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Building global communications can do a massive amount for sustainability. But there are hurdles.

Thursday 11 February 2010
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Giles Crosse discovers why.

It’s not tough to understand how vital communication is to building a more sustainable planet. The ways in which we talk, or fail to talk with one another can be seen as a pretty effective metaphor for global problems.

Failure of diplomacy to alleviate international conflict is a key example of what goes wrong when communication breaks down. In fact, this touches on every aspect of life from daily routines to high level summits.

There’s a certain irony that the difficulties faced by a child with hearing or learning disabilities, confused and frustrated, aren’t that markedly different from a diplomat struggling to achieve international consensus on climate change.

Lack of common ground, constraints over shared language, anger, inability to express emotions, while many of these elements might seem best placed in the playground they all impact higher up the global hierarchy. And they are all centred on communication.

Practically speaking

There are plenty of less theoretical examples of how talking can help or hinder the global community.

Poor communication is intrinsically linked with both access to education and the quality of education. Education then determines what positions citizens might play in a global community. Imagine for example a child affected by learning difficulties in a developing country where English or other international languages aren’t taught.

Beyond exceptional circumstances, it’s highly unlikely such a child is ever going to be equipped with the tools to effectively participate in a global community. This in turn will restrict access to better paid, meaningful employment, in turn limiting any contribution to the country’s economy and potentially investing through taxes in better education for the following generation.

There are however paths around these issues. The World for World Organisation works internationally, hoping to improve how communications influence sustainable development and provide universal primary education, all by the target date of 2015, to meet the needs of the world’s poorest.

Making it happen

Communication for Development (CD) theory and practice have been changing over time, in line with the evolution of development approaches and trends and the need for effective applications of communication methods and tools to new issues and priorities.” explains the WFWO Communications Team.

At the end of the eighties, the participatory approach became a key feature in the applications of CD to Sustainable Development.

“CD is about dialogue, participation and the sharing of knowledge and information. It takes into account the needs and capacities of all concerned through the integrated and participatory use of communication processes, media and channels.” continues the WFWO team.

“Within the WFWO framework plan, communication is considered as a social process that is not confined to the media or to messages, but to their interaction in a network of social relationships.”

“Communication is essential to achieve participation and empowerment, two key elements of sustainable development initiatives. It can facilitate the active and conscious participation of all stakeholders at any moment of the project cycle.”

Ironically, it seems recent changes have in some ways made things yet harder. “Communication for Sustainable Development has been facing new issues and challenges in the last decade, as a consequence of globalisation, media liberalisation, rapid economic and social changes, and the emergence of new information and communication technologies (ICTs).”

“Liberalisation has led not only to greater media freedoms, but also to the emergence of an increasingly consumer led and urban centred communication infrastructure, which is less and less interested in the concerns of the poor.”

“While there has been a general global trend towards much greater media freedom, sometimes this trend has been confined largely to urban metropolitan middle classes rather than the population as a whole.”

“Finally, women and other vulnerable groups and in general the rural population continue to suffer marginalisation in and from communication networks, and evidence of the scale of discrimination within the media itself is growing.”

The WFWO reckons to effectively improve this, more focus is needed on communication by NGOs and UN agencies, across areas including Behaviour Change Communication, Communication for Development, Communication for Social Change and Health Communication Information. It’s also vital to make sure all these processes work at local level and in the field.

Field level action

“Success in CD initiatives starts with the participatory analyses of the needs of local institutions and stakeholders, taking into account local culture and values, and promoting a concerted action for development.” reveals WFWO.

“This analysis would also build common understanding about the differences in applying communication in different political and cultural contexts. Communication can also play a decisive role in promoting the empowerment of women and girls.”

“More specifically, communication processes can give rural women a voice to advocate changes in policies, attitudes and social behaviour or customs that negatively affect them.”

“CD can support women empowerment, enabling them to take control of their lives and participate as equals with men in promoting food security and rural development. Without communication the voices of rural women for change will not be heard.”

Elements like the internet will be key to this. But WFWO worries in the rush to ‘wire’ developing countries, little attention has been paid to the design of ICT programs for the poor, ignoring many lessons learned over the years by approaches which emphasise communication processes and outcomes over the application of media and technologies.

