The meeting ‘Cooperation with the Arab world: a new scenario for communication’, held in Madrid (September 7-8, 2011) as part of the Week of Spanish Cooperation, analyzed the effects of the revolutions and process of transformation in the Arab World – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain – on development aid. It also looked at how communication can help build bridges of understanding between citizens and institutions in the Mediterranean region. This is the second workshop organized by the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation for Development (AECID) and Inter Press Service (IPS), which brought together Spanish journalists and colleagues from other regions.
Journalists from Arab, Spanish and other European media took part in the workshop, along with representatives of NGDOs, government and academia. The debate focused on the importance of dialogue and communication, which can change the view we have about ‘the other’. “Nobody can lead a country without support from others,” Oumaima Ahmed pointed out. The speakers called for moving towards in-depth mutual knowledge between cultures, that can lead to greater understanding, and for the exchange of successful experiences and sociopolitical cooperation, to advance in the process of human development.
The participants stressed the heterogeneous nature of the region and the multiplicity of realities that contrast with the simplifications by the Western media, which reinforce stereotypes. For example, with regard to the identification between Islamism and a lack of democracy – when the revolutions are bringing together Islamist and secular groups in search of the same goal – but also with respect to other prejudices referring to Arab women or those that in the past strengthened the view of a region where change never took place.
Regarding the recommendations for aid from Spain and other donor countries that work in the Arab region, apart from humanitarian assistance in emergencies, the participants agreed it is essential to continue accompanying the process of reform, due to the existence of numerous obstacles and threats from forces opposed to the changes. There was unanimous emphasis on the importance of providing effective cooperation that offers support to civil society and strengthens the participative process.
Many of the participants underscored that support for social movements must not neglect organizations working for gender equality and women’s rights. Although these groups have played an important role in the revolutions of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and in the processes of change taking place in Syria and Yemen, there is still a risk that women will be ignored after the overthrow of dictatorial regimes.
Nabila Hamza, president of the Foundation for the Future, pointed to differences between countries such as Tunisia, where a new election law requires equal representation for women and men, and Egypt, where there has been insufficient participation by women in the process to amend the constitution, and where their rights have suffered. The Tunisian activist defended the conditioning of development aid on progress towards effective measures to empower women and achieve equal rights.
But cooperation can also play a prominent role in the field of communication, which is at the heart of the process of democratic change and the education of citizens. Moreover, communication can open up paths to the participation and empowerment of societies that must be protagonists of the changes taking place. In this respect, the participants discussed areas of joint action such as training for journalists and the strengthening of national media outlets in Arab countries, and continued knowledge and capacity sharing among Spanish and Arab journalists.
AECID and IPS also organised a workshop in Santander on “Communication and Development: New Scenarios” in July. Like the previous three meetings, it was designed to be a forum for reflection among the different actors in the fields of communication and development, the sharing of experiences, and the creation of synergies and coordinating networks, with a view to improving public policies on communication. The meeting addressed the various specialists engaged in the fields of communication and development cooperation, researchers and academics, representatives of NGDOs, press associations, journalists and the media, communication officers of central and regional authorities, international organizations and institutions in the field of development cooperation.
The meeting arose from the opportunities offered by communication in the new scenarios of development, both in the industrialised North, where Wikileaks revelations have fuelled debate, and in the South, where the process of South-South cooperation is leading countries such as Spain to seek new forms of interaction. It also dealt in depth with the challenges faced in bringing communication policies more into line with development goals.
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