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Rationale: Why do we need an Information and Communication Policy?[3]

Government and other institutions create policies to ensure coherence and to avoid contradictions in the actions of various public and private entities. Policy instruments also seek to solve social and technical problems and to legitimise the implementation of programs and projects.

African countries are not strangers to policy-making. Most countries already have policies in various sectors; some of them well articulated, for example, an economic policy, a health policy, an agricultural policy, an educational policy, an environmental policy and a foreign policy. In some countries these are merely cosmetic documents virtually moribund, with no living dynamic reality, and not much possibility of being implemented. In other countries these policies provide sectoral orientations that can contribute to the overall goals of national development. In that context, a communication policy may be seen as a further contribution to the national development environment through consolidating actions around issues that cut across several sectors.

As far as communication policies are concerned, they have been described as:

«Sets of principles and norms established to guide the behaviour of communication systems. They are shaped over time in the context of society’s general approach to communication and to the media. Emanating from political ideologies, the social and economic conditions of the country and the values on which they are based, they strive to relate these to the real needs for and the prospective opportunities for communication».[4]

In every society, public and private institutions and individuals undertake internal and external communication for many reasons. There is often no over-arching idea or vision to help coordinate or rationalise these various actions, probably because policy-makers and planners do not see how they can be related. A national policy on information and communication for development provides a necessary conceptual and institutional framework for the coordination and integration of technical and social interventions undertaken by institutions ranging from agricultural extension to education and health ministries, from NGOs such as women’s resource groups and human rights activists, to private sector interests such as chambers of commerce or banks. The contribution of a national policy is to articulate principles, values and norms that are applicable to communication at all levels of government, to civil society and the private sector, within the context of the development goals of the nation. An approach that considers information and communication as a «sector» for development planning[5] would also help to rationalize investments as well as provide a basis for integrating information and communication interventions within national development strategies.

A communication policy can, therefore, be an instrument for supporting the systematic planning, development and use of the communication system, and its resources and possibilities, and for ensuring that they function efficiently in enhancing national development.

Efficient, widespread and continuous public communication is an important prerequisite for democratic governance. In the developing or re-emerging democracies of Africa, social communication provides the cement that binds various communities and social groups together in their resolve to build new societies. It can create linkages between political, religious, traditional and community leaders and their followers, and can build bridges between rural and urban communities and across generations.

It is through communication that government agencies and NGOs attempt to provide technical information and social services for improving the quality of life of citizens, and that civil society seeks to broaden and sustain participation in governance. New agricultural practices and policies, health campaigns, literacy classes, adult political and civic education and other development efforts have succeeded largely through communication support. In the context of current development challenges posed by the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS, communication for social mobilization and social change to support preventive behaviour and to support the infected and affected is a crucial necessity.

But communication can also divide people along various socio-cultural lines, contributing to social cleavage, marginalisation and even violence. These seemingly contradictory possibilities pose the challenge of choice, of making deliberate decisions to ensure that communication plays a positive role in society. The results of such decisions can be articulated in a policy statement.

Within this general framework, strategies can be devised to facilitate organised and intensified use of interpersonal, group and mass media channels of communication that are sensitive to cultural resources and orientation, and that are decentralized as necessary, in support of development programs. There is increased need to encourage local organizations to make use of new communications technologies, such as the Internet, to promote social linkages and to ensure widespread support for development efforts; so that in a dynamic and organic sense, communication can become an instrument for building solidarity for the common national and community goals of good health, economic recovery, poverty eradication, empowerment of women and youth, and good governance. These outcomes can be facilitated through a deliberate communication policy linked to national development policy.

[3] Information policies deal more with the hardware and software of a society’s ‘info structure’, related to the implications of the ICTs and the ‘information highway’ for the processing of ‘factual’ material and its storage and transmission as knowledge. Communication is more social process oriented, concerned with interactions among individuals and groups and also the development and use of mass media. Obviously the two concepts intersect massively, and from a policy standpoint, they need to be taken together. In this paper, less attention is being given to ‘information policy’ as such, which merits detailed treatment in its own right. See also UNESCO, op. cit. 1996, for an extended treatment of this topic.
[4] See Mwaura, Peter, Communication Policies in Kenya, UNESCO, 1980, preface.
[5] The idea of ‘communication planning for development’ was introduced into the communication literature during the 1980s. It was seen as a tool for moving from policy to action as a ‘process of formulating societal objectives, correlating these with the potential of the communication system, and making use of technology to secure the best possible match.’ See: A. Hancock, Communication Planning for Development: An Operational Framework, Paris, UNESCO 1981; also A. Hancock, Communication Planning Revisited, Paris, UNESCO 1992.

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