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Making the Connection: CFSC and the ‘Report of the Commission for Africa’

This year, the publication of "Our Common Interest: Report of the Africa Commission," combined with other events, could well mark a break with development policy as it has evolved since the Second World War. For the first time, the opportunity exists for developing countries to take control of their own development agendas. In this article, the Consortium's James Deane, managing director, strategy, suggests that, while many obstacles remain, the potential for people most affected by development to make their voices heard and to make decisions affecting their lives has rarely been greater.

Communication for social change has one main aim: Use the power of communication to enable people, especially poor and marginalised people, to shape the decisions that affect their lives.

Communication in development is still used mainly to educate and inform people about what outside agencies think they need to know. Increasingly, though, using communication to equip and empower people to take control of their own development agendas is no longer an unusual or contentious aim. Many organisations working to fight poverty"”including the largest such as the World Bank"”talk about the importance of participation, about how essential it is that poor people's voices are heard and about how so many development initiatives fail because they do not take into account the perspectives of the people most affected.

Difference Between Rhetoric and Practice

True, participation has been a mainstay of development rhetoric and thinking for many years, and the role of communication in equipping people to take control of their lives has also become increasingly recognised over the last decade.

But recognition and rhetoric are very different from implementation and practice.

Participation has undoubtedly become a mainstream practice in designing specific, community-based projects. However, it is much less evident in how development policy is formed, and in how people most affected by development decisions really shape those decisions.

2005 may go down in history as the year all that began to change.

Future historians may view 2005 as the year when the effort to make poverty history became, for the first time, a serious one. For the first time the international community, at least some of it, appears more ready to let developing countries develop on their own terms and according to their own agendas. It may also be viewed as the year when the role of culture, communication and participation finally moved from the arena of project design to become the bedrock upon which all development action is built.

2005: A long report in a crowded year

In a year crowded with landmark events, the "Report of the Commission for Africa" may stand out as the most remarkable. Later this year, in September, heads of state gather in New York for a summit to review progress towards meeting the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). With the aim of halving world poverty, these goals include achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, ensuring sustainable development and building a global partnership for development.

Already in January we have seen the publication of the U.N. Millennium Report, "Investing in Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals." The report is also known as the Sachs report, after its lead author, economist Jeffrey Sachs. The report lays out a detailed, realistic blueprint for how the MDGs can be met, focussing in particular on a series of "quick wins" where development assistance can be spent rapidly and with great effect.

An Ambitious"”and Radical--Report

But it is the Africa Commission report that is the most ambitious, and"”unexpectedly"”the most radical of these initiatives. The brainchild of Bob Geldof, former rock star and the man behind Live Aid, and of Tony Blair, the British prime minister, the Commission for Africa report was first seen as lacking credibility. Blair's involvement was viewed by many as a cosmetic, even patronising, exercise aimed at burnishing his tarnished international image. For many in Africa and elsewhere who opposed British involvement in the Iraq invasion, the initiative lacked credibility.

There are good reasons to revise that view.

First, most commissioners were from Africa. And it is clear that their perspective has dominated the report.

Second, Blair has stated that the report represents U.K. government policy, and that it will be a centrepiece of the agenda at the G8 heads of government meeting in July, in Scotland. The U.K. government will chair the G8. So, unlike other reports of this kind, it is a report from a serving prime minister of a government, rather than, like the Sachs report, a report written by an expert and submitted to governments.

Third, the report did not draw principally on the views of experts and academics. Instead, it conducted a series of consultations with ordinary women and men across Africa, consultations that obviously had a profound impact on the report's recommendations.

And finally, and most importantly, the report provides a set of radical, uncompromising and compelling recommendations fundamentally rooted in a cultural analysis. It addresses the principal weakness of most current development policy.

Why So Many Development Programmes Fail

Development policy refers to anything that shapes the environment in which poor people live, encompassing that swathe of issues ranging from debt to trade to aid to land reform to macro economics. For 40 years, development policy has been shaped by development institutions in the industrialised world, in effect making policy for those in the economically developing world. Any strategy designed to empower people, to place those most affected by development at the heart of debates on development have struggled like plants in barren soil. While the policies that most impact the world's poorest people are shaped in ignorance of their perspectives and experience, no amount of development assistance or local level participation is likely to succeed.

The report of the Commission for Africa recognises this:

Policies often fail because they are created without a full understanding of the local situation, people or history. The term participation holds a variety of meanings, but in essence is about people expressing their views and taking part in the decisions that affect their lives. Although in the past participation has been associated with community development projects, African participation is required broadly, from the project to the national or international level. Page 134

The report is 450 pages long. What makes it a landmark -- a potentially historic turning point in the development field -- and why it has such relevance to those involved in communication for development is the fact that the report has done everything it can to base its recommendations and its analysis on its starting point: "We begin by telling the world how the problem looks through African eyes"Š We insist on the need for Africa's voice to be heard more clearly."

