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Media’s Role in the Global Divides: A Report From IAMCR’s 2008 Congress by Florencia Enghel

The congress opened on July 21 with the announcement of the association’s new leadership. Annabelle Sreberny (United Kingdom) was elected president. John Downing (United States) and Ruth Teer-Tomaselli (South Africa) were elected vice presidents.

Sreberny is aprofessor of global media and communication in the Centre for Media and Film studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, is a well-known researcher in the field of international communication and globalisation, with special interest in mediated cultures of the Middle East, particularly in Iran.

Media and Global Divides

Sreberny and Jan Nedervee Pieterse, who’s a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, specializing in global sociology and the interactive character of global futures, were the keynote speakers.

In her thought-provoking address, Srebrerny called for more specific, contextualized, critical and comparative research that will link the global and the national as sites of analysis and struggle. She proposed that audiences should be encouraged to compare representations of facts in the news globally—a type of comparison now possible, thanks to Internet access to media worldwide.

She said it is difficult to answer the question of what should come first when discussing democracy and development, and she stressed that, in any case, they cannot be “prepackaged.” In approaching other countries, she said, “Let’s hear what the needs and desires are from within.”

Her position was that we should not abandon our concern for cultural matters, but that we should make sure we remain aware of the real material inequalities that cultural differences hide.

Nedervee Pieterse alerted the audience to the Western media’s current treatment of “the rise of the Rest” (vis-à-vis the narrative of the rise of the West) as a threat, as well as their portrayal of celebrities as guides who point at objects of charity for the audiences worldwide. He wondered whether reflexivity is a better teacher than crises and stressed that every crisis is also an opportunity.

Participatory Communication and the Politics of Development Programs

The theme of the first pane, chaired by Rico Lie, was Participatory Communication and the Politics of Development Programmes.

Karin Wilkins, who’s from the University of Texas, Austin, in the United States, presented a research project that addresses the consequences of privatising development programs ostensibly designed to promote the common good. Wilkins is concerned with the trend that has led to an increase of “partnerships” among international development organisations and private corporations since the 1980s. The consequences are not clear. Her analysis investigates both the conditions of production and the texts produced within social marketing, entertainment education and media advocacy strategies in the area of population and reproductive programmes.

Wendy Quarry and Ricardo Ramírez, experienced practitioners in the field of communication for development, shared their experience of the World Congress on Communication for Development (WCCD), organized by The World Bank, FAO and The Communication Initiative and held in Rome, Italy, in 2006, as a “watershed.”

In the process of writing for the WCCD[1], Quarry and Ramírez realized that the problem did not lie in how to persuade policy-makers to adopt participatory communication, but rather in understanding that perhaps policy-makers did not want participation to interfere with their plans. Quarry’s and Ramírez’ proposition today is that it is not good communication that makes good development: Rather, good development breeds good communication. Their thinking in progress will be embodied in a book Searchers and listeners: Communication for (another) development, which will be published by Zed in 2009. Acknowledging that the concept of “another development” had been introduced by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in 1975 with their report “What Now: Another Development”, Quarry and Ramírez recommended we read the report.

Silvio Waisbord, from George Washington University in the United States, discussed the dilemmas posed by efforts to institutionalise participatory communication within development agencies. In his view, participatory communication raises the question of unpredictability, and faces institutional obstacles vis-à-vis the conventional notion of communication as an ingredient of brand building. According to Waisbord, institutional goals and dynamics undercut the potential contributions of participatory communication in three distinct ways.

First, bureaucratic requirements favour the use of informational models rather than participatory ones: Communication is mainly understood and used as a set of technical skills to disseminate messages. Second, the weak status of communication as an autonomous field of study and practice in development organisations undermines its prospects for an expanded understanding. Third, the institutional predominance of a technical mindset is also a limit: Technical perspectives are prioritised, which decouples development programmes from local processes of participation and change. Waisbord’s question is, in this context, how is change possible?

Other presentations in this panel included a discussion of Thailand’s philosophy of “sufficiency economy” and its inherent participatory communication component, an analysis of social marketing in the nonprofit development sector to determine whether it can be seen as participatory, and a mapping of the communication methods used by a Namibian NGO.[2]

New Challenges in Communication for Development

This panel was organized by ØRECOMM[3], a new bilateral research platform hosted by Malmö University in Sweden and Roskilde University in Denmark. The platform focuses on the relations between media, communication and social change processes at the “glocal”—that is, both global and local—level.

