A cursory examination of halo terms used on the world stage in the last 50 years will surely unearth the term “development.” Development is commonly understood to mean a process by which societal conditions are improved. However, there is much disagreement on what constitutes improvement. Consequently, the term development has been continually contested. Development communication, a special focus of this article, often refers to a linear process of information exchange, resulting in knowledge acquisition or persuasion toward some objective related to development. This term too has been actively contested, especially with the changing interpretations of development. Today, many emphasize communication as a process of shared meaning that takes place in a cultural, political-economic, and geographical context, and is inseparable from that context.
Development in its modern form dates back to World War II. The early decades since World War II witnessed the dissolution of the colonial empires and the concomitant political emancipation of most of the countries in the third world, and the birth of the United Nations. This marked the formal beginning of development work and assistance primarily targeted at the developing countries in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, or more often known collectively as the third world.
The label “third world” will be used often in this text. There are a plethora of interpretations of this label. Most often the term is used to refer to countries considered less technologically advanced, economically poor, and less endowed with good infrastructures in the sectors of education, health-care, agriculture, etc. Other labels often used interchangeably with third world are: developing countries, less developed countries, underdeveloped countries, and south. Geographical connotations have been overemphasized over other factors, and consequently countries in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America are commonly considered as constituting the third world.
Development as Modernization
Modernization propelled a powerful set of forces at work, especially in the third world. A dominant paradigm of development influenced by the techno-social biases of modernization guided intellectual thinking and practice in the decades that followed World War II (Lerner 1958). It had enormous social, cultural, political, and economic consequences for the developing economies of the third world. The concept and practice of modernization were based on liberal economic theory. It was grounded in the grand project of Enlightenment, namely reasoning, rationality, objectivity, and other philosophical principles of science of the western-hemisphere developed countries. In the modernization theories, the definition of a modern nation resembled western industrialized countries in all areas of society, including political and economic behavior, attitudes toward technology and science, and cultural norms. Thus, implicit in this discourse of modernization was a philosophy of what development in the third world should be, and how it should be facilitated.
The modernization paradigm was also influenced by a social evolutionary theory (Portes 1976). In these theories, the third world countries were usually considered as traditional societies and placed at one end of a development continuum, while the industrialized countries in the west signified the modern counterpart and occupied the other end of the same continuum. Unlike the developed countries, the third world nations were regarded as being limited in their capacity to cope with problems or crises and even to master their environment. At the micro-level, individuals in the developing countries were considered as traditional, uneducated, unscientific, and irrational in their thinking, and generally inimical to modernization. Theories of individual psychological attributes stressed that attitude and value changes among these individuals were prerequisites to the creation of a modern society. These theories argued that modernization of the third world was dependent on changing the character of individuals living there to resemble more closely the attitudinal and value characteristics of people in western Europe and North America (Lerner 1958; Inkeles 1966; McClelland 1966; Rogers 1969).
The development process in the third world countries did not follow the assumptions implicit in the dominant paradigm of development. The paradigm worked better as a description of social change in west Europe and North America than as a predictor of change in developing countries. The neo-classical economic model in the modernization paradigm that suggested a trickle-down approach to development benefits started losing credibility in the 1970s (Seers 1977). The promised trickle-down of benefits did not occur. The worldwide recession of the 1980s and the economic reforms forced by multilateral institutions such as the World Bank on the third world countries left them further behind. The modernization paradigm was also criticized for its negative view of cultures (Singer 1972), especially the religious cultures in the nonwestern world, for its patriarchal biases and for its andocentric views (Braidotti et al. 1994). In the mainstream view, local cultural traditions and living arrangements had to be displaced with attitudes and value sets of people in the industrialized west if the third world nations and people wanted to modernize. This idea no longer has overt supporters.
A universal model of techno-social development as articulated in the modernization paradigm has been increasingly questioned and criticized. Alternative approaches to development that have been posited in the last few decades tend to be pluralistic and indicate varied goals for meaningful and real development in the third world. The concerns in the alternative approaches have included the articulation of development models that are relevant to the local contexts. The newer approaches have argued for more local people involvement in development initiatives. Grassroots activists have argued for a regeneration of local people’s space and local cultures in the developing countries of the third world. In these approaches, goals of individual and community empowerment are usually central. Concerns with spirituality, and with cultural and grassroots organizations provided a sharp contrast to the exogenous models of the modernization paradigm and its near-exclusive concerns with the technical and economic systems as the principal drivers of modernization.
