Clear Channel Communications:  Saying What we Need and How we Need it

25 Nov

While spending this past week ‘in the field,’ I was able to follow a bit of the Security Council’s discussion on countering terrorism as well as the 25th anniversary celebration of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, one of the most ratified of all UN conventions and one of the organization’s  signature achievements. The Convention’s language is filled with caveats related to children’s limitations and vulnerabilities, but this really is about rights of children as much as about the obligations of adults.   In a world which for many of us would be borderline intolerable without the presence of children in it, the Convention reminds us that while we have not done nearly enough to ensure developmentally appropriate protection and education of children, let alone secure their future, the obligations to children contained in this Convention are, in some significant sense, the very least we can do.

Children were also on the menu at the Budapest Human Rights Forum, now in its 7th year, and more especially in the side event organized by György Tatar and his colleagues with the Budapest Centre for the International Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities.  The latter event was on education for mass atrocity prevention, a topic similar to one covered during this fall’s opening of the GA hosted by the UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng, along with ministers from Belgium and Ghana.   The Budapest Centre event, however, was a bit less about the control and potential of the internet (the focus of both the UN event and the Forum), and more about learning skills and materials needed to help stimulate understanding and involvement of young people in the struggle against mass atrocity violence.

Consistent with their reputation, the Budapest Centre brought together a wide array of stakeholders, from United Nations officials to the leadership of educational programs in Bosnia- Herzegovina.  Speakers were engaging though they tended to mostly highlight the activities and accomplishments of their own organizations.  There were few attempts to step back from immediate needs and activities to address larger governance and development concerns.

And this is the point at which some significant questions became relevant, two in particular.  The first was related to an issue that we have taken up previously in this space, the relationship between activity and impact.  How do we determine that we in our various venues are doing more than building up ‘our numbers,’ more than creating busywork for the cause of peace and justice?  This question was posed to panelists with mostly muted response.   Only a few even acknowledged the problem of transformational language that becomes incarnate in activities that are more likely to fulfill the expectations of funders and governments than change the core dynamics of schools and communities.

And the other interesting question, also largely posed without response, referred to the ways in which we seek (or don’t ) the clarification of what it is that we want from others, in this instance ‘others’ referring primarily to that elusive “international community.”   This particular question had two components, what we want bound together with how we want it.

You would think that this combination question would be easy for activists and policymakers to address, but this is rarely seems to be the case.   For the Bosnian representatives, as for many others, telling the story of wants and needs comes in the form of lots of complaining about conditions and an equal measure of pleas to the aforementioned (and also not particularly well understood) international community to ‘do something’ regarding the sources of our collective misery.

The obvious follow up to this combination of discouraging words and pleas for change is, well, what do you want?  What in your view would be the best way for the international community or any other interested party to assist?  And how would it be best to provide that assistance so that we, for instance, avoid dependencies, ensure local control, help guarantee complementary of policy responses, take a longer remedial view instead of just addressing the most current needs?

As someone who has spent much of his life counseling the problems of others, I remain surprised at the inability of people to really come to terms with what they want from others and provide some guidance as to the form that this assistance should take.  Many personal relationships are undone by this lack of clarity.  Remembering birthdays and anniversaries, of course  but with gifts that are thoughtful rather than perfunctory, putting care into selection rather than simply  buying the first thing that seems ‘good enough.’  People have desires, but few want things ‘thrown at them’ in a take-it-or-leave-it manner.  Faced with such a choice, many would choose the ‘leave it’ option.

It is much the same with international assistance.   Activists working in places like Bosnia face considerable challenges including often chronic resource deficits.  They need a hand from time to time, as we all do, if we are to reconcile an often unjust world.  But that ‘hand’ requires guidance of sorts if it is to find the most appropriate and effective end use.   For those seeking to assist, there is simply more they need to know beyond the fact that there are problems needing to be addressed. Needs and wants can be prioritized.  They are often linked to each other.  They have contexts. And there are times when inappropriate assistance is worse than no assistance at all.

In my view, a healthy collaborative exchange requires more clarity from potential recipients, more discernment about needs and expectations, more insistence that any assistance be about more than crunching numbers to fill funder expectations.  This successful matching of needs and resources, whether in development, education, illicit arms or any other areas of policy concern takes more sensitivity from those who claim to assist.  But it also requires more clarity from the assisted.

A common refrain in counseling personal relationships is the belief that he/she should already know what “I” want and need.   This is an understandable but altogether elusive claim that presumes more clarity on the needs side and less sensitivity on the assistance side.   The good human rights discussions held in Hungary  served as reminders that proper assistance requires sensitive assessment, but that clarity of needs and wants is equally an indispensable, if often overlooked, part of the assistance equation.   If we are not willing (or able) to explain clearly what types and forms of assistance would be most helpful to us and our constituent communities, the odds of getting what we want greatly diminish.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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