Uniquely for a report of this kind, it is rooted in a cultural analysis:

Ask the big question: "˜What is development for?' and you get very different answers in different cultures. Many in Western countries see it as being about... Africa's "catching up" with the developed world. In Africa by contrast, you will be more likely to be told something to do with well-being, happiness and membership of a community"ŠThe trouble is that in the debate on development, though we all use the same terms, we often don't mean the same thing by them. Different cultures manifest their ideas of political and economic freedom in very different ways. For this reason, the Commission decided to consider the issue of culture before embarking on political and economic analysis. Culture is more than the arts. It is about shared patterns of identity. It is about how social values are transmitted and individuals are made to be part of a society. Culture is how the past interacts with the future. Page 26

Proposal: A Revolution in Development Policy

With this cultural basis, the report recommends that Africans shape development policy. And it describes how this should take place.

The report argues, for example, that
  • Developing countries are often more accountable to Northern donors than they are to their own citizens, and this must change;
  • Good governance is critical to Africa's future development, but imposing conditions on aid often does more harm than good;
  • Major investment in Africa's institutions, such as the African Union and t he New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), will ensure continued progress;
  • Donor spending should be for long-term programme support, not short- term project support;
  • Donors must harmonise their aid far more effectively among themselves, and their priorities should be harmonised with the priorities, procedures and systems of African governments;
  • A three-part strategy of ensuring fairer trade, increasing development assistance rapidly and forgiving Africa's remaining debt burden is an essential foundation of progress;
  • The system of appointments to the heads of major international institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), should not be based on nationality and
  • A major "big push" of heavy investment, including doubling of aid, is necessary.
In essence, the report proposes a revolution in current development policy, a revolution we can understand only in the context of what has come before.

An Historic Departure?

From the end of the Second World War up to today, the industrialised countries have shaped development policy. During the Cold War, the superpowers principally used development assistance as an extension of foreign policy, with an East-West axis of aid being disbursed to friendly states. Much aid was spent to support brutal dictatorships.

After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the use of aid as a straightforward instrument of geopolitical power weakened, but it was replaced by its positioning within the new context of globalisation, a process that removed power from the most economically weak national governments.

This required the opening up of capital markets on the terms of the West and saw the intensive focus of the World Bank and IMF on structural adjustment programmes. At the same time, conservative governments in the United States and the United Kingdom sought to weaken the influence of the United Nations, the body through which developing countries could most exert influence.

During the 1980s and 1990s, increasingly open political and communication systems gave rise to more democratic governments emerging in many developing countries. This trend was accompanied by increasingly vigorous and effective civil societies, both at national and global levels, focused on issues of trade, justice, debt and exerting a growing influence in shaping development policy. This trend in turn prompted more focus in development debates on principles of local ownership and participation.

Despite this, development policy has continued to be shaped by the North. One of the starkest examples of the gap between rhetoric and policy has been the World Bank's poverty reduction strategy processes. In the late 1990s, the World Bank, prompted by its president, Jim Wolfensohn, made a major effort to inject more country ownership into development policy when it launched its Comprehensive Development Framework. These evolved into what are now poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs), which were meant to be country-driven processes that included public ownership and civil society consultation, in which countries are responsible, and accountable, for formulating their own plans. Donor support to government budgets and so-called sector-wide approaches were incorporated into these processes, and the governments of developing countries were assumed to be in the driving seat.

A Step Forward"”But With Mixed Results

Results of the PRSPs have been mixed. They have been the focus of widespread criticism that civil society consultation has only occurred in token ways, that fundamental issues of macroeconomic policy have been off limits to debate, and that the process is driven by World Bank's technical advisers, not by the governments. Furthermore satisfactory completion of PRSPs has been tied explicitly to qualification for the Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC).

Many civil society organisations, and to some extent the World Bank itself, have been highly critical of the lack of participation, public debate and ownership surrounding PRSPs. Communication initiatives designed to open PRSPs to public debate have been severely limited. While a step forward from structural adjustment programmes, in effect it was the World Bank that has called the shots in poverty reduction strategy design.

Even in the last five years, global development policy has been principally driven by the industrialised world. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the overarching policy framework for nearly all governments North and South, is widely seen as some of the most inclusive and broadly "owned" development policies in history.

The MDGs emerged principally from a set of donor-defined agendas, emanating principally from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

In 1996, the OECD, the club of the world's richest nations, adopted a new strategy, Shaping the 21 st Century. This strategy outlined much of what is today the framework of the MDGs. Stressing the importance of local ownership, the report used as its principal reference point many of the already agreed-upon targets outlined in the preceding decade, a time called the "decade of conferences."

