Communication for development Knowledge

Posted July 1999

Special: The first mile of connectivity

Communication: a meeting ground for sustainable development

By Ricardo Ramírez
School of Rural Extension Studies
University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada

1. Introduction

  • Why the first mile?
  • Telecommunication services and stakeholders
    2. Lessons learned
  • Communication for sustainable development
  • Eyes see; ears hear
  • Participatory rural communications appraisal
  • Radio and video
  • State media for democratic development
    3. Technologies
  • Telecommunications for sustainable development
  • Rural telecommunications in Africa
  • Integrated rural development through telecommunications
    4. Applications
  • Internet and rural development
  • Participatory approaches to rural connectivity
  • Empowering communities
  • Rural telecentres
  • Training community animators
  • Video conferencing
  • Connecting with the unconnected
    5. Policies
  • Global information infrastructure
  • Rural networking cooperatives
  • Public and private interests
    Editors, contributors
  • Communication has become a key feature of sustainable development. Indeed, "communication for development" has become a recognized field among many development decision-makers (Fraser, 1994). The opening for the communication field comes from the recognition that in sustainable development there are multiple stakeholders all generating and exchanging information. There is, therefore, a need for building bridges, linking different viewpoints and creating a common "language" among different stakeholders. The contrasting interpretations of reality between rural folk and policy makers, or between scientists and field staff, are the challenges faced by the field of communication for development. These are the entry points for strategically designed communication efforts aimed at linking different stakeholders. Communication for development is about aiding different types of actors interested in understanding needs and assessing opportunities jointly; it is about providing them with the methods and media to reach common meaning, and about enabling them to negotiate with other actors with contrasting perceptions and interests.

    Multiple stakeholders

    As a result of the 1992 United Nations Conference of Environment and Development (UNCED) the document Agenda 21 was prepared. This document is evidence that the need for sustainable development is generally accepted as a desirable goal and that multiple stakeholders are involved in providing and using information towards this goal. "In sustainable development, everyone is a user and provider of infor-mation considered in the broad sense. That includes data, information, appropriately packaged experience and knowledge. The need for information arises at all levels, from that of senior decision makers at the national and international levels to the grass-roots and individual levels" (UNCED, 1992, Chapter 4, Par. 40.1). Thus, at UNCED it was acknowledged that there is a need for information exchange among the multiple players, all of whom generate information and exchange it.

    The recognition that there are multiple relevant stakeholders, all of whom use and provide information, constitutes an entry point for the field of communication for development. Communication refers to the two-way exchange of information, a feature which is a key component to effective development. As is argued in a recent discussion paper on information technology: "There is substantial evidence that without two-way information flows development efforts fail" (Zijp, 1994, p.16). This acknowledgement of the fundamental role of communication is a significant step ahead in the context of sustainable development. In many sectors information has been understood as a public relations exercise aimed at raising public awareness, or merely as a mechanism to transfer knowledge and technology in a uni-directional mode. Today there is growing recognition that the impact of such approaches is limited or short-lived and additional efforts are needed to give voice to the knowledge and perspectives of people at the grassroots since they are no longer willing to be treated passive recipients of information.

    A quickly evolving field

    For the last two decades, communication for development practitioners have acted as brokers between the needs of rural people, different kinds of development interventions, and quickly evolving communication and information technologies. This is a field of development which evolves at a particularly rapid pace as communication practitioners seek to reconcile technological innovation with rural peoples' needs and constraints.

    Brokering between the technology and the needs of rural people is one key concern of development communication practitioners. Questions always arise about accessibility to media in remote areas, about how to reconcile costs, and about the appropriateness of different media for different purposes. When the first steps were taken by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in the mid 1970s in Peru to use video as a tool to "recover, preserve and reproduce peasant knowledge" (Calvelo-Rios, 1989, p. 7), the organization was critiqued because of the seemingly inappropriate use of what appeared to be too sophisticated a medium for a rural setting. "Much of FAO's historical success with communication for development approaches has involved the use of a medium that many development planners first dismissed as too 'high-tech' and as being 'inappropriate technology' when used by agencies working with rural and agricultural communities" (Richardson, 1996, p. 11). As it turned out, the FAO project in Peru paved the way for what is today common practice in many rural development projects: the use of video as a cost-effective tool to support group training.

