Posted to the Ethnos Project by on March 1st, 2011

If we had two friends who wished to establish a healthy relationship together, we might give them some basic advice: listen to one another, respect your differences, try to see things from the other person’s perspective, be patient, keep each other informed about important things, include your partner in decision-making, and so on. The advice is so basic that we might wonder why those who are involved with international development have taken over 50 years to come around to these participatory precepts at the community level. The participatory paradigm in development communication is fast replacing both the dominant modernization paradigm and the opposing theory of dependency becoming the preferred communication style of development managers. This essay explores the historical arc of communication for social change from its beginnings during WWII to the present and offers a critique of the emerging participatory paradigm.

The history of communication for social change (also development communication, development support communication, and communication for development) began around the time of the Second World War. In 1949, President Truman heralded a new era of development in his inaugural address: “We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.”

At that time, the dominant mode of development communication was based on an inflated sense that forms of mass media used to disseminate information were effective enough to persuade audiences to modify their behavior and attitudes. Through such efforts, richer countries attempted to help poorer countries develop viable economic plans and to defeat poverty and ignorance (Mefalopulos, 43). Known as the modernization paradigm, “this top-down, one-way approach to communication via the mass media was regarded as a panacea for the transformation of the Third World” (Madikiza and Bornman, 23).

The true nature of the modernization model of development was Western-centric, patronizing, and it implicitly placed the responsibility for the underlying causes of underdevelopment on the target populations. It neglected to account for other contributing elements such as historical, external social, and economic factors (Servaes, 60). The cultural tide of modernization brought with it an imperative for poorer populations to leave behind their cultural traditions and ways of knowing which were seen as antithetical to scientific thought, innovation and modernity in general. The modernization paradigm relied on the notion that mass media diffusion of its values (reason, scientific thought, the concept of free market economics, etc.) alone would suffice to bring about the desired change in behavior. Although the “bullet” or “hypodermic needle” theory has fallen out of favor, aspects of the modernization paradigm still guide the efforts of some development organizations.

This commonly held view of historical birth of development communication, however, is situated within the context of Western development scholarship and, similar in effect to the modernization paradigm, ignores equally important non-Western voices. In contrast to the Western historical overview, as early as 1940, non-Western development efforts have focused on right-based, gender-sensitive and method-informed approaches with an emphasis placed on the involvement of local people in making their own road (Freire & Horton, 218). Manyozo identifies several non-Western schools of development communication whose impact on the emerging participatory models should not be overlooked: the Latin American School, the Los Baños School, the African School, and the Indian School (82).

Against the backdrop of modernization, an alternative model began to take shape. During the 60’s, critics of the hegemonic modernization paradigm of development proposed an alternative political-economic solution. Instead of an emphasis on modernizing “backwards” countries, the opposing faction looked to the promotion of economic growth as a means of minimizing dependency of poorer peoples on their richer benefactors. The imbalance between the richer and poorer countries was seen as a continuation of colonial patterns of domination: poorer countries were trapped in a system of supplying cheap labor and raw materials to the developed countries effectively locking them into a socio-economic cycle of dependency. What is now commonly referred to as dependency theory became hotly debated at UNESCO during the 80’s but faded gradually with the failure of alternative economic models proposed by its supporters (Mefalopulos, 6).

The emerging practices of development communication are known collectively as the participatory paradigm (also the empowerment or multiplicity paradigms). These newer approaches are grounded in the cultural realities of development and mark a shift from a sole focus on economic growth to a broader vision of sustainability and participation on the part of the populations served. Although participation was not foreign to the earlier paradigms of development communication, its inclusion in the development process was typically passive and still fundamentally rooted in the vertical, monologic nature of those paradigms.

To fully understand communication for social change today, consider the types of communication employed by development organizations on a regular basis: corporate communication is used to share the organization’s mission and general activities to an external audience; internal communication is used at the project level to facilitate the flow of information; advocacy communication is used to promote development-related issues and influence public policy; and development communication (communication for social change) is used to “support sustainable change in development operations by engaging key stakeholders” (Mefalopulos, 5). Although these areas overlap at points, development communication is marked by clear differences in purpose as well as the body of theory that shapes it practice.

Of the four communication types listed above, the first three share key characteristics that differ from development communication. Corporate, internal, and advocacy communication are monologic – that is, the information travels one way from sender to receiver. This traditional transmission model (Shannon and Weaver) connotes a vertical top-down flow of information where the purpose of communication is to inform or persuade. Communication for social change, on the other hand, is a dialogic, horizontal process used for assessing and empowering. It is marked by distinct qualities that distinguish it from other forms of communication:

Communication for Development is a social process based on dialogue using a broad range of tools and methods. It is also about seeking change at different levels including listening, building trust, sharing knowledge and skills, building policies, debating and learning for sustained and meaningful change. It is not public relations or corporate communication (World Bank et al, xxxiii).

In summary, the table below illustrates some of the key differences between the earlier modernization paradigm and the emerging paradigm of participation.

Table 1. Comparison between modernization and participatory paradigms (adapted from Malkote, 352, and Mefalopulos, 59).

