Bedi Amouzou

Neil Pakenham-Walsh

Director, Global Healthcare Information Network, UK

Progress on the SDGs is wholly dependent on the ability of individuals and organisations to cooperate, collaborate and share perspectives, experience, and expertise, ‘in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor’ – our shared commitment to the realisation of the SDGs. For this, we need Communities of Practice (CoPs). The term CoPs is familiar to most of us who work in international development, and especially those who work in knowledge for development. ‘Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavour.’

I work in the area of global health and, at the centre of my work over the past 17 years, has been the promotion of multi-stakeholder communication for global health. Over the past 10 years my organisation (Global Healthcare Information Network) has supported five global CoPs (HIFA-English, HIFA-French, HIFA-Portuguese, CHIFA – child health and rights, and HIFA-Zambia) – a dynamic global community with more than 17,000 members in 177 countries worldwide. Also, for the past 4 years I have served (in a voluntary capacity) as chair of the Dgroups Foundation. Dgroups supports more than 700 CoPs in international development (including the HIFA forums), as a non-profit partnership of development organisations. Other examples of CoPs in international development and social justice include the KM4Dev Dgroup and Ning group (Knowledge Management for Development) and the newly established K4DP Dgroup (Knowledge for Development Partnership). There are thousands of other CoPs in international development, social justice and global health run on a wide variety of platforms.

Communities of practice (CoPs) have the potential to contribute to the achievement of the Knowledge for Development Goals (KDGs), especially:

  • Pluralistic, diverse and inclusive knowledge societies (Goal 1)
  • People-focused knowledge societies (Goal 2)
  • Strengthening local knowledge ecosystems (Goal 3)
  • Knowledge partnerships (Goal 4)
  • Rural-urban linkages (Goal 5)
  • Improved knowledge strategies in development organisations (Goal 6)
  • Capture, preservation and democratisation of knowledge (Goal 7), and
  • Information and communication technologies (ICTs) for all (Goal 13)

I propose that CoPs should be recognised explicitly in the Knowledge Development Goals (KDGs) and that the Agenda needs to emphasise the importance of communication and the need to improve the effectiveness of communication for development. Communication and cooperation among individuals and organisations in the international development community takes place in a variety of contexts, which include face-to-face meetings and conferences, and one-to-one interactions, inter alia. Such meetings and interactions will always be necessary, but they are by definition exclusive. Few people can afford to fly to an international conference. Even among those who can afford it, a growing number will not or cannot do so. A growing number refuse to fly longhaul to such conferences on the basis of the environmental damage caused. Face-to-face conferences are also very expensive. They are increasingly unsustainable and we need to foster and develop complementary methods of group communication.

CoPs in general (and, I believe, Dgroups in particular) have an as yet unrealised potential to support communication for development. By their nature, they are:

  • Much more inclusive and accessible than F2F conferences
  • Allow more space for participants to consider their contributions (CoPs are asynchronous)
  • Provide a more equitable platform (all participants, whatever their professional status) are given equal respect (indeed, on the HIFA forums, community health workers in rural Uganda are more eagerly welcomed and listened to than senior health executives in Geneva!)
  • Provide 24/7 communication (in contrast to conferences that last only a few days)
  • Provide a complete record of communications (in contrast to most conferences, where some content, but not all, is retained)

I emphasise the complementarity of CoPs and F2F conferences. HIFA has successfully run many thematic discussions in the weeks running up to a conference, thereby providing valuable content from stakeholder who are not able to attend in person. Through their inclusivity and flattening of hierarchies, CoPs promote and nurture mutual understanding, exchange and solidarity across different disciplines, countries, and thematic areas of interest. Some CoPs,  such as the HIFA forums, explicitly bring people together around a common goal (Healthcare Information For All) and such CoPs are known as ‘Communities of Purpose’.

Finally, it is crucially important that people who speak different languages are able to interact and communicate effectively. Currently, huge numbers of people are excluded from dialogue for development simply because they do not speak the language (often English) that is used. CoPs can help to bridge this gap. This can already be done by supporting (and bridging) parallel groups in different languages (HIFA has parallel groups in English, French, Portuguese and – soon to be launched – Spanish). Automatic translators such as Google Translate are improving, and are well suited for CoP text-based communication. (By contrast, automatic translation of the spoken voice (as in F2F conference) is not likely to be an option for many years.) Dgroups is currently looking into the potential of immediate automatic translation of messages, so that the reader can read messages (originally in any language) in the language of their choice. I conclude by endorsing the words of Petru Dumitriu: ‘The executive heads of United Nations system organizations should sponsor the use of communities of practice in their respective organizations, as a means of stimulating interaction, knowledge sharing and solution searching within their respective organizations and systemwide’ (Dmitriu, 2016). I would add that such sponsorship should be all-inclusive in line with the Dgroups vision:

‘A world where every person is able to contribute to dialogue and decision-making for international development and social justice.’