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Why Sound Technical Solutions Are Not Enough: Part I

Paolo Mefalopulos's picture

Recently I was invited to hold the XI Raushni Deshpande Oration at the Lady Irwin College in New Delhi, India. This blog is a summary and a reflection of that presentation. As it can be inferred from the title, the focus is on why so many development initiatives have failed in the past and many are still failing in the present. Why after all these years, after all the money poured in, all the construction being made and all the resources dedicated to address this issue, are latrines still not being used in many places? Or they are used but not for the intended purpose? And why are bed nets aimed at preventing malaria adopted even when they are easily available? And many more ‘why’s’ such as these could be added to the list.

Modernization theory has been the driving force behind development initiatives for several decades. The intrinsic belief behind modernization is that any problem can be solved provided the right method is followed and the ‘right’ (technical) solution is identified and devised. Despite the significant, if not huge, amount of resources invested in helping developing countries, despite the top experts that have worked in this field, and despite the many innovations that had been devised, experimented and then applied in the field by centers of excellence of the most advanced countries, the results have been less than satisfactory. Why? Of course there are many factors that should be taken into account in order to give an exhaustive list of answers. However, in this post we shall focus primarily on one of the factors, which in my opinion is one of the most crucial and often neglected ones. Let’s name it the human factor.

The lack of local people’s involvement in the decision-making process has probably been the weakest element in the modernization paradigm. Despite the fact that technical solutions have always to be endorsed and adopted by people, they were mostly considered as passive recipients of initiatives (when not as major obstacle to development). The positivist-based assumption that when there is a problem there is always one and only one solution, has been proven wrong over and over again. A simple example I describe in one of my books is the one whereby a group of technical experts visit a rural village in India and spend a whole day observing and assessing the situation. They observed that women had to walk almost a mile to go and wash clothes by the nearby river. So one of the recommendations of the technical team was to build a well within the village where women could wash without having to walk to the river. That seems like a perfect solution to the identified problem!

When the evaluation team returned after a year, they noted that the well had been built, but they were surprised to see that despite the fact that the well seemed to be operational, it was rarely used and women were still walking to the river to do the washing. When probing the reasons for what they considered to be a bizarre behaviour, they realized that it had a perfectly logical explanation. In that community, as in many others, women had to perform many heavy chores, most of them in isolation. One of the few moments in which they could spend time and talk to each other was the “washing of the clothes.” They didn’t mind having to walk to the river as long as they could spend some time chatting among themselves. What they had considered as a socializing moment and an opportunity to get away from heavy daily chores done in isolation, was perceived as a problem by outside experts. Having a dialogue with villagers, women in particular, would have highlighted this issue and prevented the implementation of an initiative of little use to the villagers.

The main role of communication, as conceived in the modernization paradigm, was that of using information, properly packaged and disseminated, to change behaviours. It has now become quite clear that information, even if technically relevant and factually correct, is not enough to persuade individuals to change behaviours. If it had been enough all tobacco companies would have all gone bankrupt by now. Most smokers are well aware of the health hazards of smoking. Then why do so many of them still smoke and why do development initiatives still continue to rely on information-dissemination, media-centric, approaches to change behaviours, despite the fact that their effectiveness has been proven to rather limited? Maybe the answer lies in a statement by one of my college professors, and a philosophy scholar, father Ermanno Ponzalli, who used to say that there is nothing more irrational than to think that humans are rational beings.

Let us now illustrate more in detail some of the way communication has evolved in the development context. As mentioned earlier, communication has been often identified with media and messages. Two basic models of reference, which date back to the late 1940s and early 1950s can be seen in Lasswell’s five questions formula: Who? Says what? In which channel? To whom? With what effect? The other model is Berlo’s S-M-C-R, where a Source would transmit Message/s through appropriate Channel/s to a multiplicity of Receivers. This model envisions communication as a linear flow and assumes a strong link between the message and the human reaction to that message. Control is strongly in the hand of the source, who could also manipulate the message. The receivers on the other hands had a passive role, as also indicated by the way they have been usually defined: target audiences.

Clearly, neither of these were very participatory nor even ‘democratic’ models. The use of the word “target” evokes images of war and people being bombed rather than that of people talking to each other. This does not come as a surprise to Dr. Liano Angeli (2010), an Italian scholar and development practitioner, who points out how this linear communication model originated in the military and was often used for propaganda purposes. By originating in a military structure, which is one of the most top-down social structures, such a model implicitly carries the birthmark linked with that structure, primarily the expectation that information passed from the top to the bottom, mostly in the form of orders, would be acted upon accordingly. The guiding principle here is to be in control of the message, which, once skilfully crafted, is expected to cause a predictable action/behaviour. This is probably the greatest flaw of the model. The assumption that media and information could directly and easily cause people to act or react as intended, regardless of the context, has been proven wrong over and over again.

Up to this point we have seen how communication has been conceived and used mostly as a way to inform and persuade people. Now we are highlighting how the conception has changed focusing on the process that adopts communication to engage people, sharing and generating knowledge. In this respect, communication can be said to be the key element to ensure the successful achievement of two key concepts of current development practices: participation and empowerment. To do this, communication needs to be conceived and applied in a dialogic way, abandoning the reductive conception of communication as the act of transmitting messages through media. Since communication is still commonly associated with the linear top-down conception, from this point on I will use the terms dialogue or dialogic communication to define approaches within the new development paradigm.


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Photo Credit: © Arne Hoel/The World Bank (on Flickr)


Submitted by Anonymous on
I think that this article is absolutely correct. The thing that scares me is that this topic of dialogic communication in development to bring about empowerment has been advocated for in the academic and development community for years, yet the Bank is still talking about it like it's a new concept. I'm sure the author of this blog is aware of that, and I'm not questioning that. But I think it's important to point out how behind the Bank is on these issues.

Yes, I agree with you that the Bank, differently from other international organizations and major donors (for instance the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) does not seem to have full understood the importance of communication approaches to promote social and behaviour change. Communication in the Bank is mainly seen as an outreach activity to inform the public and donors about the Bank mission, activities and results. However, there is plenty of evidence that even the best technical or economic innovations are rarely, if ever, adopted without an effective, and professionally executed srategy addressing the root causes, motivation and appeals that will promote change. The Bank does not seem to have fully understood this. I remain confident that it will gradually and increasingly acknowledge this and put more emphasis on development communication, if they are to promote long-lasting sustainable results.

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