Where do we start to develop overall policy in international development? And why should we bother? For me this is a key media and communication issue - prompted by reading a recent conference agenda shared by a colleague.
It seems that the standard practice for developing international development policy and for inculcating that policy into the actions of people worldwide, no matter what the issue, is to get the technical experts together with the funders, figure out what works, let everyone know, and then keep refining the process. Many of us have been to such conferences. Experts deliver their views. The latest research data is revealed. Key global leaders in that field express their views on where the next steps should be taken. Declarations are drafted, adopted, and promoted as "the best practice" all should now follow. Pick any issue, and we all know the process.
The Pacific Health Summit 2010 - ironically held in London, UK - is a classic example of what looks like the tried and true formula writ large. Focused on the vital issue of Maternal and Newborn Health and titled "The Crux of a Decent Humanity," it gathers the senior staff from major research institutions such as Georgetown University in DC and a range of Foundations to look at this vitally important issue. The topics look familiar: "Delivering Results"; "How do we Achieve Maximum Impact"; and "What is at Risk?" Normal stuff.
And that is, of course, part of the problem. When the "we" in sessions entitled "Acknowledging the Context: How Do WE Achieve Maximum Impact," and "Delivering Results: How Can WE Mobilise the Creativity of Business,” and “Financing Our Way to Action: What Should WE Be Funding" - when the WE (my caps) refers to Global-level (almost always Northern) funders and technical experts, then there is something seriously wrong with international development policy and strategy formulation processes.
What about the other WE - the WE that feature at the beginning of the United States of America constitution and many other national constitutions? When funders and technical experts position themselves as the key actors, the main promoters, the central decision makers, when they do it with an almost complete absence of those people who are intimately involved in these issues in their communities, who work on them at national country level, who are active in local and national organisations - what happens when the people’s perspectives are absent?
I checked the agenda for the Pacific Health Summit. Of the 51 people listed as introducers, moderators, and panellists, only 7 - yes 7 - are working in national governments or national or local agencies from the global South. There are "leadership" places for Coca-Cola, Karolinska, Imperial College, Glaxo, Arizona State, and the University of Toronto, et al.
But where are Africa Women's Development Fund, Tostan, Breakthrough, Soul City, Story Workshop, Puntos de Encuentro, Calandria, or any of the hundreds of at-scale, locally and nationally developed strategies and programmes that deal with these issues, every day, in context? Should they not be part of the "WE"? Indeed, would that not strengthen the WE from the perspective of ensuring greater relevance of the policy ideas developed and give those policy ideas a much larger chance of being appropriated and implemented?
I fully understand the temptation for the policy experts and the funders (increasingly the same role by one person/agency, it seems) to get together. But by doing this, some important change principles have been missed. As anyone in communication/media development knows: engagement, debate, dialogue, and joint formulation of policy platforms and strategic elements, from a range of different perspectives, are vital for effective action. The shorthand is participation. Sadly, that has become a very devalued term.
So, in developing policy - and there is no doubt that forums such as the Pacific Health Summit are policy development processes - let’s go for the real WE not the royal WE. The policies will be much better.