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COMM 415

The Theory & the Practice of Communication for


By: Toby P. Newstead

The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Health Organization,

the World Trade Organization, United Nations agencies such as UNICEF, UNCTAD,

UNDP, UNEP, and UNHCR are just some of the aid and development organizations

spearheading communications for development initiatives. Communication for

development strives to alleviate world suffering by using the communications

principles of audience knowledge, motivation, media utilization, and persuasion in

order to change behaviours, attitudes, beliefs, and practices of people within

specified communities or countries. Feeding starving children, preventing infant

mortality, protecting vulnerable women, and eradicating devastating diseases are

some of the goals of communication for development. Communication for

development is a process of cross-border communication. Aid and development

agencies have headquarters and projects sprinkled throughout the world and their

networks of communications systems are absolutely global in scale.

Communications for development is married to the process of global communication

and globalization.

Communications for development is a rich academic field, with many

overlapping, and constantly evolving theories. However, due to the organizational

structure and institutional nature of the aid and development organizations that

communication for development operates within, developmental communications

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practices tends to vary from developmental communications theories. By illustrating

the origins and evolution of communication for development, this paper will identify

and discuss the discrepancies between communication for development theory and

communication for development practice.

Outlining the origins of communication for development

The theory of communication for development resulted from the marriage of

mass communications studies and the study of the modernization of traditional

societies. Communication for development studied audiences that were regarded as

largely passive masses, and devised methods of spreading, or propagating

messages in an attempt to modernize, shape, and develop specific communities

(Yun Kim, 2005). The study of mass communication and modernization were

employed during the Depression in Canada, when radio programs were used to help

farmers update their fruitless farming techniques (Thomas, 2005, p. 56). The theory

of communication for development originated out mass media studies, and

specialized in persuading people to think, act, and behave in new ways.

The practice of communication for development emerged out of World War II

and the Cold War. World War II ended. Colonialism collapsed, and former colonies in

Asia, Africa, and Latin America were left to their own devices. The Cold War began,

and the race for Third World allegiance and political loyalty was on between the USA

and the USSR. The former colonies of the Third World became the propaganda

battleground of the Cold War. These countries, struggling with political unrest,

poverty, disease epidemics, and social strife were targeted with American

propaganda and aid initiatives in an attempt to sway them toward western,

democratic, capitalistic principles, rather than the evils of communism (Yun Kim,
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2005; Bah, 2008).The premise of development, and communication for

development, allowed the US and other Western nations and organizations to enter

countries in the Third World and, directly or indirectly, infuse principles of

democracy and capitalism. Asia, Africa, and Latin America are the regions in which,

during the Cold War, the practice of communications for development started.

Theoretical underpinnings of communication for development: The Old &

The New

The Old:

The first major theory of communication for development was the

Modernization theory, which originated in the years after World War II. Schramm,

author of “Mass Media and National Development,” and Lerner, author of “The

passing of Traditional Society,” were World War II and Cold War propaganda experts.

They were also two of the pioneers of the Modernization theory. The basic

underlying principle of the Modernization theory was that “...advanced capitalistic

societies reflected a natural universal, end-state that could be reached by all

countries provided they follow the right ‘stages of growth,’” (Thomas, 2005, p. 56).

The theory was founded on the notion that the major obstacle to

development was the psyche of the undeveloped citizen. Thus, the way to develop

a nation was to persuade individual citizens to adopt new, better, western traditions

and values. In his own words Lerner captures the supposed wonders of

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I have seen joy among the impoverished fellaheen in Egypt when they
were able to offer me a bottle of Pepsi Cola. I have seen the bliss of an
Iranian father wearing, in the presence of his wife and children and
neighbours, the first store-bought suit to be seen in his walled village-a
village still living with irrigation and cultivation systems dating from
centuries preceding Christ or, for that matter, Muhammad. I have seen
the intense happiness of an Indian schoolboy as he showed his father
how he was learning to read in school. (Lerner, as quoted by Bah,

This passage from Lerner gives evidence to the fact that the Modernization theory

assumed the West to be the measuring stick to which all other societies must be

held. That the final culmination of Egyptian society might be to possess Pepsi Cola –

never mind the pyramids and many thousands of years of civilization. That an

Iranian man might finally see the light, and trade in his culturally and climatically

appropriate attire for a cheap western suit. That an Indian school boy might learn to

write, so that he could forget his ancient oral traditions. At its very core, the

Modernization theory promoted abandoning traditional practices and adopting

western values of lasses-faire economics, political liberalism, industrialization, and

technology (Yun Kim, 2005, p. 563).

The Modernization theory identified mass media as the primary means of

influencing, persuading, and motivating the individual citizens that made up the

passive masses of the underdeveloped Third World (Quebral, 1971). The

Modernization theory correlated the wealth and wellbeing of a community to the

number of free and private newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations that were

present. The role of media in the Modernization theory was twofold; it was a tool of

persuasion and motivation, and it was a tool of measuring the success of economic

and social development (Thomas, 2005, p. 56). As a whole, the theory of

Modernization was a top down approach to development. Experts, agencies, and

governments implemented development strategies from the top, and used print,
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radio, and TV media to diffuse persuasive and motivational development messages

to the masses.

The New:

In the 1970s scholars such as Paulo Freire and Nora C. Quebral began to

highlight the imperialistic and expansionist underpinnings of the dominant

Modernization theory (Yun Kim, 2005). Freire and Quebral started updating the top

down theory of Modernization, with bottom up development theories which evolved

into a new development paradigm. There were two basic shifts in communication

for development theory. First the new paradigm moved towards more egalitarian,

ground-up, participatory communication. And, second, the new paradigm viewed

entrenched hegemonic systems as the primary inhibitor to development, rather

than the psyche of the individual.

