Participatory Communication: We must all be involved to get it right

Imagine having a conversation with your friend and he’s been doing the talking for over 30 minutes. How boring and frustrating! That’s not communication. It’s simply information dumping. Communication requires exchange of information or ideas. There must be an exchange and understanding.

The lack of it or its misuse is the genesis of many marriage divorces, inter-tribal war, missed opportunities, failed development efforts, misinformation (rampant on social media), avoidable conflicts, mistrust, broken company culture to mention a few.

Further, communication is regarded as effective if it is participatory. An author even noted that participation is at the core of any successful development effort. A vivid example of an exercise that ignored this element was the Marshall Plan.

Following the devastating consequences of World War II, the USA implemented a four year Marshall Plan (European Recovery Plan) to resuscitate the dying economy of Western Europe with “heavy financial, investment, technology and expertise”. The plan was highly successful in recipient countries like Germany, France and Great Britain and “in less than ten years, it turned destruction and devastation into construction and industrialization.”

However successful in those countries, the plan’s replication in developing nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America was a fiasco. Why? It was largely because the pre-existing socio-cultural and structural conditions of these countries were not compatible with the recovery plan.

Andrew Moemeka discovered that the recovery plan was successful in the European countries because they had a culture that thrived on individualism and not communism or interrelationships like African nations. The materialistic and competitive nature which the plan thrived on were antithetical to the non-tangible factors such as socio-cultural values which developing countries upheld appreciably.

The Marshall plan also believed that “Rapid development of any society is possible if adequate international financial and technological assistance were forthcoming” and that all it would take them (planners) was to simply ‘communicate the development ideas by providing relevant facts and figures without listening to their own perspective of development.’

You see the error?

They ignored the fact that social change in a community requires communication- participatory one at that. Donors must pay attention to the target system’s perspective and be conversant with their structural, cultural and social environment. In order words, ‘know the people’ first and foremost!

So despite their worthy intention, including the availability of finance, technology and expertise, they were still inconsequential to the main deal- Participatory Communication.

Now, apart from the Marshall plan, governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, donor agencies have at various times launched developmental efforts whose results are synonymous to the European Recovery plan in developing countries. Some of such projects include Operation Feed the Nation, The National Accelerated Food Production Program, Directorate of Food Roads and Rural Infrastructure. All from Nigeria, but according to Communication expert Professor Oso Lai, these laudable programs did not involve the ‘beneficiaries communities in the project conception, planning and implementation phases’

The colonial masters were also ignorant of the pre-existing social systems of their respective colonies especially in Africa and little wonder why the vital issues of family planning, religion, polygamy, girl education are still pressing social challenges despite their significant investment and ‘force’.

Development begins by listening to the people and ideas exchange. Beneficiaries must be talked with, not talked to right from the start of any effort. As development communication is defined as the exchange of ideas and principles to achieve developmental objectives, development recipients must be actively involved in the development process- from conceptualization of the problem to implementation of the solution.

Their cultural values, voice, perception of development, emotional attachments must be critically considered. Emotional attachments in the sense of this:

If a donor agency wants to build a community radio station in a local community and the only available space for them is an old and significant edifice which serves a significant purpose in a community, will it be appropriate for them to bring down the structure in the name of their interest in the development of the community without consulting the donees? This can cause superiority complexes and such developmental efforts might be another waste of time and resources irrespective of the intention simply because the recipients’ value system were ignored.

The media is another potent tool to achieve participatory communication and development. However, like in the broadcast houses, before any broadcast program is produced, the communities who will be at the receiving end must first be ‘consulted’ and feedback channels created so that their needs can be met and conditions addressed through the programs.

A research on the effect of feedback of audience on radio and television programs in Lagos, Nigeria revealed that the opportunity for feedbacks increased commitments and participation in broadcast programs

The media did not make any consequential effect in the past because of it’s one way nature. But technological innovation has made that history. I can give feedback, comments, and write to the anchors of a program all in real time.

Few years ago, I ran a health program during the Lassa fever period which at first was synonymous to what Development Communication Specialist, Andrew Moemeka called “information dumping”, but once we made the program open and interactive, we were able to build relationships with the listeners, address their specific needs, instead of the generic information about the subject.

Conclusively, if development must be achieved, there must be a donors/donee synergy that will create a climate for solid relationship, collaboration and attitudinal change and sustained communication is a vital tool. Order than this, we might continue to get off on the wrong foot and recycle mediocre performances.

A budding researcher with a keen interest in the media and developmental policies that has the propensity to spur growth