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1. The context of communication for sustainable development

“If development can be seen as a fabric woven out of the activities of millions of people, communication represents the essential thread that binds them together... A development strategy that uses communication approaches can reveal people's underlying attitudes and traditional wisdom, help people to adapt their views and to acquire new knowledge and skills, and spread new social messages to large audiences. The planned use of communication techniques, activities and media gives people powerful tools both to experience change and actually to guide it. An intensified exchange of ideas among all sectors of society can lead to the greater involvement of people in a common cause. This is a fundamental requirement for appropriate and sustainable development.”

Colin Fraser and Jonathan Villet2

In his paper, James Deane notes that the importance of communication in the development process has been acknowledged for many years by the development community. FAO has spent at least 30 years pioneering and promoting – both in thinking and practice – the centrality of communication in development. The most essential ingredient of good communication – putting people at the centre of the communication process – has similarly been understood and documented for many years.

Despite this, James Deane notes that the 2004 Communication for Development Roundtable takes place against a background where resources for communication activities continue to be difficult to mobilize, where strategic thinking and implementation of communication in development are going through a period of some confusion, including within several bilateral and multilateral agencies, and where development organizations continue to find it difficult to put theory into practice in order to put people at the centre of the communication process. It also takes place at a time when the arguments for effective, professional and people-centred communication strategies have arguably never been as compelling.

He points out that one dominant global event since the last Roundtable has shaped almost everything else – the attack on the US on September 11 2001. Never before has communication across boundaries and between cultures been more important, and never before has global security depended on the existence of channels that promote such communication. Arguably those channels have rarely been more fragile. The prevailing context for much development discourse before September 11 was focused on globalization and the associated interdependence and interconnectedness of all peoples, a process fundamentally dependent on and shaped by increasingly rapid flows of information around the world. The events of and following September 11 heralded a marked shift in international political attention away from globalization, a shift accompanied by an increased parochialism in communication channels.

At a time when the international community is so divided, these trends might have been expected to prompt an increase in support for organizations seeking to foster informed public discourse and communication at national and international levels. Much evidence suggests that the contrary has happened. At the international level, many of the main international NGOs dedicated to generating perspectives from developing countries and broader information flows across boundaries and cultures have suffered substantial uncertainty in funding. At the national level, decisions by many donor organizations to provide budget support to governments has often resulted in a shift of resources away from civil society organizations, many of them dedicated to fostering informed dialogue in society.

1.1 The central role of communication in the Millennium Development Goals

The paper notes that the principal strategic reference points for the global development community are the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Nearly all bilateral funding agencies, most multilateral agencies and many NGOs have explicitly aligned their medium- and long-term priorities to meeting the MDGs (see box p.14).

The goal given the highest priority and around which many of the others are focused is to halve the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day by 2015. The principal strategy adopted by the international community to achieve this goal is the development of poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs), a process initially promulgated by the World Bank and increasingly being used by most bilateral development agencies.

At the heart of the PRSP process, and indeed a founding principle informing all the MDGs and allied processes such as the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), is the principle of ownership. The World Bank has repeatedly argued that unless there is a genuine process of ownership of these strategies within countries, and real participation and dialogue with all sections of society in drawing them up, they will fail.

Achieving such ownership requires, as the World Bank itself argues, a major focus on communication. “Participation, the keystone of PRSPs, relies on accurate, consistent and continuous communication that provokes response and encourages debate and dialogue leading to better understanding, the application of issues to one's own circumstances, and participation in all phases of a PRSP”, argues the World Bank in its PRSP source book on communication.3

A frequent complaint made by the communication community over many years, says James Deane, is that communication strategies are designed as an afterthought (rather than integrated from the start into development strategies), are accorded too few resources and implemented with insufficiently trained personnel. Certainly the central development strategy designed to meet the primary development objective of our times – halving poverty by 2015 – appears to back up the complaint. The evidence of the last five years suggests that the level of ownership, participation and public discourse required for PRSPs to be successful requires a fundamental reassessment and reprioritization of the role of communication in meeting the MDGs.

