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Three Challenges of Communication for Social Change
by Alfonso Gumucio Dagron

The contribution of Latin America as a region that has pioneered communication for development is significant, both in generating concrete experiences and also critical thinking. We have developed critical thinking on communication for social change as well as from development, from a participatory perspective, which is one of our notable advantages.

We have developed important experiences at the local, national and regional levels, and we have proved that citizens’ communication and community communication that is based on dialogue and participation is the guarantee for sustainable and appropriate social development and social change. I am using the word “appropriate” deliberately, not as “adequate” but as the result of a process of social appropriation. And when I mention “sustainable” I’m referring to all those grassroots experiences that can now continue developing without external inputs, with the strength of its own social actors.

There are many challenges in the future of communication for social change, however I just want to refer to three of them: the challenge of naming things, the challenge of developing the discipline, and finally the challenge of legitimising communication for social change among the large agencies that make decisions on development that affect our world at large.

I. The Challenge of Naming Things

When we learn to listen we learn about the obstacles that hamper our dialogue with other actors. Words, ironically, are one of the obstacles. It has been said that words are made to confuse. Even simple words, those that name daily objects, can often cause confusion, let alone those that name concepts, ideas and abstractions.

If I say “information,” “communication,” or “participation,” what meanings am I suggesting to each of my listeners? Each word is a convention, a consensual agreement that becomes a norm because of its frequent use. Throughout history, we have agreed on naming things with words, and we continue doing it in the 6,000 languages that are still alive in our world. The norm has taken care of establishing the terms of usage. We use words and name things in ways that do not always mean the same to all of us. The word “free” is a good example. In English, it can either refer to freedom or to items that are provided without payment. It is, in fact, sad to have the same word for so different concepts.

In our field of work, not everyone understands in the same way the word “participation;” that is, popular or community participation. Even the World Bank has adopted the word in its jargon; however, it refers to “access” rather than real participation.

Even among those who share the same ideals about communication for development, there is no common understanding of the words “participation” and “communication”—although we use them every day. For example, I hear colleagues mentioning “mass communication,” but they are actually referring to “mass information” or “mass dissemination.” I prefer to redeem the original root and etymology of the Latin word communio, which means to share, participate and strengthen collectively.

That is when I ask myself if our disagreements and divergences, and the lack of dialogue with development organizations are not, to a certain extent, due to the absence of agreements on what the key words we use daily in our work really mean.

If communication is a process of exchange and dialogue, shouldn’t we be more careful when we use the word “communication” to refer to mass media? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to agree that mass media deals with information (and often misinformation) and dissemination? Could we make the effort to preserve the word “communication”; to use it to define horizontal processes of exchange, participatory processes of participation or communion (in the sense of sharing)?

Large development organisations often use the terms “communication” or “information” to refer to social marketing campaigns on the issues they promote. The jargon of communication for development organisations, generously used in their documents, confuses instruments (radio, press, television or advertising) and messages (delivered via articles, radio and television programs, campaigns), with communication processes that involve dialogue, debate and participation.

It is imperative to establish the differences between the words that many colleagues regularly use and often confuse without really thinking about them:

  1. Information and communication;
  2. Messages and processes;
  3. Access and participation;
  4. Communication and communications;
  5. Journalists and communicators; and
  6. Information and knowledge.

To state it briefly: communication is a two-way or multiple-way, horizontal process of dialogue or an interaction. Information is only dissemination or diffusion. Messages are the main products of journalists, whereas communication processes are at the core of the facilitation work of communicators. Access is restricted by those who really own the media, whereas participation means gaining ownership of the communication process and decision-making. Information is obviously not knowledge, because knowledge is what each one of us and each community makes out of the information received, when put in the context of our own culture and the information we’ve received previously.

Finally, the confusion between “communications” (with an “s”) and “communication”—which is very common in English—can be easily sorted out if colleagues would refer more frequently to dictionaries. The plural of communication refers to “a: a system (as of telephones) for communicating, b: a system of routes for moving troops, supplies, and vehicles.

Without the “s” communication is “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs or behaviour”….

II. The Challenge of Developing the Discipline

The field of communication for social change is still developing. When looking at the notions that are imparted in most universities, our region [Latin America] has lived on borrowed ideas since the 1950s, despite all the important contributions from our own thinkers and practitioners during this time. Isn’t it ironic that communication students seriously study Everett Rogers’ theories on the diffusion of innovations, whereas he himself in 1976 critically revised his contribution and acknowledged the influence of Latin American scholars?

