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Defining Communication

Paolo Mefalopulos's picture

As a first-time blogger on this site, I will focus on bringing experiences and reflections on how communication plays a key role in initiatives related to governance, a role even more fundamental than that played in other kinds of development programs. Before digging more into this, I would like to illustrate and hopefully clarify one term that, due to its broad and multifaceted connotation, is used too frequently in an ambiguous manner: communication. Most dictionaries and basic textbooks define communication basically as the act of sending messages or, more specifically as a sender transmitting messages through channels to one or more receivers.

Very few textbooks, if any, would define communication as a two-way process not used exclusively to send message or pass information, but to explore, discover and generate knowledge and consensus. And yet, the semantic root of the word communication is the same as in communion and community and it is about sharing.

Adopting such a conception would have important implications in many dimensions of social life, especially in the development context. It would imply that communication should not be restricted to informing people and persuading them to change certain attitudes or behaviors, but it should be used also to facilitate dialogue, build trust and ensure mutual understanding. This might not seem much to policy- and decision-makers used to measuring development effectiveness in terms of quantitative outputs, but without trust, mutual understanding and broad consensus no durable change can be achieved or sustained.

Good governance can be achieved and sustained only through building a wide consensus and agreement about the interests, duties and rights of all parties. This can only happen through two-way communication. Such communication, also referred as dialogic communication, and its effects are more difficult to control and predict than one-way, or monologic, communication approaches where the objectives and the outputs are set from the start, needing little or no flexibility for adjustments due to other stakeholders’ input. That is why dialogic communication can raise concerns among those who would like to have everything under control. However, in governance initiatives, where transparency and accountability are key, both monologic and dialogic communication need to be used strategically. Indeed, dialogic communication is fundamental to establishing and maintaining a functional public sphere.

Photo Credit: Eric Miller (World Bank)


Submitted by Rezwan Alam on
I couldn't be too enthusiastic after reading Paolo's piece. He is too idealistic, or chose to ignore ground realities. I've developed the shortest definition of communication, after working on this field for more than six years: communication is what bosses say is. Full stop. Also learned that big is weak in communication. We have tried in vein to brand communication as God-term, sadly, it has now lost its charm. It's merely a tool to control people.

Submitted by Paolo on
Communication can be conceived and applied in many different ways. For the last twenty years, my field of work and my passion has been participatory communication, I have witnessed what happens when two-way communication is applied in practice. I know many individuals who have done it and I have done it myself. That is not to say that it is easy, nor that it is widely accepted. The conception of communication I posted can be considered in some ways 'normative', meaning that it provides a broad definition of what communication can and should be rather than simply as what it is. However, change occurs only when we try to improve something that is not currently happening. I share your concern about the frustrations in dealing with a hierarchy that does not always understand the potential of genuine communication (i.e. two-way communication). In more than one instance I had to strongly make the case with managers about the value of this approach and I didn't always win that case, but whenever two-way communication was adopted, managers, decision-makers and other stakeholders have seen the value of this broader more dialectical conception of communication. Rezwan raises an issue that might be worthwhile exploring in another blog: what is the role of the professional communicator? I cannot, and nobody working in the development context should, accept the fact that communication be used to control people (even if this has occurred or is still occurring in some cases). Actually I believe the opposite; i.e. dialogical communication is a process that helps building trust, exploring new issues, mitigating conflict, empowering stakeholders and generating new knowledge. It is not an easy task, but it is possible, as a number of studies have highlighted and as I have also found in my own experiences before coming to the World Bank, working in projects in Africa and Latin America. To further explore this issue I would suggest some readings of Paulo Freire, a scholar and practitioner who has explored this issue in an extremely powerful way.

I've never blogged here goes. An interesting blog Paolo. I am a fervent advocate and supporter of social learning, dialogue-based participatory communications and learning. The one frustration that I currently have working with social learning, participatory/dialogue communication (at Copenhagen University and in the field - where I am currently heading-up the field testing of the World Bank's Communications Toolkit for HIV/AIDS in the Transport sector across Asia and the Pacific) concerns an assumption that is all too frequently made by development sector planners and donors. Many planners don't take into account the need for the 'professional communicators' to which you refer in your last message: the people with the ability and skills to manage and facilitate true social learning-based communication activities or approaches. There is an assumption that because we inherently engage in participatory communication and dialogue as part of our everyday lives, we and our colleagues around the world should all be able to facilitate communication activites which bring about sustained behavioural change or maintenance. We can all count but that doesn't make us epidemiologists. The value of communicators with these skills is tremendous, yet the importance of training and investment in capacity building with the field of participatory communication seems very much ignored. I just wondered what your opinion was on this Paolo.

Submitted by Paolo on
Dear Robb, I couldn’t agree with you more. Many managers and decision-makers believe in the assumption that since all human beings can communicate, everybody can use communication effectively in any sort of situation. In a book I wrote on development communication, which has been recently published by the World Bank, I have a section about ten key issues on communication that planners and donors should be aware of. One of them begins by clearly stating ‘There is a sharp difference between everyday communication and professional communication.’ Facilitating dialogue in a professional manner is both an art and a science, which needs a set of well-defined body of knowledge and set of skills. Unfortunately, this is not always understood and applied in the development context. On a similar note, there is also another assumption which I also find widespread and with negative implications for this field. It is the belief that any person with a communication background can perform effectively in any other area of communication, but this is not so. A journalist can hardly be the best person to manage a communication process in a community-drive-development, a participatory communication specialist would not be the best choice to write a press release and a corporate communication specialist might not be the most appropriate person to design a health campaign. Nevertheless, as I stated in my previous reply to another reader, I believe it is part of any development communication professional to challenge the status quo and promote a more appropriate and broader vision of communication, conceived and applied also as a means to enhance capacities and empowered stakeholders throughout the whole process of a development initiative.

Submitted by Peter on
I have read with keen interest the subject of defining communication. I have been a communication practitioner in Rwanda for the last 13 years. What I have observed that reforms especially in the public sector often fail because they are not backed by a well crafted communication message. The process is equally important as the product, therefore the targets of any reform cannot be achieved without support from clearly articulated communication objectives, results and activities. I wish to salute Paolo for stimulating my mind and hope to see more input in this regard.

Submitted by Paolo on
Peter's posting is an insightful one, especially because coming from somebody using communication in the field. I would only like to comment I agree that crafting messages is a very important and skillful task, which however is highly dependable from how well and relevant the objectives have been defined. Even most effective messages are likely to fail if the objective of a project or program is not clearly identified, defined and agreed upon by relevant stakeholders. Hence, I think the most important point highlighted in Peter's posting is that no sustainable results can "be achieved without support from clearly articulated objectives." And I am sure many readers not so familiar with field work in communication would be surprised to find out how often communication objectives , which should be the foundation of any strategy, are often neglected, wrongly identified or poorly defined. Best

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