Posted July 1999
Special: The first mile of connectivity
Training community animators as participatory communication for development practitioners
By Don Richardson
Communication for development is shifting away from technology transfer, adoption and diffusion processes, and other "one-way, top-down" communication techniques. This shift began with a change in language and theory, and ground-breaking practice on the periphery (such as the Fogo Process in the late 1960s). A "participatory" shift is slowly working its way into mainstream development practice, and participatory development communication is gaining more and more importance in the field of development communication. The move toward "bottom-up," "farmer-to-farmer," and "grassroots" communication is a fundamental reorientation in our field. It also is a shift that is currently fashionable. We have to ask ourselves some critical questions to ensure that we actually change our practices in light of this reorientation, rather than fall victim to fashionable participatory jargon.
How can we move toward the institutional and field practices that reflect the radical social and political change inherent in participatory practices? How do we, as practitioners, incorporate participatory action into our everyday (and often institutional and bureaucratic) lives, in the same way we expect villagers to incorporate participatory action into theirs? Are we prepared to challenge our own status quo institutions and power brokers, as we expect others to challenge theirs? Can we "walk the talk"?
We have to take care to ensure that critical and thoughtful practice takes precedence over fashion. It is easy to label something participatory to please funding agencies, ease our consciences, and impress our peers. We can fool our peers some of the time, the funding agencies much of the time, and ourselves all of the time, but it is very difficult to fool the people in the communities and villages within which we work. They know when we speak one way and act the opposite. So do our co-workers and our students. It is not easy to engage in communication for development practice that is participatory. Participatory development challenges inequitable relationships of power. We cannot claim to practice it in the field if we do not practice it in our offices, in our classrooms, in our communities, and in our homes.
Training for participatory communication for development
Therein lies the real challenge in the creation of training programmes for participatory development communication. Training begins with ourselves and is an ongoing life process. Only when we are confident that we are as participatory in our everyday lives as we would like to be in the field, can we be bold enough to claim that we can assist in the design of participatory communication for development training programmes.
How many of us participate in the kinds of grassroots organizations that we hope our training programmes will help to spark - organizations such as food co-ops, worker's cooperatives, credit unions, community gardens, advocacy groups, and other grassroots social and political change organizations? Maybe we claim that we do not have the time, or that our official positions prevent us from working in the trenches. If that is the case, where do we gain the experience and the "school of hard knocks" credentials required to understand the complexities, dangers, facilitation skills, and subtle human relations techniques of participatory action? Without the learned wisdom that comes from experience, how can we even begin to design training programmes for others?
When we think of communication training, we often think only of technical training. For example, if we are working with video, we tend to think of training that addresses video camera and video editing techniques. In the field of development communication, most of our training programmes focus on technology. The human, social, political, economic, and development process elements involved in communication for development are often given little, if any attention. The production of media products tends to take precedence over communication for development process. As more and more of us begin looking to new information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as the Internet, as tools to help facilitate participatory communication for development, we need more than ever to focus critically on the tendency to make technology determine process.
The shift to thinking about communication for development as a tool for empowerment and social and political change is new, and we are only beginning to keep track of the lessons we are learning from practice in the field. When we discuss participatory communication for development training, the questions that guide our programme planning have little to do with technology. Instead, we discuss issues such as conflict resolution, techniques for dealing with "not-so-participatory" petty bureaucrats, politicians, and local gatekeepers, and strategies for gaining an understanding of cultural dynamics and community politics.
Participatory communication for development training requires significant attention to human relations practices such as group facilitation and group dynamics. Learning contexts need to be flexible and participatory. We know that learning contexts (place, time, character, relationship dynamics, etc.) help to determine the quality of the learning experience. We also know that learning recall occurs more easily in contexts that are similar to the original learning context. This information is particularly important for training in participatory development communication.
If our training programmes are based on bottom-up, teamwork, participant-driven approaches, the programme-values learner initiative and learner determination of content, then the learning context will provide many of the important learning moments. Top-down, instructor-as-expert learning approaches lack the human relation processes that encourage learner understanding of participation. In other words, the training experience must reflect the field.
Field-based training for participatory communication for development is far superior to classroom training. Even the technological training that accompanies participatory training is best done in the field. Learners learn best through practice, field experience, reflection on field experience, and learner-initiated requests for instructor demonstrations and content delivery. As trainers, we must try to respect learners' struggles to understand the relationship between theory and practice. We can create a context that helps bring learning moments to the fore, but we cannot "teach" those critical learning moments. We must enable learners to experience those moments in their own way, in their own time.