1.2 Beyond Nicaragua: the continuing HIV/AIDS communication debate

The paper continues by looking at the last Communication for Development Roundtable, held in Nicaragua in 2001. This focused explicitly on the theme of HIV/AIDS communication, the success of which is fundamental to meeting the MDG of halting the spread of HIV by 2015. The Roundtable welcomed the revitalized energy and funding being devoted to the HIV/AIDS pandemic and issued a declaration designed to capture the main conclusions of the meeting. Roundtable participants were both explicit and candid in their assessment that communication strategies had, for many various reasons, failed in preventing the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

UN International Development Goals by 2015

  1. Eradicate extreme  poverty and hunger

Reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day

Reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger
  1. Achieve universal  primary education

Ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling
  1. Promote gender equality and empower women

Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education preferably by 2005, and at all levels by 2015
  1. Reduce child mortality

Reduce by two thirds the mortality rates for infants and children under five
  1. Improve maternal health

Reduce by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio
  1. Combat HIV/AIDS,  malaria and other  diseases

Halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS

Halt and begin to reverse the incidence of malaria and other major diseases

  1. Ensure environmental sustainability

Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes reverse the loss of environmental resources

Reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water

Achieve significant improvement in the lives of at least 100  million slum dwellers, by 2020
  1. Develop a global partnership for development

Open trading system, special needs of least developed countries (LDCs), debt, employment, access to medicines, ICTs

Since the last Roundtable the response to HIV/AIDS has continued to develop rapidly and its influence is clearly discernible in several important developments. UNICEF has been pioneering a new communication for social change programme (also known as communication from a human rights perspective) in Eastern and Southern Africa, particularly in Ethiopia and Zambia. The Rockefeller Foundation decided in 2003 to take forward its work in this field by supporting the establishment of the Communication for Social Change Consortium. The Panos Institute published a major appraisal of communication programming entitled Missing the message: 20 years of learning from HIV/AIDS. This has been downloaded more than 100,000 times from the Panos website, indicating a massive interest in the field. Dozens of other examples exist of a move towards more social change approaches to communication in relation to HIV by a broad spectrum of organizations.

Despite this, says James Deane, there remains a significant sense of strategic confusion related to HIV communication. Much of the debate at the last Roundtable focused on the need for long-term strategies which integrated both behaviour and social change approaches, and a shift towards developing communication strategies that provide people with a voice as well as sending them a message. While there are important statements and expressions of intention by funding agencies, there is only occasional evidence that funding patterns and expenditure of resources have decisively altered to reflect this shift.

Recent intense discussions at the XV International Conference on AIDS in Bangkok, on the US government's insistence that its funds be focused on promoting an ABC approach (abstinence, being faithful, using a condom), demonstrated the continued disagreement on the most effective prevention and communication approaches to HIV/AIDS.

There has nevertheless clearly been a significant change of emphasis in the discourse on communication strategies related to HIV/AIDS, a shift clearly reflected in a new DFID strategy on HIV/AIDS published in July 2004.

“Top-down information campaigns are rarely as effective as more interactive media such as soap opera and theatre, where complex issues and differing views and perspectives can be fully explored and public debate encouraged... Behaviour change, and other communication programmes, supported by a positive policy environment, can be an effective part of HIV control strategies and should be properly integrated into national HIV/AIDS control programmes. They need a coordinated approach to communication involving government, local and national media and civil society.”4

The paper notes that an increasingly urgent issue for communication practitioners and thinkers on HIV/AIDS, when change is so rapid and debate so intense around different communication and prevention approaches, is that there is so little coordination internationally of communication approaches. There has been very limited coordination capacity on communication within UNAIDS for several years, and coordination capacities of other UN bodies on HIV/AIDS have also been reduced at headquarters level. Many important lessons of communication have been learned over 20 years in the response to HIV/AIDS, but these lessons are arguably not being applied as well as they could because there exists so little focus on communication coordination.

1.3 Information and communication technologies

James Deane continues by pointing out that the paper prepared for the 2001 Roundtable focused heavily on the increasing international attention being given to the potential of ICTs in development, highlighting in particular international reports, initiatives and meetings.

These included the UNDP Human Development Report of 2001, the Global Knowledge Conference in Kuala Lumpur in 2000 and subsequent action plan, the G8 DOT Force (Digital Opportunities Task Force) and the UN ICT Task Force. The Millennium Development Goals make a specific reference to ICTs, committing the international community “In cooperation with the private sector, [to] make available the benefits of new technologies – especially information and communication technologies”.

The most important event since the last Roundtable – and perhaps the largest meeting ever held on communication and development – was the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) held in December 2003. WSIS, and its preparatory committee meetings, created an opportunity for a major debate on the role of information and communication technologies in tackling poverty. The greatest challenge for the Summit, according to the official declaration, was to “harness the potential of information and communication technology to promote the development goals of the Millennium Declaration”.

