Communication for Another Development: Listening Before Telling

Quarry, Wendy
Ramírez, Ricardo
Zed Books
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Eade, Deborah

Wendy Quarry and Ricardo Ramrez
Communication for Another Development: Listening Before Telling
London and New York, Zed Books, 2009, 978 84813 009 8, 157 pp.

Every profession generates its own technical jargon to facilitate communication among fellow experts. The ability of air-traffic controllers, engineers, and medical practitioners to communicate with each other unambiguously is a life-and-death matter! Other forms of jargon, however, serve to exclude those who are considered by the insider-club to lack the necessary entry qualifications. Paradoxically, the development industry largely belongs to this latter category, with its predilection for forms of expression that are complete gobbledegook to articulate laypersons, let alone the often non-literate 'end-users' of its ministrations. Worse still, many intelligent, sensitive, and well-intentioned inhabitants of AidWorld eventually become oblivious to the fact that the Developmentspeak dialect does not translate into plain English, let alone into any other language. Quite simply, they end up talking to themselves about intervening in the lives of distant peoples, with whom they cannot communicate.

Communication practitioners Wendy Quarry and Ricardo Ramrez are refreshingly honest about this. 'We recognize the irony: we have been advocates for this field through the type of publications that only converted communicators would read. Our writing has become inaccessible, only academics can endure it, and yet the message was intended for a wider audience. This book is an attempt to break from that habit' (p.1).

Reading this book is like breathing clear mountain air. The style is deceptively simple, yet the issues as serious as they are profound. It is rather like listening in on a conversation between two old friends, candidly sharing ideas, reflections, and wisdom drawn from a lifetime of experience - not wallowing in the past, not congratulating themselves and pointing fingers at others, but rather suggesting future directions based on 'anchoring our work with organizations where participatory communication can thrive … away from development bureaucracies working in the planning mode, to organizations and champions embracing a searching mode' (p. 140).

The book is divided into three roughly equal parts: 'What We Know', 'What We Learned', and 'What We Can Do Differently'. The first chapter presents 'communication' as it is generally treated by the development industry: 'a “guest discipline” that functions in organizations pursuing other goals (health, agriculture etc.) and as such …seen as only offering tactical support … [commanding] as much respect as cocktail piano music among jazz cognoscenti' (Silvio Waisbord, cited on p. 11). The authors set out five common myths: that communication can be improvised, bolted on as an afterthought; that communication and the medium are the same thing, when actually the medium (whether a modern pod-cast or an old-fashioned glossy report) is often 'public relations camouflaged as a product', usually intended for donors' consumption rather than for any inherent purpose; that organisational communications units have a clear mandate, when the reality is of 'increasing confusion between public relations, information, knowledge management, social marketing and the participatory forms of communication' (p.13); that communication is simply 'reaching out to tell people about who you are and what you do, and why you matter so much' (p.14), at root a confusion between information and communication; and that information alone will do the job of convincing people to abandon harmful or high-risk behaviours - stop smoking, eat five helpings of fresh fruit and vegetables a day, lose weight, take exercise, refuse unsafe sex, consume no more than 14 units of alcohol per week. Assuming that you have the choice, has even one of these sensible-shoe messages permanently changed your behaviour?

Quarry and Ramrez turn on its head the relatively enlightened assumption that 'any international development project would be greatly improved by building in a planned communication strategy'; instead, they argue, 'good development … breeds good communication. And right now good development seems to have been left behind' (p.25). To see why, the authors expand Bill Easterly's divide between planners and searchers to refer to tellers and listeners. Because the planners and tellers are accountable upwards, they are constantly looking over their own shoulders; they prefer tools such as 'logical frameworks to pretend one knows what will happen (when and how)', which persist because they 'are ideal for creating the illusion that you know what is going on without having to leave the comfort of your air-conditioned office' (p. 40). The searchers and listeners are more concerned with vision and process, 'satisfied if their projects contribute to good development without demonstrating direct attribution' (p. 41).

The authors' ability to combine story telling with analysis comes into its own in their chapters celebrating early champions and contemporary activists; people who swim against the tide to create opportunities to do things differently, for instance using photography or video in ways that enable marginalised people to find their own voice, dignity, and political agency. These chapters could easily have become the motivational 'real-life' anecdotes of the self-help and management manuals that you find in airport bookshops; the great difference is that the subjects' authenticity and integrity shine through. Two important lessons are the crippling effect of today's risk-averse managerial orthodoxy which constrains innovation in a straitjacket of tools and guidelines (p. 34) and cultivates a fear of failure (p. 74); and its corresponding 'fascination with best practices and replication. If a pilot project goes well, we make it into a cookie cutter and try to scale it up' (p. 62). The authors argue that while principles endure and travel well, the occasions when everything 'works' are more like unique orchids, which do neither.

The authors conclude that the development industry will not change from within, but only in response to external pressures, be they political, financial, environmental, or a combination of factors. Quarry and Ramrez often refer to 'the grey zone', those spaces around the edges of the development industry where it is easy for communication specialists (and, one might add, gender specialists) to fool themselves that they can achieve something worthwhile inside the system. For the authors, the real hope lies 'away from the bureaucracies' and in the growing number of social networks that are changing the landscape (p. 141).

If you have reached the end of this review, then read the book - it will make you re-think not only how you see communication for development, but therefore what non-bureaucratised development might mean.