The School of Arts, Communication and Design (SACD) recently organized a conference themed “They Call It Sustainability: Financing, Localization, and Other Alternative Futures for Communication for Development.” The event brought together over 40 specialists from various fields. This conference is part of the Un/Making CSC research project, which involves the University of Malawi, Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO), Creative Center for Community Mobilization (CRECCOM), and IT4 Change in India.

Hosted by the University of Malawi in the Little Theatre on 15th May, 2024, the conference featured presentations from different participants, including Dr. Jessica Noske-Turner from Loughborough University London, who spoke on the topic of Communication, Development, and Social Change in a Capitalist World.

In her remarks, Dr. Jessica Noske-Turner mentioned that despite claims that this is the age of choice, the current era of development funding is more accurately characterized by scarcity rather than abundance, and by competition and conformity to market demands rather than autonomy and choice.

She further explained how she is exploring the changing funding landscape for development with organizations and communities on the ground. “Arts-based methods are very unique and provide insights into the truth in a very special way,” she stated. Revisiting a play from 1988, “They Call it Africa”, showcased during the conference by two drama students and two experts from the department of Drama was one way of demonstrating the power of art to convey truths through fiction.

“Examining various time periods reveals consistent patterns of power inequality and injustice, highlighting a strong connection between capitalism and development. This highlights the influence of external power through financing and funding on development and the resulting power imbalance,” she said.

The Dean of the School of Arts, Communication and Design, Dr. Mufunanji Magalasi, mentioned that “They call it Africa” was ahead of its time, as it portrayed the behavior of donors upon coming to Malawi.

“The conference is linked to the arts, focusing on communication and the struggles Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) face in sustaining their development work,” he said. Magalasi continued by mentioning that these organizations often struggle to secure the necessary funding to continue their activities because donor agendas change every 3 to 5 years due to emerging issues. As a result, organizations established for specific purposes find themselves stranded when funding priorities shift.

He further emphasized that issues of sustainability in terms of development are crucial and noted that development communication today is heavily art-based, whether through radio or television. He praised the artists for their creativity, community engagement, and use of metaphors to understand and communicate sustainability. By using art to gather and tell the stories of the people, they convey the narratives of development more effectively, which is the essence of theatre for development.

The conference was engaging, with discussions and question-and-answer sessions involving both presenters and participants.