Reducing Poverty Through Communication

It has long been a major principle in developmental terms that social and economic transformation involves the free flow of information as well as ideas to spur economic and innovative thoughts and exchange among peoples in the State.

The free flow and access to information can also create an accountable and transparent society, thereby laying the groundwork for a less corrupt and prosperous society. In Sierra Leone the much-heralded poverty reduction strategy paper [PRSP] has still not got the blessings of the Paris Club.

Though various reasons have been advanced for the failure of the Sierra Leone government to win the approval of 1.7 billion US dollars to sponsor the PRSP – It is widely believe that the issue of corruption and lack of an information Act to ensure accountability may be among the raison d’etre for the refusal of the world’s richest club of donor Nations to sponsor this all important enterprise of reducing poverty in one of the world’s poorest countries.

At present however, a fresh book published by the International Department for International Development, (DFID) United Kingdom, has thrown very important light on the using of; strategic communication to fight poverty through PRS paper with the support of multitudes. In this work, undertaken by both the World Bank and department for international development DFID. Countries such as Ghana et al are singled out and used as a classical example on how communication can be used to fight poverty in third world countries.

Although just five years old the PRSP approach is now established as the country level framework for the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s), set by the United Nations. This World Bank communications experts believe can only be achieved through strategic communications. The authors start by referring to strategic communications as much more than merely informing citizens, rather they say it is the active seeking of the perspectives and contributions of citizens so that they can help to shape policy. They added that it is also a means of ensuring that mechanisms are in place for a two-way flow of information and ideas between the government and the citizenry as well as a Nation’s deliberate effort to build consensus amongst stakeholders about the development strategy the Nation wishes to pursue.

The experts also pointed out in the book that done properly, strategic communications can contribute to PRSP in the following ways: It creates open and inclusive national discourse on policy option, which leads to greater and increased participation in policy making by significant segment of the population. The result is increased support and commitment for the agreed strategy. Secondly, on the other hand it whips up expectation, giving the people a serious sense of what policy options can realistically deliver. It helps to promote transparency and accountability, by full airing and presentation of the facts, citizens can hold the government accountable. Fourthly, it also establishes and maintains momentum because of the engagement of multitudes. Fifthly, it creates or reopens a public culture of citizen government dialogue that can enhance good governance and development agenda. Whilst it can be seen from the above that local PRSP drive in using strategic communications involve variety of processes. It is also noteworthy that the World Bank experts raising one of the major issues and challenges of the success of such a programme forwarded the role of the media as a watchdog in facilitating transparency and accountability. In fact, one of the major stakeholders of the PRSP is the media including government and donors, in combination with civil society groups.

In laying out the structural impediments to participation and country ownership of the PRSP, S Odugbemi, program manager and adviser for information and communication for development, (DFID) states that while strategic communication can help to foster participation and country ownership, the overall context in which communications takes place has a decisive impact on what communication can contribute.

Simply put, strategic communications in PRSP is not a magic bullet rather certain systems and structures can affect in either ways it smooth operations.

It further states that free independent and plural mass media systems are a condition for genuinely participatory PRS process. It sees the media as the chief mediators of political and economic intelligence and significant influencers of public opinion. Citing the World Development Report 2002, he further argues that the media can affect politics and culture, supporting institutional change and market development. Open information flows can promote institutional reform by affecting people in inventive thoughts and by sharing ideas and knowledge. New information it says cannot only change people and culture but can create demand for new institutions which developing countries need. The mass media can also provide a voice for social groups to press for changes in institution and norms of behavior.

Pointing to the role of the media Odugbemi states that the media can encourage free and open debate around the options to monitoring and reporting progress against stated PRS objectives while laying down the determinant factors of a free independent and pluralistic media, Odugbemi also questions the ability and professional skills of the media in breaking down the complexities of strategies in a way that engages and inspires a mass audience.

In enhancing the PRS stages and processes and all it segments the authors argued that there would not be a genuine participation and ownership unless there is free flow of relevant information. The problem it further states is that most of the relevant information will be generated by and belong to the State authorities; if the State will not willingly share the information with the media, parliament and civil society organization. But as is the case in countries like Sierra Leone where there is an absence of an official Freedom of Information Act granting the right to information to every one. The trend will be as the implementation process unfolds the same government will often resist any attempt to institutionalize participatory mechanisms that will give the media and civil society groups’ full access to official statistics regarding progress on implementation.

The United Nations Development Programme forever sees access to information as not only about promoting and protecting rights to information but is equally concerned with promoting and protecting communication use of information to voice one’s views, to participate in democratic processes that takes place at all levels community, national regional and global] and to set priorities for action. By all its indication freedom of information also plays a vital role in augmenting transparency and accountability in the day-to-day administration of the State. Therefore apart from facilitating an effective PRS process, it also creates a favorable ground for a national anti corruption campaign that is very important in the drive to reduce poverty and enabling economic growth and prosperity.

The other aspect raised by the authors is also a problem in Sierra Leone; how does the communication capacity within the government work? They can play a crucial role in the PRS process as the authors suggest sometimes developing countries government mean well and would like to engage their citizen and the press in policy dialogue around the PRS. The problem is that they do not know how to do it well. In many developing countries government information services are ‘dreary back waters’. The government information officers are badly paid, badly trained and very often lack confidence as well as basic equipments. A common scenario in Sierra Leone for instance is that government officials always grumble that the media is not disseminating government policies and programmes.

Instead they argue they are always focusing on the negative aspects of government. However according to World Bank communication experts the ineffectiveness of government information apparatus in third world countries leads to the failure in explaining the working policies and action of the ministers and their department, including executive bodies. There are also shortcomings in creating awareness of the rights, benefits and obligations of citizen. This can also lead to the failure to persuade group of citizens to act in accordance with agreed policies in defined circumstances. In light, of the PRS process, which stresses two-way flow of Information between the government and the public. The experts admonished that becoming better communicators does not mean becoming skilled propagandists. True communication they stressed is dialogue, which is about listening as well as talking, as the skilled management of public opinion can lead to political success.

Furthermore, in presenting communication strategy case studies, Amy Pollard an information expert, warned about cosmetic coverage in the media. They cite the South American state of Bolivia where the PRS process national dialogue team maintained a fairly high profile in the independent media as well as the national broadcasters in the local languages. But the process according to observers did not actually promote a well-informed dialogue in the PRS; it was a cynical move by the government to ensure good public relations and draw attention away from substantive problems with the process. (Christian aid 2002).

As our PRS process unfolds, one only hopes that Sierra Leone does not go that way.