Reflections on the Future of ComDev and Social Action

by Muhammad Al-Waeli

In the 15th Anniversary ComDev seminar that was held from 18-19 of September in Malmö, lot of important points and reflections were made. Tobias Denskus made an interesting talk about the future of ComDev, as a field and as a practice. This post completes the ideas and comments that were made in the Q&A session after the talk.

In general, all experts in the field of ComDev seem to agree that there are no clear boundaries for the field and that what ever could be counted as a boundary, is in fact constantly moving.

Of the interesting ideas Tobias introduced in his talk was the future trends of ComDev, which among many directions, could be in ‘internal organizational communication’, and ‘ICT4Bad’.

Both topics are of interest to me. In the case of ICT4Bad, or what I like to call Communication for Destruction (ComDes) the interest comes from personal experience and observations of media conduct in the Middle East and its impact on the conflict(s) going on there, and in the case of internal organization communication, because it is very much related to my studies in human resources management.

Eric Schrammel, one of my fellow ComDev students and a new friend that I made in the ComDev event, made a very smart comment. He said “If there wasn’t communication for destruction, there wouldn’t be communication for development.”

In general, I do agree with Eric. If I’d would like to categorize communication in terms of development, I’d say that there is communication with the aim to develop, communication with “anti-develpoment” aims, which eventually is destruction, and communication that doesn’t seem to have either objectives, but still can have implicit positive or negative impacts on development.

I am aware that I am doing some academic “skipping” of many issues that still compose the main discussion in the field(s) of developmental studies, like the very question of what comdev really is, or even what development actually is. However, we can say that advertising for cigarettes, for example, does not compose communication for development, regardless of which angle we look at issue (health, economy, culture, globalization, consumerism,..etc).

Therefore we can agree that there is a type of communication that leads to bad results and movements. That is what ICT4Bad essentially means.

The Nazi movement that lead eventually to the WWII is a perfect case to study in this regard. But more recent happenings are of major importance to understand, like the rise of ISIS, which wouldn’t be possible without a specific type of communication that was able to recruit people from “east” and “west” to accomplish its dark agendas. Answering the question “what did ISIS communicate?” and “how did they pull all this off?” is of critical importance here, not for the Middle East only, but for the whole world security.

But here is the thing: when thinking about ComDev or ComDes, we are in reality thinking about communication for social action (lets call it ComAct), because any communication in the field of development or destruction won’t have any real impact on the ground if it doesn’t turn into action within a social context. Therefore, as I see it, the real question (are at least a major question) in ComDev is what type of communication is making people act, and why it works or won’t work in a specific community.

Many disciplines can have a say in this and are able to help enriching and informing the field of ComAct. On a dinner with fellow students in Malmö, I recall smart question made my Tom Wein, also a ComDev fellow student and new friend, who asked the following “if ComDev is about change, then why doesn’t it take input from behavioral psychology?” I thought of it a valid question and it made me think. The inputs of other behavioral sciences like organizational behavior and social psychology are very important here if are talking about social change and action. So its not (or should not be) only about media and cultural studies.

As said, the comments here might not be completely academically sound, but they nevertheless are things that are worth thinking about when contemplating the question about future of ComDev. ComAct, as a necessary step towards social change, is of practical value. And practical uses from the topics related of ComDev increases its centrality in answering the many question a glocal world poses to researchers and practitioners.

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  1. Thank you Muhammad for a very thought provoking post and asking the questions about the future of ComDev. I think that it is always wise to be reflexive about one’s practice, and I think that your post relates very much to new media and activism. I’ll expand on that in a moment.

    Firstly, a reflection on communication and development in my region, the Pacific Islands, reveals some worrying deficiencies.

    If we turn to gender and development, for instance, we heard recently that despite all the campaigning, long running official programmes and frequent media attention, Solomon Islands Police have recorded the highest levels of violence against women yet.

    In Tonga, the move to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW, has met with opposition from many public groups including women. The Director of the Women and Children Crisis Centre Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki, told Radio New Zealand International (RNZI, 16th April 2015) that “the process is a mess because of the government using terms such as abortion and same-sex marriage which she says are not referred to in the convention. From the get-go, the communication of this government agreeing to ratify CEDAW has been somewhat based on a lot of misconceptions, hence the reason why CEDAW has probably become the most debated issue in the political arena and also at the ground level. I haven’t seen anything like this since the move towards democracy.”

    In trying to explain these seemingly backward steps, I am reminded of the sound advice given by Ricardo Ramirez and Wendy Quarry in their excellent 2009 book Communication for Another Development, that it is good development that promotes good communication (not the other way round).

    It’s also interesting in Tonga to see, again by popular public demand, a new law pushed through that gives government powers, through a new commission, to block certain websites deemed as “not good for the community”. RNZI reports that the government says the move is designed to protect children from pornography. However, Mr Fonua of website Matangi Tonga told RNZI that “there needs to be more defined lines. When they talk about blocking things out, you don’t know, they can block anything …. If they are going to have that privilege of blocking things, you can imagine there is going to be a problem.”

