When you hear the term “communication for development”, what comes first to your mind? A group of local villagers sitting in the circle somewhere in Africa listening to the Western-looking aid worker? Or you start thinking of one of the large-scale PR campaigns UN is doing worldwide? Both are right, but there is much more. ComDev is multifaceted, it has different shapes.
Thomas Tufte, one of the ComDev theorists, distinguishes between Development communication, which he actually considers to be the dominant discourse in the sphere with such powerful institutional drivers like UN or USAID and Communication for Development, originating from European institutions with more critical angle on notion of development and a stronger focus on post-colonial notions of development. Alternative communication, horizontal communication, communication for social change – there are many other terms as well!
So what is communication for development? In general terms, it’s communication that goes beyond simply providing information. It’s aimed at social structural changes, individual behaviour changes, social mobilization, changes in power structures etc. It’s a two-way process that involves engaging people and communities, listening to their needs and responding to them in a proper way. It can be a media training for the journalists, or PR campaign or even a TV serial which through “edutainment” addresses important social problems within the society.
It can be a comic book produced for the children in Kosovo instructing them not to touch unexploded land mines left after the war or a campaign done by Planned Parenthood Federation in the Republic of Korea in 1970 aimed at reducing birth rates and improving life in the villages based on interpersonal communication in local women’s clubs.
When I first heard the term “communication for development”, I didn’t think of all these forms and I didn’t fully realize that I am partially a ComDev practitioner myself – until I started this program in Malmo University. I work for an EU institution, and within EU communication practices, we are more used to the term “strategic communication”. Road safety or anti-corruption campaign, media training for the journalists – these forms of strategic communication projects might have slightly different focus, but still fall under the ComDev umbrella.
In EU terminology “strategic communication” is used to define communication activities with an agenda or plan to impact the behaviour of a target audience. By being “strategic” it also implies a systematic and coherent approach and coordination of communication activities. The scope of activities performed under the umbrella of strategic communication, similar to ComDev, is wide – starting from public campaigns, training of journalists to counter anti-EU propaganda from third parties such as Russia or ISIS. Strategic communication, of course, is mainly state-driven, or is done by supranational organizations (like the EU), when communication for development mostly stays within the scope of the work of international and local non-governmental organizations and civil society.
My interest in development work goes rather far back to my first degree in international relations and diplomatic working experience, while my involvement in development communication practices is rather recent. But it’s really fascinating how with the use of words and visuals you can actually influence people’s behaviours. From my perspective, in order to be successful ComDev practitioner, you need not only to be a good communication professional, but also sociologist, strategist, psychologist etc. You need to understand how people perceive information, what shapes their views and attitudes, what influences their decisions and how you can actually influence all of this! Really fascinating!
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