The Theory and the Practice of Communication for Development

10  Download (0)

Full text


The Theory & the Practice of Communication for


By: Toby P. Newstead

The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, United Nations agencies such as UNICEF, UNCTAD, UNDP, UNEP, and UNHCR are just some of the aid and development organizations spearheading communications for development initiatives. Communication for development strives to alleviate world suffering by using the communications principles of audience knowledge, motivation, media utilization, and persuasion in order to change behaviours, attitudes, beliefs, and practices of people within specified communities or countries. Feeding starving children, preventing infant mortality, protecting vulnerable women, and eradicating devastating diseases are some of the goals of communication for development. Communication for

development is a process of cross-border communication. Aid and development agencies have headquarters and projects sprinkled throughout the world and their networks of communications systems are absolutely global in scale.

Communications for development is married to the process of global communication and globalization.

Communications for development is a rich academic field, with many

overlapping, and constantly evolving theories. However, due to the organizational structure and institutional nature of the aid and development organizations that communication for development operates within, developmental communications


practices tends to vary from developmental communications theories. By illustrating

the origins and evolution of communication for development, this paper will identify and discuss the discrepancies between communication for development theory and communication for development practice.

Outlining the origins of communication for development

The theory of communication for development resulted from the marriage of mass communications studies and the study of the modernization of traditional societies. Communication for development studied audiences that were regarded as largely passive masses, and devised methods of spreading, or propagating

messages in an attempt to modernize, shape, and develop specific communities (Yun Kim, 2005). The study of mass communication and modernization were

employed during the Depression in Canada, when radio programs were used to help farmers update their fruitless farming techniques (Thomas, 2005, p. 56). The theory of communication for development originated out mass media studies, and

specialized in persuading people to think, act, and behave in new ways.

The practice of communication for development emerged out of World War II and the Cold War. World War II ended. Colonialism collapsed, and former colonies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America were left to their own devices. The Cold War began, and the race for Third World allegiance and political loyalty was on between the USA and the USSR. The former colonies of the Third World became the propaganda

battleground of the Cold War. These countries, struggling with political unrest, poverty, disease epidemics, and social strife were targeted with American propaganda and aid initiatives in an attempt to sway them toward western, democratic, capitalistic principles, rather than the evils of communism (Yun Kim,


2005; Bah, 2008).The premise of development, and communication for

development, allowed the US and other Western nations and organizations to enter countries in the Third World and, directly or indirectly, infuse principles of

democracy and capitalism. Asia, Africa, and Latin America are the regions in which, during the Cold War, the practice of communications for development started.

Theoretical underpinnings of communication for development: The Old & The New

The Old:

The first major theory of communication for development was the

Modernization theory, which originated in the years after World War II. Schramm, author of “Mass Media and National Development,” and Lerner, author of “The passing of Traditional Society,” were World War II and Cold War propaganda experts. They were also two of the pioneers of the Modernization theory. The basic

underlying principle of the Modernization theory was that “...advanced capitalistic societies reflected a natural universal, end-state that could be reached by all

countries provided they follow the right ‘stages of growth,’” (Thomas, 2005, p. 56).

The theory was founded on the notion that the major obstacle to

development was the psyche of the undeveloped citizen. Thus, the way to develop a nation was to persuade individual citizens to adopt new, better, western traditions and values. In his own words Lerner captures the supposed wonders of


I have seen joy among the impoverished fellaheen in Egypt when they were able to offer me a bottle of Pepsi Cola. I have seen the bliss of an Iranian father wearing, in the presence of his wife and children and neighbours, the first store-bought suit to be seen in his walled village-a village still living with irrigation and cultivation systems dating from centuries preceding Christ or, for that matter, Muhammad. I have seen the intense happiness of an Indian schoolboy as he showed his father how he was learning to read in school. (Lerner, as quoted by Bah, 2008)

This passage from Lerner gives evidence to the fact that the Modernization theory assumed the West to be the measuring stick to which all other societies must be held. That the final culmination of Egyptian society might be to possess Pepsi Cola – never mind the pyramids and many thousands of years of civilization. That an Iranian man might finally see the light, and trade in his culturally and climatically appropriate attire for a cheap western suit. That an Indian school boy might learn to write, so that he could forget his ancient oral traditions. At its very core, the

Modernization theory promoted abandoning traditional practices and adopting western values of lasses-faire economics, political liberalism, industrialization, and technology (Yun Kim, 2005, p. 563).

