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Introduction: Information, Communication and Development

“What are our goals, how do these relate to creating a better world, and how do the technologies we pursue help achieve our goals?”[1]

The relationship between information flows and national or local-level development have become better understood in recent years; as has the role of communication processes in mediating social and individual change. However, in most African countries these relationships are not widely discussed or easily accepted, especially by development planners.

Basically, communication is a social process that produces changes in the knowledge, attitudes and behaviours of individuals, and groups, through providing factual and technical information, through motivational or persuasive messages, and through facilitating the learning process and social «environment». These results might then lead to increase in the mastery of crucial skills by the individual, and to enhancing the achievement of various instrumental goals. Other possible consequences of communication include enhancement in self-esteem and well being through participation in community and social life, increasing the individual’s perceived efficacy in dealing with other people, reinforcing mutual respect and enhancing confidence among social groups and building trust within communities. These outcomes are the ingredients that contribute to the creation of those positive individual, community and societal changes that together are often referred to as «development». Communication can thus positively influence development.

But using «communication for development» means different things to different people. It has even been viewed differently in different eras, considered variously as «social engineering» or «giving voice to the voiceless». Both as idea and as practice, the relationship of communication to development has been problematic, as it has raised many questions. Can we show that communication has a place in the development process? What kind of communication has what kind of effect on what aspects of development? The questions are intriguing and intractable. Often the gains from communication become apparent only when something goes wrong in society.

Although the relationships are not clearly established, the Human Development Index, HDI, shows marked differences in the communication profiles of countries of high, medium and low human development. The indicators generally employed in the HDI are mostly infrastructural and technological, e.g. «access to: radio; television; book titles published; post offices; main telephone lines; fax machines; mobile cellular telephone subscribers, Internet users, personal computers». It is probably the case that the opportunities that these channels provide for carrying information and messages and for allowing multiple social interactions, that «drive» social progress, are a crucial contribution to the level of socio-economic development of societies. Yet even if communication is only a necessary and not a sufficient ingredient for development, that potential contribution has provided a motive for continuing to search for more effective ways of relating communication processes with development processes, and for justifying investments in information and communication ideas and practices. That is why a policy approach is needed to support the integration of information and communication thinking and practice into national development and governance plans.

There are, at the moment in Africa, few examples of policies designed to «push» the systematic use of information and communication as part of general development strategy[2]. A number of short-term social campaigns include information and communication activities; but these episodic interventions, do not appear to able to sustain a national critical mass for instigating desired social change on a continuous and consistent basis. In the face of dwindling resources, African countries will have to avoid unplanned, inconsistent, ostentatious or wasteful investments in the information and communication sectors. They will also have to tackle the underdevelopment or unbalanced development of communication institutions, and be more open to certain ideas and practices (such as freedom of expression or accountability) that accompany a more open and participatory approach to national development. The relevance of a «sustainable development» perspective for information and communication investments and programs is therefore an important consideration for African countries at this time.

[1] ‘Technology for Development or Development for Technology?’; chap II in Information and Communication Technologies for Development: A UNESCO Perspective, 1996, p3
[2] A notable exception is the effort by a few West African countries to elaborate national communication policies for development, in collaboration with FAO. See for example, Document de la politique nationale de la communication pour le développement au Burkina Faso, Tome 1, Tome 2; Burkina Faso, Ministère de la Communication et FAO, Rome, 2001.

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