Rural development was the almost exclusive focus of the early development of communication endeavors in the 1950s. The focus was on economic outcomes and, to a great extent, the emphasis was placed on agriculture, with some attention to how the mass media (radio and print at first, then television from the 1960s) could improve the lives of rural populations in literacy, education, health, and community development. The early projects of communication for rural development, sponsored by such multilateral aid agencies as UNESCO and bilateral programs like Point Four in the US, were influenced by academic writings on development like Daniel Lerner’s modernization theory, Wilbur Schramm’s policy strategy, and Everett Rogers’s diffusion paradigm. The focus on rural development, however, began to shift in the 1970s when specific areas like education, telecommunications, agriculture, health, and nutrition took attention away from rural development more broadly. In recent years, less project attention has been devoted to agriculture and education and more has gone to health and telecommunications as issues in rural development. In the early years of the new century, rural development has re-emerged in the form of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, centered on the reduction of global poverty, which is often more concentrated in rural areas. Development communication has again been identified as a potential factor in the accomplishment of these goals.
Changing Contexts: 1950 To The Present
Rural development as a concept has changed significantly in four areas over the past 50 or so years. First, there was a steady decline in the percentages of people living in rural areas between 1950 and 2005 (71 percent to 51 percent; UN Population Division 2005) even though overall population growth has increased in absolute numbers from 2.5 billion to 6.5 billion. National social policies focus more often on urban problems, as that is the growth trend for almost all countries. Populations left behind in rural areas are largely made up of agricultural workers who are relatively worse off than those in urban areas but whose problems are given less attention. The very critical situation of these populations helps to foment continuing migration to urban areas, and often to other countries, as legal and illegal immigrants. The relative prosperity of urban areas in comparison with rural ones causes not only migration problems, but also political ones for national governments.
The second change in context is a much more sophisticated set of communication technologies that connect rural populations to urban information centers. Radio was the first major technology to reach rural areas, especially after the diffusion of cheap transistorized radios. Because of literacy barriers, print has remained of limited importance for the majority of rural populations. A number of educational television projects were initiated in the 1960s and 1970s, many for rural populations, but most were discontinued for both political and economic reasons (McAnany et al. 1983). Communication satellites began commercial operation in 1965 and were quickly touted for their potential contributions for development (Hudson 1990), but their potential is for carrying the content of other media like radio, television, or the Internet. The Internet is the latest in the technologies to be incorporated into rural projects, although its complexity, the literacy demands, and the costs make its applications limited. Radio, one of the oldest of the mass media, still holds the best promise for development communication in rural areas (Jamison & McAnany 1978; Sposato & Smith 2005).
The third change is a shift in aid policy that places more emphasis on the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in rural areas, and encourages the participation of people in their own development. Another important change has been the recognition of the role of women, not only in the caretaking roles of family health and nutrition, but also in the central roles of agricultural production and marketing, which had been thought of as a male domain.
The fourth change has been in the theories of communication for development, from the early Lerner vision of media’s central role in individual modernization to today’s theories of participation and social change. In one sense, the change recognizes the centrality of people’s participation in comparison to the role of technology in rural development. Still no theory completely discounts the importance of information and communication technologies. The current call for social change as an integral part of development communication (Gumucio-Dagron & Tufte 2006) echoes interests of the earliest pioneers of development communication. Even though the theories have shifted from a functionalist-behaviorist model to a social participation and politicaleconomic one, the ultimate goal of improved life chances for the rural poor remains. A brief review of theories of development communication demonstrates how theory led to different kinds of applications for the rural poor.
Theories of Rural Development
Daniel Lerner has most often been credited with proposing a theory of communication in development. His modernization theory argued for the significant individual consequences of exposure to radio by rural audiences in the Middle East, and a psychological change of traditional world views and values to a more empathetic, modern individual open to change. The critique of this model came from those who argued that the problem was not so much in the traditions but in the structural constraints for social change. Schramm soon incorporated Lerner and other social-change theorists into a call for an increase in media investments by developing countries to provide the magic multipliers of information. Rogers had developed his original diffusion model based on research on the application of agricultural innovations by US farmers. In the 1960s he applied this model to experiments in three developing countries, and it was widely adopted by agricultural agencies worldwide. In the 1970s there was a reaction in Latin America and elsewhere against all three approaches as being overly optimistic and not accounting for the structural and political barriers to communication for social change.
Some of the first critical voices raised, questioning the original premises of development communication, were from diffusion researchers like Luis Ramiro Beltran and Juan Diaz Bordenave in Latin America, and Nels Roling and Joseph Ascroft in Africa, who began to question the equity of innovation benefits in rural agriculture. There were also questions raised about the viability of the whole development communication and modernization paradigm, an early critique by Golding (1974) being typical.
