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(Development) Communication: The Lubricant for Running the Development Engine Smoothly

Paolo Mefalopulos's picture

The third of the ten key issues about development communication is a crucial one and it asserts that there is a significant difference between development communication and other types of communication. What is the difference and why is important? Let us start by defining communication’s most renowned function; i.e. informing audiences and/or trying to persuade them to change attitudes or behavior. Communication is almost exclusively identified this way. However, the interdisciplinary area of development communication is not exclusively and not even primarily about information or persuasion.

Similarly, when using communication in governance, the first thought is often is about how to use media to inform audiences or how to guarantee public access to information. The underlying model here is the one of “sender-message-channel-receiver.” Not many managers will think to adopt communication to engage the public sphere; i.e. as a way to stimulate dialogue, explore issues with stakeholders or engage in open discussion about the best available options. In other words, not many will think of adopting a true development communication approach (which, by the way, has been proven over and over again to be the most effective in ensuring ownership and sustainability of development initiatives).

Many, too many managers, especially those with a journalism background, only consider communication as a means to inform people about certain activities, promote projects, diffuse crises and promote behavior changes that are perceived as being beneficial for the outcomes of development initiatives. But few, too few, seem keen to reflect upon why this use of communication (which was the dominant approach in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and in part in the 1990s) does not achieve the expected results, nor does it significantly improve the lives of the poor, nor does it enhance the sustainability of development projects.

The reasons for those failure have been extensively studied. There is a consistent body of literature indicating that most of the failures of past initiatives are to be ascribed to a number of factors, such as poor formulation of objectives, flawed program design (usually top-down), opposition by local groups, lack of political support and many others, all of which could be traced to a major factor: the lack of involvement of local stakeholders throughout the process.

People’s participation is, or should be, the engine of any development initiative. And if people are the engine, communication is the lubricant allowing the the engine to function smoothly, so that people are not simply informed but also actively engaged in the decision-making process. Too many development specialists look with fascination at the engine of the “development car” and want to drive it as it is, without any considerations for the lubricant. But if you ever try to drive a car that way, you won’t get very far. Past experiences indicate that projects designed and implemented without two-way communication are equivalent to cars driven with no lubricant - they are bound to fail!

In recent years, awareness about the shortcomings of development initiatives that do not engage stakeholders caused a major rethinking of the development paradigm, placing a higher emphasis on participation, empowerment and rights -based approaches. The new paradigm has also affected the field of communication, even though many decision-makers and even some communication managers still fail to fully appreciate the implications of this shift. They seem unwilling to let go of the safety net of centrally controlled corporate communication messaging in favor of the more horizontal, open and less predictable operational approach driven by dialogue.

Let us go back to the initial statement and clearly state that one of the major differences between development communication and other types of communication consists in its focus on listening rather than talking, in understanding rather than explaining, in exploring rather than prescribing, in dialogue rather than one-way persuasion.

Even though development communication specialists often use one-way approaches for raising awareness or for media campaigns to promote behavior changes, they should always make sure that the objectives of their initiatives have been set in cooperation with key stakeholders. This approach is not only “politically correct,” it is also the best way to prevent problems and conflicts and ensure long-term sustainability of development. Unfortunately, involving stakeholders in the decision-making process can present a higher degree of complexity, demand more flexibility and require a bit of extra time, factors that often seem to constitute a major obstacle for the adoption of this approach.

It should also be noted that when development communication is adopted from the start it is likely to prevent problems rather than having to solve them, making it difficult to acknowledge its contribution (how does one get acknowledged for something that did not happen?). Could this be one of the main reasons that have contributed to so many managers’ difficulty  to understand and embrace the value of development communication and shift from “a crisis-management” solving mode (getting rewarded if the crises is diffused) to a “better-design” preventive mode (without acknowledgment when successful because nothing happens)?

Photo credit: Flickr User kevindooley


Submitted by Silvia Balit on
I am enjoying reading your issues. This one that refers to devcom as the lubricant required for good development is particularly original and very appropriate. Going back to the definition of a communicator, and Ramiro Beltran's suggestion that we use the wording "communicologist", I would instead tend to differ. The term is too difficult. Already policy makers do not understand the meaning of communication for development, without using such difficult terminology.However I agree with the content you described.

Submitted by Daniele on
PAOLO good luck This is a great post, my past, my present, my future. Thanks

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