    In the 1970s, the group led by Don Snowden in Northern Canada put video to use in building linkages and resolving conflicts between scientists and indigenous groups, and between fishing communities and politicians. The famous Fogo Island process in Newfoundland allowed rural communities to express their demands and share their predicament on video with politicians in distant Ottawa (Williamson, 1975). The use of visual media as a bridge between people's contrasting knowledge systems proved to be as powerful a tool in the Arctic as it was in developing countries where rural communities suffered from lack of information and isolation from decision-making (Quarry, 1984).

    Twenty years later, the field of communication for development faces an equivalent challenge with regard to the use of the Internet in rural development. What role will the Internet play in rural development? Who will benefit? Which sectors need to come together to provide the telecommunication infrastructure? Is there adequate software and hardware available in each country? What types of training, planning, and financing is required? Is it a development tool as such? Can it serve to mediate policy dialogue and enhance decision-making at local level? A recent report sets the course for this challenge and summarises the common elements of successful rural and agricultural Internet and communication and information systems (Richardson, 1996).

    Technological innovation in the information media is not the only reason for the hasty speed at which communication for development evolves. Another reason is the evolving understanding of development and the emergence of new approaches and paradigms. Consider the impact of Our common future published in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), and of UNDP's Human development report (1991) on development thinking. The WCED document introduced the notion of sustainable development. While this notion has led to multiple interpretations and critical analyses (see for example: Dixon & Fallon, 1989; Bifani, 1993; Dovers & Handmer, 1993; Opshoor, 1996) it remains central in the development jargon. The notion of sustainability has led to new insight into the challenges of development where the process of building alliances and seeking common agendas among stakeholders with different interests becomes as important as the output itself.

    Pretty (1995) argues that "sustainable agriculture is not so much a specific farming strategy as an approach to learning about the world" (p. 17). A focus on learning means a focus on people as the protagonists of development. UNDP's report focused attention on the human dimension of development, thus opening the door for participatory approaches that engage rural people in assessing needs, planning and implementing development interventions. The above key documents have expanded the realm of activities where communication for development can play an enabling role by bringing attention to previously disregarded human and environmental issues (FAO, 1991). FAO's publication Communication: Key to human development (1994a) rises to the challenge with practical examples of communication as applied to a range of contexts, from its use at the grassroots to enhance the exchange of ideas, all the way to the policy level.

    Three roles for communication for development

    Röling (1994b) offers a clarifying perspective by proposing three different roles which communication for development can play in natural resource management:

    Making things visible: explaining biophysical information (increasingly with the aim of creating new perspectives rather than transferring pre-packaged solutions);

    Fostering policy acceptance: enacting and promoting policies, (increasingly there is a trend towards interactive policy making rather moving away form persuasive advertising approaches);

    Facilitating platform processes: giving a voice to different stakeholders to engage in platforms where negotiation among different parties can take place with regard to natural resources.

    The third role constitutes the less explored and more promising dimension of communication in the context of sustainable development. Linear transmission of information is no longer the only focus; rather, the orchestration of platforms of negotiation among multiple actors is most important. When speaking about platforms, communication clearly becomes a facilitating force for stakeholder negotiations; if we consider the three roles, communication provides a meeting ground for information exchange, public awareness, and stakeholder negotiation.

    Beyond the rhetoric: communication for development as a meeting ground

    Communication for development is now a field closely associated with the very process of development planning, decision-making, implementation and evaluation. Communication is no longer marginal to the process as a public relations effort. But what does it take to go beyond this rhetoric? How can organizations at all levels put these broad statements into practice. What are the necessary elements for communication to become the meeting ground for sustainable development?