The Modernization theory identified mass media as the primary means of influencing, persuading, and motivating the individual citizens that made up the passive masses of the underdeveloped Third World (Quebral, 1971). The

Modernization theory correlated the wealth and wellbeing of a community to the number of free and private newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations that were present. The role of media in the Modernization theory was twofold; it was a tool of persuasion and motivation, and it was a tool of measuring the success of economic and social development (Thomas, 2005, p. 56). As a whole, the theory of

Modernization was a top down approach to development. Experts, agencies, and governments implemented development strategies from the top, and used print,


radio, and TV media to diffuse persuasive and motivational development messages to the masses.

The New:

In the 1970s scholars such as Paulo Freire and Nora C. Quebral began to highlight the imperialistic and expansionist underpinnings of the dominant

Modernization theory (Yun Kim, 2005). Freire and Quebral started updating the top down theory of Modernization, with bottom up development theories which evolved into a new development paradigm. There were two basic shifts in communication for development theory. First the new paradigm moved towards more egalitarian, ground-up, participatory communication. And, second, the new paradigm viewed entrenched hegemonic systems as the primary inhibitor to development, rather than the psyche of the individual.

There are three pillars to the new communication for development paradigm. The first pillar is the concept of empowerment; the idea that decisions about

development goals and methods of achieving goals are to be made by the

community in question – not by foreign governments, organizations, or experts. The second pillar of the alternative paradigm is participatory communication; each person and group affected by a development program must be consulted and given the opportunity and autonomy to participate in decision making. The third pillar is participatory action research; marginalized groups are to be given the power, tools, and resources to study the results of development initiatives (Yun Kim, 2005, p. 566).


The paradigmatic shift in the theory of communication for development moves the power away from external, foreign experts and organizations, and towards the developing communities themselves. The new theories call for an end to the tradition of dissemination; the process of deciding on a message at the top, and spreading it to the masses through various media channels. Within the new paradigm, communities are at the heart of development initiatives, communities decide what needs to happen, how it will happen, when it will happen, and the communities evaluate the results of development initiatives (Waisbord, 2008, p. 507).

The role of communications in development: Theory vs. Practice

The theory behind communication for development has changed with the new paradigm, but, according to Silvio Waisbord, both an academic and a field worker, the practice of developmental communication has not changed. After two decades in academia, Waisbord went to work in the field of communications for development. He worked on issues such as advocacy, and communication and social mobilization in health in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Waisbord worked in collaboration with UN agencies, national and local governments, faith-based organizations, and professional and education based organizations.

“My first hand observations [have] made me increasingly sceptical about...the ‘passing of the dominant paradigm’ given that diffusionist premises typically underpinned global health programs. I encountered programs to promote institutional childbirth in the Peruvian highlands,

inform couples about family planning in Bolivia, and convince Angolan


According to Waisbord’s experience, many communication for development programs and organizations are still using methods of diffusion and persuasion, which tie these initiatives to the antiquated theory of Modernization.

According to the present theory of communication for development, the community is the starting point. But, Waisbord argues that in practice the

community is “rarely the starting point” (Waisbord, 2008, p. 509). In his experience, community input is simply overlaid on decisions and plans devised by external experts. The grand plans of development are still global in scale – they are not locally identified, locally defined initiatives. Ending poverty and hunger, providing universal education, creating environmental sustainability, enhancing gender equality, combating HIV/AIDS, child heath, maternal health, and global partnership ( – and these are the common themes of modern development. Yet, these issues “have not been the result of extensive community consultation and agreements across the globe. Rather, they were the product of complex negotiation and advocacy involving governments, bilateral and multilateral donors, UN

agencies, and sometimes affected communities.” (Waisbord, 2008, p. 510). The focus of development communication is still decided on at the top.