This strategy led to a decision to bring together the key conclusions of these major conferences under one overall umbrella, a series of what were then called the International Development Targets, and these in turn formed the basis of the MDGs.

While the development and adoption of MDGs were undoubtedly a major breakthrough in development policy and have galvanised and unified international efforts on development, they have been subject to criticism, much of it rooted in the derivation of the MDGs from this donor agenda. Critics of the MDGs have argued that they are based on a conception of development that sees people in the South as targets to be acted on rather than agents of their own change.

It is only against this historical context that the Africa Commission, and other events this year, can be judged.

For 50 years, development policy has been shaped by the industrialised world. The Africa Commission identifies this as a principal cause of the failures of those decades:

History has shown that development does not work if it is driven from outside. Africans must lead and the rich world must give support...conditions have not been better for 30 years. Page 57 .

This notion appears throughout the report. It is the foundation for all the report's other recommendations, as is its critique of the past. In fact, it is scathing about the subject of development institutions, particularly of Bretton Woods institutions:

Africa's record on human development is poor compared to that of the East and South Asia. The decades in which Asia was investing, the 1970s and 1980s, were the years of crisis, when African governments were slashing the budgets of both clinics and schools at the behest of the International Monetary Fund. Evidences shows that IMF and World Bank economic policy in the 1980s and early 1990s took little account of how these policies would potentially impact on poor people in Africa.

2005 may then be seen as a fresh start for development, based on a vision not only of concerted action on debt, trade and aid, but also on the principle that those best equipped to make decisions in the best interests of the poor are those who are most accountable to the poor. The extent to which such a vision is translated into reality depends on many factors and overcoming many obstacles.

Missing: No Real Consensus

While the Africa Commission report and this year's broader international development initiatives command increasing international political support, that support is not universal.

For example, the United States government in particular shows little sign of supporting some of the key recommendations of the Africa Commission, such as the International Finance Facility designed to front load development assistance. The United States has not substantially structured its development assistance within the framework of the MDGs. The country has a long history of imposing rigorous conditions on its development assistance and not building local capacity. The philosophy of development outlined in Blair's Africa Commission is diametrically opposed to the U.S. policy.

Take one of the more highly publicised recommendations of the Commission:

Top jobs in the IMF and World Bank should no longer be restricted to candidates of Europe and the United States but should be filled through open competition. If reform is not forthcoming the international public will be forced to the conclusion that these institutions, established after the Second World War, are becoming increasingly irrelevant in our post-Cold War, post-apartheid, post 11 September world. Page 59

Almost simultaneous to the publication of the report, President Bush nominated Paul Wolfowitz to become the next president of the World Bank, a move sharply criticised by civil society groups and some governments. The report lays down a direct challenge to how power in the international development arena is exercised. The Wolfowitz appointment clearly shows how difficult it is likely to be to change long established power structures and practices.

Challenge of Cultural Change Among Donors

Another major obstacle to achieving the MDGs is the practice of donor and development agencies. The report marks a profound challenge to the way most development agencies operate. Steps are already being taken to ensure that donors harmonise their aid more effectively with each other and according to priorities. However, the challenge of adapting development assistance to the recommendations of the Africa Commission is daunting.

Development aid, despite its stated goal of development cooperation, is more often a competitive business. Many funding organisations compete with one another, and nearly all non-funding organisations find themselves in competition for funding. In a competitive situation, it is not in the interest of development agencies to surrender control of their agendas. Nor is it in their interest to ensure that credit for successful initiatives is shared. In the field of communication, agency staff are consistently asked to prioritise the branding and profile of their organisation above efforts to provide a voice to the people most affected by an issue.

A huge cultural change is required by agencies for agencies to surrender their agendas to those most in need of development aid.

Donors and most development agencies are structured to assess and report results that most make sense to them, not which make most sense to those most affected. Most funding is project-based and short term. The reason for this: It enables agencies to assess the impact in terms that they can deal with.

That's why, for instance, the Africa Commission report proposes that most development expenditures be long term, making it difficult to tie the aid to a political election campaign. The report also recommends that aid be programme-based, making the specific contribution of the donor more difficult to discern for reporting purposes, and that aid be harmonised, making it difficult for donors to highlight the value of their support compared to anyone else's.

Such recommendations fly in the face of current development practice. Much of the development assistance community today is preoccupied with such terms as "more development assistance for the money" and "results-based management," which place the highest importance to quantifying specific and measurable results from specific donor inputs over short time periods.

Not surprisingly, communication for social change programmes find it difficult to raise substantial funds. They are, by definition, long term, difficult to measure (because shifts in social norms are more difficult to detect than shifts in individual behaviours), and highly reliant upon unleashing voices of poor people who conventionally are not heard when aid decisions are made.