    Necessary conditions for sustainability

    Pretty (1994) suggests that sustainable agriculture is only possible when resource conservation technologies are available, along with local institutions and organizations who in turn are supported by enabling external institutions. These three conditions, however, can only thrive under the umbrella of a supportive policy environment. If we are to focus our attention on the three basic conditions - adequate technologies, local organization, and enabling external institutions - then what is the role of communication for development? In this paper it is argued that communication is an enabling process behind each of the above conditions. Adequate technology can only be developed with the participation of all relevant stakeholders, and this, among other factors, requires a common "language" among them for the exchange of perspectives to participate in technology development (Jiggins & de Zeeuw, 1992; van Velhuizen, 1997). Local organizations and groups capable of acting on sustainable resource management plans require new skills and knowledge that communication for development can enhance. Moreover, they also require a voice to highlight their judgement on priorities and implementation so as to negotiate on equal footing with outsider institutions. Enabling external institutions need to establish a rapport with the local groups to enable a trustful, learning relationship to emerge. Each of these activities requires some form of communication support.

    New professionals, new capacities

    The facilitators of this interaction require the skill and professionalism to articulate this relationship using a range of communication media (Ramírez, 1996). According to FAO (1994d), the types of capacities these new professionals are expected to have include:

    These capacities are very different from those which conventional professionals in development receive during their training. Indeed, the capacities proposed resemble those which NGOs aim to develop within the communities they assist. The following list from the NGO World Neighbours is relevant:

    In fact, we need a new communication professional who is comfortable with the interface between the natural resource disciplines, multiple stakeholders and the management of conflicts among them (Röling, 1994b).

    The knowledge systems perspective

    In addition to the new professionals, the development of appropriate technologies requires input from a number of actors. Ideally, the list should include rural folk, field staff of extension organizations, NGOs, research institutes and, increasingly important in many countries, local municipal authorities. This is especially the case when referring to the management of natural resources and when we are talking about watershed management, rather than single households or farms. Experience has shown that top-down transfer of technologies has proven inadequate for resource-poor areas where rural people face complex environments with site-specific conditions which require site-specific attention. While the transfer of technology model has proven ineffective for these areas, new perspectives and approaches that take heed of the multiple actors with stakes in the use and sustainability of the environment are emerging (Röling, 1988; 1994a,b). One example is the agricultural knowledge and information systems perspective (AKIS) proposed by Röling, and operationalized to work in the context of multiple institutions and actor analysis by Engel & Salomon (1994) in RAAKS (rapid appraisal of agricultural knowledge systems). The approach seeks to identify the social actors involved in natural resource management with the aim of grasping their relationships, analysing them, and coming to agreements on how to modify and improve the networking among the actors. Understanding existing patterns of information exchange is an effective entry point for planning communication activities (Brunold & Scheuermeier, 1996; Subedi & Garforth, 1996). The focus, beyond planning, is towards establishing conditions for learning to take place among the interested parties as learning communities or platforms.

    A recent study in the Philippines made use of a modified version of the above RAAKS approach with a focus on understanding and visualizing farmers' communication networks. The study yielded three major lessons in terms of the use of the role of communication (method), the new roles for field staff (facilitation), and the use of the approach as a management tool for local policy makers:

    Method: mapping communication networks allows for the identification of multiple stakeholders, the determination of the major linkages among them, and uncovers mechanisms and patterns of infor-mation exchange which exist and may be improved. The systematic analysis of linkages leads to redefining the roles of some stakeholders to enhance the overall performance of the communication network.

    Facilitation: there is a need for a new role for the publicly funded extension worker. The farmers proposed a shift in functions: facilitating rather than instructing. The farmers' increasing capacity to demand information, and the analysis of the weak linkages between them and the extension staff, call for these new roles.

    Management tools for [local] policy development: for the municipal officials, the approach provides a tool to assess farmers' needs, identify networks, and seek out those actors with whom to strike agreement for collaboration (Ramírez, 1994; FAO, 1995).