Dependency was a Latin American critique of classical development theory that had communication applications emphasizing the ideological effect of capitalist-owned media (Armand Mattelart and Beltran were among these authors). The critical tradition placed an emphasis on the political economy of media that continues into the present with the added focus on the role of globalization of media ownership and ideological effects among developing-country audiences. Much of this work has been identified with Cultural Imperialism Theories (of which Herbert Schiller was a main proponent), which see the media as undermining national and ethnic cultures and values. Even though there has been an ongoing counterattack against these theories, begun by John Tomlinson (1991), there remains a popular nationalist sentiment that there are cultural threats from foreign media. Rural audiences are less exposed to external cultural influence, but even so there is a threat of internal imperialism by urban cultures that dominate the production of media content in large cities to be transmitted to rural audiences. The real problem, however, is about voice rather than medium. How can rural people have a voice in their own development and in their own culture?
The third phase of communication development began to ask how people could participate in their own development when they did not create the messages. An early articulation of participation was O’Sullivan and Kaplun (1978), who argued that real development could only happen when the grassroots people were involved in communication projects. Later participation theorists argued for different cultures to derive their own models of development based on needs defined by communities themselves. Others argued that true participation would enhance democratic values and most of all empower individuals and communities (see Melkote & Steves  for a recent overview).
A final approach used in rural development for a variety of purposes is an approach called Entertainment Education, which promotes change through educational messages embedded in a variety of entertainment formats. This has been best articulated through the research of Singhal and Rogers (1999). It has been adapted to the soap opera format on radio and television by a number of health and other social programs for rural as well as urban areas. Although there are a variety of theories and paradigms in communication for rural development, the overriding question in their application is: do they work to improve people’s lives?
Methods of Measuring Success
One of the challenges for development communication is to show people that it works. The evaluation of projects inspired by different theories and paradigms is embodied in a variety of methodologies. The earliest approaches of Lerner, Schramm, and Rogers all shared a common communication effects/behavior model that tried to measure media exposure and individual impacts on knowledge, attitudes, and practice (the famous “KAP” formulation for evaluation of outcomes). Lerner’s modernization theory used survey and national population data in correlational analysis that was difficult to replicate. Rogers’s diffusion research was based on a quantitative model developed in the US to measure agricultural production, but more importantly the time of adoption and the characteristics of the adopters to measure the degree of their innovativeness. The critique by some early third-world researchers was not so much methodological, but that the model showed up inequalities among farmers: those better off benefited more and increased the gaps among groups. The Entertainment–Education paradigm follows the effects model but adds some qualitative data.
The common methodology of most of the critical researchers was political economy, also largely quantitative, which often measured the structure of media ownership, numbers of programs and sometimes audience figures. The ideological aspect was usually limited to content analysis of messages but with no data on audience impacts. The inference was that the author’s analysis of the content was sufficient to reach a conclusion about impacts on audiences. In terms of providing data on ownership, content, and exposure, the data was and still is accepted as evidence for potential influence on audiences, but without some evidence about how audiences interpret the messages and what consequences can be shown for attitudes and behaviors, an important question remains unanswered.
The participatory communication approaches have mostly used qualitative methods to answer evaluation questions. Qualitative data is sometimes better suited to answer questions about empowerment, gender, politics, efficacy, etc., which are often part of project goals. There are several problems with collecting and using this data to demonstrate success, none intrinsic to the methodology itself. First, many funding agencies do not accept the data as valid and demand quantitative outcome data. Second, research designs are often not carefully planned and the data does not convince. Third, the goals of some participatory communication projects, like empowerment, are long term and the data-gathering period is short term. Finally, since qualitative data by its nature requires more patent interpretation, outside funders and agencies question the bias of researchers.
- Golding, P. (1974). Media role in national development: critique of a theoretical orthodoxy. Journal of Communication, 24, 39–53.
- Gumucio-Dagron, A., & Tufte, T. (eds.) (2006). Communication for social change anthology: Historical and contemporary readings. South Orange, NJ: Communication for Social Change Consortium.
- Hudson, H. (1990). Communication satellites: Their development and impact. New York: Free Press.
- Jamison, D., & McAnany, E. (1978). Radio for education and development. Beverly Hills: Sage.
- McAnany, E. (ed.) (1980). Communications in the rural third world: The role of information in development. New York: Praeger.
- McAnany, E., Oliveira, J. B., Orivel, F., & Stone, J. (1983). Distance education: Evaluating new approaches in education for developing countries. Evaluation in Education, 6, 289–376.
- Melkote, S. & Steves, L. (2001). Communication for development in the third world: Theory and practice for empowerment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- O’Sullivan, J., & Kaplun, M. (1978). Communication methods to promote grass-roots participation: A summary of research findings from Latin America. Paris: UNESCO.
- Singhal, A., & Rogers, E. (1999). Entertainment Education: a communication strategy for social change. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Sposato, S., & Smith, W. A. (2005). Radio: A post nine-eleven strategy for reaching the world’s poor. Lanham: University Press of America.
- Tomlinson, J. (1991). Cultural imperialism: A critical introduction. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Tomlinson, J. (1999). Cultural imperialism: A critical introduction. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- UN Population Division (2005). World urbanization prospects: The 2005 revision. At https://dss.princeton.edu/catalog/resource259.
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