The Role of Communicators in Africa’s Development

Africa’s economic pulse has undoubtedly been the new consensus in the 21st century, infusing the continent with a new commercial vibrancy. This has been illustrated in a growing strand of influential development literature and international journals demonstrating newfound optimism about Africa’s development trajectory. For instance, The Economist’s Mea Culpa (correcting its previous assessment of a “hopeless continent”) and TIME magazine’s, “Africa rising.” There lies the paradox that is Africa: it’s in its narrative!

The African Economic Outlook indicates that the continent is performing well in regard to economic, social and governance issues and has encouraging prospects for the near future. The world’s most powerful nations are taking advantage of these future prospects to realign their policies towards Africa. Yet, the persisting stereotypical image of Africa depicts divorce from quality and inclusive sustainable economic development. In most cases, there is an over-generalisation of the continent by those who argue ubiquitously that the idea of Africa rising is premature or unrealistic. To this end, communicators have a significant role in shaping and changing the African narrative.

With this in mind, to know where we are going in terms of how communications can contribute to Africa’s development, it is key to know where we are. Contemporary African communication encapsulates traditional methods, the modern mass media, and the new social media, all of which have important roles in the purposive uses of communication in Africa’s development. Using communication to achieve development requires astute strategies that are best realised through strategic planning, careful implementation and systematic evaluation, which are the hallmarks of strategic communications.

More professionalisation of strategic communication in Africa will lead to better use of traditional and new forms of communication to achieve desirable pre-planned outcomes that will contribute significantly to Africa’s political and economic development. The good news is, most African governments are now restructuring their economies and this will drive the need to communicate strategically, with more precision. A great opportunity for communicators!

Therefore, to change the ‘Africa reeling’ narrative, and ensure communications contributes to Africa’s development, communicators have to drive the agenda of Africa’s top priorities as highlighted by the Brookings Institution report dubbed, ‘Foresight Africa’. These priorities include: Mobilising financial resources domestically, increasing employment opportunities, boosting transformational technology, bolstering urbanisation efforts, confronting climate change and upholding good governance. We argue that, communicators have a key role to play in Africa’s development by advocating for the mentioned priorities. In particular, they should advocate for structural economic transformation and the ‘Golden Thread’ of stable and good governance: lack of corruption, human rights, respect for the rule of law, transparency, inclusive political processes, accountability and transformational leadership. With this background, below are various ways that communicators can contribute to Africa’s development.

First, instead of just acting as support functions, communicators have a role in nurturing a shared vision for Africa as highlighted in the African Union’s Agenda 2063. Our direction towards the Africa of 2063 has started, and communicators need to help us along that road to the Africa we want. Strategies, plans, visions, missions, policies and performance indicators all have their role to play. But they do not contain every nut and bolt we will ever need. On this journey, communicators are leaders tasked with the responsibility to offer strategic support to Agenda 2063 by assessing, where are we? Where do we want to go, as Africa, in terms of development? How will we get there? And how will we know we have arrived?  These fundamental questions will help us see gaps, opportunities and current realities with a new lens and point us in the right direction over the coming years, to fulfil our vision and aspirations.

Second, communicators in Africa need to encourage and foster meaningful dialogue among different sectors of the African society and encourage inclusive political processes through which citizens can shape political agendas and hold their governments to account. This will form a solid foundation for sustainable development in Africa. Africans need to be able to receive information, but also to make their voices heard. The poor are often excluded from these processes by geography and lack of resources or skills; and many groups – including women – are also kept silent by social structures and cultural traditions.

As watchdogs, communicators are central to Africa’s development by holding the powerful to account. Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize winning Economist in his book, ‘Development as Freedom’ postulates that, “the process of economic development can be seen as a process of expanding the capabilities of people” (p.755). Through various channels such as the media, communicators need to empower people on their social-economic rights, and continue providing a forum for political debate and accountability. Beyond empowering, communicators can encourage a learning culture across African nations, because solutions to Africa’s development are within. Conversations should be driven with less focus on problems but greater spotlight given to solutions. Communicators also need to shape social attitudes such as women’s equality and Africa’s development agenda: outgrowing development aid; and prioritising domestic resource mobilisation.

On ensuring social-economic rights, African countries need a healthy, vibrant civil society where people are involved in issues that affect them. The fabric of civil society is woven from ongoing communication and exchange between people – through interpersonal, informal and cultural processes as well as through formal institutions and official channels. Communicators are fundamental to the process of ensuring civil societies are vibrant, with quality networks between individuals, groups, institutions and organisations; and the ‘social capital’ (the trust and respect) they create.

Third, communicators lie at the heart of the good governance agenda, tasked with the responsibility of ensuring governments are accountable and responsive to their citizens, and capable of fulfilling their functions with the active engagement of the civil society. Good governance requires that transparent information on the state and public services is available to citizens so that they can monitor government performance. Communicators, through improved communications, need to facilitate the day-to-day administrative relationship between citizens and bureaucracies.

Africa’s development depends on communicators at every level from helping a local supplier market her goods, to strengthening a minister’s argument in negotiating Africa’s international trade or climate change agreements. Communicators should advocate for affordable and accessible information and communications at all levels. Governments should be compelled to ensure that ICTs are available and affordable for everyone. The market will not provide for the needs of poor people without some intervention and regulation from governments.

It should be clear, there is growing recognition that the existence of a vibrant research community is vital for Africa’s development. Africa’s self-understanding and its legibility to others needs a large dose of research to inform communications and development strategies. The current situation leaves much to be desired. According to the ‘Global Research Report’ (2010) by Adams, Jonathan, Christopher King, and Daniel Hook, research in Africa produces about 27,000 papers per year which is about the same volume of published output as the Netherlands. There is need for practitioners, communicators and organisations to invest in research. Communicators have a key role in disseminating that research to the target audience.

To conclude, as Africa confronts its challenges, seizes its opportunities and seeks to take its rightful place in the world polity, the continent and its leaders must assume the responsibility for shaping their own destiny. Globalisation is changing the opportunities for development in Africa by facilitating opening of markets and business ideas across the globe. With all these openings and to harness the demographic dividend, Africa the new frontier of the 21st century needs transformational leaders.

Communicators have the responsibility to advocate for this kind of leadership, that always searches for opportunities to change the status quo and encourages extraordinary ideas and innovativeness. Advocating for leaders with the shared vision of fighting the vices that are dragging the continent downwards such as corruption, retrogressive politics, tribalism, poor leadership and lack of work ethics is our responsibility as communicators who want to transform Africa.

Communicators, if not now, when? If not us, who?