Communication For Another Development Listening Before Telling Book Review

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Communication For Another Development Listening Before Telling Book Review

Chatterjee, Ashoke


Authors: Wendy Quarry & Ricardo Ramirez Books for Change/Zed Books, Rs300

In a media-blitzed environment, the ‘development communication’ label is often applied (or misapplied, as this book reveals) to achieving planning objectives through communication expertise. Since the mid-80s, the substitute acronym IEC (Information, Communication, Education) has  been  attached to ‘software’ budgets intended to support the ‘hardware’ of service delivery — hardware that most decision-makers continue to regard as the guts of development. The authors of this remarkable little book believe differently, their belief captured in the sub-title: ‘Listening Before Telling’. Their understanding is of communication processes, techniques and media that help people toward a fuller awareness of their situation and of options available for change. Using cases from three continents, they demonstrate how communication of this kind can help resolve conflicts, build consensus, and empower people  with knowledge and skills needed to improve their condition as well as their institutions. Listening is revealed as the democratic alternative to top-down dominance, by offering the sharing of power, authority and experience and as the essence of “communication for another development”.

Quarry and Ramirez are communicators seasoned in the grind of the development industry. In this timely, practical and simple book, they offer perhaps the first serious effort at helping activists to understand the difference between communication as media use and communication acknowledged as a social process that should empower those whom development should serve. Tragically, few development efforts invest in listening as the start of a communication process. ‘Telling’ seems so much quicker and easier to fit into project frameworks and numerical targets demanded by planners. The silver bullet of a media blitz is most often preferred, yielding numbers that appear as ‘bang for the buck’ over the more complex task of understanding attitudes and behaviors in real life.  Such haste has led to enormous waste, evident in India from mass campaigns that seldom deliver anything beyond annual counts of expenditure and of materials produced. Over one million Indian children die each year of diarrheal diseases (and many millions more suffer) because the simple practice of hand-washing is too seldom observed, despite 60 years of telling. The HIV-AIDS virus continues its relentless spread despite huge mass-media campaigns when the greatest need is one-to-one counseling. Latrines of official design store goats and firewood and serve every purpose other than the one originally intended. Tobacco continues to kill although information on the risk is widespread, and Indian roads are the most dangerous in the world despite years of Traffic Safety Weeks.

For this failure of media messages to deliver lasting change, Quarry and Ramirez provide a simple reason that has proved amazingly difficult to absorb: the need to listen before telling. They offer examples of why communication as a problem-solving process continues to elude so many efforts for change —- by apex ministries as well as by grass-root activists and donors. Drawing on experiences they have lived in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the authors reveal how for most development managers communication remains limited to the creation of media products. Posters, videos and ads masquerade as IEC or its more recent avatar, ‘BCC’ (behavior change communication). On the ground, behaviors continue unchanged: open defecation, smoking, unwashed hands leading to contaminated water, seat belts left dangling. If waste is finally to end, managers need to turn to communication cycles that begin, conclude and begin again with listening.  It is then that communication can reveal what those most in need of change understand and want change to mean, and can help make such change possible. While latrines properly used will certainly improve health, messages about bacteria transmission can be difficult to absorb. Listening reveals other more immediate opportunities for moving toward health, indirectly at first: latrines marketed for privacy, safety and dignity rather than as health messages handed down as instructions, or as products pushed by media.

Quarry and Ramirez document why communication fails as well as of communication that powers change. Examples include the Fogo experiment in Newfoundland that the legendary communicator Don Snowden used to empower indigenous communities to take charge of their lives and environments. There are other experiences: natural resource management in the Kenyan highlands, fisheries in Columbia, rural efforts in Nepal and the Philippines, life-skills linked to fighting HIV-AIDS in Tanzania and Kenya, the internet used for speeding change in Canada’s remote north-west, and registering births in Nicaragua. Indian examples include Fr Gaston Roberge’s Chitrabani in Calcutta transforming slum-dwellers into powerful communicators through camera skills and SEWA’s pioneering efforts in community video for securing justice in Ahmedabad.  The authors believe that while efforts at change demand the stamina to persist in difficult “grey areas” of development, real change requires champions capable of using communication to achieve the final benchmark of empowerment. Achievements of such champions are recalled: the late Jim Grant who transformed Unicef during his stewardship, Manuel Calvello-Rios in Peru whose video-based training for farmers was founded on what they already knew, and Gaston Roberge in Calcutta. Such champions, they suggest, have the right-brain ability to listen while planners can be restricted by a left-brain tendency to tell.  If communication is to hasten another development —- one that is more just, equitable and sustainable for this planet — the search for such champions is urgent. It might be hastened by this useful and affordable book, told with a light touch of wit and self-deprecation. There is one critical gap in the authors’ analysis: they do not tell us what changes their experience demands in the ‘development communication’ education and training being doled out in hundreds of institutions across the globe, preoccupied with so-called mass communication rather than with localised telling. Yet this book may itself emerge as a major pedagogical tool. Could India take a lead? Its own great communicator devoted himself to listening, transforming what he heard into his ultimate weapon for freedom: “My life is my message”.

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