This article offers an overview of development communication in the region that the west calls the Middle East, but which in Arabic is known as “al-Mashrik al Arabi,” or the Arab East. The area comprises three Arab regions that fall between the eastern Mediterranean, the Arabian (Persian) Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean. Located in an area where Africa, Asia, and Europe meet, these regions are: Egypt, which is in Africa; Bilad ashSham (sometimes referred to as the Fertile Crescent or Greater Syria), on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, which extends from Turkey and Iran in the north to Egypt in the south and the Arabian peninsula and the Red Sea to the east (including the present states of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Palestine); and the Arabian peninsula, or Arabian Gulf, which is largely a desert area that includes the present states of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, the Arab Emirates, and Kuwait.
While the first two regions rely on aid funds for development (mainly from the west) and consequently are economically dependent on the west, the Arabian Gulf region generally enjoys more material resources. Thus the region includes development recipients as well as donors in development practice.
Commonalities of The Areas
Although the regions differ in economic wealth and political systems, they all suffer from social and economic inequalities as well as from similar structural development “diseases.” Bureaucracy enables politicians and senior state officials not to be accountable to communities, while corruption remains common. The absence of strategic planning and incompetence often means that “growth” or “development” have become synonymous with the accumulation of wealth by the rich and powerful while the support of the poor and deprived is seen as the responsibility of nongovernmental bodies. There is a notable similarity in the kind of development problems faced in the Arab region and in developing countries in Latin America and Africa. They all seek social change but lack clear overall objectives or a vision of what this change might mean. They also lack a proper understanding of the process of communication and, while they admire the new communication technologies, are not usually aware of how they can be used to support development projects.
Functional social change is based on national development strategies, which are lacking in the Arab East regions due to the absence of agreement on the objective of this change, at regional and national levels. While there is relatively good awareness of the new technologies, this is based more on an enthusiasm for imitating the west than on how they may be relevant to their societies’ needs. Consequently, communication technology is usually regarded as a source of prestige, often at the expense of weakening or eliminating the support of traditional media institutions in the development process.
In short, development communication approaches have by and large failed in the Arab East because they often reflect western development approaches, are planned by experts who are not familiar with the local culture, and are mainly technology-oriented.
The State of Development Communication in the Arab East
The field of development communication is relatively new. In the Arab East it is often mistakenly regarded by officials and organizations as the act of promoting development projects. As in many other regions this approach focused on the public relations of government projects rather than engaging the broader process of social change. Communication for development or social change never took off as a specialized field in the Arab regions.
The most serious obstacle to development communication in the region is that communication is not regarded as a transactional process that aims at grassroots participation and behavior change, but rather as an act of informing and of increasing awareness, mainly a top-down type of informing. The issue of development is complex. It cannot be pinned down to a single variable, but attention tends to be paid to economic variables to the neglect of other (such as social and political) variables. Arab development communication efforts often lack professionalism and strategic planning as well as the ability to function securely within the present world order, which suffers from corruption, and where the development agenda is usually set by the powerful and the rich. In this age of globalization development policies are mainly drafted and controlled by international superpowers and by regional powers.
Development projects often fail in the Arab East regions and in most developing countries because strategic communication is not integrated into development projects. The communities that need development are often not involved, because the authorities either do not allow them or do not see the need for them to be involved. Dialogue and debate are not an option and freedom of expression is not guaranteed. Vertical projects (that come from above) are usually not sensitive to social change and cultural realities.
There seems to be a consensus among Arab development communication practitioners that failure in Arab development efforts is due largely to: a lack of adequate structures to support development efforts and facilitate popular participation; corruption of the social/ political system (nepotism and political priorities over national societal interests); and ignorance by officials and decision-makers and their lack of vision for the role of development communication in the overall social and political processes.
The Arab East does not lack qualified personnel who are properly trained in development communication. The problem is that these personnel are usually not employed and most of them end up migrating to the west. Recommendations by regional and international organizations relating to development matters are frequently shelved, usually after ceremonial welcome. The author served on a panel of experts forming a National Population Council for one of the Arab states. In the two years of his service on the council none of the plans proposed were adopted or even taken into account by the authorities concerned when making decisions, although the minister responsible regularly attended the council meetings. Consequently, the present Arab national development organizations and nongovernmental organizations are staffed by non-professionals, most of whom are either well-meaning but unskilled social preachers or those who seek material gain.
Additionally, development projects that qualify for funding by United Nations organizations and most other regional and international development funding organizations require an application by the concerned governments. Competent nongovernmental groups often do not benefit from such development funds because of their inability to get endorsement by their governments.