Communication: A Pillar, Not An Adjunct

Clearly, the challenge of rooting development policy in the cultural realities of developing countries requires a much more intensive focus on enabling people most affected by poverty to have a voice not only in the design of specific projects but at all stages of development policy.

This is a central theme of the Africa Commission's conclusions, but measures to ensure this remain low on development agendas.

Currently, people's voices are heard in several ways: through democratic elections and processes; through civil society and other non-governmental organisations and through the media and other communication processes. The first two are the mainstay of most development governance programmes, but the role of the media and communication in enabling people to exercise accountability and make their voices heard remains a low priority on development agendas.

The Africa Commission report has a good deal to say about communication and media. For example:

Information flows in Africa through a variety of media, including established media such as radio, traditional communications such as song and story-telling, and new technologies including mobile phones. Private media outlets and liberalised airwaves are increasing"ŠIndependent media institutions, public service broadcasters, civil society and the private sector, with support from governments, should form a consortium of partners in Africa and outside, to provide funds and expertise to create an African media development facility. We urge donors to increase substantially their funding to African independent media institutions and those governments promoting free media. Page 145

Such proposals must be judged in the light of experience of previous media initiatives. Very little media and communication funding currently exists specifically to enhance the voices of poor and marginalised peoples. And we should make clear that communication programmes are needed, which tend to be more culturally based, holistic and long-term than pure media efforts.

Communication for development and media support is generally prioritised in three ways.
  • First, it is used to educate people to raise awareness or change their behaviour. For example, funding for mass media, social marketing and educational initiatives is a mainstream part of donor spending, ranging from marketing condoms to encouraging women to have their children vaccinated.
  • Second, it is used to support free media. Such support is principally concerned with the media acting as a check on government and is less concerned with issues of poverty. There are many examples of media systems, and support for those systems, where media is free and open but is accessible only to perhaps only 20 percent of a principally urban population. The last decade in particular has witnessed a dynamic information revolution in much of Africa, with an explosion of media of all forms as well as new technologies.
  • Third, support for communication and media seeks to create enabling environments for change where the affected people living in poor communities are empowered to create their own media and communication systems or to encourage mainstream media to cover issues of concern to them. Such initiatives include community dialogue and decision-making using communication for social change processes, community media, encouraging journalists to report on development related issues, or the creation of plural broadcasting environments. In essence, such support is aimed at creating an enabling communication environment in which poor people have access to information on issues affecting them in forms they can understand and assess, and access to means of having their say on these issues in ways in which their voices will be heard in public and by decision makers.
This last component is arguably the most critical, but is also the most neglected in development strategies.

Needed: Long-term Strategies, Not Short-Term Results

Creating these so-called communication environments requires long-term, multidimensional strategies, the kind that many donor agencies simply find easier to ignore. Yet there is strong evidence, established over more than 30 years, that demonstrates the crucial role and impact of communication for social change strategies.

But this remains an area deeply misunderstood. It's often anathema to organisations focused only on short-term results. Unless this changes, the recommendation by the Africa Commission to base development programmes on culture will whither away and die.

This article has focused on the many positive points of the Africa Commission. However, problems also exist.

For example, the commission remains, ironically, an initiative of the North. It proposes an immense investment in governmental power and responsibility. The evidence to date of such "budget support" has not always been encouraging, particularly where resources have been diverted from civil society organisations, which hold governments to account, and towards governments.

There is a real danger that too many heroic assumptions have been made of the peer review and other mechanisms designed to prevent waste and corruption. However, in the spirit of the report, such concerns are neither new nor original and, rather than suggest inaction, they argue even more strongly for investment in strategies that can expose development investment to public scrutiny and public debate.

The report also focuses heavily on issues of harmonisation, aligned policy making and all actors working within one framework. The danger here is that we will find ourselves with a set of "lowest common denominator" policies, a series of false consensus documents rather than the bold and radical, civil society and publicly debated policies the commission appears to espouse.

If there is extreme homogeneity of development policy, how are the new development challenges to be recognised and addressed? It took almost 20 years for the beginning of a sufficiently effective and determined response to HIV/AIDS to be marshalled, far too late to contain a cataclysmic pandemic. It is the radical voices in society, as with HIV, who are often those best placed to sound the warning of new development problems. Who is to do so if all development policy is squeezed into an inflexible homogeneity?

Nor does the report seriously address the fundamental geopolitical realities that exist with the United States, in particular, proposing and implementing policies designed explicitly to benefit the United States, not the countries to which development assistance is designed to benefit.

Unless the United Kingdom and other governments are seriously prepared to invest political as well as financial capital in making this report a reality, little can be achieved. Furthermore, this is a report of the Africa Commission. What about developing countries in Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America?

Nevertheless, for those who argue that currently much development policy and practice remain fatally flawed by the inability to hear and act on the voices of those most affected by development, 2005 may be the beginning of a real change.

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