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3. Working Group 1: Facilitating dialogue, learning and participation in Natural Resource Management

Guy Bessette's paper draws on a collection of papers that focus on Participatory Development Communication (PDC) and Natural Resource Management (NRM), particularly in Asia and Africa. He notes that there are many approaches and practices in development communication and that most of them have been implemented in the field of environment and NRM. The focus in his paper is on PDC because of its potential to influence communication practices at the community level in NRM.

PDC facilitates participation in a development initiative identified and selected by a community, with or without the external assistance of other stakeholders. The terminology has been used in the past by a number of scholars to stress the participatory approach of communication in contrast with its more traditional diffusion approach. Others refer to similar approaches as Participatory Communication for Development, participatory communication or communication for social change.

PDC is a planned activity based on participatory processes and on media and interpersonal communication. This communication facilitates dialogue among different stakeholders around a common development problem or goal. The objective is to develop and implement a set of activities that contribute to a solution to the problem, or the realization of the goal, and which support and accompany this initiative.

The PDC process

The paper notes that PDC supports a participatory development or research for development process, used in particular by Isang Bagsak (see 3.10 below). There are four main phases, which flow into one another – problem identification, planning, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation. At the end there is a decision to either return to the beginning of the process (problem identification) and start another cycle, or move to a revision of the planning phase, or to scale up efforts, starting another planning, implementation and evaluation cycle. In an NRM context the process looks like this: 11

Step 1: Establishing a relationship with a local community and understanding the local setting;

Step 2: Involving the community in the identification of a problem, potential solutions, and in a decision to carry out an initiative;

Step3: Identifying the different community groups and other stakeholders concerned by the identified problem (or goal) and initiative;

Step 4:Identifying communication needs, objectives and activities;

Step 5: Identifying appropriate communication tools;

Step 6: Preparing and pre-testing communication content and materials;

Step 7: Facilitating the building of partnerships;

Step 8: Producing an implementation plan;

Step 9:Monitoring and evaluating the communication strategy and documenting the development or research process;

Step 10: Planning the sharing and utilization of results.

This process however is not sequential. Some of those steps can be done in parallel or in a different order. They can also be defined differently depending on the context. But they can guide the NRM researcher or practitioner in supporting participatory development or research through the use of communication.

3.1 Poverty alleviation, food security and environmental sustainability: the contribution of participatory communication

Guy Bessette goes on to say that strategies to address the three interlinked development challenges of poverty alleviation, food security and environmental sustainability must be designed and implemented with the active participation of those families and communities who are struggling to ensure their livelihoods in changing and unfavourable environments. But they must also include other stakeholders such as government technical services, NGOs, development projects, rural media, community organizations and research teams. Local and national authorities, policy-makers, and service providers must also be involved in shaping the regulatory environment in which the required changes will take place.

Best practices in NRM research and development point to situations in which community members, research or development team members and other stakeholders jointly identify research or development parameters and participate in decision-making. This process goes beyond community consultation or participation in activities identified by researchers or programme managers. In the best scenarios, the research or development process itself generates a situation of empowerment in which participants transform their vision of reality and are able to take effective action.

PDC reinforces this process. It empowers local communities to discuss and address NRM practices and problems, and to engage other stakeholders in the building of an improved policy environment.

3.2 Moving from information dissemination to community participation

The paper notes that traditionally, in the context of environment and natural resources management, many communication efforts focused on the dissemination of technical packages and their adoption by end users. Researchers wanted to “push” their products to communities and development practitioners to receive “buy-in”. Not only did these practices have little impact, but they also ignored the need to address conflicts or policies.

PDC takes a different approach. It suggests a shift from informing people to try to change their behaviour or attitudes, to focusing instead on facilitating exchanges between various stakeholders. The focus is not on the information to be transmitted by experts, but on horizontal communication that both enables local communities to identify their development needs and establishes a dialogue with all stakeholders. The main objective is to ensure that the end users gather enough information and knowledge to carry out their own development initiatives and evaluate their actions.

Such a communication process includes objectives related to increasing the community knowledge-base (both indigenous and modern); modifying or reinforcing common practices related to Natural Resource Management; building and reinforcing community assets; and approaching local and national authorities, policy-makers, and service providers. Appropriate communication approaches should also be set up to implement the required initiatives, monitor and evaluate their impact, and plan for future action.

