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28/11/2014

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Communicating science in developing countries

Tom Dixon and Jenni Metcalfe suggest storytelling

Tom Dixon and Jenni Metcalfe suggest storytelling.

We were recently invited to run a week-long science communication course in Chiang-Mai, Thailand, for a group of 17 researchers from a mix of countries across Asia, from Bangladesh and Pakistan to Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand.

We weren’t entirely sure that the workshops we’ve been running in Australia for almost 20 years would work across this range of countries and cultures. We knew our workshops were successful in the Philippines and South Africa, but how would they work for participants from Asian backgrounds?

The workshops were commissioned by the Crawford Fund a not-for-profit body dedicated to raising awareness of the benefits to developing countries and to Australia of international agricultural research. 

Local influence

Some differences between communication in Australia and the developing world are immediately obvious. Developing countries have less access to the Internet and cannot rely as much on these technologies. Other factors come into play - the Thailand workshop reinforced for us the importance of personal discussion-based communication.

This fits neatly with the philosophy we have employed developing a programme of engaging Australian farmers, called ‘Climate Champions’. Rather than relying on publications sent out to farmers or web-based communication, we supported leading farmers on the ground, in local communities and farmer groups, to tell their stories and promote messages at the local and community level.  Farmers believe other farmers, whereas (when surveyed) they demonstrate some scepticism for ‘official’ sources of information.

And so it is with Asian cultures, which rely on the information available within small communities, and particularly from local leaders, much more heavily than we do in developed countries. In such communities, locally influential people can be a more effective force in telling stories of their own success in adopting new technologies than any brochure, website or official pronouncement. Likewise, the Australian Climate Champions programme has aimed to give farmers control of what research they want to engage with, and how they want to engage with it at a local level. Farmers trust other farmers when discussing new practices.

Storytelling

We’re all aware that the most effective form of communication is two-way and personal: there have been discussions around deficit models and dialogue models for decades.  But if we stop and think about how we’re putting out our messages, we might wonder whether we’re all using this two-way communication to our full advantage. How much have we learnt from the past? Is a shift towards a more discursive model actually a step to the old days of oral storytelling?

We can offer less developed countries a few pointers in public engagement techniques: for instance, new technologies like the web and social media. But if we open our minds to a more local, storytelling-based model, maybe this would help groups of interest to take ownership of their interactions with scientists and the new practices and ideas that are generated from such involvement.

If lay people gain more access to science by being more involved in the messages at a local level, maybe some of the issues we now face globally, such as food availability and health care, can be better understood and addressed in future.

Media practices

As far as media practices went, we found that Thailand is closer to western norms than one might have anticipated.

We employ local journalists in leading sessions, which means the information is up to date and regionally accurate.  Did our workshops work? According to feedback we received, a resounding yes!

As one participant said:  ‘I liked the exercises a lot.  Feedback is immediate.  Having to meet real media practitioner and being interviewed and learn from them was very good learning experience.

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Tom Dixon
Tom Dixon is an independent consultant, who works primarily with Econnect Communication (Australia) and is currently based in the UK. FInd him on Twitter @EconnectTom.
Jenni Metcalfe
Jenni Metcalfe is the director of Econnect Communication, based in Brisbane, Australia. Find her on Twitter @JenniMet.
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