Communication: why two-way dialogues in development practice are necessary for sustainability

By Lucy Porter

Recently, national and international development agencies, governments and consultancies have placed considerable focus on drafting projects to improve environmental sustainability in less developed countries. In Cambodia, climate change currently poses one of the greatest threats to its development. In recent years, the dry seasons have become longer and rainfall during wet seasons increasingly irregular. Due to this irregularity, drought events are more common and flooding less predictable, which is significantly affecting the agricultural sector, in which 54.2% of the population are employed.

My experience working on a project to improve the issue of limited water supply in rural Cambodia has shown that communication channels are key to ensuring that development projects like these are sustainable. But how can we ensure these projects are effectively supporting vulnerable agricultural communities, and how can this be applied to development scenarios outside of Cambodia and the environmental sector?

Flooded village and forest, Kompong Phluk, Tonle Sap, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Two-way dialogues
Two-way communication is simple as a concept: it ensures the involvement of the stakeholders involved in planning and funding development projects and the communities they are focussed on supporting, through appropriate communication channels. Currently, in development projects across the world, the importance of incorporating ‘grass-roots’ cooperation is overlooked by traditional top-down ethnocentric approaches. However, two-way dialogues pull together the benefits of bottom-up and top-down strategies. There are many benefits to ensuring the voices of communities are heard in planning processes, not least on an ethical and moral level. By opening communication channels communities can share:

o their cultural practices and values;
o the current status of any issues they may be having;
o exactly what they believe is needed to improve their situation;
o successful and unsuccessful past strategies.

Appreciating the above and incorporating this information into all global development scenarios as a core element offers an advantageous move away from traditional top-down communication to support all sectors of society.

farming village in rural cambodia
A farming village in rural Cambodia
Photo credit: Lucy Porter

In Cambodia, alongside important technical findings demonstrating predictions of flood and drought that highlight vulnerable agricultural areas, socioeconomic studies were conducted with agricultural communities to understand their perspective on the water resources situation. Proving to be an essential part of the assessment, the research contributed precise detail on the main crops that villages were struggling to cultivate and the effect this was having on their livelihoods. In addition, the studies highlighted a lack of support and communication from governmental offices and water management departments in consulting the true issues that farmers were experiencing. By understanding this, my team and I were able to recommend the development of robust communication channels between water management agencies and government ministries. Thus providing information on areas for irrigation rehabilitation, water shortages and market fluctuations, to support the socioeconomic security of agricultural communities.

Promoting Sustainability
‘Sustainable Development’ has become a ubiquitous buzzword in global development since the United Nations release of the “Sustainable Development Goals”. It is: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Two-way communication supports sustainable development by ensuring that the needs of societies are tailored to development strategies throughout the planning, implementation and project completion stage. Progress can be tracked through regular and consistent consultations between communities and ministries/project managers to assess responses and address areas with low capacity. Capacity building promotes future sustainability by respecting the right of communities to control their own development by equipping them with necessary skills and knowledge.

Who is responsible?
The practice of two-way dialogues can be applied to development contexts around the world and they should be used to impress upon everyone the importance of all voices, especially the vulnerable, being heard. The responsibility of implementing this falls with governments, NGO’s, consultancies and organisations like the OECD that are involved at the ‘top’ of funding, planning and policy-making processes. Consulting communities takes more manpower to conduct extensive research, however, accepting this as imperative to guiding sustainable practice may reduce the risk of projects and money being focussed on the wrong cause. For global development approaches to evolve and progress, unpacking the traditional language of ‘top’ down and ‘bottom’ up approaches may be useful in nurturing back-and-forth relationships that are reliant on equal input.

Lucy has a degree in Anthropology and recently returned from Cambodia where she spent six months working with an environmental consultancy.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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