In this panel, Jan Nedervee Pieterse reflected on globalisation and development theory as applied to the “rise of Asia.” Karin Wilkins proposed a deconstruction of the field of communication for development in terms of power. Finally, Thomas Tufte, who’s from Roskilde University, and co-editor of CFSC’s Communication For Social Change Anthology: Historical and Contemporary Readings, reflected on present situation of entertainment-education.

Media and Governance: Do Media Matter?

This panel was organised by Tom Jacobson of Temple University in the United States, and Philippe J. Maarek of the University of Paris 12 in France. Its purpose was to critically examine the relationship between media, governance and the higher goals often associated with development and democratisation efforts. It also identified avenues of research within the academic community to support the work of nonprofits and donors in this area.

Tom Jacobson discussed the challenges of evaluating media development and presented a work-in-progress model to assess citizens’ voices in the context of media development based on Jürgen Habermas’ theory of communicative action.

James Deane, former managing director of strategy at the CFSC Consortium and currently director for policy development at BBC World Service Trust in the United Kingdom, asked whether media matters to policymakers, mapped the problems the development system expects a free media to help solve, and discussed the difficulties the media face in trying to solve such problems. He drew attention to the fact that high-level international forums, such as the Accra High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, which will take place in Ghana in September 2008, do not discuss the role media play.


The panel comprised three interventions.

Thomas Tufte and Minou Fuglesang, project coordinator of Femina HIP in Tanzania, presented an ongoing research project in which a sample of readers’ letters received by FEMINA is being analysed. The potential and limitations of such a methodological approach to assessing the impact of an initiative aimed at fostering positive informed choices around sexuality in order to reduce the negative impact of HIV/AIDS was discussed.

Linda Morris, who’s from the University of California in San Francisco, United States, introduced her study of HIV prevention and care by Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance.

Jyotika Ramaprasad, who’s from Southern Illinois University, the United States, discussed research work undertaken in one community in Kampala, Uganda, focusing on issues of discordance and disclosure, and explained how her findings will feed into a video spot to promote couples’ testing.

Participatory Communication: Research and Education

Stuart Poyntz, who’s from Simon Frasier University in Canada, introduced the notion that Hanna Arendt’s theory of the public realm can be useful in exploring the relationship between youth media production and democratic practice. He drew on a study of a community-based youth media production program in Vancouver, Canada.

Usha Sundar Harries, who’s from Macquarie University in Australia, discussed the theory and practice of participatory video production based on her observations of a video production workshop aimed at a group of rural women in Fiji.

Loes Witteveen and Rico Lie, who are from the Van Hall Larenstein and Wageningen universities in the Netherlands, outlined their view of the technical pitfalls, ethical dilemmas and research constraints that may result from the use of film for field research—a problem increasingly relevant as film equipment becomes more and more accessible technically and financially.

Power, participation and social impact: interrogating communication for social change

This panel’s point of departure was the need to explore structural issues that hinder progress in communication for social change theory and practice by limiting the potential of participation, empowerment and access.

Karin Wilkins said commercial sponsoring has become a critical component of social marketing and entertainment-education interventions. She stressed the subsequent need to interrogate the structural conditions of production as well as the underlying ideological assumptions of such interventions. These, in Wilkins’ view, affect the ways in which such interventions are conceptualised, funded, implemented and evaluated, in order to move from an idealistic view of participation’s potential to a more effective assessment of whether community concerns are addressed in terms of racial tolerance, environmental conservation, human rights, sexual rights, violence and human rights.

From a different perspective, Thomas Jacobson referred to a shift in global poverty reduction strategies over recent years, implying that the concept of development has broadened within the donor community at large. According to Jacobson, from a communication perspective, this translates into citizen inclusion being increasingly pursued through public dialogue involving different stakeholders. To illustrate his point, Jacobson reviewed communication-related elements of recent policy statements from the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Department for International Development as examples of large donor organisations.

Elske Van de Fliert, who’s from the University of Queensland in Australia, asked to what extent genuine participation is possible in politically nonparticipative contexts, drawing on the case of Vietnam and highlighting possibilities and impossibilities for participatory communication in a transitional society.

Summing up

For press reports of the congress, visit the news item by UNESCO has a link to the newly released IAMCR/UNESCO report Communication and Information: Towards a Prospective Research Agenda, which will inform future work of IAMCR under the new presidency. For the full program, encompassing simultaneous events held by 15 sections and 15 working group as well as several plenary sessions, see

[1] See “A compendium of regional perspectives in communication for development” at

[2] For more information see pages 2 and 3 of Participatory_Communication_Research_080717.pdf under Participatory Communication and the Politics of Development Programs

[3] For more information see

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