In general, there is a tendency in Arab development communication efforts to focus on the adoption of information communication technologies with little or no attention to their effect on actual community needs, or to the cultural factors that are essential for community involvement in development efforts. And while there has been a recent upsurge in the information channels in the Arab East these are not utilized to enhance participation but rather employed either to support official political positions or as entertainment channels. People need to be informed in order to participate meaningfully in development, and the media need to be utilized as instruments of information. Instead they are utilized more as instruments of propagation or agitation.
The Arab media do not play a meaningful role in advancing or developing awareness for development needs or good governance, in accelerating poverty reduction, or in stimulating debate about aspects of accountability. By providing individuals with material that bears no relation to their society, the media contribute to their alienation instead of facilitating their participation in society. Nor is any effort made by the media in terms of the socialization of children, for example, in helping children accept differences and in teaching social habits. Children’s messages in the media and school curricula usually lack vision or coordination, and are often counter-productive. In general, the Arab media fail to serve the genuine development interests of their societies.
The Arab East also lacks solid academic programs that address the subject of communication for development and social change. The teaching of this subject is scattered among different academic programs: in agricultural extension and public health programs, as well as in a few communication programs. Specialized study in communication for social change is urgently needed, in spite of opposition from traditionalists (both academic and political). The various curricula of communication programs in Arab universities do not address the social and development communication needs of the Arab regions. Academic training is mainly in the areas of journalism, radio, and TV as well as in public relations. The academic area of communication for development and/or social change is almost disregarded as are the important areas of communication policies, communication research, and even communication theories. Communication in rural contexts is nonexistent except within agricultural extension programs.
New Communication Efforts for Development
This rather bleak overview of the state of development communication in the Arab East region is not the whole picture, however. There have been frequent, though scattered and uncoordinated, efforts toward development and social change. However, such efforts are not part of a comprehensive plan nor can they be ends in themselves.
Among the promising efforts in this direction are some of the new tele-dramas and soap operas. While there are marked variations among the Arab countries in their efforts to adopt development messages in their tele-dramas and soap operas, Egypt and Syria have excelled. Syrian and Egyptian media reflect a new visual dynamic and a real effort to communicate development messages in their drama. For example, Syrian drama has used popular culture to deal with current social problems in bold historical dramas and clever satire, showcasing an abundance of technical and artistic talent.
Other established areas of Arab development efforts are in communication to improve people’s health and agriculture. Health communication and agricultural extension can have a great impact on development outcomes in the Arab East. These areas are perhaps among the most successful in development efforts in the Arab East. However, most of the efforts are based on either individual initiatives or projects implemented by local, regional, or international organizations. They are not usually followed up and do not form part of a national development plan. Efforts in these areas are the public health and agricultural extension work carried out by universities in the regions, notable among which are those of the University of Cairo and the American University of Beirut. There are also development projects carried out by UNDP in Syria and Jordan, as well as agricultural extension work by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria.
Arab higher educational institutions can have an impact in the field of development communication. New academic institutions, many of which include communication programs, are being set up and are attracting well-trained professionals. While most of the new communication programs do not focus at present on development communication, the area is beginning to attract Arab communication scholars. The new Arab Gulf States are investing considerable funds in developing their higher education sector and are setting up promising communication programs.
A field that is in an early stage of development in the Arab regions, but has a good potential of growth, is that of information communication technology (ICT). According to El-Hage et al. (2003) the Arab region represents less than 1 percent of the world’s Internet users and there are marked variations among the Arab countries in their efforts to adopt ICT tools and grow their networked economies. Yet, according to this study, by working together “Arab countries can build on each other’s experiences to . . . position themselves on a common competitive platform, [and] they can improve their combined standing in the world ICT market.”
The strategic goal of development communication in the Arab East needs to be a change of structure, that will produce an institutional system positively oriented to development goals as well as capable of allowing the enhancement of such positive orientations. A new outlook to development is needed that will encourage the Arab individual and official to build up positive development habits that stress participation, good governance, and transparency.
To reduce the Arab gap in development, Arab organizations and institutions need to focus on development projects that contribute to active citizen participation. There is a need for projects that are founded on qualitative and critical research and that are policy-and problem-oriented. These projects need to tackle the role of the state, the role of the people, and the role of the media in development.
The Arab regions need a development strategy that will involve citizens in development projects as well as in the evaluation process of these projects. This requires that communication theory feed into media strategies and social change. And the economic and policy transparency of development projects needs to be appraised according to constructs that recognize Arab cultural practices and not merely western constructs. What is needed is more attention to transparency at the policy formulation level and not merely at the level of local execution of projects. Policy transparency should be given as much weight as economic transparency.
- El-Hage, C., Sabbagh, K., & Dutta, S. (2003). Challenges for information and communication technology development in the Arab world. In The Arab World Competitiveness Report 2002 – 2003. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 180 –203.
- Wilkins, K. (2004). Communication and transition in the Middle East: A critical analysis of US intervention and academic literature. Gazette: The International Journal for Communication Studies, 66(6), 483 – 496.
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