    I think also your term ICT4BAD is an interesting one. We can see how authoritarian regimes, the deep state and undemocratic interests can use the social media to manipulate and to use social media content selectively to support their agendas. I’ll comment more on this in a comment to another post.

    This discussion is certainly relevant in the context of new media and activism. Other posts and comments in this blog have discussed the intrinsic role of media in activism, and the close symbiotic relationship between media activism and social activism, especially where new media is involved.

    Your post Muhammad is demonstrating a sort of professional activism about development itself, challenging official development discourse. New media can open up professional spheres where development workers and commentators can speak, think and listen outside the box of isomorphic “grey zone” officialdom.

    One example in my region is the Dev Policy Blog ( With contributions from many respected development practitioners it hosts discussions that might not easily see the light of day. For example, it has provided Sam Koim, Chairman of the PNG anti-corruption body Taskforce Sweep, a highly legitimised space to speak out strongly against Australian foreign policies on off-shoring their migration problems to Nauru and PNG, which he says compromise Australia’s stance on corruption.


  2. Christos Mavraganis

    You’ve written a very thoughtful post Muhammad. The questions you’ve raised really made me think about the future of development.
    First of all you started by pointing the obvious, that there are no boundaries in this field. I believe that this quote can fit in pretty much every science, but especially regarding to the development field, who can say the opposite? Who would have questioned the power of television just some years ago, before the internet? And who would have questioned the power of radio, before television appeared and became the most powerful actor in communication field? Your example of the Nazi movement is very accurate and shows how the propaganda via communication tools can change the world; even though for the worse, in this specific case.
    Therefore, we have to take it for granted that anything can happen in this field and try to be ready, as much as possible, for “the next big thing” in communication.
    Regarding to the future trends of ComDev, you raise a pessimistic view, talking for example about ‘ICT4bad’. Nederveen Pieterse, in his “Development Theory” would agree with you. After all, during his attempt to explore the future of development, he says that “from a shortcut to utopia, development has become a dystopia” (Pieterse, 2010, P. 182). And he would also agree with the idea that there are no boundaries in development, because he characterizes development as a “moving target situated somewhere in between underdevelopment and post-development” (Pieterse, 2010, P. 191). This chasm creates uncertainty and where there is uncertainty, anything can go wrong. As you’ve said, “there is a type of communication that leads to bad results and movements. That is what ICT4Bad essentially means”. On the other hand, there is no such thing as a “guide” that would give us only good results, so we just have to deal with the problems we’re facing while exploring the field.
    You’ve asked the “million dollar question”: “What type of communication is making people act, and why it works or won’t work in a specific community”? An incident that can create a revolution in one part of the world, can mean nothing in another part. Except from the cultural/sociological/historical diversities there is something else that can make the difference and this is as you’ve pointed out the communication. Our case study here should not be whether the outcome is good or bad, but the outcome itself. Communication is a crucial factor regarding to the reaction of the people to any situation or incident and the new media have a central role to this procedure.
    Sean Aday uses the term “individual transformation”, as one of his five levels of distinction, to describe how new media might affect contentious politics. He cites that “new media may affect contentious politics via their effect on individuals who either participate in or are exposed to such communication flows”(Aday, 2010, p. 9), and this seems like the first step for any kind change that can be triggered after this new media “intervention”. The next steps and the outcome of course relies to a number of different factors. If we’re talking about action, participation and social change, you are making a very good observation in your conclusion: That there is room for a lot more scientific areas to be examined, apart from just media and cultural studies.
    Overall, it was a very interesting post with a lot and well – aimed questions which can serve as a ground for deep thinking.
    Well done Muhammad,


    Aday, S., Farrell, H., Lynch, M. et al. 2010: “Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics”, Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace.

    Nederveen Pieterse, Jan (2010). Development Theory (Second Edition). London: Sage

  3. Hi Muhammad,
    I’ve found your post very interesting (also David’s and Christos’ input), but specially the Communication for Destruction notion. Do you think you can develop it further? Also, how could we draw the line between development/destruction? The cigarettes example is of course a clear one, but there is a vast grey zone that would be interesting to discuss.
    It seems to me that the notion of ComDes is, somehow, a by-product of “communication in general” (or what you cleverly call ComAct), processes that can lead to development as much as they can lead to destruction. In the end, and using your words, “the real question in ComDev is what type of communication is making people act”. Following Christos’ comment and Pieterse’s phrase, we might have to accept that there is no “shortcut to utopia”, and that the line between utopia and dystopia is thin and shaky.
    I think your thoughts on all these things are very interesting, as well as those of Christos and David. If you take these comments and develop your own thoughts these notions you are using (ComDes, ComAct) might be really useful!