In my posts so far, I have offered skepticism about the larger claims made on behalf of new media and ICT in development. I have suggested that old media (especially face to face communication) still plays a dominant role, and that there is little evidence that new media can be used to deliberately shift social norms. In gauging the impact of new media, we might be better off looking at technologies that lie behind the obvious new communications media, such as GreatFire’s work to evade Chinese internet censorship.
Yet it would not do to be unduly pessimistic. That communication is key is not in doubt; that technology has the power to alter and extend the potentialities of communication is equally certain. As my peers on this blog (1, 2) and on other MAH ComDev blogs (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) have shown, there are a host of projects that give reason for optimism. If I am sometimes a criticism of C4D as a field, it is because I believe so strongly that if done right, it can succeed. It can bring the change we need to see – and the vital intersection between communication and activism may be the area that would benefit most from that success. But it can only do so if it is done right; too often, for now, it is not.
What would a better approach look like? How should we approach C4D, and where do we fail at present? A better C4D would be more sober, and more resistant to hype. It would retain its agility in reacting to new trends, but do so with a greater historical groundedness that avoids praising ideas for their novelty alone. The academic field would take more seriously the daily pressures of practitioners, and practitioners would find better ways of putting into practice the ideals to which they subscribe, even as they are busy getting the job done. Above all, C4D would drop its reflexive opposition to quantitative methods, conceding that to oppose all impact evaluations is no better than the arch-positivists who reject all qualitative work; mixing methods is the only route to truth.
Communication for Development can be like that; it is not a chimera. In fact, works along these lines do exist. Amanda Taub’s edited volume, ‘Beyond #Kony2012’ is a shining example (Taub, 2012). It is clearly written, with contributions from both academics and practitioners – including political scientists, anthropologists, lawyers, journalists, activists and photographers, both from Uganda and elsewhere. It draws on all the expertise and deep knowledge of academia, but distils that into clear advice for practitioners. An e-book published just a handful of months after the video phenomenon to which it responds, it is a model of the agility of the C4D field – yet it also offers a careful historical perspective on the matter. The authors analyze Invisible Children’s speech act head on, but never sever it from its context. If, as originally planned, Chris Blattman had also participated, the collection would surely have included a careful quantitative element to complement the excellent qualitative work done throughout. Taub’s work stands as an example of how well it can be done, and as a challenge to the rest of the field.