This, says Bessette, requires a change of attitude. Acting as a facilitator does not come automatically. One must learn to listen to people, to help them express their views and to assist them in building consensus for action. For many NRM researchers and practitioners, this is a new role for which they have not been prepared. How can they initiate the process of using communication to facilitate participation and the sharing of knowledge?

3.3 The NRM practitioner as a communication actor and facilitator

The paper points out that when a researcher or NRM practitioner first contacts a local community to establish a working relationship, that person becomes a communication actor. The way the researcher or NRM practitioner approaches the local community, understands and discusses the issues, and collects and shares information, involves communication. The way in which that communication is established and nurtured affects the way in which people will feel involved and participate in the research or development initiatives.

Within this framework, it seems important to promote a multi-directional communication process. The research team or the development workers approach the community through the community leaders and community groups. The community groups define their relationship with the new resource people, other associated stakeholders and other community groups.

Researchers come to a community with their own mandate and agenda. At the same time, communities also want their needs and problems addressed. They will not distinguish between NRM problems, difficulties in obtaining credit, or health issues, because these are all part of their reality.

Researchers and practitioners should explain and discuss the scope and limitations of their mandate with community members at the outset. In some cases, compromises can be found. For example, it may be possible to involve other resource organizations that could contribute to the resolution of problems that are outside the mandate of the researchers or practitioners. This can often be the case with the issue of credit facilities.

The management of natural resources is clearly linked to the distribution of power in a community and to its socio-political environment. It is also closely associated with gender roles. This is why social and gender analyses are useful tools for examining the dynamics of power in a community. Failure to use these tools may turn the participatory process into a manipulation process or make it selective of only a few individuals or groups.

3.4 Understanding the local setting: collecting data or co-producing knowledge?

The paper notes that participatory research appraisal (PRA) and related techniques have been widely adopted in the field of Environmental NRM to assemble baseline information in record time and to facilitate the participation of community members. However, there are situations in which techniques such as collective mapping of the area, transect walks, problem ranking and development of a timeline are still used in an extractive mode. The information is principally used for the researcher's or the project designer's benefit, and little consideration is given to the information needs of the community or to any sharing of results. In these cases, even with the “participatory” label, these techniques can reinforce a process guided from the outside. PDC stresses the need to adapt attitudes as well as techniques. Co-producing knowledge is different from simply collecting data, and it can play an essential role in facilitating participation in the decision-making process that is involved in a research or development project.

3.5 Understanding the communication context

Guy Bessette believes that there are a number of questions that need to be asked when working on Natural Resource Management using PDC tools. For example, who are the different groups that comprise the local community? What are the main customs and beliefs regarding the management of natural resources, and how do people communicate among themselves on these issues? What are the effective interpersonal channels of communication? What views are expressed by different stakeholders in specific places? What local associations and institutions do people use to exchange information and points of view. What modern and traditional media does the community use?

Here again, there is value in integrating the biophysical, social, and communication aspects in an integrated effort to understand the local setting. In the same way that they collect general information and conduct PRA activities to gather more specific information, researchers and development practitioners should seek to understand, with the help of the community, its communication channels, tools and contexts.

3.6 Identifying and using local knowledge

The paper says that identification of the local knowledge associated with NRM practices is part of the process of co-producing knowledge. It should also be linked with two other issues: the validation of that knowledge, and the identification of modern and scientific knowledge that could reinforce local knowledge.

Specific local knowledge or practices may be well suited to certain contexts. In other contexts, it may be incomplete or have little real value. Sometimes, specific practices may have been appropriate for previous conditions, but these conditions may have changed. This emphasizes the importance of validating common local knowledge against scientific evidence through discussions with local experts or elders as well as community members. It may also prove useful to combine modern knowledge with local practices to render the latter more effective, or more suited to local needs.

A modern solution to a given problem will also have more chance of being adopted if a similar practice already exists in the community. For example, in the Sahel, the use of rocks to protect fields against erosion found easy acceptance because the people already used dead branches to stop water from invading their fields.

Sparrows and rain

In Mali, ancient knowledge was used to improve agricultural production and the well-being of the community. An old woman in the village could predict years of good rain and years of drought, and direct farmers to cultivate either on higher ground or by the side of the river according to her forecasts. For this reason each family had two plots of land, one by the side of the river and the other in the tablelands. Her well-protected secret was that she could make these predictions by observing the height at which sparrows built their nests in the trees near the river.

After her death, and with the permission of the village authorities, her story was told to motivate the community to protect the river from erosion. The villagers agreed to participate in such activities to protect the birds and the knowledge they brought with them each year. Ngolo Diarra La vieille femme et les hirondelles.

