Opportunities and challenges of the European refugee situation for Communication for Development

There has been a constant flow of recent critical writing about traditional development and communication approaches* – often in the context of the current European refugee situation.

As important as fresh debates about the ‘North’ and the ‘South’, ‘us’ and ‘them’ are – especially in the context of new communicative ecologies and mediatized development realities – I firmly believe that we Northern development and communication experts can, and should, play a bigger role in the debates ‘at home’.

For the first time in recent history core ‘development’ issues have become part of domestic discussions and all of the sudden migration, refugee, humanitarian, poverty, peace & conflict and gender issues are no longer just taking place ‘there’.

Among the very loud noise of politicians pretending to have ‘solutions’, shortsighted calls for ‘integration’ and a steady flow of equally shortsighted news broadcasts from the latest ‘front-‘ or ‘borderline’ the voice of development and communication experts could definitely be featured more prominently-especially in connection with participatory formats where all stakeholders, not least the refugees, have space. After seven decades of modern development there is also a good deal of information available on what has never worked and how difficult and important it is to deal with roots causes of issues.

Engaging with development topics on ‘our’ doorsteps
Two of the most important, dare I call them ‘lessons’ that the development industry (comprising of practice, policy, research, teaching and more) has to offer are that we do not have to re-invent the wheel-and that most issues are complex, political and require long-term approaches.

The long, winding road to systemic change and sustainable development starts with humanitarian engagement-and we have not simply arrived at our destination once refugee flows slow down or temporary camps are replaced with decent housing options. The discourse is driven by events, hashtags, anniversaries and comparative statistics and the communication for development community has the expertise reminding others about longer-term approaches, campaigns and capacity building.

Good intentions – still not enough

Another area of engagement for the ‘Northern’ development and communication community is the constant reminder that good intentions are not enough. Among many useful items in the warehouses in Lesvos and elsewhere there will also be a lot of rubbish that well-meaning people send to Greece-especially one-person initiatives that followed the urge to ‘do something’. Debates about the professionalism of the development industry, volunteering and voluntourism and SWEDOW (way back in 2010...) have been around for quite some time and the ‘African orphanage selfie’ is as problematic as the ‘Lesvos beach selfie’. Reminding Northern audiences that quality aid works costs money and that overheads were not invented by the devil him-/herself is as important as ever before.

Learning from seven decades of international development
In addition to these opportunities to engage there are also some challenging issues that are emerging- and that are not at all surprising to those who have been around for a development decade or two.

Everybody talks, designs and researches about refugees these days

As mentioned above, most people have good intentions and are genuine in their desire to help; but even without sounding too cynical, you may have noticed how seemingly ‘everybody’ is now working, hacking, designing, researching etc. around refugee issues-mostly in non-participatory ways. Very rarely are the ‘last put first’ to paraphrase Robert Chambers’ seminal book title.
An aid donor meeting in Kathmandu, Kabul or Khartoum is not much different from a meeting you may have attended at your university or workplace: Refugee ‘recipients’ are rarely in the room and the dichotomy between the ‘field’ (maybe the outskirts of town where the temporary accommodation is located) and ‘the office’ becomes quickly noticeable to reflective communicators or aid workers.
We have been struggling with these power dynamics for years or decades and they are currently re-invented and re-mixed in Sweden, Germany, Athens or Brussels.

Be an exemplary teacher, researcher & outreacher in your area & community
When we development people talk about ‘strengthening health systems’, ‘multi-sector approaches
, the role of small enterprises or mobile phones, many colleagues pull out their development bullshit bingo cards…but the truth behind the jargon is that ‘development’ has always come with a ‘boring’ backbone of logistics, infrastructure, long-term planning or investments in education.
The debates around professionalism in aid work are very often debates that the web editor or data analyst are more than just paper- or byte-pushers.
In short, you can contribute to the refugee situation in many ways and doing a good job, communicating in your organization or workplace is equally important than rescuing people from small boats.

Speaking evidence to power – and not being heard
One of the more frustrating aspects of learning from development debates is that many people demand ‘evidence’ and very few in power actually listen to it.
Continue to provide evidence-but be aware that ideology and politics almost always trumps ‘evidence’. This is a much bigger debate about ‘facts’ and how to deal with those who blatantly ignore the laws of gravity-but also not a new one for those in development who have been dealing with traditional social norms, resistant governments and donors unwilling to change. And yet, a lot of good things have happened and the development and communication community can help to identify subversive, but also long-term strategies to change behavior and address social norms.

Aid dependency & NGOs as a replacement for public services
A final point for discussion has also been a staple in development discussions: What are the limitations of civil society and NGO engagement when states ‘do not have the money’ to invest in their country and citizens?

Between emerging ‘disaster capitalism’ (as everybody in development knows, the private sector delivers best…) and one-person NGOs we are facing debates that have been around for a while about governments unwilling or unable to face a crisis and asking citizens to fill the gap. This may be a short-term Band-Aid, but in the long term raises important debates about pubic services, dependency issues for NGOs and the role of public-private partnerships, for example – all in the context of European states with decent administrations and tax collection capacities…

My main argument of this short post is that development, especially communication for development, experts based in the global North can contribute to the current refugee debate based on long-standing experience with the complexities of development. Having development or humanitarian issues on ‘our doorstep’ is an opportunity to engage with people, governments and organizations as ‘voices of reason’ who know transnational, global challenges very well. It is also a reminder to avoid historical pitfalls of development and aim at participatory, bottom-up approaches and long-term projects rather than short-term responses to calls for funding. 

*a few recent examples:
The “Third World” Is Not Your Classroom

Do international NGOs still have the right to exist?
“Speak to us, not about us”: social media and international development
Why we need to stop turning refugee stories into aid agency vanity projects and start listening


  1. Great post, Tobias! Lots of excellent points. My recent post on my time volunteering in Calais echoes much of what you said: http://www.panoplydigital.com/situating-mobile-in-the-jungle-thoughts-from-my-24-hours-in-calais-part-1/


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