a very healthy competition between Medellin and Bogota as to who "invented" this approach first and who has done it best!). For a more in-depth look at the Mockus and Bogota strategy, see "Miming Development" from 2005, and for a selection of CI summaries on this process, please click here.
And now, Antanas Mockus (with his running mate Sergio Fajardo, the ex-mayor of Medellin) is leading most of the polls to become the next President of Colombia when the voting booths close on May 30th! His citizenship strengthening focus, through social communication strategies, with the proven results from Bogota and Medellin over the past decade, seem to have really resonated (another key communication concept) with voters in Colombia - maybe more in the cities than the rural areas. We will know how many on May 30th - or finally on June 20th if a second round is needed. He could lose, of course - this is politics - but the fact that he and his team have gotten so close to such a major policy role - President! - essentially on a social communication track record in a very difficult social, economic, and political environment, speaks volumes for the relevance and added value of communication and media development strategies.
The major competitor to Mockus, and the previous front runner by a very large margin in this election, is the present Minister of Defense - Juan Manuel Santos. As any even occasional observer of Colombia and Latin American politics will be well aware, there is general agreement that the Government of Colombia has been decisively winning its "war" against FARC and its allies. Most Colombians would agree that, though still a comparatively dangerous place in some contexts, Colombia is a lot safer and more secure now than it was 10 years ago. Credit for that goes to President Uribe, who cannot stand again as he has been President for two terms. Uribe is still extraordinarily popular with approval ratings in the 70% range - despite the human rights critique that he has had to answer. Santos, his Minister of Defense, is Uribe's anointed candidate.
So, what we have in Colombia, when the personalities are stripped away, is essentially a political struggle between two distinctly different change philosophies.
Uribe and Santos have led a very tough, uncompromising, hard-edged battle to defeat the forces that they believe (and most Colombians believe, it seems) have created the unsecure and unsafe environment in which too many Colombians have lived. It is a classic case of centralised power, professing to act in the overall interests of the nation, being harnessed to effect change.
Mockus and Fajardo, from their positions as Mayors of major cities with some really big problems, have adopted and implemented change strategies that are based on supporting and facilitating citizens to more actively engage in giving voice to their perspectives and making decisions that create the communities they wish to see - of strengthening the citizenship process – a very different change process.
It is a fascinating struggle. But win or lose, Mockus and all he represents have, at minimum, shown that social communication - media development - development communication - whatever you wish to call it - is a very serious policy plank and policy option. We hope governments and people everywhere take notice.