Thursday, May 17, 2012

I'm talking - but is anyone listening?

Communications was a tough sell in Canada, but at least the organizations I worked with had a general sense of it being a good thing for them to be doing more of.
Not so in Honduras. There must be some kind of communications industry somewhere in this country, but it’s pretty clear at this point that the work isn’t even on the radar of any of the non-profits that are on the ground doing virtually all of the social-service work in Honduras.
As I’m sure I mentioned before, my title for the purposes of this Cuso International posting is “communications and knowledge management facilitator.” The idea is that I will help the Comisión de Acción Social Menonita here in Copan Ruinas develop fabulous communication skills over the next two years, which will then be put to use in the other five offices of CASM around the country.
But as I learned the hard way in my own country, there’s no way to develop fabulous communication skills if you’ve yet to acknowledge that talking about your work and sharing your successes, your challenges and your frustrations are desirable things. I’m not at all convinced that CASM was clamoring for a Canadian volunteer with communication skills, although I do think that whether the organization knows it or not, they really need one.
 One of the Cuso reps here in Honduras told me when I arrived that people here followed an “oral culture” and my challenge would be to help them understand the value of putting things in writing. But the truth is that Honduran NGOs – non-profits for those of you still getting the hang of “non-governmental organizations” -  are really just accustomed to getting their work done and not talking about it at all, orally or otherwise. My challenge isn’t just to teach them about the tools of communication, it’s to convince them that it’s something worth thinking about in the first place.
In a different age, just doing good work was enough. But these little Honduran NGOs are heavily reliant on funding from the big faith-based development organizations of Europe – Christian Aid, Diakonia,  Holland’s ICCO.  The goal of those organizations is to plant seeds, to fund good works that model a new way of doing things: Better agricultural processes; more preparedness for floods, hurricanes and all the other weird weather that happens down here; greater awareness of human rights; more diversity for subsistence farmers so they don’t starve to death in a year when the corn crop fails. They don’t want to be on the hook for solving every problem in Honduras, they just want to pony up in a few key areas and let the country take it from there.
But you can’t model anything if communications isn’t part of the plan. It’s the thing that cranks up the volume on whatever an organization is doing.  Just like NGOs in Canada, Honduran organizations need to figure out ways to share stories about the impact they’re having or risk starving to death themselves when the big funders go looking for louder voices.
It’s hard to separate the personal from the professional when you’ve been living and breathing communications for as long as I have, so I’m acutely aware that everything I post on my own Facebook site or my blog is another facet of my role with Cuso International.  I’m trying not to become acutely self-conscious of every post – sometimes a picture of a corn field is just a picture of a corn field – but I do feel something of a responsibility to show a different side of Honduras. The country has the worst PR in the world outside of North Korea, and I figure that as long as I’m here I might as well try to highlight through my own experiences that there’s more to Honduras than just murder and mayhem.
As for the impact I’ll have with CASM, I guess we’ll see. I just finished a PowerPoint – “Por Qué Comunicar?” – that I’ll be presenting to the management staff of the organization at the end of the month. Between my mediocre grasp of Spanish and their indifference toward this thing called communications, I’ll count myself lucky if they adopt even a couple of the ideas I’m throwing out there.
But hey, that’s communications for you. You just have to keep talking and hope that somebody listens.

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