    The above example shows the need for new perspectives to analyse and intervene in complex setting with multiple stakeholders. The approach is an example of a communication tool to establish new learning partnerships to develop resource-conserving technologies. It also demonstrates an approach where communication is used to facilitate platforms of stakeholders, while suggesting new roles for extension staff, and possibly enhancing policy development at a local level. This method has since been further explored in the Philippines by Lawrence (1995) in information systems analysis for agricultural innovation and change, and by den Biggelaar & Mugo (1996) in Kenya for assessing inter-institutional collaboration in agroforestry.

    Communication: facilitating participation

    Communication for development can be an enabling tool for local organizations and groups to gain the confidence, skill and knowledge to become protagonists in sustainable development. As various experiences have demonstrated, a starting point is the use of communication media to help local groups identify problems, document them using traditional or electronic media, and communicate them to local and national authorities. Skill and knowledge exchange at the level of problem identification are crucial to the task of agreeing on plans to overcome problems. There is a growing body of experience in the use of visual media to assist rural, often illiterate groups, to participate in action research and engage in platforms for negotiation. Examples of communication interventions are available where rural groups are invited to:

    The above list of examples is by no means comprehensive and tends to be biased towards action-research, and less so to participatory appraisal. The growing number of organizations with relevant experience in the use of visuals to enhance local groups' voice in development activities - from appraisal, action-research, and evaluation - across different disciplines is impressive (see Bradley, 1995). In this context, the work of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and of the Institute for Development Studies (University of Sussex, Brighton, UK) merit attention with regard to their experience in developing participatory appraisal tools. IIED and IDS are pioneers in the development of participatory rural appraisal (PRA) tools using simple graphics to give rural people a voice. A great deal of relevant literature on practical methods under the overall title of "participatory learning and action" is available from both organizations.

    Efforts are underway to explore participatory development communication. One such research programme in West Africa focuses attention to " horizontal approaches that involve encouraging dialogue centred on problem analysis and a search for solutions, as well as bottom-up approaches that aim to raise the awareness of decision-makers. These approaches are based on a process of community communication. In terms of its overall thrust, the programme takes an interactive and participatory approach that stresses the interrelationships that exist in practice among the main line of action. We call this concept CIME: communication at the grassroots level; the exchange of information; two-way media; and non-formal education." (Bessette & Rajadunderam, 1996, pp. 21-22).

    Institutional and policy dimensions

    The four areas in the IDRC-supported CIME programme are an important clarification of the roles of communication for development; one that closely resembles Röling's (1994b), especially when we refer to the fourth condition outlined by Pretty: enabling external institutions. In the past communication was interpreted as a public relations exercise, or as merely a transfer of technology tool. While communication for development remains an important information delivery tool (see Zijp, 1994 for an insightful summary of the use of information technology for improving the transfer and use of agricultural information), it is the information aspect which tends to dominate the role assigned to communication, especially in governmental organizations (see a recent example in Bangoura, 1996). For instance, video tends to be used by agencies and projects as a means of disseminating packaged solutions produced by experts. Its more powerful dimension, communicating local knowledge and perception, tends to be bypassed as it reveals conflict like no other medium. The role of the Internet may once again reinforce this aspect, unless a true demand-capacity from the grassroots is able to match and select relevant information. On the other hand, the other three dimensions tend to be taken up by other sectors and increasingly by non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

    It remains a challenge to institutionalize these dimensions of communication; as Pretty rightly points out, an enabling policy environment is required. Not only that, but in the case of development communication, the dimensions tend to bypass traditional ministry boundaries. The above CIME programme is relevant as much to a ministry of forestry as it may be to health. In this sense, it is worth signalling that the normative area has not been neglected in this field. Indeed, the Communication for Development Group at FAO has succeeded in orchestrating the development of National Development Communication Strategies in at least two member countries in Africa: Mali and Guinea-Bissau. These efforts are built on the recognition that development communication is a partner to any discipline where information and perspectives need to be exchanged among different stakeholders. These national strategies enable governments to channel resources to communication activities and investments in a coherent manner recognising that communication provides a support to a number of areas including forestry, agriculture, natural resources, health, water and sanitation, nutrition, to name a few. FAO has had ample experience in all continents in trying to institutionalize develop-ment communication units in governments. The success, at best, has been partial and new inter-institutional arrangements with NGOs and possibly the private sector are needed to ensure that all aspects of development communication remain financially viable and at the service of rural development after project financing has been spent.

