On ownership – Aaron

November 13

The term “ownership” is confusing. Broadly speaking I think the term is used in two different ways. This far in my fellowship the term has be used in both ways, and I have observed that there are significant differences between the two. On the one hand, we have “traditional” ownership, which conjures up the image of purchasing a car or a computer, or perhaps a process protected by patent. Tied into this definition of the term we find that an individual or a group has control over for this item or process, stemming from the fact that they have paid for it, inherited it, or designed it. It belongs to this person or group so they have control over how it is used. This is the kind of ownership inextricably linked with the capitalist system. In the vast majority of cases associated with this definition of ownership, the owners of items will extract some sort of financial profit or benefit from said item or process.

On the other hand, we can find a type of ownership that serves as a synonym for responsibility. This definition, however, is often used in connection with the phrase “taking ownership”. This is a term I use frequently in my discussions surrounding community development. Yet, despite my frequent employment of the term, it is one that has created some confusion.

In the hopes of facilitating the development of a community radio station, I took some time to look into what separated community radio from its public and commercial brethren. One characteristic of community radio, as described by Louis Tabing (2002) in his handbook on the topic is that “it offers the opportunity to any member of the community to initiate communication and participation in program making, management and ownership of the station.” This concept of ownership is linked with a certain degree of financial responsibility, but differs from traditional ownership in which financial benefit is implied. Indeed, Tabing goes on to list another feature of community radio – “it is motivated by community well-being, not commercial considerations.”

When I employ the term “ownership” in the context of community development, I do so hoping to evoke this second definition. I use “ownership” to capture the idea that a community feels responsibility for a certain endeavour, something I view as a critical component of an Asset-Based Citizen-Driven (ABCD) approach to development. As Anthony Scoggins puts it, “participation without ownership is just good theatre.” This, I believe, is something very applicable to community radio. If it were a matter of gathering radio-related technology and resources, enlisting the services of a group of enthusiastic participants, and facilitating this group’s training on the management of a community radio station, this might be achieved with relatively little trouble. But would that be meaningful development? Or would it instead be continuing to feed into a cycle of dependency upon outside motivation and support that so often plagues development initiatives? Would this be a sustainable endeavour?

In the case of Transformative Praxis: Malawi (TPM), those involved (from outside the community, that is) are acutely aware of this challenge. TPM has a difficult balancing act; it is seeking to facilitate or drive development while also providing an experiential learning course for Canadian and Irish university students. The goal is to bring innovative ideas and learnings to this project, and fuse them with local knowledge in order to foster sustainability, and I feel, ownership. When successful, TPM nurtures reciprocal learning and knowledge transfer between students and community members.

Ownership can be a complex matter in community development

Outside of this course, however, TPM is a community development initiative. TPM is a volunteer initiative led by a small group professors who spend countless hours fundraising, collaborating, and supporting this initiative. These individuals do not benefit financially from TPM in any way. They may benefit in the sense that it may provide some incredible information that can contribute to academic papers – works that will hopefully contribute to a continuing learning process for other hopeful development practitioners. At the core of this initiative I believe we can find the very same motivations that all twelve OceanPath Fellows possess – the desire to learn from this process, and facilitate development within a community with which each of us has a meaningful connection.

So how does this play into ownership? To suggest there are no personal benefits to be derived from involvement in this initiative (such as the beefing up of one’s resume) may conjure up images of a Western saviour, coming to a rural community, and sacrificing one’s time to help these a group of “poor peasants”. Indeed, in a recent conversation with a respected mentor, I was challenged with inhabiting this very trope. This was tied up within our discussion of ownership. This individual put forward the idea that community development, in its attempt to differentiate itself from more traditional (and potentially problematic) forms of development practiced in the past, may seek to “save” communities – and even the world – from traditional development. Attempting to foster ownership of a community radio station at the community level could involve the creation of station that seeks to be a separate entity from the wider TPM campus, as opposed to being a direct component of the project. The perception of myself, an outsider in this community, attempting to “save” this station from TPM – which is not, in my mind, something which can be likened to problematic development endeavours of the past – is in many ways what brought on this comparison.

To my mind, this difference in perspectives stemmed from the different definitions of ownership that I alluded to at the outset of this piece. The differences relate to a discussion about how the a community radio station could potentially exist an entity unto itself, yet in many ways closely linked with the wider TPM campus. In fact, TPM could serve as a host institution – though admittedly I have to pursue further research on this option, and present it as a potential option to those groups involved in the station’s founding. In describing this scenario, I was originally of the opinion that in order to facilitate the creation of something truly of the community, by the community and for the community, the best path forward would be to see the radio station develop in partnership with TPM, so that there are no misconceptions within the community stemming from its ownership exclusively falling into the hands of groups already associated with TPM.

Upon reflection I can see now that if the first connotation of ownership were employed here, then labelling my actions as those of an individual dipping into the tropes of a “saviour complex” was indeed a possible analysis. I must reiterate that I do not believe that those involved with TPM who reside outside of the Chilanga community are motivated by personal gain or benefit, save for those garnered from reciprocal knowledge transfer. I firmly believe that TPM is a project which seeks a different path than those offered by traditional development initiatives.