Field experience and reflection on field experience is the most useful methodology. Learners can sit in a classroom to learn the camera and sound techniques appropriate for interviewing, or they can develop their own camera and sound styles in the field. Tapes can be played back and critiqued among peers, and learners can use these reflective periods to gain insights into the human dimensions of their work, such as alternative interviewing and facilitation styles, as well the technological dimensions such as camera positions, lighting considerations, and audio requirements. The instructor can use these opportunities to inject terminology and new techniques into peer discussions.
With a flexible, open style and a field-based approach, an instructor can cover all the material that might be covered in an expert-based classroom session, but do so with the assurance that the learners will actually use what they learn in field situations. In addition, much more field-relevant content will be covered. For example, in a field-based training session in Bolivia, one of the authors noted that university students in a local communication programme gained an appreciation and understanding of participatory communication for development quickly, and were able to suggest creative methods for transcending the interferences of local gatekeeping officials in order to engage in dialogue with peasant populations. As a result, the students were able to create an effective intervention that enabled two geographically separated communities to share community development strategies, animal rearing techniques, and cooperative enterprise ideas.
In contrast, learners who had only classroom-based experience, tended to want to create slick videotapes focusing on the "problems" of the rural poor. As the field-based learners discovered, these tapes were viewed with cynicism, and sometimes strong anger by the people depicted in them. "Why are they only showing the negative parts of our lives?" the participants asked. "Why don't they show our youth club, our new football field, or the health care centre we built?" Field-based learning moments like this are incredibly rich and cannot be replicated with classroom techniques.
Instructor experience and qualifications are also important for creating useful field-based learning contexts. At the risk of stating the obvious, instructors with no experience in participatory development make poor participatory communication for development instructors. As obvious as this seems, it is not uncommon to see highly skilled video production technicians with no development experience hired to train extension workers and community development workers in participatory development communication. Despite their technical skill, these people can do more harm than good, especially when the cumbersome, and often inappropriate, cultural baggage of "correct" production techniques for mainstream television are brought to the village level.
The best instructors may have only minimal technical skill, but possess a great deal of field experience in participatory development. An instructor's technical skills can be learned in collaboration with trainees, and this can provide the context for a mutually supportive and beneficial learning environment. The fewer preconceptions the instructor has on "correct" production techniques, the better. Production techniques are almost always culturally defined, with no objective basis other than cultural and professional norms. The instructor must, however, come to the learners with a thorough understanding of human relations, group dynamics, conflict resolution, group facilitation, and team problem-solving approaches to learning. Such instructors may be difficult to find, and they will likely not be found in professional media institutions or training schools.
New information and communication technologies magnify the challenges we face. Anyone can build a computer-based communication system or on-line, virtual conference, but it can be very difficult to build one that people actually use and from which we can gain development benefits. We can provide technical training that enables people to build World Wide Web sites and facilitate Internet conferences, but can we also ensure that our training sensitizes trainees to participatory processes for developing such tools from the "bottom-up" to insure that participants needs are really being met? Now, more than ever, we need to engage ourselves in asking critical questions.
Some questions for trainers and facilitators to consider
The following questions are derived from our development field experience. Participatory communication for development training requires continuous reflection on practice and results. These questions come from our reflections on the lessons that we have learned in the field. We believe that asking these questions at the beginning of a participatory communication for development project will sensitize practitioners to the wide variety of issues that need to be considered carefully before training programmes are planned. The most important talent of a communication for development professional is the ability to ask critical and appropriate questions. To paraphrase Voltaire, judge people by their questions rather than by their answers. The questions are categorized into six different types:
This question is key. In answering it, training planners might discover that there are existing programmes or mechanisms currently in place and capable of delivering, or assisting with the delivery of, the desired participatory communication for development training programme. Answering this question might lead to the discovery that there are indigenous techniques and training opportunities providing better programmes than new programmes that might be brought in from the outside. Alternatively, we may find that we can link or adapt our programmes to indigenous communication efforts to help insure bottom-up planning and needs-based effectiveness.
This question enables us to assess the current context of participatory communication for development and reduces the risk of "reinventing the wheel," and delivering inappropriate programmes. It enables us to identify potential indigenous partners and collaborators, and it helps us recognize indigenous communication for development activities that might go unnoticed.
Designing training programmes for participatory communication for development is not a simple matter. These training programmes do not involve old-style, lecture-based transfers of information from trainer to learner. Participatory communication for development requires a participatory training context, preferably one that is field-based. Planners who design training programmes must be prepared to ask and answer difficult questions about the nature and expected outcomes of their initiatives. They must also be prepared to engage in consultations with diverse groups of stakeholders and be ready to respond to the needs and views of those stakeholders. Most importantly, planners must work hard to identify and explore indigenous communication activities, systems, and mechanisms. It is within these indigenous communication activities that the planner of training programmes has the empowering opportunity to become a learner.
To Applications: Rural distance learning via video conferencing