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The Strategic, Participatory Approach: An Irritant to Power by Alfonso Gumucio

Where are the communicators? Twenty-five to 30 years of working in development programs has convinced me that many of those who identify themselves as communicators often are graduates of journalism schools and programs—and are not trained to work with any strategic view of social change. We have an abundance of journalists, but a shortage of communicators. Hundreds of schools of journalism, advertising, and public relations, under the proclaimed mission of “social communication,” release some 50,000 graduates into the market each year. Hardly one in a hundred of these schools offer the slightest opportunity to acquire the rudiments needed to work with communities and groups seeking social change. Universities, particularly private ones, have virtually become branches of the corporations that—directly or indirectly— provide them funding.

The few communicators for development and social change whom I know have been “self-made” through the slow apprenticeship of experience, with decades of practical and theoretical trial and error. We have a number of these pioneers in Latin America—Luis Ramiro Beltrán and Juan Díaz Bordenave, for example, who need no introduction. In what was perhaps his last interview, the most prominent communication for development (communication for development) theorist and academic in the United States, Everett Rogers, joined in honouring these mavericks, explaining how greatly his own thinking had evolved under the influence of these Latin American thinkers. Rogers’s first book, setting forth his “dissemination of innovation” theory, was met with criticism in Latin America and, as Rogers acknowledged in his last interview, it was largely discussions with Latin American colleagues that caused him to revise the theory in 1976:

The early 1960s was the time that communication studies were just beginning to get underway in Latin America. That was a coincidence, but it was a fortunate coincidence for me. Of course I knew Fals-Borda, and, actually, began to be influenced by his thinking more and more in later years. Luis Ramiro Beltrán came to Michigan State to get a doctoral degree. I taught him and was his master’s degree adviser (someone else was his PhD adviser); he influenced me a great deal. He and I, still to this day, often joke that he came to Michigan State University, got his PhD and taught me more than I taught him.” 1

The capacities of communicators have been a central issue in the development debate throughout these decades, though this seems to have gone unnoticed in the academic world. Five years ago, while researching Making Waves, which deals with experiences of participatory communication for social change, I visited a number of universities in Asia, Africa and Latin America, looking for academic programs with a focus on communication for development. I found very few; a disgracefully small number of university departments or schools had programs that included anything more than the customary media- or advertising-oriented training.

An outstanding exception, in Asia, was the College of Development Communication, of the University of the Philippines at Los Baños. It is unique in offering undergraduate, masters, and doctoral programs. With more than three decades in existence, it is also the oldest academic centre in the field, and its influence has been felt in other countries, where some of its graduates have been the driving force behind communication strategies (e.g., India) or have created new communication for development departments within universities (e.g., Thailand). Africa has few options for those wishing to specialize in this still nascent discipline, despite several decades of efforts. In Latin America we fare slightly better—particularly in Peru, Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia—but the offerings fall far short of addressing the region’s enormous needs. There are no more than ten universities on the entire continent offering masters or doctorates in communication with an emphasis on development and social change. The rest simply offer optional courses as part of an extensive catalogue of courses. This is indeed paradoxical, given that Latin America is the birthplace of the great dependency theory thinkers.

Notably, most academic departments offering postgraduate programs in communication for development and social change are not located within journalism programs or “schools of information.” The College of Development Communication in the Philippines emerged as part of the College of Agriculture. Similarly, the Don Snowden Program for Development Communication at the University of Guelph, near Toronto, is located within the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, while the postgraduate program at the University of Tucumán, headed several years ago by Manuel Calvelo, was part of the School of Philosophy. In Thailand and other countries, new communication for development departments have been created within schools of public health or nutrition. Meanwhile, under the rubric of “social communication,” variants such as “business communications,” “public relations,” “marketing,” etc., are mushrooming prolifically.

Multilateral, bilateral, regional and national organizations for cooperation and development have begun to recognize communication for development’s important role in community participation, the element that ultimately makes programs and social advances sustainable. However, these organizations seem unable to understand what type of communicator is equipped to employ communication as a tool for participation. The classic confusion of information with communication, which we all are responsible for perpetuating, leaves no room for a substantive differentiation between journalist and communicator.

One of the fundamental differences is that the communicator for development and social change is a facilitator of processes rather than a producer of media products. The communicator for development and social change works within a strategic conceptual framework based on the slow advance of the clock’s hour hand of development and social change, rather than in the shadow of the clock’s minute hand that signals the accelerated agenda of the information media. The ability to work horizontally with communities from within their cultures and on the basis of their own political objectives is one of the features that distinguishes these communicators from journalists, whose job, by contrast, is to carry out the agenda of the media organizations for which they work. Communicators do not place the focus on technology, which they view as little more than a helpful tool; rather, they work with the elements of identity, culture and participation in a dialogic process (Freire). Technology is an important aid, but the communicator for development makes decisions on appropriate technology only after analysing contexts and needs.

