Why Dialogue Is Priceless
Message from Denise Gray-Felder
Several world events of the past few months weigh heavily on my heart and mind as I write this message. I’m troubled and anxious; yet I’m encouraged and buoyed by the determination and commitment of Kenyans and Zimbabweans living in their native countries as well as around the globe as they raise their voices and stand up against dishonest government. Their stories are stories of conviction and courage. Many have been beaten, persecuted and abused as a result of daring to point out that no one has the right to steal an election, especially those elected previously in democratic elections.
In Myanmar, where free and open elections do not exist, it seems that even farmers are now hungry since Cyclone Nargis devastated the country. It is hard for me to comprehend how any government—democratic or otherwise—would allow its citizens to starve rather than accept outside help. This tragedy is even greater given the fact that, before the cyclone, Myanmar had one of the worst health care systems in the world (rated second from the bottom by the World Health Organisation). One can only imagine the disease that will spread among poor communities while people wait for clean water, medicine and food from aid agencies that are being stopped at the country’s borders.
Meanwhile, in the United States, it is presidential election season: a time when broadcast airways are over-run by pundits, strategists, self-proclaimed political advisers, former White House staffers-turned-fee-for-opinion journalists and a myriad others with ideas and views to offer. Many U.S. voters are already weary of the “political noise” nearly five months before the November election.
While talk is everywhere, I often wonder how real understanding—the desired outcome of genuine dialogue—is furthered. While U.S. media sound bites and political “bombshells” abound, let’s hope the citizens of the United States do not miss the chance to have a real national conversation on racial hatred and its long-term ramifications: a conversation in which the question is not: “Why are Black Americans so angry?” The real question is: “What is it about our legal, political, social, business and educational systems that continually holds back marginalised people?”
I am not an expert on political dialogue. But I do know that real sharing of ideas and active listening can help people change. And that dialogue is an early, and essential, first step in helping people assess their beliefs, evaluate harmful positions and prompt understanding of opposing views. Following the post-Christmas election in Kenya, I’m told that Kenyans around the world recreated their communities virtually, came together in real and virtual dialogues (despite political and tribal differences), and committed to “take back their country.” These conversations helped boost the resolve of those in Nairobi negotiating face-to-face. As we know, a decision to form a compromise government was reached and a fragile peace is holding in Kenya.
In Zimbabwe, it has not been as clear. SADC (Southern African Development Community) representatives and internal bridge-builders are working together to try to propose a transition plan and transition government. Surely Zimbabwean people are tired. Yet heroes and heroines within the country continue to plug on, buoyed by the belief that once better governance is in place, Zimbabwe might return to its 1990s stature as Africa’s bread basket, a time when that country’s education system and literacy rates were a model for Africa.
In Mozambique and Madagascar, the CFSC Consortium is partnering with the UNDP Oslo Governance Centre on a communication for empowerment process. We recently completed information and communication needs assessments in both countries. These assessments revealed that people who are poor and marginalised want their information outlets—media and traditional—to provide information of use to their daily lives: farming tips, economic and marketplace news they can understand, updates on anti-corruption efforts, gender empowerment initiatives, etc. And armed with information helpful to their lives, citizens are likely to become and remain engaged in the governance of their communities. Community radio was deemed the most helpful communication outlet for prompting dialogue around important issues—and for elevating voices and opinions that are often overlooked. Community radio, respondents felt, has the power to change societies because it gives voice and ownership to local people.
Reflecting on these issues, I’m struck by how our natural inclinations, as humans, are to stay together, talk together and work together. Most people seem to intrinsically believe that “the sum is greater than its parts.” So it is our responsibility as communicators for development to use our skills to enhance communities and strengthen collective resolve to attack the common enemies: poverty, sickness and ignorance. How often do we, as communicators, go into a situation bringing information and “teaching” what we feel is correct rather than first listening, understanding the cultural context and strengthening existing relationships.
Dialogue is one of many tools at our disposal. Yet how often does it come too late in a communication project?
This issue of Mazi highlights a few fascinating examples of using community dialogue in various ways: a historical look at participatory theatre used to catalyse conversation and community planning in Nigeria; participatory education efforts in Cyprus and the initial public conversations about the long-term view of AIDS, sponsored by aids2031.
In the coming months and years, the Consortium will do more work in researching the impact of implementing, assessing and documenting public conversations, or community dialogues. We want to learn more about how and when dialogues are productive, what type of indicators of progress can be employed, how to analyse evidence that dialogue is influencing dominant belief patterns, whether or how outside sources can spark effective community dialogues, and how to show that “dialogue works” to often sceptical funders or bureaucrats.
In northern Nigeria, Consortium consultants are working to strengthen planning systems and implementing community dialogues used in polio eradication efforts. With aids2031, the communication working group (which the Consortium convenes) will partner with others working on leadership, program and social drivers of the AIDS pandemic to catalyse conversations in diverse ways around the future response to AIDS. We hope to galvanize productive dialogue face-to-face, via online forums, via traditional means within villages and even using mobile telephony.
We invite Mazi readers to share information on where and how conversations about the long-term response to the AIDS pandemic are occurring, or how they might be sparked in your village, province or country. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
We also would love to hear your examples of where and how community (or political) dialogue is working and why.
Talk may be cheap, but the use of dialogue to further understanding, acceptance and shared values is priceless.