MAZI Articles

The Irony of Communication for Social Change
by Silvio Waisbord

More than half century after it originally made inroads in international development, the field of “communication for social change” contains a huge trove of experiences.

The implementation and documentation of countless programmes around the world have produced a wealth of valuable insights and lessons. The fact that communication has been at the crossroads of a range of disciplines also accounts for the richness of approaches, concepts, and methodological tools (as well as the confusing alphabet soup of names). From social psychology to social marketing to health education, an array of disciplines and approaches has converged in the field, and continues to inform research and programmes. Since disciplines ask different theoretical questions, the field has gathered around programmatic goals (“how to utilize communication to increase demand for family planning services,” “how to disseminate information about new seeds among farmers”).

Depending on your view, such lineage has been a boon or bane. For some, it is the source of creative eclecticism, a sponge-like disposition to incorporate a variety of theoretical insights and practical lessons. For others, it is the culprit of the conceptual confusion that plagues the field (For starters: Question: “Is it communication or communications?” Hint: Is it political sciences or sociologies?).

Despite its varied intellectual pedigree, communication remains both a well-kept secret and widely misunderstood in international aid programmes.  For non-communication professionals (e.g. medical doctors, government officials, economists, veterinarians, public health experts, agronomists, engineers) with whom I have worked, communication is a unit tucked away in the organizational chart, the office that prints brochures and posters, the creative staff who face the press, the folks in charge of community mobilization during annual events. Running the risk of generalization, one can say that communication is generally viewed as a mix of new technologies, media products, and interpersonal skills.

Although communication has lately gained recognition in some institutional pockets, it remains either largely ignored or boxed in a narrow place.  Everybody who has worked in/with “communication” units of governments, donor agencies, and international organisations tells similar woeful tales.  Communication is expected to act as the propaganda arm of governments to make officials look good through media appearances and other press relations tricks. Communication is primarily asked to build “the brand” to reinforce the visibility of the agency in the eyes of donors and partners.  Communication is tasked with managing public relations crises when institutions are weathering scandals and other controversies. Communication materials are a quick way of spending funds and showing that “we are doing something.”

We could endlessly argue whether such expectations are misplaced (“communication is not what is typically called communication”) or narrowly capture the heterogeneity of the field (“communication is much more than what is typically called communication”). Camps on this debate typically fall into, what can be called, “communitarians” and “ecumenicals.” While “communitarians” believe that what is generally labelled communication is no more than information transmission, “ecumenicals” claim that the umbrella is big enough for everybody whose office has a doorplate that reads “communication.”

For the record, I am communitarian by conviction and ecumenical for pragmatic reasons. Communication and information are not the same. This is not theoretical hair-splitting: it is a substantial distinction between sending information in different formats, and people exchanging ideas and values. However, if we make community dialogue and participation the litmus test for bona fide communication, one quickly runs out of a constituency. For better or worse, communication is rather a catchall category, conceptually complex and flexible, whose ambiguity is impossible to resolve despite several cogent efforts to put old debates to rest. 

Ideological differences aside, there is agreement that communication hardly ranks high among the priorities of development agencies. We have lived through and/or heard the stories. Communication programmes are prime candidates to suffer when budgets are slashed, personnel are reshuffled, and institutional priorities change. They are notoriously understaffed to meet their obligations and support several units and departments. They are chronically underfunded to make substantial and sustainable achievements.

Reasons for these institutional problems boil down to a simple fact: communication functions in organisations and programmes that pursue other goals. For institutions with objectives in health, agriculture, and other “development” sectors, communication circumstantially provides tactical support. It is a guest discipline in fields that are busy reducing human mortality, improving agricultural productivity, supporting economic reformor funding public works programmes. When those goals are paramount, professional training in health, economics and other areas is considered the only qualified expertise. All other skills are auxiliary.