At the same time, however, this is not necessarily the case with all those who call Chilanga home who are involved with TPM. Indeed, the campus project and the presence of large groups of foreigners is often seen as an opportunity for material or financial benefit. There have been several instances in the past in which funding and materials have “been misplaced”. With that said, much has been learned from these experiences, and approaches have been tinkered with. I was directly involved in one of these events, stemming from my first experience here in Chilanga. Indeed, this played a role that can hardly be overstated during the crafting of my OceanPath application, as well as my subsequent experiences during the Foundations for Community Change course that all twelve fellows engaged in this past June. It was my belief that fostering an ABCD paradigm to development, particularly surrounding the community radio initiative, would go a long way to cultivate community-driven (perhaps a more apt term than ownership) development. Here, I think it is important to emphasize that I believe TPM’s ambitions are lock-step.

With that said, this community campus is not without its problems. It is my opinion that the continued presence and positive influence of the campus’s on-site director, a community member herself, have assisted in maintaining many of the ongoing initiatives that were, for the most part, established last June when the most recent group of students and professors were present. Many of these have seen successes, and I believe there is certainly a significant degree of ownership being exercised by community members and groups. I do wonder, however, that if not for the presence of the aforementioned director, what one would find when examining the TPM campus. This is something that she herself has alluded to.

Here I must pause. I have realized that I am in many ways allowing a negative, and in some respects, needs-based mindset to creep into my reflections upon this situation. In doing so I am betraying some of my fundamental intentions. Again, I should express that there are many successes taking place surrounding the TPM campus that should be celebrated.

With regards to the community radio station, however, the on-site director, as well as a colleague with experience in community radio and I are of the mind that a partnership with TPM, as opposed to TPM being a direct and leading component of the project, is a potential way forward. This partnership would, I believe, ensure the inclusion of marginalized voices, and also provide ample opportunity for continuing reciprocal knowledge transfer with students and others coming to Chilanga. Yet, as a community radio station, it would become (if all goes well) a part of the community, just as the wider TPM campus is slowly becoming (although many still call the campus “Little Canada”, and I’ve yet to truly reflect upon the implications of this). I am of the mind that similar, positive ends are desired whether a radio station were to fall directly under the purview of TPM or not. It is the means of achieving said ends, however, that can be so critical.

One of the positive aspects about the OceanPath Fellowship is the way in which it solicits applications – the emphasis is on individuals with a meaningful connection to a particular community. Here it seeks to ensure that fellows are not merely arriving in community, but that they have the opportunity to build upon prior relationships and learnings. What I feel is an equally important and positive component of this program is the three-week stint we spent at the Coady International Institute, where we had the chance to marry a wide variety of community development-based learnings with our own ideas about the individual contexts we would be working in.

In many ways, these fantastic components are parts of the incredible flexibility that the OceanPath Fellowship allows for. As an integral feature of an ABCD approach to development, it allows fellows to adjust everything – from timelines, to budgets, and even the base concepts of one’s proposed initiative – based upon the learnings fellows are able to garner from their individual contexts over the course of the nine-month fellowship. In my case, I arrived in Chilanga with a fairly skeletal plan, hoping to add substance as relationships were formed and a clear picture of the community came into focus. In my mind, this was a particularly critical approach given my lack of experience with community radio.

What this approach emphasizes, then, is seeking out the assets within the Chilanga community. It entails searching for individuals with knowledge in the field of media, radio, and specifically, community radio. Most importantly, however, it involves building upon the previous experiences of community members – particularly those who have been successful. Delving into what made those efforts effective is where I believe I can find my role. This is a role of a facilitator and connector, someone who works to bring all these things together: combining assets of all kinds with individuals with lived experiences in this context of Chilanga or those similar to it, and learning from successes of the past.

In undertaking this facilitator’s role, I have been able to engage with a young teacher who studied Media and Development, and who was part of the founding of a community radio station in another region of Malawi. While I believe it is critical to triangulate the information he provides with that from other sources, I have been eager to learn what I can from him and to build and strengthen this relationship. In his experience, registration with the Malawian Communications Regulations Authority (MACRA) is an essential step.

Ownership – and here I am employing the second definition – of this community radio station is inextricably associated with acts such as registration, management, program design, and approaching various stakeholders within community. Even more so, it is associated with decisions surrounding the direction of such a community-based endeavour. If nothing else, I find my role linked to facilitating discussions that might lead to such decisions.

November 19

Ah, the beauty of the passage of time and the gathering of information. As a result of the further contextual learnings, as well as the flexibility provided by the OceanPath Fellowship and the general fluidity often present in community development endeavours, I’ve had the opportunity to continue to wrap my head around the size and scope of an initiative such as a community radio station. It certainly is daunting, although it presents interesting and exciting options.