    Significance in the agricultural and rural context

    The notion of sustainability has led to a better understanding of communication as a development field and to a recognition of its multiple dimensions. A common feature of agricultural extension organizations, however, is the use of communication only for message production and public awareness raising (Pelinck, 1984; Bumatay, 1996, Gangadharappa & Shivamurthy, 1996). Public sector organizations have managed to use communication to facilitate participation and stakeholder platforms. Even where investments have been made in communication to support extension, the tendency has been to focus attention on the media hardware at the expense of the content, software or capacity building (Mody, 1992). Relatively little attention has been dedicated to the relevance of the message to different audiences' predicaments, and more effort has been put into the equipment needed to broadcast the message. The results of these efforts have been, at best, marginal (FAO, 1991a). Given the poor track record of top-down information campaigns, it is surprising that coercive approaches are still advocated in isolation from the other conditions which enable rural population to participate in their own development

    Shifting paradigms

    There is encouraging evidence of a new paradigm in natural resource management which starts with a people-first approach and places great attention on participatory, decentralized planning. Worldwide, participatory approaches in watershed conservation projects are being tested, often with the sobering realization that such efforts need to also include coherent capacity-building, institutional support and conducive policies. An FAO/SIDA review (1989) calls for priority to be given to:

    A more systematic analysis of the roles and impact of different actors in natural resource management is leading the way to a better understanding of who needs to be consulted in developing alternative management strategies.

    Communication for development can become a powerful tool, a meeting ground, for sustainable development when attention is given to:

    A true story

    A paper on communication cannot close with a list of conditions and a framework - it must close with a story, a metaphor, some sort of message for the reader to remember. The following quotation is from a case study which took place in the Arctic in 1981-82 where a conflict arose between the Inuit people of the Canadian far North, and the government biologists. All were concerned with the Kaminurik herd of caribou; each side distrusted the other's judgement on the size of the herd and the practices for its preservation. The creative use of video played a key role in diffusing a volatile situation by bridging enormous gaps in perception and understanding. One story which presents many parallels to conflicts in resource management. The quotation chosen here focuses on the design of the communication intervention, and on those to be credited with its success:

    From the beginning it had been determined that high technical quality and sophisticated production techniques would not be the important features of these videotapes. What was important was the messages the videotapes could pass on that would affect the way in which people perceived the crisis that had built up around the Kaminuriak herd and its future. No matter how important those messages were, they would be of no use if they remained on videotape, unheard and unseen. In the distribution of the videotapes lay the future of the project, and perhaps of the ability and willingness of both parties to the crisis to attempt to approach its resolution from a new perspective - one in which the additional perceptions, information and ideas presented on the videotapes would be added to the process of decision-making.

    The videotape project on its own did not bring about these changes. Native people and unusual civil servants, dedicated to finding a way around the Kaminuriak crisis, were at the root of the changes that occurred. But the communication project was of identifiable assistance, for it helped in replacing emotion with logic, speaking with listening, rhetoric with considered thinking, and ignorance and lack of concern with understanding and caring. In the process both sides retained their sense of dignity; nobody lost and everybody was a winner.

    - Snowden, D.; L. Kusagak & P. Macloed. 1984. The Kaminuriak herd film/videotape project. Case study prepared for the Methods and Media in Community Participation Workshops,
    Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. Uppsala, Sweden, 19-27 May 1984 & Labrador, Canada,
    28 September - 7 October 1984, pp. 14, 18-19.

    This story is communication for development at its best, as a mediation tool to bring different social groups to negotiate around a common resource. Each reader of this paper can ponder what types of individuals and skills, organizations and institutions, methods and media, and policy directives are at their disposal to enhance this sort of excellence.


    An earlier version of this paper was prepared and presented at the World Forestry Congress October 1997 in Antalya, Turkey and published in the proceedings of that Congress. The author wishes to acknowledge the support of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) which provided assistance in the preparation of this paper for that Congress.


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