Day one of the CGIAR Strategic Communications Workshop kicked off in earnest in Penang, Malaysia, with a history lesson of sorts. Chronicling the joint efforts of CGIAR communication specialists over the last two decades, Collective Communications in the CGIAR: A short history of a longstanding effort elicited a lively discussion among participants, some of whom were around when the Public Awareness Association (PAA) was established way back in 1988.
Ruth Raymond, Head of Public Awareness Unit, Bioversity International, recalls the early days of the Association and its role with Future Harvest.
“The PAA supported an attempt to rebrand the CGIAR System,” she explains. “It established a small office in the CGIAR Secretariat that was tasked with promoting the work of the Centers under the new brand of Future Harvest. As a result, each of the Centers became a Future Harvest Center. For example, IRRI became known as ‘IRRI, a Future Harvest Center’. Although we kept the formal acronym of the CGIAR, the Centers were promoted collectively under the new brand.”
As the Chair of the PAA from 1998 to 2002, Ruth was active during the establishment of the Marketing Group, which succeeded the PAA.
“In 2002, the PAA merged with the Resource Mobilization Network (RMN) to become the Marketing Group,” she says. “This arose from a recognition that the resource mobilization people and the communications people needed to collaborate and coordinate their efforts since the activities are (or should be) dependent on each other. So the PAA and RMN started meeting together during the annual CGIAR meetings. Then we had a big meeting in Annapolis in 2001, where we decided that we would merge the two groups and become the Marketing Group.”
At the time the Marketing Group was created, there was a good relationship between Future Harvest and the CGIAR Centers.
“Future Harvest was helping the Centers get their stories into the media” explains Ruth. “The Centers were working together on a lot of different projects and often attended major international conferences representing the System. Although this did not discourage individual Centers from promoting their own roles, it told the outside world that we were a system: an alliance of scientists working together to support agriculture research for the benefit of the people. We appreciated the association with Future Harvest: the name is easy to remember and has a certain ring to it, unlike the alphabet soup of Centre acronyms.”
Although Future Harvest was successful in raising awareness of the Centers’ work, the initiative was to be short-lived
”For a time, Future Harvest had strong support throughout the System. Certainly, the communications specialists in the Centers appreciated the support they received from the initiative. But the overall support seems to have been more personal than institutional and it was questioned by new donors and managers coming into the System who had not been involved in the design and development of the new brand. Many donors identified closely with the CGIAR brand. Also, there was a feeling that Future Harvest should have led to additional resources coming into the System following its success at awareness raising. We were probably overly optimistic about how quickly that would happen.”
With support ebbing, it was only a matter of time before Future Harvest was forced to close down operations. The apparent lack of support for collective action under Future Harvest led the Marketing Group to lose its way, and some Centers didn’t see the benefit anymore of being part of the Group, so they backed out altogether.
“It was heartbreaking for those of us who had worked for years to try to get Future Harvest and the Marketing Group up and running,” Ruth says of that time. “The resource mobilization people never really integrated themselves with the communications people and vice-versa. Despite the obvious link between the two areas, coordination is still lacking in many Centers. In some cases, they are still in different silos and don’t talk to each other nearly enough. It’s not a fight that’s easy to win.”
“There is formally a Marketing Group, but other than sharing information and experiences on a listserv, we really don’t do anything much together anymore. I hope that as a result of this workshop we can come to some sort of an agreement on how collective communications will work in the future, because I feel there are real benefits from working together.”