A new approach to reimagining development communications

Earlier this year, the Bond Communications Group came together for an insightful webinar and discussion on the state of the evolving process of decolonising communications in the humanitarian and development sector.

“Reimagining Communications in Development”, which analysed how we can action meaningful change through more intentional uses of language, through understanding the role of language in altering perceptions and actions, and through interrogating the pervasive stereotypes present in development communications internationally.

Recognising this inherent nuance at play when discussing how communications might best represent their organisations’ programmes, our fantastic speakers, Najité Phoenix, Ettie Bailey-King and Michael Vincent Mercado. stressed how only through facilitating a space for frank and open dialogue, rather than by using arbitrary ‘tick-box’ exercises, can we begin to work towards more inclusive communication strategies.

They brought their unique insights to the webinar, analysing their own personal experiences in dignified storytelling and shifting narratives of power, making the webinar a must-watch for anyone delivering communication materials in the sector. The session also included the presentation of an important resource created by Najité Phoenix: the Reimagining Comms toolkit, which empowers comms professionals to look at their internal processes through a different lens, in order to cross-examine what it truly means to be decolonised in 2024.

Don’t overcomplicate things

Looking inward at our personal and organisational bias may be uncomfortable for some people, but it doesn’t necessarily mean an arduous process change to start improving. This was a key takeaway from our insightful discussion. Whilst meaningful, sector-wide change may sometimes take years, we must take the first steps without delay. Most crucially, making transformative changes to be more inclusive and representative should be treated as the valuable and rewarding process that it is, and charity professionals should recognise the inherent benefits when embarking on this journey.

To facilitate this journey, Najite stressed that decolonising comms is a continuous learning journey that must support divergence of thought, without stifling diverse ideas or alternative suggestions, to be truly effective. Instead of being overly concerned with ‘getting it wrong’, let’s instead remember why this work is so important, and direct our concern to the goal of facilitating change.

Najité also highlighted the importance of provocations in fostering restorative narratives in development communications, rather than utilising a pre-defined, arbitrary guidebook that exists independently of the nuance of any given situation. By asking ourselves and each other frank questions such as “Are we spotlighting others?” and “Are we being vulnerable?”, comms professionals have space to examine what shifting the power looks like in their specific context, whilst leaving scope for continuous transformation.

In the toolkit, Najité expertly delves further into the need for these provocations, underpinning their importance with simple reasonings and suggestions to help professionals apply this to real-world examples. To further support this, the toolkit’s word bank offers helpful alternatives to common harmful phrases that could be better articulated and represented, as a means of provoking, not policing, thought.

The role of narratives in informing actions

Decolonisation may be a movement rooted in action, but whilst “actions might speak louder than words, words inspire actions.” 

During the webinar, Mic spoke about his experience in utilising narrative shifts to broaden representation, with the understanding that language is a powerful tool in breaking down barriers to equitable access and inclusion. He argued it can be instrumental in fostering participatory decision-making and community-led action.

Ettie reinforced this, noting how words can be “an invitation to disrupt all of those deeper behaviours” of colonial power structures. Whilst emboldened by the words themselves, we must ensure they beget action. If not, organisations can easily present themselves as ‘decolonial’ by articulating that change is necessary, without interrogating how they themselves could facilitate that change and dismantle these power structures.

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The speakers powerfully highlighted how language is informing action around the ongoing violence in Gaza, particularly how the utilisation of words such as ‘killed’ as opposed to ‘murdered’ can shift perceptions in reporting and indeed even in legal proceedings. This is even more pertinent when, as Najité explained, one considers that just over half of Genocide Watch’s 8 Stages of Genocide are rooted in narrative shifts, such as symbolisation and dehumanisation, reaffirming how intrinsic narrative is in informing global actions.

Unless we recognise the impact that the narratives we create can have, in both positive and negative ways, we will be unable to disrupt ingrained biases within the sector.

Following the webinar, our speakers engaged in a Q&A with the audience. Here were some key takeaways:

  • Prioritise and platform the knowledge and expertise of those with lived experience
  • Get uncomfortable: don’t shy away from the difficult or unknown, and use any privilege you may have to advocate for others and spotlight marginalised voices
  • Assist communities with the resources they need to effectively tell their own stories, as opposed to just ‘passing the mic’ without providing crucial support
  • Take a human-first approach: remember the difference that you are personally making, even if you do not have as much buy-in as you would like
  • Partner with organisations that share the same values as you, explicitly affirming your commitment to restorative justice

A huge thank you to our panellists for sharing their wisdom and insights for this informative and thought-provoking session. To revisit any of the themes explored in this webinar, you can watch it below.