Op-ed essay originally published by the Communications Initiative (CI) on 12 Dec 2013 and reprinted in Ceylon Today newspaper on 17 Dec 2013.
Nelson Mandela was not only an effective communicator, but also a champion of communication for development.
He spoke and wrote with conviction and empathy, which in turn enhanced his credibility and appeal. He changed history with his careful choice of words and images delivered with the right degree of passion. Social communicators can learn much from him.
However, his communications prowess extended beyond thoughtful prose and skillful oratory. He also understood the power of mass media in today’s information society — and used it well for nation building.
When they are in office, many political leaders of the majority world tend to overuse or misuse the media, for example by forcing public broadcasters to peddle ruling party propaganda. During his term as South Africa’s president, Mandela carefully avoided such excesses.
Instead, he strategically tapped the country’s pluralistic broadcast media to unify the divided nation. Clint Eastwood’s 2009 movie Invictus re-enacted a highlight of that approach.
As a policy maker, Mandela grasped the role of communication in development – both the concepts and delivery tools.
He promoted the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) as part of socio-economic development in Africa and elsewhere.
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the UN agency promoting and tracking the progress of information society, recently saluted Mandela for having been a firm supporter of ICTs as a catalyst for social change and economic development.
At the same time, Mandela’s vision went beyond mere gadgets and telecom networks. Speaking at the ITU Telecom World in Geneva in 1995, he underlined the importance of communication and access to information to human beings. He called for eliminating the divide between information-rich and information-poor countries.
Three years later, while hosting ITU Telecom Africa in Johannesburg, President Mandela said: “As the information revolution gathers yet more pace and strikes deeper roots, it is already redefining our understanding of the world. Indeed, the speed of technological innovation could bring the ideal of the global village sooner than we thought possible. For the developing world, this brings both opportunity and challenge.”
Lofty statements like these are common at policy gatherings. But Mandela went further – and believed that communication should be seen as a basic human need. That set him apart from many members in the development community who have long considered it a secondary need.
Although it has been discussed for centuries, there is no universally accepted definition of basic human needs. During the 1970s, basic needs emerged as a key topic in development debates. Various studies — catalysed by UN agencies and the Club of Rome – tried to define it.
In 1976, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) prepared a report that identified basic needs as food, clothing, housing, education and public transportation. It partially drew on ILO’s country reports on Columbia, Kenya and Sri Lanka.
Since then, different development agencies have adopted variations of the original ILO list. National planners have used the concept to benchmark economic growth.
The ground reality has changed drastically since those heady days. About a year ago, I asked Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, if communication should be considered a basic human need. He welcomed the idea, especially in view of rapid evolution of information society.
I soon found that Mandela had thought of it years earlier. Perhaps because he had such limited access to communication during his long years in prison, he appreciated its central value to all human beings.
In a 2007 book titled You Can Hear Me Now: How Microloans and Cell Phones are Connecting the World’s Poor to the Global Economy, US writer Nicholas Sullivan quotes Mandela saying in a 1995 speech: “The desire to be in touch lies deep within us. It is a basic need.”
That remark, made while opening a mobile telecom network, was rather perceptive. At the time, less than 1 per cent of all Africans had access to a fixed phone, and there were only around one million mobile phones on the continent of 800 million.
Since then, mobile phones and other low-cost digital tools have spread phenomenally, transforming lives and livelihoods across the majority world. Sullivan calls it an external combustion engine: “a combination of forces that is sparking economic growth and lifting people out of poverty in countries long dominated by aid-dependent governments.”
While the market and society have marched ahead, many development professionals are still stuck in obsolete development paradigms. That is probably why some worry that there are more mobile phones than toilets in India. (So what? Mobiles are personal devices; toilets are a shared household amenity. Comparing their numbers is meaningless.)
It’s high time we revisited basic human needs and redefined them to suit current realities. The development community must finally catch up with Nelson Mandela.
Science journalist and development communicator Nalaka Gunawardene has been following social and cultural impacts of ICTs for over 20 years.