Message from Denise Gray-Felder
'We Are As Big As We Can Dream'
The passing of a close friend, a courageous Ghanaian woman who was her role model, followed by a journey from Rome to Harare, inspire Consortium President Denise Gray-Felder to live her friend's wisdom: "śWe are as big as we can dream. And we are as successful as we perform.'
The latter half of this year has spawned a series of life-altering events for me personally and for the life of the CFSC Consortium. In late July, my friend and mentor, Vida Yeboah, who originally inspired me to dream big when it came to poverty reduction and women's empowerment, passed away unexpectedly. She was the founder of the Forum for African Women Educationalists Ghana Chapter. During her career, she also served as Ghana's deputy minister of education, a member of parliament and the minister of tourism.
But the job she did best, in my opinion, was that of mentor, friend and role model to girls and women of all ages. My own children lovingly called her Auntie Vida, along with dozens of others who chose that term of endearment over the formal "Madam."Ł
When I received the news of "Madam"Ł Yeboah's death (just one week after we had visited her office and female student-run community radio station in Nsawam), I wept as I hadn't since my mother's death 7 years ago. I cried for the youngsters living in villages across Africa who would never hear a Vida Yeboah story or benefit from her passion as she took on customs and beliefs that limit girls' enrollment in school. I wept about the work we had yet to finish together. And I wept for myself, for it seemed as if one of my rudders had suddenly floated away.
Vida's life and influence illustrate the power of one seemingly ordinary woman making extraordinary commitments. Her name was probably not a household word in most development circles, yet her accomplishments"ödone with pure hard work and the belief that all Ghanaian girls can, and should, be educated"örepresent all that is good and right with development. Vida knew instinctively, even when she was just a young student herself in the 1960s and 1970s, that her country"öand no other African country"öcan truly be developed until all its citizens, men and women, are fully educated and prepared to accept the responsibility of living in a complex global society. She set about mobilizing resources to build schools, to advocate for policy change, to find and train teachers, to showcase the need on a global stage, and---and most importantly"öto listen to what girls and their families believe about female education.
On the day of Vida's funeral I had an epiphany of sorts: Vida's life and the way she ran her NGO are illustrations of good development. Access to money is good, but bigger minds trump large bank accounts any day. Good roads are helpful, but good textbooks lead to greater destinations. Self-determination and accepting responsibility for one's own future always tip the scale away from donor dependency and looking only outwardly for solutions.
Vida's death was followed closely by the release of the Consortium's first comprehensive resource book, the Communication for Social Change Anthology: Historical and Contemporary Readings. This two-volume reference is a milestone for our organisation. This textbook helps legitimize CFSC principles, as many have evolved for nearly 60 years. It helps us prove the solid academic base of this work and its multidisciplinary nature with the writings of known and lesser known scholars such as Luis Beltran, Daniel Prieto, Ignacio Ramonet, Colin Fraser, Frank Ugboajah, Alfred Opubor, Gloria Feliciano, Nora Quebral, Ev Rogers"ötheir contemporaries"öand more than 100 others from all over the world
Our anthology and "Voces del Magdelena,"Ł a video case story of CFSC approaches applied to peace and conflict resolution in war-torn Colombia, both debuted at the World Congress of Communication for Development held in Rome in October. There, CFSC Consortium staff were panelists or presenters in five sessions on health or sustainable development. IFAD hosted on our behalf a briefing session with our networks and the official launch of the anthology.
For me, the Rome congress, for which I served on the steering committee for nearly two years, was important fundamentally because of what its participants tried to do, not for what they actually achieved. For the first time, more than 700 practitioners, researchers, funders and students of communication for development came together to discuss our common ground in an attempt to reach a consensus of principles and values. While the diversity of beliefs and approaches was eye opening, the number of people demanding that the voices of poor and otherwise marginalised people be elevated was hugely reaffirming. A common theme was that development must be centred on the people most affected and that those same people be in control. Needless to say, this is not a position easily embraced by many individuals and organisations in control of development processes.
I might even go so far as to say that CFSC ideology, including principles of voice, participation, local ownership, equity, justice and participatory monitoring and evaluation, rose high above the intellectual chatter in FAO's hallways during the Congress.
Put another way, practitioners and scholars who think as we think were in Rome in droves, thus making clearer to me that the CFSC Consortium's advocacy strategy"öwhich we've been doggedly pursuing seemingly alone at times"öis being replicated within hundreds of NGOs and universities and even within some key aid agencies.