Organizations hire journalists to prepare bulletins and hold press conferences, while communications decisions are made by bureaucrats unfamiliar with real communications issues. Journalists, rather than constituting the fourth estate, become the fifth wheel. We need academically qualified communicators with field experience, capable of dialoguing with decision makers as equals. Moreover, they must be placed in the upper levels of the hierarchy; if not, they will be ignored.

Thus, we face, on the one hand, a minimal supply (at best) of academically trained communicators; and on the other, a demand yet to be articulated by development organizations. While the discourse between universities and development entities appears to converge, bridges between them are non-existent. And while such discourse is plentiful, little of it translates into concrete action.

It is understandable, then, that a major disconnect results when a journalist occupies the position of communicator in a development project. While this situation results in part from ignorance of the qualities and training needed for communication work, it is also a function of scarcity. In the absence of communicators, many development programs hire journalists or technical personnel from other disciplines who lack strategic vision and, as communicators, are dependent on their improvisatory abilities.

I have long been convinced that a “new communicator” with the characteristics described above could fill the gap. In my experience, the best communicators come from other fields of activity, such as rural development, environmental work, or public health. They are accustomed to working with communities and are more sensitive to cultural diversity. Establishing a new academic discipline is not, of course, a simple matter, particularly when the proposed discipline is to many people—for whom the differences are unclear—merely a variant of something that already exists. To those of use who have been working in the field for some years, the distinction between journalism and communication for social change is not unlike the difference between psychoanalysis and behavioural psychology—two clearly differentiated schools of thought.

From the academic perspective, establishing communication for social change as a discipline poses a complex challenge. Where is one to find the professors—and the texts—for masters or doctoral programs? One would have to call upon those communicators whose “doctorates,” as mentioned earlier, consist of years of work and reflection. One of the missions of the organization in which I currently work is to facilitate dialogue among universities, with the aim of establishing, for each region, at least one masters program in communication for social change. This undertaking involves legal and administrative—as well as academic and technical—challenges.

Sceptic that I am, I cannot help wondering what would happen if we already had legions of communicators for social change, with solidly established and well-structured programs in Asian, Latin American and African universities, as well as in Europe and North America. The supply of communicators would no doubt increase, but how would the demand side of the equation respond?

Creating proper venues within universities, which are often divorced from social realities, is itself challenging. However, opportunities must also be created within development organizations, a task that faces two types of impediments. First, these organizations can have difficulty coherently articulating their communications objectives; second, there is a question as to whether they have any real desire to do so. Many of them argue that they hire journalists and public relations specialists because there are no communicators with experience in development programs. But it should also be noted that journalists and public relations specialists are better at generating institutional visibility (propaganda), and few organizations can resist this temptation.

Despite the fact that the discourse is changing, and that the importance of communication in development is increasingly recognized in the new discourse, communication frequently occupies the lowest priority among multilateral, bilateral and national organizations devoted to technical assistance programs for development.

An overview of multilateral agencies reveals the low priority assigned to communication in development work. Among these, for several decades, UNICEF seems to have placed the greatest emphasis on incorporating communication as a substantive element in the development process. It is the only agency that has created communication positions in each country office. Over the past decade, however, the general orientation of UNICEF has changed radically. Under James Grant, communication had been seen as an element supporting the organization’s program, i.e., as communication for development. When the United States installed Carol Bellamy as executive director, the emphasis shifted more to public relations and publicity.

In the 1970s, UNESCO and FAO, among other United Nations agencies, contributed greatly to communication for development and social change. Both were driving forces behind major reports; they convened meetings of experts, issued numerous publications, conducted research projects, and supported specific projects in various regions. Community radio and participatory video were among the beneficiaries of this commitment. At least as important, however, was the discussion of communication models that FAO promoted—and continues to promote, though to a lesser extent. Both FAO and UNESCO created positions for regional communications advisers to support projects in each country.

Competition for funding has led many multilateral agencies and programs to abandon the principles of communication for development, or to base their communicational work on models taken form United States development agencies, which stress social marketing and fundraising propaganda. The positions supposedly created for communicators in these agencies are in fact designed for public relations workers, with program issues taking a back seat. Thus, it is a mistake to believe that there is greater interest in communication simply because (at least in some cases) a greater percentage of funds is earmarked for communication. Commonly, a high percentage of the funds allocated for “communication” is actually devoted to institutional publicity. Commercial advertising agencies are often hired to conduct “communication” work, resulting in newspaper articles or short promotional pieces on radio and television. UNICEF, for example, finds it more important to have its executive director, Carol Bellamy, appear for 30 seconds in a CNN interview, than to formulate a long-term communication strategy to support its programs.