Thus, it is not surprising that in “development” organisations, communication commands as much respect as cocktail piano music among jazz cognoscenti. In bureaucracies where power and prestige are anchored in strict professional criteria (e.g. educational credentials, career paths), communication is generally perceived as another “service” unit. It is seen as either a “soft science” that fails the tests of modern scientific knowledge (sound methodologies? predictability? hard facts?). It is often called an “art,” one of the worst insults that can be hurled in institutions that uphold “the scientific model.” (It should also be admitted that “art” is actually a badge of honour for communication staff who believe that their job, indeed, is an art). Besides, who cares for science when posters and press releases are needed? Can’t anybody come up with a catchy slogan with a clever rhyme?

Such perceptions would be mere anecdotes if they were not as widespread and influential in informing decisions about communication tasks, staff, budget, and evaluation. They are equivalent to assuming that political scientists can design election campaigns, or seismologists can moonlight as television weathermen.

Sadly, the reality of communication as a field of practice in “development” institutions has escaped academic attention. Addressing the question: “What happens when communication thinking hits the road of development programmes” is long overdue in scholarly circles.  Although they are interested in the analytical complexities of communication in/for social change and development, communication scholars have rarely confronted the institutional place of their field. No matter the theoretical merits and groundbreaking ideas of academic research, it is unlikely that it would have any impact as long as communication gets the short end of the stick.

One could endlessly demonstrate the value of interpersonal communication in social networks to adopt new behaviours, the different cognitive impact of message designs and frames, and the sense of empowerment and self-efficacy that results from active participation in community projects. Such theoretical insights, however, are of little practical use if communication officials are responsible for other tasks, are not properly and broadly trained in communication, and rank low in the power pole.

This is the irony of communication in/for social change: Only a trickle of its wide-ranging interests, methodological richness, and documented experiences actually reach the frontlines of development programmes. For a field that sees itself as producing knowledge with practical implications (rather than a pure intellectual exercise only relevant in academic quarters), its silence on the actual conditions of practice is remarkable. Theory and research about communication questions will not make a tangible difference unless expectations about communication in/for development are changed.

Who is at fault for such persistent problems is not as interesting as what to do to resolve the paradox. 

A popular line of reasoning believes that the institutional troubles of communication are rooted in the fact that it has not properly documented its contributions in the language of hard science. Inside the communication community, calls to produce “impact data” have sounded loud in recent years. Justifiably so. After all, who could question the need to show what difference communication makes to programmes? Researchers and practitioners need to collaborate to assess needs, produce data, and identify actions that can, hopefully, help to change existing perceptions.
It is disingenuous, however, to think that only if communication produced impact data, then, its fortunes would be different. Actually, there is no shortage of documented evidence showing that communication programmes, indeed, achieve results.

Further, despite all the serious talk about data-driven decision-making in development programmes, anyone who worked in the field has one or two anecdotes that illustrate that funding, hiring, and programmatic decisions are far from matching the ideal of technical rationality. Programmatic decision-making is not consistently based on evaluation data. Rather, it is subjected to bureaucratic dynamics, personal politics, ideological convictions, available funding, and power hierarchies.

In my experience, champions of communication in development agencies did not come to realize that “communication matters” after being presented with impeccable evidence showing results, cost-effectiveness and programmatic contributions. They were already convinced about the value of communication approaches before a single shred of evidence was submitted. Their own observations, conversations, and broad experience told them that, if programmed correctly, communication had much to offer. No doubt, they would welcome data, especially to advocate for communication among sceptical and fence-sitting colleagues.

What is needed is to change the dominant mindset that reduces communication to assorted materials and activities for relaying the right information to the “beneficiaries” of programmes. Aside from its patronizing premises, such mindset maintains communication as the informational sidekick of technical programmes. The fortunes of communication have been tied to the predominance of a technical mindset that believes that economic, health, or agricultural challenges only require economic, medical, or agricultural expertise. The social sciences may be occasionally invited to play second fiddle under the watchful eye of the expert conductor, or to produce “flavour of the month” ideas.

What to do? One may argue that economic growth, improvement in health services, or agricultural productivity are not simply a matter of technical expertise, but, instead, are rooted in communication processes and social dynamics. Such argument has been eloquently made many times to be fairly summarized here. Just as important as injecting social thinking in fields dominated by narrow technical knowledge is to recognize that institutional mandates and bureaucratic expectations determine the place of communication in/for development.

Communication needs to show why it is relevant for addressing programmatic challenges and supporting development goals.

