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Dialogic Approaches to Development: Beyond Media and Messages

In the emerging participatory paradigm in development some of the greatest scholars, thinkers and communication practitioners come from developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. One in particular has greatly influenced the field of communication for development, as it has emerged in recent years: Paulo Freire. It is important to acknowledge his influence in this particular branch of communication because he might not be so well known to communication specialists across the board since he is a renowned educator rather than a specialist in communication.

In 1973 Freire wrote an article titled “Extension or Communication”. In that article he clearly illustrated the difference between extension, which can be mostly identified with almost any kind of monologic approach, and communication. That is why in this blog, while referring to Freire’s original analysis, I use the term monologic instead of extension, which he considers closely associated with concepts such as transmission, cultural invasion and even domination. In comparing and confronting the differences between extension/monologic and dialogic approaches, Freire started from a semantic analysis of the terms, moving then to a more operational analysis of the practical implications of the two.

Monologic approaches almost automatically define the recipients as passive audiences, incapable of critically viewing and questioning relevant issues. In the development context, monologic approaches consider people – especially peasants and other vulnerable groups – as ignorant, thus justifying a vertical communication model where change is decided or imposed by those at the top.

In some of his publications Freire divides communication into dialogic and anti-dialogic, rather than monologic. This is due to his belief that change – people’s empowerment and education – can only occur through dialogue. Adults do not learn simply by accepting what somebody else is lecturing on. People learn by reflecting and participating in situations they are actively involved.

Hence, dialogic communication is the essential ingredient to define, change and transform reality. That change can only occur through people’s active involvement and people’s involvement occurs through dialogic approaches. The implications of such a perspective for development are clear. If we want to ensure sustainable change, no stakeholders can be left out of the design and implementation of an initiative.

This implies that three major requirements be met:

  1. It is not necessary that everybody participate, but it is crucial that everybody has the opportunity to participate;
  2. Decisions shaping the design and implementation of the initiative should be made through a joint process, where knowledge and viewpoints of external experts be combined with those of local stakeholders;
  3. Communication should not be used simply, or mostly, to transmit information, but rather to generate new knowledge in a problem-solving mode (i.e., moving from monologic to dialogic communication).

In many instances, dialogic approaches would not be easy to apply, given the current structures and processes of development. Nevertheless this is the direction development initiatives are increasingly taking. Such approaches can be even more crucial for the area of governance, where key aspects such as transparency and accountability can hardly be achieved merely by relying on the good intentions of those having the responsibility of implementing the laws and procedures (e.g., government officials and public servants).

The receiving side (i.e., citizens) would also have to be active and vigilant to ensure that mechanisms and processes are transparent and that the relative authorities are held accountable for their decisions. Even if all of this needs both types of communication  (monologic and dialogic) to inform citizens as well as to provide feedback and make them active players in all issues related to governance, dialogic communication is key to ensure results and citizens’ empowerment leading to the sustainability of those results.

Photo Credit: Flickr user bbcworldservice

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