First steps in communication: raising awareness

A visit to Rwanda with the WAVES programme brings up the question of whether you should communicate when it seems you have nothing substantial to say.

Rwanda is planning to produce land, water and forest accounts to inform policy around managing its rich natural resources.(Photo: Catherine Nomura, Creative Commons via Flickr)

"Don't communicate with me until you've got solid content, then come and I'll help you package it."

This was the clear message from the director general of the Rwandan Environmental Management Authority, Dr Rose Mukankomeje, and I found it momentarily disconcerting.

I understood her position. She's a busy person with many initiatives to push forward, but I knew that we couldn't just do nothing. I was in Rwanda with WAVES (Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services – www.Wavespartnership.org) to support the drafting of a communication and engagement strategy around using natural capital accounting in the country. Natural capital accounts have not yet been constructed, so the 'solid content' isn't available right now. What could we do?

I went back to the starting point of IIED's model for four kinds of communication in a strategy, as set out in Making communication count: a strategic communications framework. This considers that you can communicate to share information, and raise profile ('pushing out' material), or engage and mobilise to stimulate debate and influence policymaking (more of a 'pulling in' process).

It was clear that we were not at the policy influencing stage in Rwanda, but possibly we could share the story of what had happened so far. This could prepare the ground for when data had been collected – land accounts are the first accounts planned.

This seemed to fit with what a stakeholder mapping exercise with government officers, university academics and civil society representatives at the beginning of the visit had shown. This had pointed to a large group of organisations and government agencies who were 'highly influential' but had 'low awareness' of the issues.

There was not a uniformly strong understanding of natural capital accounting as a tool for collecting and organising data for inclusion in planning and policy processes; in fact, some people had overly ambitious expectations of what could be achieved. While telling the story, we would also have to manage these.

None of this was surprising since natural capital accounting is new in Rwanda. What did surprise me – and it shouldn't have done – was the understanding of the importance of communication and the infrastructure that was already in place.

The Minister of Natural Resources, Dr Vincent Biruta, for example, encouraged us to get started.

"But make sure you present the message in clear, accessible language, and tailor it for your audiences, including translating materials into Kinyarwanda, so that everyone can understand," he cautioned.

Likewise, walking into the Rwanda National Institute of Statistics we were presented with four banner-sized infographics showing stats on the impact of internal migration on labour force participation in Rwanda in visual form. These were the winning entries from a recent competition for students (first prize a laptop, second an iPad, third, a smartphone).

Dominique Habimana, director of statistical methods, research and publication unit, talked about training journalists to interpret statistics knowledgeably and accurately, key messages, and holding dialogues and forums from national to local level to present statistical results.

Twitter was obviously big in Rwanda. Most of the senior people we met over the course of the trip tweeted regularly and had regular times during the week when citizens could get into conversation with them via Twitter and get a quick response.

Dr Rose received field updates from her ministry colleagues via Twitter, showing us the latest messages with pictures received (such as the one below) just a few minutes before our meeting.

We decided it would be legitimate to have a first phase of the communication and engagement strategy where we raised the profile of the natural capital accounting initiative. In the absence of Rwanda case studies for the moment, we would use examples from other countries on how they had used accounts, share what had happened so far, and indicate what was planned for the short term (preparation of land accounts).

Phase 2 would kick in when data had been collected and would be much more about engaging key policymakers in debate and showing how the data was relevant to their own sectors.

None of this is set in stone – there is more discussion to be had to work out and agree the detail – but we had moved from a position of "don't say anything until you've got something to say" to "let's get started with a core group of people to build up knowledge about how natural capital accounts could be used".

With the dynamism and focus of the WAVES country team and indeed, all the people we met, I left feeling fired up about what could be achieved, and wishing I could go back soon to be part of the action.

Rosalind Goodrich (rosalind.goodrich@iied.org) is IIED's research communications manager