We continue using uncritically the jargon that we inherited from authors in the United States who were among the pioneers in the field. We repeat, translate and vulgarise concepts that originate in commercial advertising and even propaganda techniques utilised during the Second World War. Which is why it is often difficult to avoid in the development communication jargon—particularly in English—words borrowed from the military, such as “campaign” or “target,”, and from commercial advertising such as “marketing,” “offer,” “demand” or “clients.”

The confusion in terms grew about three decades ago when schools of journalism changed their name and became studies in “social communication.” The problem is they changed only the name, not the content. They maintained their orientation towards commercial mass media (radio, television and the press) without including content of communication for development and concepts related to communication as a process. The field that studies communication for social change is distinct from the field of information and public relations, and for this it deserves to be developed as a separate discipline.

The current situation of academic studies on information and communication is troublesome. Roughly there are some 2,000 universities offering journalism studies in the world (600 in Latin America alone); their orientation is towards mass media (press, radio, TV, marketing, advertising, public relations) and not on communication processes. Fewer than 20 academic programmes in the world offer options to train communicators for development and social change, communication strategists, and not just technicians to produce audiovisual or print messages for mass media.

There is in fact a deep gap between development organisations (international aid agencies, NGOs, governments) and the academic world. Though there is a great need for communication professionals specialising in development, universities do not meet the need of training high-level qualified communication strategists. This is why development organisations maintain a conservative and reductive vision of communication, limited—in the best scenario—to dissemination of information through campaigns, and in the worst scenario, conceived as an instrument of visibility and promotion.

III. The Challenge of Legitimising CFSC Among Large Players

Other than developing and strengthening the discipline of communication for development and social change in academia, we need to legitimise it and elevate it in the hierarchy within development organisations. By “hierarchy” I don’t mean to isolate communication at top levels of management as an elitist position. This is no attempt to invalidate the work of intuitive communicators, trained by doing in concrete social practice experiences and perfectly capable of managing participatory communication processes at the community level. There are thousands of community communicators who emerge from participatory processes, such as the miners’ radio stations in Bolivia.

The issue of elevating the hierarchy is to be considered from a political perspective and has to do with the need to position communication for development and social change at the highest level of the agenda. An analysis of the current situation will help to understand this aspect.

Development organizations keep hiring journalists as public relations officers who generally have no access to decision-making levels; they are just “doers” of minor tasks (press conferences, bulletins, press releases, relations with media houses, etc) but do not intervene in planning or strategising communication as a programme component. This is why a new profile of communicator is needed, with strategic vision of communication for social change, and a higher educational status, to participate in the decision-making process.

The need for these communication strategists does not invalidate the important role that grassroots communicators—the equivalent of the “barefoot doctors”—play in achieving participatory processes at the community level. However, these communicators and social activists often lack opportunities to work because there are no strategies at higher levels supporting communication for social change.

We need more communicators for development and social change with master’s degrees and Ph.D.s, not only as professors in universities, but to intervene in planning communication strategies for development. Communicators should no longer be the fifth wheel of the car, subsidiary to any other professionals in a given development organisation.

Three indicators would be enough to determine how high on the agenda of development institutions communication for social change is:

  1. The institutional and programmatic budget percentage allocated to communication (not to information or public relations);
  2. The level of posts created for communication specialists (not for public relation officers); and
  3. The decision to develop communication policies and strategies.

It is no surprise that, without appropriate budgets and communication specialists, we cannot find communication policies and strategies. Most development organisations have only “plans” that often are lists of information and public relation activities not related to programmatic areas. The focus is usually mass media, and sometimes this includes training for journalists to “sensitise” them on development issues. There are no policies to approach communication processes in the long term, because most of these organisations have long term-objectives but only short-term agendas, sadly influenced by the tenure of their managers.

It may be important to establish processes and mechanisms of accountability to scrutinize development organisations, and observatories such as those that have been created to monitor the behaviour of mass media.

If a more comprehensive and strategic approach to communication for social change were adopted by the larger development agencies, these could positively influence countries to uphold legislation that protects and promotes the right to communicate, thus neutralising the monopolistic ambitions of private companies in the field of information and communication.

We would have a very different horizon if more of the larger development institutions had their own policies supporting communication for social change and the rights of people to communicate.

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