“The dominant, modernization paradigm might have passed away in the academic arena, but it remains so in practice precisely because the locus of power remains in the west, whose interests are well served by the paradigm.” (Bah, 2008, p. 8). The new communication for development paradigm suggests that every individual and group that will be affected by a development program must be consulted before the program is implemented. However, communications tends to remain simply a tool of development agencies, and so it is rare for communication


theory to find its way into the forefront of a development mission. Because development is funded by large, often global, organizations the lengthy,

unpredictable, and costly consultations and community negotiations of participatory communication are usually foregone (Waisbord, 2008).

In addition to the fact that true participatory communication goes against the grain of development organizations’ operations, Quebral points out that it is almost impossible to know who all will be indirectly affected by communication for

development programs (1971). In the Philippines a development plan was

implemented to train technicians to operate new rice processing machinery. The program identified the technicians as the people that would be affected by the program, and these few individuals were consulted. However, the program did not take into consideration the many other people that were indirectly affected; the bankers that would approve loans for new equipment, the legislators who would determine quality control, the landlords who would lease rice growing land, the farmers’ families who would lose their jobs to the new machines, and the opinion leaders that would have to convince people this was a positive change...“in other words, a lot more people [would be affected] than the technicians for whom the project was originally conceived.” (Quebral, 1971, p. 106).


It is common for the field of academia and research to outpace the field of practice, and it is evident that this is the case in communication for development.


New theories identify just how antiquated, imperialistic, and west-centred the dominant paradigm is, but the dominant paradigm is still just that – dominant. Communication for development emerged out of the study of mass media and development studies as used through the Cold War to secure Third World loyalty to the West. Most aid and development initiatives are spearheaded by large

international bodies, such as the UN, the WHO, and the WTO which tend to use communications as a tool in achieving their aims. When communication is used simply as a tool, the theoretical groundwork of the new paradigm is obscured. When communication is simply a position on an organizational flow chart, the intricacies of participatory, consultative, ground-up communications are suppressed.

There is some good news. Bodies such as the Communication Initiative are beginning to foster the new communication for development as a field of practice as well as a field of theory. So that communication for development, instead of being an agent of government propaganda or a tool of organizational information

dissemination, might establish its own objectives on the ground in development initiatives. The Communication Initiative is an online space shared by anyone

involved or interested in any development project, plan, or initiative. It is a space to swap tips and information. It is a resource for smaller communication development programs that are practicing the new communication for development, as well as just espousing the theory (Heimann, 2006). Communication for development is an effort to use communication principles to affect change within specific communities. The new theories of communication have outpaced the practice of communication for development in regards to community consultation and involvement. But, there is hope that through smaller communications-focused programs fostered by the


likes of the Communication Initiative, and forward thinking academics, the practice of communication for development might catch up to the theory.


Heimann, D. (2006) Supporting communication for development with horizontal dialogue and a level playing field: the communication initiative. Development in

Practice. 16(6)

Quebral, N. (2006) Development communications in the agricultural context (1971, with a new foreword). Asian Journal of Communication. 16(1), p. 100-107.

Umaru, B. (2008) Daniel Lerner, Cold War propaganda and US development communication research: an historical critique. Journal of Third World Studies. Spring. As found at: United Nations 2015 Millennium goals:

Waisbord, S. (2008) The institutional challenges of participatory communication in international aid. Social Identities. 14(4), p. 505-522

Wikipidea, “List of Development agencies”:

Yun Kim, Y. (2005) Inquiry in intercultural and development communication. The