WSIS was a major event bringing together more than 11,000 people. The preparatory process to the Summit was characterized by a strong engagement from developing countries, but the meeting suffered from two major constraints. The first was the credibility of the Summit process itself among important potential stakeholders, particularly donors and private sector organizations. The second was the debate over the engagement of civil society itself, with increasing frustration felt by civil society organizations at the lack of access to and interaction with the governmental process.

As a result, question marks surround the extent to which the declaration of the WSIS represents a fundamental breakthrough and clear multi-stakeholder consensus. The critical ingredients for the success and credibility of global policy processes, particularly a dynamic interplay between government, private and civil society sectors, is lacking, and limited concrete consensus exists among governments, particularly between Northern and Southern governments.

How wide is the divide?

The digital divide, the main issue designed to be addressed by WSIS, remains stark but its character is changing. According to a recent report from the ITU,5 “sub-Saharan Africa has about 10 percent of the world's population (626 million) but 0.2 percent of the world's one billion telephone lines. Comparing this to all low-income countries (home to 50 percent of the world's population but only 10 percent of its telephone lines), the penetration of phone lines in sub-Saharan Africa is about five times less that than in the average low-income countries... 50 percent of the available lines are concentrated in capital cities where only about 10 percent of the population lives”.

The spread of mobile telephony has been extraordinarily rapid. In Uganda, the number of mobile phone users has multiplied 131 times in six years – although most of this growth has been in urban areas.6 Taking Africa as a whole, last year more than 13 million people were added to the mobile phone network. The ITU report also argues that existing statistics almost certainly underestimate access to both mobile telephony and Internet in developing countries.

The same report also argues that “radios increasingly fall into the category of having achieved universal service... Televisions too are on the way to being ubiquitous in many countries. The biggest stumbling block to penetration of these ICTs in the lowest income nations appears to be electricity.”7

However, there is a very long way to go for new ICTs to even begin to approach a level of universal service or access. Even the radio remains a minority medium in some countries. The Hoot website in India,8 a respected and often irreverent commentator on media and communication issues in the country, claimed recently that: “India may be shining but 81 percent of rural households in our country still cannot afford to buy even a black and white television set. And 68 percent of rural households do not own a radio or transistor set. So while TV may give a lot of coverage at election time, millions of voters will not see any of it.”9


WSIS and communication societies

“We aspire to build information and communication societies where development is framed by fundamental human rights and oriented to achieving a more equitable distribution of resources, leading to the elimination of poverty in a way that is non-exploitative and environmentally sustainable. To this end we believe technologies can be engaged as fundamental means, rather than becoming ends in themselves, thus recognising that bridging the Digital Divide is only one step on the road to achieving development for all. We recognise the tremendous potential of Information Communications Technologies (ICT) in overcoming the devastation of famine, natural catastrophes, new pandemics such as HIV/AIDS, as well as the proliferation of arms.

We reaffirm that communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and a foundation of all social organizations.

We envision an information and communication society in which technologies are designed in a participatory manner with and by their end-users so as to prevent or minimise their negative impacts.”

Civil Society Declaration to the World Summit on the Information Society,
unanimously adopted by the WSIS Civil Society Plenary on 8 December 2003

1.4 ICTs: potential and strategic trends

The paper points out that considerable excitement and interest continues to surround the potential of ICTs. This large and complex field is the subject of many conferences and reports – strategic trends are accordingly difficult to summarize but a number have emerged:

The steady dissolution of the distinction between old and new technologies:
increasingly the focus of debate on ICTs has moved towards assessing the importance of new technologies alongside existing communication technologies, particularly radio, and other communication channels.

Significant resources have been mobilized for deployment of ICTs and many donors have prioritized ICTs, but questions remain about the sustainability of many ICT projects, and the connection between action plans and action.

A growing focus on the broader policy and social environment, and creating a healthy environment for ICTs and other communications to flourish is apparent: this complements approaches to directly invest in specific projects such as telecentres etc.

The digital divide remains real but its character is perhaps beginning to become as much one between rural and urban, and rich and poor within countries, as between countries. The bottom line is that interpersonal communication, even in some of the poorest countries, is proliferating exponentially and both Internet and mobile telephony are contributing to profound social change within countries – perhaps even faster than anticipated.