Quite affirming for the life of the CFSC Consortium.
Yet despite all the voices in Rome clamoring for change"öand despite the hard work of everyone on the Congress steering committee"öwe largely were another group of communication professionals talking among ourselves. Someone said to me on the bus ride back to my hotel one evening "if we were in advertising, our clients would be broke."Ł
Is anyone buying what we're selling?
In my view, yes. But perhaps our barometers of success are focused over too few doors. Anyone who works, as we at the Consortium do, in local communities within poorer countries, knows that informed people in real localities want to be included in development processes, and that they are using their creativity and commitment to make their countries stronger. Yet such trailblazers are represented in provincial capitols and within national governments by officials who are accountable only to their sources of development funds. This means that accountability is more often to London, Berlin, Beijing, Tokyo, Paris or Washington than it is to their own country's citizens.
I believe, in the months and years to come, that those of us devoted to communication for social change and development must find ways to help people from local communities across the globe not only elevate their voices but also to hold their elected and appointed officials accountable for development decisions.
As for those of us who advocate for communication for social change, can we use our communication strength to help government officials benefit from "going to the people"Ł and engaging in meaningful dialogue and community-based action? Participation can be unruly, scary and hugely time-consuming. Few will willingly take this challenge unless they can see tangible benefits"öand fast.
At the same time, what must those of us voting in donor countries do to ensure that our elected and appointed officials manage their international assistance operations in ways that allow local voice and decision-making to thrive? Can we sit idly by as development experts from our capitols stream into poorer countries, dominating the discourse and programme development with their ideas and opinions of what is best?
Each of the three Consortium staff attending the World Congress left Rome for critical assignments in very "un-Congress like"Ł atmospheres: Stop TB negotiations elsewhere in Europe; the AMARC (Association Mondiale des Radiodiffuseurs Communautaires/World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters) world assembly in Amman, Jordan and a polio technical advisory group meeting in Harare. Flying home from the WHO Africa Region polio advisory meeting in Zimbabwe, I was struck by how the Rome and Harare gatherings were so different, and yet the underlying discontent in both places resonates.
I had not been back to Zimbabwe (a country I worked in between 1997-2001), for more than five years. I worried incessantly about my friends still living there, especially those (the majority) who had seen their jobs with international assistance agencies disappear as the economy and politics of Zimbabwe plummeted.
From reading international press, I expected to find Zimbabweans starving on the streets of downtown Harare. (I didn't.)
What struck me more was the level of disengagement "ô mostly understated and discussed privately"öamong the educated Zimbabwe middle class. All are greatly saddened by their country's current state and many can still summon some level of outrage. Yet the sense of "what can we do?"Ł permeates every aspect of Zimbabwean society I saw during my very brief stay.
In the late 1990s, I helped start three communication for social change projects in rural Zimbabwe. Among the early outcomes of this work was an increased commitment among Zim youth to raising their voices and advocating for change (as pertains to exposure to HIV risks). I greatly missed that sense of self-empowerment in today's Harare.
As I headed to Harare for the polio communication advisory, our colleagues Heidi Larson and Jim Hunt were engaged in a "Difficult Dialogue"Ł session at Clark University in the eastern part of the United States. (Heidi writes about this session in this issue.)
As I reflect on each of these experiences"öthe World Congress on Communication for Development in Rome, Harare and Clark University"öit is clear to me that those of us working in communication for social change and development are doing a disservice to the people we want to help by leaving the impression that talk is the answer. Advocacy is needed but sustainable processes and systems must be put in place to allow people to move their dialogue into policy and action. In order to do that, we must, as communicators, understand the business of development as well as we understand communication theory and practice.
Let's stop begging to be noticed and engage more in comprehensive analysis that demonstrates our full understanding of the economic and political realities and pitfalls of working in countries like Zimbabwe, or in polio-endemic Nigeria and India. Rather than viewing policymakers and funders as "dates to be attracted"Ł let's show them how "partnering"Ł with communicators is not optional.
Are we communicators acting as self-empowered as we want our on-the-ground stakeholders to be?
Or are we allowing others to control our professional fates?
Yes, we need bigger budgets. Yes, we need policy changes. Yes, we need to be better at leveraging evidence of impact. Yet ultimately, we communicators are responsible when others don't fully understand what we, as individuals or as organisations, contribute to development.
Vida Yeboah taught me that years ago in a tiny rural village in Ghana. "We are as big as we can dream. And we are as successful as we perform."Ł