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Listening, not talking

Robin Greenwood discovers he’s a godfather

Wendy Quarry and Ricardo Ramírez (2009), Communication for another development. Zed Books   140pp   £16.99  ISBN: 9781848130098

When I left fulltime education, I went to work in Sales. ‘You have two ears and one tongue,’ said my mentors. ‘Use them in that ratio.’ That advice is this book’s central theme.

It argues that there is a strong link between good (or bad) communication and good (or bad) development. The right approach to development is the prime mover for good communication; and that approach is structural change and the eradication of poverty.

Context is all

The authors’ approach involves listening and inclusion. They are centred on people and their potential, and are oriented around messy processes that the authors characterise as ‘searching’.

The alternative approach to development, which the authors are challenging, is unclear (deliberately or accidentally) about purpose; involves telling and direction and is focussed around neat planning and ‘products’.

The book warns against a fixation with replicability. The context is never the same, so the response can never be wholly the same. Communication is a two-way process. When working with communities for their development, it is more important to ‘get ideas in’ than to ‘get the message out’. And knowing the context, especially though a champion who knows and sticks with the context, is everything.

Enabling social networks

The authors build a convincing case that links these themes together. It culminates in the exhortation to get out of the ‘grey zone’ (of top-down, ‘telling and planning bureaucracy’ and into the ‘zone of the possible’. This is where new technologies (essentially mobile phones and the internet) give rise to social media which enable social networks to form and bring ‘another development’ within reach.

The book is structured in three parts: what we know, what we learned and what we can do differently. But it does take a while to get going and I fear that readers with a lot else on their plates may bale out before they can be fully rewarded for staying the course.

Very useful sub-headings provide signposts for the reader. Seven pages of references take the place of footnotes. Engaging, though not wholly relevant, illustrations leaven the text. The authors’ language is light, clear and almost jargon-free. The chapter on how communicators are often so bad at communicating what we do is particularly amusing (although there is a recurrent touchstone metaphor that doesn’t really work).

Not surprisingly, the authors have thought hard about how to get their message across through the essentially one-way medium of a book. They compare acquiring the proposed approach to communication to learning a new language: you don’t learn a new language from a book, but by interaction.

Holding the space

There are lessons for academics and aid workers, nuanced by very human insights: for instance that individuals’ appetites for the risk of stepping out of the grey zone can be governed by factors like the stage in one’s career or life.

I don’t have ‘Communication’ in my job title. I have a leadership and policy-making role in an NGO known for its activism. I work closely with some professionals who communicate to supporters, backers and those we wish to influence; with others who communicate with the people with whom and for whom we try to bring about change; and with still others who do both.

But even in Christian Aid a fair amount of ‘left-brain’ activity lurks under the surface. This book promotes the value of ‘godparents’ in positions like mine; we can clear the path (or at least hold the space) for the champions of active, listening communication and a searching approach to people-centred development. Such affirmation encourages us for the grey days to come.

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Robin Greenwood
Robin Greenwood is Head of Asia and Middle East Division at Christian Aid
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