Last month two CABI employees, Solveig Danielsen and Paul Day, attended a conference at Wageningen University on Communicating Evidence for Sustainable Development. Sol works in the Monitoring and Evaluation team (M&E) and Paul is a communicator. The conference led to a lively conversation which we captured here.
Paul: Before the conference I was still unsure how best to work alongside my M&E colleagues to communicate the effectiveness and value of our work to stakeholders. I was also considering our communications team’s role in promoting M&E reports and studies (as evidence of effectiveness or as research outputs to improve practice) and wondered how joined up these different activities were. I went along to the conference hoping to get clarity.
What I found was a building full of people who all shared the same problem: there is no single agreed understanding of what either communicators or M&E professionals in complex development organisations should be focussed upon. We are all pulled in many directions.
Sol: Yes, that complexity exists. However the key point of clarity I took away was that we need a stronger distinction between communication for marketing and communication to support change processes (development communication). A lot of evidence reporting is still focused on donor accountability with a tendency to highlight the positive achievements (cherry-picking).
Paul: Yes and no. We mustn’t to fall into the trap of seeing organisational communication which creates awareness of our work and engages stakeholders in a process that culminates in new partnerships, new financial opportunities and new projects as simple information dissemination. These are also dialogues aimed at behaviour change. They are just different audiences.
Within the conference the spectrum of communications and M&E roles were on display. There were presentations on how dashboards can report real-time data that drives conversation and engagement (reporting impact), how to report on the value for money provided by a project, how evidence can be used to effect policy change, and participatory methods to gather evidence and catalyse change. These are quite varied uses of evidence, but all valuable.
Sol: OK, however the conference was very good at explaining the role communication plays in transformational change processes in general and in the generation and use of evidence for sustainable development specifically. As Noelle Aarts (Professor of Socio-ecological Interactions, Radboud University Faculty of Sciences) explained in her address to the conference this requires framing and dialogue – not simple transmission of information. Communicating evidence is not only about presenting facts. Norms, values, perspectives and emotions matter and should be taken into account. Facts always exist in a context.
Paul: No disagreement there. I can’t think of any good communications campaigns that do not relay on understanding of our audiences. The big issue is – it’s hard to get that information without adequate research.
Sol: My conclusion is that we need to nurture a stronger working relationship between project implementers, M&E and communications so that effective evidence communication becomes the norm rather than ad hoc. Also we must embed communication strategies into the evaluation/study plans from the beginning.
Let’s jointly look at some of the innovative ideas for gathering data and communicating evidence. I think reflecting on these will improve how we do things – even without totally clear, defined roles.