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Communication and Information Activities

UN Agencies and Communication for Development

Media development
History of the round table
11th Round Table -Washington, USA
A. Rogers - UNCDF

The UN Inter-Agency Round Table on Communication for Development plays a significant role in bringing together UN agencies and international non-UN partners to discuss and debate the very broad, challenging, and crucial role and practice of communication in development.
When it was first introduced, in the late 1980s as a UN inter-agency collaboration mechanism, there was no common definition or understanding of communication for development. This raised the need for coordination among each of the UN agencies. At the time UN agencies themselves were rarely aware of each others objectives largely due to their focus on the individual policies that reflected their work and guided their operational programmes and projects.

Many attempts were made to harmonize the situation and by 1994, a Joint Inspection Unit was designated by the UN General Assembly to consult with the agencies and provide recommendations on how communication could better integrate in the work of the agencies and programmes and what future direction it could realistically take.

The Joint Inspection Unit was careful not to confuse the technical means of communication, such as telecommunications and informatics, with the conceptual category of communication. It studied the relevance and importance of communication for development. In its 10 point recommendation it concluded that:

  • better strategies for communication should be developed among the UN agencies, and in cooperation with decision makers the United Nations agencies could jointly be involved in development communication through different ways.
  • Recommendation 6 specifically noted that there was “no regular forum whereby discussions are held and views exchanged on development and humanitarian assistance communication programmes”.
  • Recommendation 7 took into account the existence of the International Programme for the Development of Communication under UNESCO’s mandate and urged this forum to mobilise resources from UN agencies, bilateral and multilateral organisations, NGOs, foundations and universities in order to increase support to the development of communication in developing countries .

    The recommendations of the Joint Inspection Unit allowed the evolution of an informal round table to grow into a better organized system of coordination and emphasized that “. . . the existing Informal Round Table process should be regularised. It should include all United Nations agencies, the regional economic commissions of the United Nations and take into account the mandate of UNESCO on communication.”

    In support of the recommendations of the Joint Inspection Unit, the United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 50/171 in 1995 (and subsequently resolution 51/172 to which FAO provided its input), requesting the UN Secretary General in consultation with the Director General of UNESCO to report to the General Assembly on the implementation of the UN Communication Round Table on a biennial basis. Later, the agencies agreed amongst themselves that the chairmanship of the Round Table would be implemented on a rotational basis.

    In 1996, on the initiative of UNESCO, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on “Communication for development”, which, inter alia, “stresses the need to support two-way communication systems that enable dialogue and that allow communities to speak out, express their aspirations and concerns and participate in the decisions that relate to their development”. The General Assembly “recognized the relevance for concerned actors,…policy-makers and decision makers to attribute increased importance to communication for development and encouraged them to include it … as integral component in the development of projects and programmes”.

    Round table meetings, themes and host agency
    The Round Table is hosted by a single agency on a biennial basis based on a common theme. Since 1996, four agencies have hosted this event namely, UNESCO, 6th Round Table, Zimbabwe, 1996: Communication access for rural development UNICEF, 7th Round Table, Brazil, 1998: Communication for social change and development
    UNFPA, 8th Round Table, Nicaragua, 2001: HIV/AIDS Communication and Evaluation FAO, 9th Round Table, Italy, 2004: Focus on sustainable development

    The above meetings have succeeded in bringing recognition to grassroots needs, justifying the need for resource mobilisation, emphasizing the importance of human rights and achieving recognition of the purpose of the round tables, i.e. mobilising the participation of the international community at large; supporting increased human capacity in communication; and securing resources that contribute towards the growth of communication for development.

    Communication is a means to sustainable development, not an end in itself. The role of communication in the development process is to make people conscious of the reality of their situation and to make them aware that they have the power to change their social realities. It assumes that people are equal, that they have a right to knowledge and culture, and that they can criticise their situation and act on it. It also implies having faith in the capacity of all people, including the illiterate, to discuss intelligently about social issues.

    The right to freedom of expression is a prerequisite for grassroots communities to enjoy their other rights. To participate in their own development, people must be free to "seek, receive and impart information and ideas," as stated in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Without the guarantee of freedom of expression, vital processes such as participatory communication will be hindered from effectively pursuing social dialogue, securing ownership of development efforts. These liberties can only lead to the adoption of new attitudes and behaviours that can gradually empower people in strengthening the democratic process.

    Hand in hand with the freedom of expression is the need for an independent and pluralistic media. This means that media should be free of any political or commercial influence and should serve a public service to citizens with the aim of informing, educating and entertaining.
    The UN Inter-Agency Round Table on Communication for Development makes an effort to contribute innovative ideas and creative solutions to development by putting into perspective a better future and a better world.