Development Support Communication
The earliest models of media effects conceptualized the impact of mass media as direct, powerful, and uniform on individuals living in modern, industrial societies termed mass societies by sociologists in the early twentieth century. The early models conceptualized communication as a linear and one-way process flowing from a powerful source to a passive receiver. However, more recent research conducted after World War II showed the mass media as weak in effecting important behavioral and attitudinal changes (Lazarsfeld et al. 1948). Communication scholars suggested that the mass media were more agents of reinforcement than of direct change. This shift in emphasis made little difference to formulations advocating the use of mass media for development in the third world countries. Here, uses of mass media for transmission of information and for persuasion were transferred to fields such as agricultural extension, health, and education (Diaz-Bordenave 1977). The mass media were perceived by administrators and policymakers as important tools for bringing about quick behavioral change, particularly in favor of the modernizing effects of the state.
Thus, mass media were considered to be ideal vehicles for transferring new ideas and models from the developed nations to the third world and from urban areas to the rural countryside. The mass media were entrusted with the task of preparing individuals in developing nations for rapid social change by establishing a climate of modernization. They were thought to have powerful, uniform, and direct effects on individuals in the third world. Research in this tradition generated high expectations from the mass media. They were considered the magic multipliers of development benefits in third world nations (Lerner 1958). Information was thus seen as the missing link in the development chain. The quality of information available and its wide dissemination were a key factor in the speed of development. Adequate mass media outlets and information would act as a spur to education, commerce, and a chain of other related development activities.
By the 1970s, it became increasingly clear in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that socio-economic structural constraints greatly diminished the power of mass media in overcoming problems of development (Beltran 1976). The process of development was not as straightforward and clear-cut as conceptualized earlier. And the mass media, far from being independent factors in the change process, were themselves affected by many extraneous factors. The top-down nature of the mass media models and their exogenous orientation were increasingly criticized by scholars and practitioners. Increasingly, it was felt that if development is to have any relevance to the people who need it most, it must start where the real needs and problems exist, namely in the rural areas, urban slums, and other depressed sectors. People living in such peripheries must perceive their real needs and identify their real problems. To a large extent, these people have not been able to do so due to a lack of genuine participation in development strategies ostensibly set up to ameliorate their problems (Mody 1991). Many scholars and practitioners since the 1970s have favored active participation of the people at the grassroots in development planning and execution (Ascroft & Masilela 1994; Jacobson & Kolluri 1999). Other practitioners have favored a more liberating type of communication education that would contain more dialogue and would focus more on the receiver and his/her social context (Freire 1970). In this approach, communication channels are used to generate dialogue, helping people to understand each other and identify their collective problems. Communication is thus used as a vehicle for liberation from mental and psychological shackles that bind people to structures and processes of oppression. Consequently, the changing nature of communication in development was labeled “development support communication” by critical scholars and practitioners. With this term, the emphasis changed from viewing communication as an input toward greater economic growth to visualizing communication more holistically and as a support for people’s empowerment, especially in marginalized groups.
Sustainable development is not possible unless we deal with a crucial problem in society, namely the lack of economic and social power among individuals at the grassroots and other marginalized groups (Steeves 2000; Wilkins 2000). Individuals are impoverished or sick or often slow to adopt useful practices not because they lack knowledge or reason, but because they do not have reasonable access to appropriate or sustainable opportunities to improve their lives. This is an issue of unequal power. The focus on unequal power dynamics has a direct consequence for development support communication. The transmission approach or the delivery of new information and technology innovations will be insufficient for the task. Empowerment requires more than just information delivery and diffusion of technical innovations. The objective of the development support communication professional should be to work with individuals and communities at the grassroots and other marginalized groups so that they eventually enter and participate meaningfully in the political and economic processes in their societies. This calls for grassroots organizing and communicative social action on the part of people at the grassroots, meaning women and others who have been marginalized in the process of social change. Greater importance will need to be directed to the use of communication in empowering citizens. The new focus in development support communication then should be to move away from facilitating development toward assisting in the process of empowerment.
Communitarian theory emphasizes preservation of community and emancipation from oppression at all levels (Tehranian 1994). Liberation, feminist, environmental, and some third world social movements have made arguments consistent with communitarian theory. It appears that communitarian theory offers potential as a general framework that could ground participatory and empowerment-oriented perspectives in communication and development. For development support communication, the goal is no longer just information delivery and diffusion of technical innovations but rather to work with individuals and groups at the grassroots or at the peripheries of a society so that they eventually have a voice in political, economic, and ideological processes in their societies.
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