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Communication and Participation: Two Sides of the Same Coin? by James Deane

Communication for development and participatory development have frequently been described as two sides of the same development coin.  Two of the field’s most respected practitioners and thinkers, Colin Fraser and Sonia Restrepo-Estrada, argue that, when communication processes are used to inform people, enable them to offer their viewpoints, reach consensus and carry out an agree-upon change or development action together, communication is participation.

This equation implies a unified analysis and a reasonably coherent approach that bring the fields together.  The reality is that there has been remarkably little structured dialogue and collaboration.  Why?
Much debate and research in the development field during the last 20 and more years has concerned itself with finding practical ways of enhancing participation by people in the development process.

Two fields have sought to transform this aspiration into practical action: the participatory development field and the communication for social change/communication for development field.

One group was from the participatory development field—researchers, practitioners, programme managers and funders from well-established and influential networks working to improve participatory theory and practice.  Approaches such as Participatory Rural Appraisal, the Reflect methodology, emerging methods of participatory budgeting, governance, accountability and citizen advocacy, organisational learning and many other models of participatory learning and practice have emanated from this field.

The second group was involved in participatory communication, which has a similarly long history of theory and practice.  Participatory models of communication, and particularly communication for social change, have been the focus of growing attention over recent years in the development community.  Participatory communication methodologies have focused on a range of methodologies.  These methodologies include interpersonal communication and dialogue at the community level, the use of participatory video, theatre, puppetry etc., and the role of community media and mainstream media—as well as new technologies—to provide channels and platforms for people to make their voices heard in public debate.

“Making Connections: Participatory Development and Communication for Social Change,” the symposium recently organised in London to kick-start a more structured dialogue between the two fields, was prompted by the certainty that the rich learning and experiences within, and between, these fields could be of particular relevance to current development debates.

Factors shaping the organisation of the symposium included the increasingly complex and interconnected nature of many development challenges and the associated changing role of participation; the rapid changes in media and communication landscapes; and the increasingly networked character of developing country societies. 

In addition, there has been growing interest in subjecting development policies, resource allocation and governance to public debate and scrutiny by the most marginalised people in developing country societies.

“Making Connections” demonstrated a tremendous reservoir of mutual respect and admiration between the two fields.  It also resulted in a clear conclusion: Development strategies could benefit greatly by a more determined and intelligent dialogue—and a synthesis—between the two fields, and that such a synthesis must become a reality. 

The meeting was, hopefully, only the start of a process that can turn that aspiration into a series of practical realities and strategies.

For a more detailed meeting summary, visit:

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