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Collective Wisdom Is Always Better Than Individual Opinion - Message from Denise Gray-Felder

A smart interviewer once asked me: "What keeps you awake at night?"¯ This has become one of my favourite interview questions. Because, if answered thoughtfully, the person questioned must closely examine her actions, values, anxieties and accomplishments"”on a short-term as well as long-term basis.

Lately, I've been using my sleepless nights to ponder why those of us in communication for development don't work together more regularly and effectively. Why do we often prefer multiple, fragmented communication strategies when working on a development issue, such as AIDS, tuberculosis, or poverty reduction, when we know that "silo"¯ approaches, i.e., narrowly focused functional ways of working, haven't worked.

Instead of taking time to undertake the hard work required to come together as a professional community and craft a comprehensive communication strategy, we often settle for approaches that are incomplete and short term.

Or, perhaps equally as puzzling, why don't funding organizations, supporters and bosses demand integrated communication approaches based upon what affected people want and need. Only when communication is rooted in the reality and context of how real people think, act, behave, talk and teach their children does social change have a chance of being sustainable and effective.

Left to our own devices, most aid agencies"”and the communication groups and departments that support them"”take provincial, organizational approaches to their work. We normally react based on what is the organization's way of working, or what furthers the organization's short-term goals.

Put another way, we do what we've always done, which too often merely maintains the status quo. We don't take innovative approaches that might lead to real change.

Why take time to hear and respond to the needs of the people we are allegedly working for or representing, when the day-to-day pressures of raising money or conducting programme evaluations overwhelms?

I suspect the answer lies in the fact that there's strength in numbers. We know that a collective of community members almost always creates better solutions than a single person or organization. We know that outside expert opinions are rarely on target or useful without the input of the people affected. We know that three heads are better than two, especially when the group embraces diversity and critical reasoning.

Several key events seem to be converging. First, like others in communication for development, the Consortium is considering how to respond to the communication challenges outlined in Our Common Interest: Report of the Commission for Africa. Prompted by Bob Geldof and the UK's prime minister, Tony Blair, this report sets out a series of challenges for development, many of which are rooted in culture and communication.

The report stresses repeatedly that strategies to accelerate development within African nations must be led by Africans. We applaud such positions: Africa for Africans must prevail. (For more on the Commission for Africa, see James Deane's thoughtful opinion piece in this issue of Mazi.)

Yet it seems that many in communication and in development struggle with what "African led"¯ means and how it can become a reality. We believe it on an intellectual level, but can we carry this out if it means ceding control"”let alone power and influence?

Whether rich, dominant nations can relinquish control of critical decisions to poor, distressed countries of Africa seems to be a history-making question. How the global aid community answers this question will speak volumes about whether those of us in the North can live up to our stated values: respect for poor communities, acceptance of new ideas and conviction that people should influence decisions impacting their lives.

With the majority of development money coming from richer countries of Europe, North America and parts of Asia, the initial tendencies have been to look to governments of such countries for responses to the Africa Commission report.

We at the Consortium believe that, early in the planning stage, the world must take into account how the global aid community will hear from Africans. What processes should we use to promote dialogues throughout Africa on what development can and should be? What must be done to ensure that we foster democratic development, which makes leaders of recipient African countries accountable to their own citizens and to the taxpayers of the donor countries? And how will donor agencies be accountable to the citizens of the receiving country, as well as to their own taxpayers?

How do we unleash African values and beliefs to design and implement solutions better than ones I, an outsider, might propose from the vantage point in the North, despite how well-intentioned I might be?

Can we as communication practitioners practice what we preach and put in place processes that ensure dialogue and collective planning with colleagues in Africa before we charge ahead with solutions and fund-raising proposals? And can we come together as a community to devise plans that go beyond the usual organizational responses?

As a community, let's join forces to combine the collective intelligence, experience and wisdom of many people, organizations and nations to do what we do best: listen, respond and implement communication strategies that are holistic, complete and culturally based.

The second opportunity converging with publication of the Commission for Africa report is the upcoming World Congress on Communication for Development, which will take place in Rome, March 2006. As a member of the planning committee, I see how easy it is to slip back into usual organizational perspectives, instead of the more rational"”and critically necessary"”needs of the entire communication for development field.

But, if properly implemented, the meeting just might unify a field that is continually fractionalised by competition among organizations for ideas, positioning, visibility, staff, budgets, credit and leadership.

We all have great ideas about what the Congress should look like and who should participate. Again, the challenge will be to marshal the power of collective thinking instead of relying only on the vision of a single organization or committee. We run the risk of concluding the Congress with no more progress than when we started"”and with no more respect within development circles"”unless we take the time to learn what people in development want and how they plan to get what they want.

That's the essence of communication for social change.

I'm the first to admit that working together is hard. It is agonizing, fuzzy and extremely time-consuming. Relationships have to be built first and they must be constantly nurtured. That's how one learns to trust, and it's how the group process becomes stronger.

And that's why, during my waking hours, I'm convinced that the whole is always stronger than its parts. For, when it comes to communication for social change, collective wisdom is always better than individual opinion or action.

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