3.7 Involving the local community in diagnosis and planning

Guy Bessette points out that PDC also requires that the local community is involved in identifying a development problem (or a common goal), discovering its many dimensions, identifying potential solutions, and taking a decision on a concrete set of actions to experiment with or implement. It also means facilitating interaction and collaborative action with other stakeholders. The communication process should help people to identify a specific problem; discuss and understand its causes; outline possible solutions; and decide on a set of activities with which to experiment. It is useful to stress that this does not happen during the course of a single meeting – time must be allowed for this process to mature.

In some cases, the point of departure is not a specific problem but a common goal that a community gives itself. As with the problem-oriented process, the community will decide on a set of actions to achieve that goal.

The concept of partnership between all development stakeholders involved with local communities is central to PDC. There are situations in which a research or development initiative is conducted with a local community, but without consideration for other initiatives that may be trying to engage the same community in other participatory processes. This situation can lead to participation fatigue in the communities. Identifying other ongoing initiatives, communicating with them, and looking for opportunities for collaboration should be part of the methodology.

These activities with a local community also allow researchers and practitioners to identify possible partners that could be involved in the research or development process. It could be a rural radio, a theatre group or an NGO working with the same community. By establishing contacts at the onset of the project, these groups will feel they can play a useful role in the design of the research project instead of perceiving themselves as mere service providers.

3.8 Constraints and challenges

The paper points out a number of constraints and challenges to PDC which can sometimes be overwhelming. One example is a project in Egypt (El Dabi) which aimed to identify and modify barriers to community participation in a development project in the south of the country. Local authorities were to be trained in participatory planning and PDC, a communication audit was planned to cover all stakeholders, and support was to be given in designing community-level PDC strategies.

However, several obstacles hindered the implementation of this plan. First, participation was perceived as a process to allow stakeholders to voice grievances, not as a mechanism for them to look for ways to overcome these problems. Second, the project did not allow sufficient time for a communication audit or to conduct the training in a participatory way. Third, insufficient resources were allocated for the institutionalization of participatory approaches. As a result, participatory communication could not be introduced.

3.9 Supporting NRM through communication strategies and tools

After community members have gone through the process of identifying a concrete initiative they want to carry out, the next step is to identify both the various categories of people who are most affected by this NRM problem, and the groups that might be able to contribute to the solution. Communication needs will vary considerably within each specific community group or stakeholder category. In all cases, however, it is important to pay particular attention to the questions of gender and of age. These variables are usually critical in determining rights and responsibilities, access to resources and participation in decision-making.

Any given development problem, and the attempt to resolve it, will present needs related to material resources. However, there are complementary needs that involve communication – for sharing information; influencing policies; mediating conflicts; raising awareness; facilitating learning; and supporting decision-making and collaborative action. Clearly, these material and communication aspects should be addressed in a systematic way by any research or development effort. PDC puts a greater focus on the second category of needs as identified by all stakeholders, which are then addressed by a series of actions. In the context of NRM, these actions are linked to one or another of the following communication activities: raising awareness; sharing information; facilitating learning; supporting participation, decision-making, and collaborative action; mediating conflicts; and influencing the policy environment.

Guy Bessette points out three criteria that seem particularly useful in selecting communication tools – their actual use by the community, the cost and constraints of their use, and the versatility of their use. Whenever possible, the communication tools already used by the local community should be considered, although issues of cost and sustainability and of different kinds of use should also be examined before taking a decision.

The papers he draws from place specific attention on community discussions, participatory theatre, radio, farmer field schools, videos, photography, posters and brochures.

Disguised as men – participatory theatre in Burkina Faso

Women farmers in Burkina Faso used participatory theatre to address both the issue of soil fertility and their own status within the community. There is a traditional ceremony performed in time of drought, when women are allowed to disguise themselves as men to call for rain and the men are not allowed to take offence at the parodying of their gendered behaviour. The women wanted to refer to that ceremony, so that they could bring forward topics that could be addressed directly by the men of the community.

By expressing themselves as (male) actors in a play the women not only articulated the issue of the unequal soil fertility of women's plots, they also gained confidence in themselves and became more assertive. The impact on the community was also stronger because community members were addressing other community members about common issues, rather than development actors from the outside introducing a debate and promoting solutions.

