* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"What if you had an excellent plan for ending global poverty and protecting the environment, but few people seemed to care?"
Whether Africa will succeed or fail in providing electricity to 640 million people, sanitation to 480 million people, water to 280 million people and lifting about 700 million out of poverty in the next ten or fifteen years will depend heavily on smart communications.
Unfortunately, in the process of elaborating policies and plans to achieve these goals, communications seem to have been overlooked, at best, it came as an afterthought.
"What if you had an excellent plan for ending global poverty and protecting the environment, but few people seemed to care?" asked a senior aide to former UN Secretary General, in 2015 during a reflection session on potential challenges to the implementation of the SDGs.
Not only does this question highlight the indispensable value of communication in bridging the growing disconnect between citizens and sometimes out-of-touch representatives but also the criticality of citizen’s engagement in achieving public policies.
But the question becomes, are Africans committed or even aware or motivated enough to participate in this process? In August 2016, U-Report, a free SMS social monitoring tool for community participation asked Nigerians if they have ever heard of the SDGs, 63 percent said no.
While this may not be a snapshot of the entire continent, it, however, provides the state of knowledge and the scale of communication required to fill existing gaps.
Below, I suggest three areas requiring urgent thinking to achieve best-of-class communication programs capable of to delivering on favorable outcomes in the next 15 years and beyond.
RETHINKING THEORY OF CHANGE (LOGIC) OF COMMUNICATION PROGRAMS
Development of communications strategies and programs are often viewed from a linear perspective in a vastly complex development spaces. Without extensive consultation of all actors involved, critically analyzing contextual factors, understanding the media landscape, and the political economy, you may well be setting yourself up for failure. The dominant vertical (top-down -- supply-driven) communication relationships between development practitioners and local communities have not changed much despite significant disruptions in traditional ways of accessing, using, and sharing information. Communication practitioners must adapt to these changes and shift to participatory approaches, handing beneficiaries greater say in decision making to recipients of development.
FULL-THROATED EMBRACE OF SOCIAL MEDIA IS CRITICAL TO SUCCESS
I have been to a few debates about using social media in organizations that are often conservative in their DNAs such as international public institutions. You often hear views along the lines "let us progressively/gently/moderately/gradually diffuse social media..." I am in favor of proper consideration of risk and mitigation measures of all actions. But that should not be at the detriment of taking the necessary risk that usually come with big rewards. Even when some of these organizations embrace social media, it is supply-driven with little or no engagement with the public. This approach has been found wanting and cannot unleash the needed participation and crowdsourcing of ideas required for development to occur at scale. Development needs lively and uncensored debates and discourse. Facebook, Whatsapp, and Twitter are among the top-used social media platforms on the continent where news consumption has significantly shifted to mobile telephony. How many organizations have switched to whats app for example to reach their audiences in Africa?
UNDERSTANDING THE ECOSYSTEM
A colleague told me recently that he sent an email on a critical water project to a senior government official in one African country. On a mission to the country three months later, he asked the Director why he had not responded to his email. The senior government official said, he had not checked his emails for about six months. What does this mean? Perhaps a letter or a telephone call could have been a more efficient means of communication in this case and would have probably prevented all the inefficiencies and delays. My colleague reliance on email communications is in no small way because he accesses information 24/24 and 7/7 on the internet. With time, he might have inadvertently assumed his way of communicating is everyone else's way in complete disregard of diverse communications realities of various constituencies in Africa. What this calls for is a rigorous rethink of the ecosystem of partners. In public development organizations with governments and donors as primary audiences, attention could sometimes be disproportionately tilted to these groups at the detriment of everyone else. The prevailing culture and the availability of limited resources sometimes unintentionally skews communication planning more to these targets. Even here, because donors have similar information, communications, and technology (ICTs) infrastructures as most development agencies, they are disproportionately served than those in government who often do not have well developed ICTs infrastructures. Rather than adjust systems to match that of stakeholders, development organizations have tended to continue a practice that they know too well does not work.
David Akana is a communications consultant for the African Development Bank in Abidjan.