Zoom zoom zoom, capoeira mata um: communications in the age of austerity

19 April 2011

‘Capoeira mata um’, or perhaps more accurately, ‘capoeira foi morto por um’ – at least on one sunny day last summer.

Now if you’re like 99.9% of readers of this blog, you’re probably wondering a) why Enrique let me do a guest blog, and b) what in the world Brazilian Portuguese has to do with austerity communications. Let me explain.

Zum zum zum’ is a popular song in the capoeira circuits. Indeed it is so popular that you might recognise it from certain Mazda adverts. Zoom zoom.

The first line literally means ‘capoeira kills one’, but that’s not what this story is about. It’s about a time where ‘capoeira was killed by one’, how that has changed the development communications landscape, and what lessons development policy entrepreneurs can draw from the famed Brazilian martial art/dance.

When the Conservative-led coalition came into government in the UK last May, one of the first targets in their crosshairs was ‘profligate’ Labour spending, which they argued had left the country in dire economic straits. ‘Communications’, synonymous with spending, quickly became a dirty word across Whitehall. And, although they promised to protect – and even increase – aid spending, the Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, made value for money of British aid a clear priority. Among other things, that meant cuts to a cherished Labour objective: making the argument for aid to the British public.

Indeed, who could argue with cutting aid funds to a ‘Brazilian dance troupe’ in Hackney (a neighbourhood in East London)? In one of his first ministerial speeches, Mitchell made clear that these sorts of activities would no longer be tolerated and that the aid argument would be won not on explaining it to audiences at home but by improving lives abroad.

By mid-2010 the UK, not just the newly rebranded UKaid, entered an age of ‘austerity communications’. Government websites were among the first to be scrutinised. As it turned out, the UK Trade and Investment website, in what is frankly a crude measure, cost the government nearly £12/visitor, and that’s discounting staff and operating costs. Hardly value for money, by any definition.

Such costs called for a rationalisation of government websites, an edict that has trickled down through the ranks of DFID. In the most recent advice given to its large portfolio of research consortia, it was suggested that no programme should have a standalone website. Recommendations have also emerged that no money should be going to promoting large programmes as brands independent from their host organisations, and that hosting events that cost over £20,000 require cabinet-level approval.

While the value for money of these arbitrary rules is dubious at best, the push for austerity communications should be welcomed by development researchers, research communicators, knowledge intermediaries and policy entrepreneurs alike. Just as it is an incorrect assumption that less polished looking communication activities are cheaper (just ask the 2012 Olympic committee), it is equally untrue that communication has to be expensive. An unhealthy economy has emerged in the research communication field: from expensive and self-indulgent websites to exorbitant per diems for participation in events (which may soon be considered bribery in certain circumstance under new UK legislation) to paying for media placement.

My friend and former colleague, Nick Scott from ODI has spoken widely about free and low cost online tools that can help establish and bolster an online presence, so I will instead broaden the discussion in the rest of this post to how communications has the opportunity to be more effective in these tight times.

Ironically, capoiera’s existence today is a shining example of massive impact with limited resources. Capoeira emerged from slaves of African origin working the sugarcane plantations of Brazil in the 1600s. As a martial art, slaves used it for self-protection, to escape and to defend Quilombos (informal settlements of escaped slaves and others living outside the law). As capoeira was a clear threat to the Portuguese slave owners, it was outlawed, forcing capoeiristas to disguising the practice as a form of traditional dance. And perhaps at a most basic level, this clandestine approach of obfuscating traditional approaches to research communications will be necessary, but only when they are the most appropriate techniques to reach an objective.

Ultimately I hope that these new rules force us to change rather than conceal. And here, capoiera offers more lessons to inform an innovative approach to research communications.

There are several styles of capoiera, the two most popular being capoira regional (pronounced ‘hey-shu-nal) and capoiral angola. Capoeira regional is the newer, flashier side of capoeira, with rodas usually going at a quicker pace and with more jumps, spins and kicks. The more traditional angola style is comparatively slow place and low to the ground, with combatants usually keeping at least one hand touching the ground at all times. Both styles are popular, but capoeira angola is considered the more difficult. It is a reflective and strategic style and requires greater control – consider it the chess of the martial arts world. And perhaps these two styles represent the difference between research communications and marketing as it was promoted under the Labour government (capoiera regional) and the era of austerity communications  (capoiera angola).

There are a few principles operating in capoeira angola: 1) conserve energy and maintain endurance; 2) use the slow pace to develop an understanding of the opponent and use that understanding to defeat her/him; 3) exploit opportunities and make every attack count. Development communications would do well to abide by these principles.

1)    Conserve energy and maintain endurance: As Enrique has noted elsewhere, think tanks and research organisations that chase visibility at the cost of substantive research and influence do so at their own peril. The fact is that we are operating with finite resources and there is an opportunity cost associated with pursing any given engagement activity. To that end, we must recognise that substantive influence does not happen overnight. We need to be prepared to invest in long term strategies that focus on building relationships and trust – neither of which is founded on glossy brochures.

2)    Understand the opponent: At its least, austerity communications should give us time to pause and reflect on how policy influence and research uptake actually occur in our individual contexts. Maybe getting an article into a journal with the highest impact factor isn’t going to change practice on the ground. Maybe the long research publication isn’t the best choice in Cambodia, where most business and politics is transacted verbally. Maybe the flashy website that woos donors isn’t the right option to reach researchers in the D.R. Congo where internet penetration is notoriously low.

Additionally, a good understanding of our audience allows us to extend a ‘being there’ strategy from the web to other forms of communication. Beyond thinking of where in the web world your audiences are spending their time, also think through: What publications are your target audiences already reading? What media do they already engage with? What events are they already attending? Spending effort getting into these spaces may be much more valuable than simply creating more of your own spaces and spending resources to market them. Enrique’s recent post on ‘confirmation bias’ should be a good reminder of this – people are predisposed to agree with evidence from a source they already trust.

3)    Make every attack count: Value for money doesn’t necessarily mean spending less money, it means spending it wisely. Instead of a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to communication (which can be particularly valuable when working in complex environments as long as there are in-built learning mechanisms), under austerity communications we will likely need to be more selective in our communications activities. So when an opportunity does arise, and we do think that it is the right intervention for the right objective, go ‘all in’ and put significant resources behind it.

In a review of DFID’s recommendation to spend 10% of funds on communication activities for certain types of programmes that Enrique and I both participated in a few years ago, we found that some programmes were taking the advice literally and cascading the 10% funding throughout all of its interventions – but some research is more communicable than other research. Austerity communications will require a greater investment in horizon scanning (and tools that facilitate this), and then taking every advantage of opportunities as and when they do arise.