At the same time, such involvement from community members, in this case women farmers, raised expectations that could not be met after the completion of the intervention. There was no direct follow-up, and although the experience was empowering for the participants, there was little impact at a broader level.

Thiamobiga, Jacques. Récit des femmes paysannes qui apprennent aux populations à entretenir leurs terres.

3.10 Influencing policy and building capacity – Isang Bagsak

The paper notes that PDC can help influence policy and help in its implementation. It can also help to build capacity, as the case of the Isang Bagsak methodology shows. The expression “Isang Bagsak” comes from the Philippines and means: arriving at a consensus, an agreement. Because it refers to communication as a participatory process, it has become the working title for this initiative which began with support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Initially, three teams from Uganda, Vietnam and Cambodia participated in the pilot phase for 15 months; Hue University of Agriculture and Forestry, Vietnam; Ratanakiri NRM Research Action Project, Cambodia; and the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), Uganda.

The programme seeks to increase the capacity of development practitioners and researchers active in the field of environment and natural resources management to use PDC to work more effectively with local communities and stakeholders. It pursues the objectives of improving the capacities of practitioners and researchers to communicate with local communities and other stakeholders and to enable them to plan communication strategies that support community-development initiatives.

It combines face-to-face activities with a distance-learning strategy and web-based technology. With the distance component, it can answer the needs of researchers and practitioners who cannot easily leave work. It is presently implemented in Southeast Asia and Eastern and Southern Africa, and is being planned for the African Sahel. In Southeast Asia, Isang Bagsak is implemented by the College of Development Communication, the University of the Philippines at Los Baños. It works in the Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam. In Southern and Eastern Africa, the programme is implemented in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Uganda by the SADC Centre of Communication for Development (SADC-CCD). Another programme is being prepared for an agroforestry network in Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali, which will be led by The International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) Sahel Programme.

An Asian perspective

In Asia, Nora Quebral, who was the first to use the term “development communication” more than 30 years ago, retraces the evolution of participatory approaches to development communication. She situates this evolution in the context of the communication units, departments and colleges in Asian universities and from the perspective of a fight against poverty and hunger. She notes that development communication does not identify itself with technology per se, but with people, particularly the disadvantaged in rural areas. PDC uses the tools and methods of communication to give people the capacity and information they need to make their own decisions.

She outlines the beginnings of development communication and confirms the need to build on what has been done. Older models retain their validity in certain situations and can still be used when appropriate.

In the context of NRM, Quebral insists on the importance of a balance between technology and the empowerment of people, and on how PDC can help people zero in on their problems and choose the technologies with which they wish to experiment.

“PDC, in its several variations across countries, is a young but dynamic field that is nurtured by many disciplines. At the same time its unique window to human development allows it to pioneer new concepts and practices that other fields can emulate. It has come quite a way in the span of 30 odd years. As science and art, it can contribute much more as long as its advocates... hold fast to their vision of equality and social justice for all and freedom for everyone to develop their potential.”


PDC in the Arab world; needing space

For Arab practitioners, space is needed to reflect on experience, develop insights, document stories and share with others. In a workshop held in Jordan in 1997 participants from nine countries in the Middle East reflected on the lack of documentation of local participatory practice, and indicated their enthusiasm for a forum that brings them together to discuss their experiences in the field.12 Few attempts have yet been made, and none were sustained, probably because discussions were too formal and abstract, and ended up as a series of sporadic and detached topics.

Waad El Hadidy, Programme Manager,
Learning Resources and Development Communication, Cairo, Egypt

3.11 Summary of recommendations from the Working Group on Communication and Natural Resource Management

The recommendations begin with the fact that Participatory Development Communication (PDC) needs to be taken in a holistic context. The working group recommends sustaining the Isang Bagsak community of practice as an avenue for continued exchange and collaboration in PDC training, research and evaluation. It sets out a number of preconditions for effective PDC. It has recommendations for PDC training of decision-makers, media specialists, communication, training and education institutions and communities; for research to address how to achieve and sustain both the process of participation and the outcomes/impact of participation; and for a scaling up of PDC in general.

Finally, it comes up with an action plan which includes the recommendation to: “Form an international working group to compile and refine tools for the research and evaluation of the PDC process and impact, and develop training programmes, materials and systems for participatory research and evaluation.” The action plan also includes recommendations on impact assessment, training, research, the development and refining of PDC tools, methods and materials, the integration of PDC into existing communication, NRM and other technical curricula, the alignment of PDC and donor requirements and the inclusion of PDC in project formulation.

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