1.5 Media in developing countries

James Deane points out that while debates over the impact and potential of new communication technologies and the digital divide have dominated international discourse on communication in the international arena over recent years, another information revolution has been developing. For the almost three billion people on the planet who earn less than two dollars a day, it is the structure, ownership, content and reach of the media that is having the most profound impact. The most important trends shaping the media landscape over the last five years have been threefold.10

First, a thoroughgoing liberalization and commercialization of media over the last decade in many parts of the world has led to a much more democratic, dynamic, crowded and complex media landscape. This is opening up new spaces for public discourse and civic engagement, particularly in the field of radio; and to a more commercial, advertising-driven media where information and power divides within developing countries and between rich and poor, urban and rural are growing.

Second, growing concentration of media ownership – at the global, regional and national levels – is squeezing out independent media players and threatening to replace government-controlled concentration of media power with a commercial and political one.

Third, developing countries are increasingly reliant on powerful northern news providers, such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Reuters and Cable News Network (CNN), for their international news and information, particularly on stories of globalization, trade and international politics. In newly democratic countries in the South, and particularly within civil society, there is growing frustration at the Southern media's dependence on what are perceived to be partial, biased or at least fundamentally Northern-centric news organizations for international coverage and the setting of news agendas.

When viewed from the perspective of Communication for Development, a growing crisis may be emerging, marked by a collapse of public-interest media. The new market-driven media has brought innovation, dynamism and often greatly enhanced democratic debate. But evidence is growing that, as competition intensifies, content is increasingly being shaped by the demands of advertisers and sponsors, and an increasingly intense focus on profitability. The result is a more urban-biased, consumer-oriented media which has diminishing interest in or concern for people living in poverty.

The Ugandan radio revolution

Uganda provides an example of the complexities of this revolution. Little more than a decade ago the country had two radio stations, both based in Kampala. Today it has almost 100, mostly commercial, FM radio stations across the country. Talk shows and particularly the Ekimeeza – hugely popular talk shows where as many as 400 people gather to take part in broadcast debates – have provided some of the most compelling programming. However, early enthusiasm for these developments is being tempered by growing fears of both political and economic interference. Newspaper editors have come under increasing pressure from the government when publishing unpopular stories, a draconian new anti-terrorism law was passed in the wake of September 11 making it a capital offence to publish material deemed to be promoting terrorism, and earlier this year several radio stations suspended broadcasting when the government clamped down on non-payment of license fees. Moreover, overall there is an increasing focus across the sector on profitability.


Legal and regulatory framework

“The legal and regulatory framework remains the single most important obstacle to the establishment of community-based broadcasting. What is needed is the removal of legal and regulatory barriers where they exist. In Indonesia, the media were strongly controlled by the government until the fall of the Suharto regime. Then the centralized system was replaced by a system where the power was very diffuse, and the law ceased to be effectively enforced. So community-based stations mushroomed all over the country, sometimes without authorization, sometimes with quasi-authority. Today there are hundreds, and the government is recognizing this and introducing a law to establish community radio licenses.

Given the removal of barriers, people set up their own radio stations very quickly with very few resources. But a completely deregulated environment can produce media monopolization, as is the case in Italy.”

Steve Buckley, President, AMARC

The paper points out that Communication for Development organizations and practitioners are beginning to adjust to the new environment. DJs are becoming as important as journalists in bringing development issues to public attention. Indeed, journalism as a profession is dramatically changing and concepts such as “development journalism” are arguably under siege. Journalists themselves who want to explore and investigate development stories – particularly issues affecting those from outside the capital – are finding it more and more difficult to get either resources or attention from their editors.

Communication strategies are changing in other ways too. A decade ago it was often possible to reach an entire population through a partnership with one monopoly government broadcaster, enabling the widespread dissemination of messages on development issues, as well as soap operas and agricultural extension programmes. An increasingly crowded and fragmented media environment, together with the cuts in budgets and other pressures facing many former monopoly broadcasters, mean that such dissemination is more difficult.

Many development agencies are responding to the new commercialized media market by actively entering it, and some of the most consistent customers for some radio stations are development organizations and donors.

The Changing Communication Environment


  • Vertical communication – from government to people
  • Unipolar communication systems
  • Few information sources
  • Easy to control – for good (generating accurate information to large numbers of people) and ill (government control and censorship)
  • Send a message


  • Horizontal communication – from people to people
  • Communication networks
  • Many information sources
  • Difficult to control – for good (more debate, increased voice, increased trust) and ill (more complex, issues of accuracy)
  • Ask a question

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