Returning to the question of organizational discourse, it is undeniable that this has changed during the last decade. It is no longer a surprise to read in World Bank documents signed by then President Wolfensohn that community participation is essential, and that communication for development is vital to the sustainability of projects. Within the World Bank there are people who earnestly attempt to promote communication for development, by supporting community radio initiatives, for example. However, their efforts are largely without effect. They are like swallows perched on the head of a mastodon: their tweeting can do little to induce the lumbering animal to alter its course. One swallow, of course, does not a summer make, and resistance to change is intense. To be honest, I am unsure whether the change in discourse is good or bad if there is no change in the way programs are conceived. The result is, in any case, schizophrenic, since the rhetoric does not translate into action.

The fact that the World Bank supports community radio in eight Asian, African and Latin American countries poses a major paradox: On one hand advocating mass privatisation, including that of the broadcast spectrum itself, while on the other supporting community radio stations because they consider them essential in combating poverty. Where does that leave us?

After the tsunami in Indonesia, UNESCO requested $600,000 to rebuild community radio stations in Banda Aceh, the most severely affected province. On the ground, UNESCO personnel seem aware that exercising the right to communication can promote community organization and development. In defining policy at the global level, however, UNESCO is strikingly timid about addressing and discussing participatory communication and the issue of the right to communication. Why is this? It is because such discussion will inevitably revive ghosts of the past and re-ignite the debate on imbalances in information and communication.

What is at issue here is power. While we may produce new and better-trained generations of communicators, move forward in our definitions, and strengthen the discipline of communication for social change, the reality is that a strategic, participatory view of communication is an irritant to established power, because it displaces the centre of gravity of decision making, making it more democratic.

Our work is designed to lend prestige to studies in communication for social change, in hopes that this will impel cooperation and development organizations to hire people with a strategic view of communication for social change. Nevertheless, efforts on the academic front to provide better-trained communicators and improve academic offerings run up against bureaucracies that are increasingly skillful in using our own language in attempts to lull us to sleep with their siren songs. There appears to be no real political will for change in development organizations, which are interested, above all, in jockeying for position, with this mindset dominating even their relations with other agencies. UNICEF, for instance, is constantly in competition with the WHO and UNDP. Hence the proliferation of “international days”—for AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, etc.—vastly expensive undertakings which, while contributing nothing to developing countries, raise the profile of institutions and increase their ability to attract funding.

When these organizations are compelled to consider participatory and community communications options, they are quick to find objections. One of their main arguments is that they cannot “measure” the effect of communication for social change (since they insist on reducing measurement to figures based on quantitative indicators). “Show us evidence that this works,” they declare with an air of superiority, after having spent years squandering millions on polishing their image or on conducting unsustainable campaigns. The HIV/AIDS case is a glaring example. Millions have been spent on the social marketing of condoms and on campaigns that have proved fruitless. These efforts are based on mere retouching of models, which, while successful in highly mediatized societies such as the United States or Europe, have met with resounding failure in the countries of Asia and Africa.

We therefore are promoting the concept of participatory evaluation, in which the group of communities affected by a project determines how to evaluate it and which indicators to use. The idea is that the institutional agendas of cooperation and development organizations and donors should not be imposed on the communities, which at least in theory are the “beneficiaries” of the cooperation.

Other interests, of course, can be at work—those of the institutions and consulting firms that subsist and prosper on providing evaluation services. Evaluation has become a business like any other, and like any business can ill afford to spotlight failures. Evaluation firms do not make negative evaluations of projects, because clients at the receiving end of such evaluations are poor prospects for future work. The evaluation mechanism thus becomes an empty exercise.

The reflections shared here are the result of my own experience, and of the frustrations I have encountered in nearly 30 years of working in communication for social change. They are based on innumerable experiences with NGOs, foundations, bilateral organizations, United Nations organizations, and others.

My perspective may seem pessimistic. I consider it to be a realistic one, and I believe that realism is the basis on which we can move forward to create opportunities in the academic world and in the cooperation for development field, while creating bridges between the two. Meanwhile, thousands of experiences of participatory communication for social change are taking place at the community level. It is these that will provide the raw material capable of enriching future debate and discussion.

1 In interview by Rafael Obregón and Arvind Singhal, in Mazi, No. 2-February 2005.

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