Communication must become central to development thinking and practice, otherwise national and international initiatives to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people will not succeed.
In a new report, At the heart of change: The role of communication in sustainable development, Panos London argues that senior decision-makers in governments and development agencies are not recognising the essential part communication plays in development. Many international and national development initiatives and plans, including the United Nations' Millennium Declaration signed by the leaders of 189 countries in September 2000, barely mention it.
'We are half-way to the deadline set by the international community to achieve the Millennium Development Goals,' says Mark Wilson, Executive Director of Panos London and co-author of the report,' and it is almost certain that many countries will fail to reach them. One of the reasons is that policymakers are not doing enough to support more open, transparent information and communication systems. It's time to wake up and harness the growing power of information and communication technologies (ICTs) – such as mobile telephones and the Internet – and do more to support the media in developing countries.'
Access to ICTs can provide opportunities for ordinary people to be involved in a country's political, economic and social life. But the reality is that poor and marginalised people are often politically muted. They are seen as a problem to be solved by others, and not part of the solution. If governments and other policymakers are serious about ending poverty, says At the heart of change, they have to find and support ways that enable these people to participate in the debates and decisions that affect their lives.
'Just take one of the Millennium Development Goals – improving maternal health, for example,' says Kitty Warnock, Senior Advisor on communication for development at Panos London and another co-author of the report,'and it is clear that communication needs to be considered at every level.
'The status of women within the family could be addressed through encouraging community discussions; take-up of health services could be improved by disseminating information through the mass media and other channels; provision of these services could be made more effective using ICTs such as providing satellite phones to health workers based in rural communities so they can quickly confer with doctors at clinics often hundreds of miles away; and cultural attitudes to women and reproductive health could be challenged through entertainment formats such as soap operas.'
At the heart of change: The role of communication in sustainable development also recommends that governments and international organisations do more to support the development of a diverse, dynamic and free media in the developing world, by establishing media freedom and a supportive regulatory environment, investing in media infrastructure, building professional standards and supporting improvements in the quality of media content.
'Communication and the media are essential "public goods", and only when governments and donors recognise this and take an integrated and sustained approach to their development will the power of the people be unleashed to meet development goals,' says Mark Wilson.' While top-level development policymakers agree on the importance of supporting communication, there remains as yet no clear commitment from them. We want this to change.'
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Notes to editors:
Panos London is part of the worldwide Panos Network of independent institutes working to ensure information is used effectively to foster debate, pluralism and democracy.