United Nations

A Framework for Social Change

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the ancient country of Yemen is enjoying a fragile peace.

It plans to unveil a new constitution in early 2014, before launching into the process of truly democratic elections. Leading up to that historical event, the United Nations Department of Political Affairs is overseeing a groundbreaking event, the very first of its kind. Taking place from spring through fall of 2013, the National Dialogue Conference is meant to involve every level of the Yemeni population in a conversation about what the country wants to be, and give every citizen a sense of ownership about how Yemen moves forward.

We were called to create a strategic communications blueprint to reach thousands of very different people in a meaningful way. It’s a challenging project—the official NDC delegation is over 500 people, split into nine groups discussing 13 key issues. Beyond that, it is integral to include everyday Yemeni citizens and interest groups, all of whom have a wide range of ideologies, perspectives and access to technology (in more rural parts of the country, initiatives include live, culturally relevant plays and songs). Also crucial are the funders, whose continued support of this monumental project relies on evidence that it is truly working. Each voice needs to be woven into the tapestry of the NDC dialogue.

Concepts of good engagement remain the same whether your audience is responding to a poll via SMS in Sana’a, or sitting in UN headquarters using the latest tablet. Good intentions aren’t enough. The people of Yemen are unsurprisingly cynical, and the goals of the conference rely heavily on their belief that their contribution is important and respected. The first step in any participatory program must be accessible, contextual education and content about the project’s meaning and purpose, which is the only chance for enthusiasm or energetic feedback.

What comes afterward is essential, too. Our strategy won’t end when the conference wraps up in fall 2013. All of the key parties will be shown evidence of momentum, to encourage their motivation to participate as the country’s new constitution begins to take shape. This groundbreaking event continues to be a learning process for us, for the UN, and for Yemen, as it moves forward with its future.