It seems there needs to be a focus on the real needs of communities and the benefits of the new technologies, rather then the quantity of technologies available. Local content and languages are critical to enable the poor to have access to the benefits of the information revolution.

There’s also worry regarding global media markets, now dominated by a mere handful of multinationals: globalisation of communication could be threatening cultural diversity and the traditional values of minorities.

But hope remains better, well thought out local communication strategies using global technology can embed sustainability in poor communities. “Communication therefore, can contribute to the effective reduction of poverty as well as offering better opportunities for the active involvement of marginalised groups and isolated populations into policy development and decision making.” confirms WFWO.

“Within this framework, WFWO and other partners are working on the appropriation of communication for development processes and technologies by marginalised and vulnerable groups, including indigenous peoples to ensure that they claim their right to a voice in decision making which affects their lives.”

Health concerns

Of course, for communications to work, health provision also needs to be right. I CAN is a UK based children’s communications charity. It estimates that in the UK today, 10 per cent of all children, or 1.2 million, have long term or persistent SLCN (speech, language and communication needs).

In some parts of the UK, particularly areas of social disadvantage, upwards of 50 per cent of children are starting school with poor language skills. If a developed country like the UK has such problems, challenges facing underdeveloped countries come into yet sharper focus.

Wendy Lee, Expert Advisor for I CAN, explains: “Communication is the foundation life skill; the basis on which children learn, achieve and make friends. Poor communication affects individuals, families, communities and ultimately the economy costing an estimated 26 billion a year.”

“A more equitable future would be one where speech, language and communication are seen as vitally important for all children. Children, families and the children’s workforce need to understand what is meant by good speech, language and communication skills.”

“Having a greater emphasis on supporting good communication skills in all children and young people would have a positive impact on those with SLCN. There would also be greater use of technology and networks available to us to develop resources, share information and support young people via a medium they are familiar and comfortable with.”

Technical teaching

What can technology do to assist disadvantaged or disabled people, children and societies with communication?

“For children with severe communication needs, there are currently voice output communication aids. An enhancement of this for these young people would be the ability to access computers and communication available through email or social networking sites.”

“That may mean less text based communication and more symbols. For other children who do not have a physical disability, more development and use of technology may support their communication”

“We need a more systematic approach to teaching, speaking and listening, with a range of resources that can be accessed through the internet or on via interactive white boards, to engage children and young people. This would help teach component parts of communication skills.”

How is the global workplace looking in relation to fair levels of opportunity for people or children with communication difficulties?

“Employers want people with good communication skills. There is a lack of understanding around SLCN. These young people are also likely to have associated literacy difficulties so are doubly ‘handicapped’ in their search for employment.”

“We need more awareness of SLCN. We need more awareness that some of these young people, particularly those with specific language impairments, may have areas of strength masked by their communication needs.”

There’s little doubt communication is a central key in unlocking global inequality and poverty, conflict avoidance and resolution, and in developing new mindsets and doctrines which can then be discussed to guide us to a better future.

Moreover, communication holds global wrongdoers to account. International media are among the key reasons we may develop a more level future society.

States which refuse entrance to international correspondents suffer from human rights abuses or tend to be operating defence and arms programmes beyond the scope of agencies like the UN.

All too often, these are just the same places children, societies and cultures are failing to get access to the communication tools and education that would help them realise a path into a brighter future.

What are your views?  Not sure? Read the resources below for more information. Add your comment below. We welcome your thoughts and proposals. Not a Planetary Citizen? Sign up to Our Future Planet now!


The World Online - How UK citizens use the internet to find out about the wider world. by Alice Fenyoe
World for World Organisation - The Millennium Development Goals is Common Vision and Global Commitments
IBT – The World in Focus: How  UK audiences connect with the wider world and the International content of news in 2009
UN NGO IRENE - Informal Regional Networks UN & NGOs - From Consultation to Partnership
Humanitarian Policy Group: Need and greed: corruption risks, perceptions and prevention in humanitarian assistance
Preparing for the Flu: A Communication Toolkit for Child Care and Early Childhood Programs


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