The idea that I’ve had the opportunity to explore with certain community members involves, first and foremost, facilitation and community participation. The process of founding a fully licenced community radio is indeed one that necessitates these two things. It also requires time, particularly, I am of the belief, if it is going to be a community-sustained project. With that in mind, and recognizing the constraints of time offered by this fellowship (although, on a personal level, it still feels very long), I am beginning to see my role as limited to the early stages of this undertaking. I am optimistic about what this might entail as far as ownership is concerned. Alongside this process of applying for licenses and the like, however, I believe the development of a small-scale radio station – used primarily for training and educational purposes – is an endeavour that will assist in supporting community belief in this endeavour. What’s more, as I and colleagues have learned more about the licensing process and the types of groups that can apply, it appears that, after all, a group that is in fact a component of the wider TPM body may be the most positive way forward. Indeed, I am optimistic that a collaborative scenario may present itself, although I must remain critical on this front.

In many ways, I am of the mind that extending my involvement beyond the preliminary steps of the creation of this community radio station might detract from community ownership and, as a result, from the sustainability and participatory nature of the endeavour. Alongside this, I think it remains absolutely critical to keep both these features absolutely at the forefront of any role I, and indeed, community members, might play.

As a brief aside, I am also conscious of something I alluded to in my first blog post concerning the role I am playing in Chilanga. Am I merely a helper, or am I an ally to the community one is working with – “one whose liberation is tied up with that of the community”, as Lila Watson puts it. I have been contemplating whether concluding my involvement in this community radio initiative before it has reached entails one or the other. This is something I must reflect on further, though I sincerely believe that if I am coming from a place guided and motivated by positive values, then my actions and intentions are that much more sound.

To return to the subject of ownership and community radio, the matters of infrastructure and technology seem to be at the forefront of the challenges expressed by many community members. This, I think, follows a fairly natural train of thought. Undoubtedly, such aspects represent large and expensive pieces to the puzzle. When this point is brought up, I indeed feel many eyes turning in my direction, eyes that I think are drawn to me in large part due the complex relationships between various development initiatives that take place in Global South communities, and the Global North organizations and individuals that often drive them. Herein lies a certain challenge, and although I would like to find an opportunity, I am still searching for it.

I am of the mind that financially supporting this endeavour is a responsible use of the funding provided by the OceanPath Fellowship. With that said, I think the utmost reflection must be exercised beforehand, in order to ensure that the community, as a whole, feels a sense of ownership over certain spaces and devices. While assisting in building a small station might be manageable and equipping it with basic components, the key to success is ensuring that it is a space where all feel welcome and that it is used for its intended purpose. In reading Peter da Costa’s (2012) piece on the sustainability of community radio endeavours in Africa, a feature of his conclusion sprung out at me:

Conrad (2010) offers a useful typology for understanding the roots of community radio ownership: often, a community radio station is built before the community is willing or able to fund it; thus, the tower is planted and then its life-sustaining roots attempt to grow. Because the station was created with external funding, the ownership tends towards the external. With such a model, it becomes an uphill task for the station to build participation, trust, perceived ownership, and need.

Herein lies such an essential consideration, particularly as I hope to enact an ABCD approach to development. Certainly, this paradigm can be enacted during discussions of community participation in the radio station, and ensuring that the voices of marginalized communities are heard. Yet, when it comes to the sustainability of such an endeavour other considerations come into play, and here I return to da Costa (2012), as he outlines Gumucio Dagron’s (2001) components of sustainability:

The first is ‘social sustainability‘, which refers to community ownership of the station and participation in production and airing of programmes at both decision-making and operational levels. According to this definition, only communities that have ‘appropriated’ or owned a communication process can make it socially sustainable. The second is ‘institutional sustainability‘, which relates to the ways the broadcasters function: station policies, democratic processes, management styles, internal relationships and practices, and partnerships with external agencies. The third is ‘financial sustainability‘, relating to the station’s model for generating revenue and how its funds are managed and accounted for. All three are inter-related and impact upon each other. (Gumucio Dagron 2001, in Lush and Urgoiti 2011).

If nothing else, my challenge as a community development facilitator will entail weaving such aspects into the very first conversations of community radio. Ensuring that these are features of discussions held between community members, as well as other groups, associations, and institutions is paramount. Indeed, in many ways it means pushing my own agenda – something that always fills me with self-doubt. I hope, however, that allowing community to set the path towards potential solutions towards these three features of sustainability can go a long way towards supporting community ownership.

Conrad, D. (2011) Lost in the Shadows of the Radio Tower: A Return to the Roots of Community Radio Ownership in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. What happens when/if the donor leaves? Presentation delivered at the 2011 International Communication Association Conference. 28 May, 2011, Boston.

da Costa, P. (2012) The growing pains of community radio in Africa: Emerging lessons towards sustainability. Nordicom Review 33, 135-148.

Dagron, A. (2001) Making Waves: Stories of Participatory Communication for Social Change. New York, NY: Rockefeller Foundation.

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