In this spirit, here I propose an illustrative list of communication tasks:

Advocating for Increased Financial and Institutional Support for Development Initiatives

It is hard to imagine that without the mobilization of social actors, governments and donors would have increased funding for many programmes, such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, in the past years. We are living in times of unprecedented levels of funding in support of “development” objectives. Even if one reasonably questions the motivations of increased funding, its programmatic implications, or effectiveness to spearhead massive social changes globally, the abundance is unquestionable. Decisions to augment development earmarks hardly express magnanimous acts of selfless generosity. Powerful actors, particularly governments, do not give resources away just because it seems right. A combination of relentless grassroots advocacy, high-level lobbying, media events and celebrity appearances has been necessary to raise awareness and arm-twist rich countries to increase international aid. 

Promoting Bottom-up Innovations

Economists who promote the virtues of free markets globally frequently celebrate the genius of local innovators against the risk-aversion, top-down mentality of governments and development agencies. They make calls to support initiatives that unlock the entrepreneurial spirit of populations worldwide.

One does not need to romanticize individuals or demonise the shackles of bureaucracies to recognize the virtues of the notion of “local solutions to local problems.” In fact, communication has long addressed this issue by focusing on the importance of community dialogue to assess problems and determine ways to address problems. Communicative processes facilitate identifying problems, exploring resources, debating courses of action, and so on. Governments and agencies that don’t listen to communities shut out potential grassroots innovations.

Fostering Sustainability

Much has been recently said about sustainability in development programmes, its causes and remedies. The lack of sustainability means that short-term results do not translate into long-term gains. It is often attributed to several well-known factors such as permanent staff rotation and shifting programmatic priorities in government and international agencies. What the former head of program X supported is not what really drives the current administrator. What was an urgent priority yesterday is just a memory today. What we saw last year is not what we see in the work plan for this year.

More than a result of typical bureaucratic dynamics, discontinuity in development efforts reflects weak local ownership. If local actors do not lead the process, programmes typically end without leaving any traces of effective change. If they feel that the initiative is someone else’s project, then, impact is short-lived, and changes do not get “real traction.” Instead, aligning global and local priorities and actions increases the prospects of sustainability. This requires communication at different levels in order to promote local ownership in coordination with global efforts. Through communication, involved parties articulate needs, goals and commitments.

Facilitating Changes in Social Norms

A variety of development programmes struggle with the absence of social norms that could promote and anchor positive changes. Among other reasons, families do not send girls to school because it is not a common practice in their communities. Tax collection is low because, in part, people believe that nobody pays taxes. Corruption is rampant because backhanders assume that is “how things are normally done.” Young men practice unequal gender relations because they believe that they are normal behaviours approved by their peers. Social norms partially explain conceptions about “ideal family size” and “ideal childbirth” practices.

Programmes that focus only on systemic issues (e.g. strengthening school systems, promoting adequate laws, improving health facilities) miss the importance of norms in shaping social practices. Communicative processes underlie the construction, maintenance, and transformation of social norms. Social norms are not simply established, but they are experienced and perceived through communication.  

Expanding the Quality and Reach of Services

The existence of social services with appalling problems is one of the most entrenched and chronic challenges in the global South. Health and educational systems suffer from several shortcomings, such as poor infrastructure, insufficient facilities, few and inadequately trained personnel and so on. Social mobilization helps to raise the visibility of these problems among decision-makers and the media, and bring together relevant stakeholders. It also helps to resolve problems of reach when services are distant from populations, underfunded and poorly managed. It helps to get different social actors (from voluntary organisations to business) to rally behind specific initiatives. Certainly, voluntarism and participation are not always ideal substitutes for well-run services in the long-term. Maintaining steady levels of support is quite challenging. However, they are survival strategies to deliver a minimum of services to socially excluded populations in resource poor-settings plagued by bureaucratic inefficiency.     

These five actions are some examples of how communication effectively supports processes of social change and development goals. Some interventions have already been implemented with relative success. Others lack theory-grounded, evidence-based planning, and remain not fully utilized. All represent opportunities for the field of communication to break away from the informational box and take a broader role in development initiatives.

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