Mefalopulos (51) identifies the following approaches as exemplars of participatory communication for social change: the multiplicity paradigm (Servaes 1991), the empowerment approach (Friedmann 1992), another development (Melkote 1991; Jacobson 1994), and autonomous development (Carmen 1996). Apart from their slight variations, these theoretical approaches share a common reflection of the new priorities in development which are set forth in the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals (end poverty and hunger, universal education, gender equality, child health, maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, environmental sustainability, global partnership) that were announced in 2000.

The approaches also share what might be considered a trademark of the participatory approach: flexibility. Proponents argue that flexibility is one of participation’s strengths. For example, although the main focus of communication for social change is situational analysis, active genuine participation, knowledge sharing and the like, traces of the traditional elements of informing and persuading remain as effective communication strategies depending on the given circumstances. Two established communication for social change resources argue for the need and efficacy of flexibility. The SAS: A Guide to Collaborative Inquiry and Social Engagement published by the International Development Research Centre notes, “Messy, real-life events call not only for logic and rigor but also for the kind of creativity and flexibility that allows people to move in and out of specific plans in response to new circumstances and information acquired along the way” (3). The book provides sensible guidelines for approaching participatory communication for social change flexibly with what it calls “skillful means” – any method or strategy from across disciplines that is helpful because it is attuned to the capacities, needs, and circumstances of the people involved. The World Bank’s guide Development Communication Sourcebook: Broadening the Boundaries of Communication echoes Servaes’ sentiment that “in dealing with participation, rigidly defined theoretical structures are neither feasible nor desirable” (52). The power of participation comes from its flexibility in “adapting its strategic approach according to the situation.”

Critics of participatory communication for social change might argue that the need for flexibility is evidence of the lack of rigor or systemic competence. This view is seemingly validated by the lack of a “unified and consistent common framework” (Mefalopulos, 51) among the various theoretical approaches. However, the lack of unity may signify the participation paradigm’s most salient strength: its variability and responsiveness to “messy, real-life events” increases the likelihood of its being effective across a wide range of circumstances.

Another criticism of participation stems from the many ways one can interpret the notion of what a participant is and does. In 1995, The World Bank identified four types of participation (two low and two high): information sharing, consultation, collaboration, and empowerment. In the same year, Pretty developed a taxonomy of seven forms of participation based on his analysis of several development organizations. The forms range from extreme low to extreme high: passive participation, participation in information giving, participation by consultation, participation for material incentives, functional participation, interactive participation, and self-mobilization (Pretty et al, 247). The confusion caused by the differing ranges of participation and the lack of strict standards cannot be eliminated because the theoretical approaches that fall under the heading of participatory communication for social change are not one-size-fits all strategies. Nor can a human communal process be converted into a formulaic mechanized system without losing its heart. Although each approach contains theories, processes, timelines, checklists, and so on, participation methodologies will remain more art than science.

As development organizations strive toward the resolution of the Millennium Development Goals, we will continue to see participatory communication for social change prosper. Its human-centered, dialogism is part of a larger movement in the global community. Advances in technologies and techniques related to the World Wide Web are also being made with similar design approaches. Consider the topological similarities between the characteristics of emerging development communication and what is called Web 2.0. Both involve community partnership and ownership (and both fail when community participation wanes), language and cultural relevance (interaction is healthiest when it happens within a framework of equity and respect), creation of local content (recognizes legitimacy of local knowledge – i.e., user generated content), and both benefit from network and convergence (share lessons learned, the generation of new knowledge). The same pattern is being applied in the classroom under the title of the democratic or student-centered approach. Participation is clearly an idea whose time has come.

Works Cited

Freire, P., & M. Horton. We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change between Myles Horton and Paulo Freire. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

Gumucio-Dagron, Alfonso. “Roots and Relevance: Introduction to the CFSC Anthology” in Alfonso Gumucio-Dagron and T. Tufte, eds., Communication for Social Change Anthology: Historical and Contemporary Readings. New Jersey: Communication for Social Change Consortium, 2006.

Madikiza, Lucky, and Elirea Bornman. “International communication: shifting paradigms, theories and foci of interest.” Communicatio 33.2 (2007). 16 Dec. 2008 < 10.1080/02500160701685391>

Manyozo, Linje. “Manifesto for Development Communication: Nora Quebral and the Los Baños School of Development Communication.” Asian Journal of Communication 16.1 (Mar. 2006): 79-99. Communication & Mass Media Complete. EBSCO. 15 Dec. 2008 <>.

Mefalopulos, Paolo. Development Communication Sourcebook: Broadening the Boundaries of Communication. Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2008.

Melkote, Srinivas R. and H. Leslie Steeves. Communication for Development in the Third World: Theory and Practice for Empowerment. London: Sage, 2001.

Pretty, J. N., I. Gujit, J. Thompson, and I. Scoones. Participatory Learning and Action: A Trainer’s Guide. London: International Institute for Environment and Development, 1995.

Servaes, J. “Toward a New Perspective for Communication and Development.” in Communication in Development, ed. F. L. Casmir, 51–86. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1991.

Shannon C. E., and W. Weaver. The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana, IL: The University of Illinois, 1949.

White, S. A., K. S. Nair, and J. Ascroft. Participatory communication: Working for change and development. New Delhi, India: Sage, 1994.

World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the Communication Initiative. World Congress on Communication for Development: Lessons, Challenges, and the Way Forward. Washington, DC: World Bank, 2007.

World Bank. “Social Development Notes.” No.13, Washington,DC.: World Bank, 1995.

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