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“If information and knowledge are central to democracy, they are the conditions of development”

Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, in an address to the World Bank Conference, ‘Global Knowledge’ (1997)

Knowledge and information are essential for people to successfully respond to the opportunities and challenges of social, economic and technological changes. But to be useful, knowledge and information must be effectively communicated to people.

One of the most significant and exciting developments in reconstituting government communication systems in Malaysia, has been the commitment to a democratic, participatory and responsive public information programme where people are the most important ingredient.

By this we mean that government communication is driven by the needs of people, that it facilitates citizen participation in the creation and use of information, and that it opens the activities of government to public scrutiny thus promoting democracy and efficiency.

Government has adopted an approach to dialogue with its citizens which are described as ‘development communication’.

Development communication can be seen as a thread linking a number of national development initiatives aimed at eradicating socio-economic drawbacks.

As development communication is practiced in a number of spheres in which public policy is exercised – sanitation, health, safety, economic stability, agriculture, land rights et cetera – the approach requires careful co-ordination if it is not to deteriorate into a haphazard and water-down effort – doing the right thing in the wrong way!

Key Elements of the Development Communication Approach

  • It is responsive: it does not provide ‘useless’ information – that which people did not want to know, but which central planners deemed as crucial. People understand their own needs better and through this approach communication become a tool in the planning and development process, not a mechanism to persuade communities once nasty decisions have been made.
  • It hinges on feedback: it is not a one-way process but involves dialogue mechanisms about the information which was transferred. It is also fundamentally about consultative processes being managed at community level.
  • Innovation and creativity: the message must not be dull and boring but show clearly how the information transmitted will make a difference in the life of the recipient – it must not instil doubt or disbelief, but trust and confidence. However, balance creativity with an understanding of what communities would be prepared to accept and where consideration has been given to the norms and prevailing values of that community must always be consider.
  • Independent validation: it is not about ‘government speak’. This approach builds participatory mechanisms and functional networks involving NGOs, CBOs and Traditional Leadership structures while also encouraging links with networks from across the country. These can either prove or disprove the validity of the information transmitted.
  • It’s about sustainability and continuity: it is not about dumping information in a community and never going back for months.
  • It’s about establishing common ground with communities who are to be the recipients of the information/message: it is not about the public servant who swoops in and out of a community like some ‘phantom expert’ to ‘educate and uplift’ communities. The standards, norms, values, habits of the community are paramount.
  • It’s about community participation: development programmes which plan for communities or supply information which planners feel communities need, fail to be relevant initiatives and more often than not fail to be sustainable. A primary emphasis of this approach is to plan with communities, create structures which offer communities and developers equal power, and use communication methods which are fundamentally participatory in nature. This often requires that government planners, developers or community workers have to listen to the advice of communities and change the views they themselves hold.
  • It’s about access and visibility of government where government is no longer a distant and unknown entity in community development experiences. This approach reverses the practice of communities having to travel long distances and at relatively great cost to access government Services and information. This is made worse when government is not clearly and properly identifiable and access is difficult because of inaccessible buildings, unfriendly and unprofessional staff et cetera. The development communication approach brings government employees face to face with communities so promoting accountability at local level. This is not possible when civil servants are remote and impersonal.
  • It’s about the use of simple and relevant language where concepts are packaged in the experiences of communities, in their own language and where communities themselves have played a major role in the development of material for development communication programmes.

Basic Content (The ‘What’) Management, In Development Communication

  • Generic content: this is more general and relates largely to ‘citizenship’ type issues. Such content may focus on rights, responsibilities and duties of citizens; information and education about government institutions, public figures and national events such as public holidays.
  • Specific content: concerning the programmes, policies, projects and, Services of government.
  • Local content: systems need to be in place to monitor the questions communities are asking. This can also be informed by ongoing national research into public information needs. FAQs will lead to responsive information products and programmes from government.
  • As the initiative involves partnerships across various social sectors, some of the information transferred may originate from the private sector as well as various NGO programmes although this is not the primary focus of the initiative.
  • Core content: a dialogue about the ‘State of the nation’ – corruption, crime, youth development, employment, disability, gender equity, multi-culturalism et cetera.