There are three pillars to the new communication for development paradigm.

The first pillar is the concept of empowerment; the idea that decisions about

development goals and methods of achieving goals are to be made by the

community in question – not by foreign governments, organizations, or experts. The

second pillar of the alternative paradigm is participatory communication; each

person and group affected by a development program must be consulted and given

the opportunity and autonomy to participate in decision making. The third pillar is

participatory action research; marginalized groups are to be given the power, tools,

and resources to study the results of development initiatives (Yun Kim, 2005, p.

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The paradigmatic shift in the theory of communication for development

moves the power away from external, foreign experts and organizations, and

towards the developing communities themselves. The new theories call for an end

to the tradition of dissemination; the process of deciding on a message at the top,

and spreading it to the masses through various media channels. Within the new

paradigm, communities are at the heart of development initiatives, communities

decide what needs to happen, how it will happen, when it will happen, and the

communities evaluate the results of development initiatives (Waisbord, 2008, p.


The role of communications in development: Theory vs. Practice

The theory behind communication for development has changed with the

new paradigm, but, according to Silvio Waisbord, both an academic and a field

worker, the practice of developmental communication has not changed. After two

decades in academia, Waisbord went to work in the field of communications for

development. He worked on issues such as advocacy, and communication and

social mobilization in health in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Waisbord worked in

collaboration with UN agencies, national and local governments, faith-based

organizations, and professional and education based organizations.

“My first hand observations [have] made me increasingly sceptical

about...the ‘passing of the dominant paradigm’ given that diffusionist
premises typically underpinned global health programs. I encountered
programs to promote institutional childbirth in the Peruvian highlands,
inform couples about family planning in Bolivia, and convince Angolan
mothers to get children immunized.” (Waisbord, 2008, p. 506)
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According to Waisbord’s experience, many communication for development

programs and organizations are still using methods of diffusion and persuasion,

which tie these initiatives to the antiquated theory of Modernization.

According to the present theory of communication for development, the

community is the starting point. But, Waisbord argues that in practice the

community is “rarely the starting point” (Waisbord, 2008, p. 509). In his experience,

community input is simply overlaid on decisions and plans devised by external

experts. The grand plans of development are still global in scale – they are not

locally identified, locally defined initiatives. Ending poverty and hunger, providing

universal education, creating environmental sustainability, enhancing gender

equality, combating HIV/AIDS, child heath, maternal health, and global partnership

( – and these are the common themes of modern development. Yet,

these issues “have not been the result of extensive community consultation and

agreements across the globe. Rather, they were the product of complex negotiation

and advocacy involving governments, bilateral and multilateral donors, UN

agencies, and sometimes affected communities.” (Waisbord, 2008, p. 510). The

focus of development communication is still decided on at the top.

“The dominant, modernization paradigm might have passed away in the

academic arena, but it remains so in practice precisely because the locus of power

remains in the west, whose interests are well served by the paradigm.” (Bah, 2008,

p. 8). The new communication for development paradigm suggests that every

individual and group that will be affected by a development program must be

consulted before the program is implemented. However, communications tends to

remain simply a tool of development agencies, and so it is rare for communication

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theory to find its way into the forefront of a development mission. Because

development is funded by large, often global, organizations the lengthy,

unpredictable, and costly consultations and community negotiations of participatory

communication are usually foregone (Waisbord, 2008).

In addition to the fact that true participatory communication goes against the

grain of development organizations’ operations, Quebral points out that it is almost

impossible to know who all will be indirectly affected by communication for

development programs (1971). In the Philippines a development plan was

implemented to train technicians to operate new rice processing machinery. The

program identified the technicians as the people that would be affected by the

program, and these few individuals were consulted. However, the program did not

take into consideration the many other people that were indirectly affected; the

bankers that would approve loans for new equipment, the legislators who would

determine quality control, the landlords who would lease rice growing land, the

farmers’ families who would lose their jobs to the new machines, and the opinion

leaders that would have to convince people this was a positive change...“in other

words, a lot more people [would be affected] than the technicians for whom the

project was originally conceived.” (Quebral, 1971, p. 106).


It is common for the field of academia and research to outpace the field of

practice, and it is evident that this is the case in communication for development.
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New theories identify just how antiquated, imperialistic, and west-centred the

dominant paradigm is, but the dominant paradigm is still just that – dominant.

Communication for development emerged out of the study of mass media and

development studies as used through the Cold War to secure Third World loyalty to

the West. Most aid and development initiatives are spearheaded by large

international bodies, such as the UN, the WHO, and the WTO which tend to use

communications as a tool in achieving their aims. When communication is used

simply as a tool, the theoretical groundwork of the new paradigm is obscured. When

communication is simply a position on an organizational flow chart, the intricacies of

participatory, consultative, ground-up communications are suppressed.

There is some good news. Bodies such as the Communication Initiative are

beginning to foster the new communication for development as a field of practice as

well as a field of theory. So that communication for development, instead of being

an agent of government propaganda or a tool of organizational information

dissemination, might establish its own objectives on the ground in development

initiatives. The Communication Initiative is an online space shared by anyone

involved or interested in any development project, plan, or initiative. It is a space to

swap tips and information. It is a resource for smaller communication development

programs that are practicing the new communication for development, as well as

just espousing the theory (Heimann, 2006). Communication for development is an

effort to use communication principles to affect change within specific communities.

The new theories of communication have outpaced the practice of communication

for development in regards to community consultation and involvement. But, there

is hope that through smaller communications-focused programs fostered by the

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likes of the Communication Initiative, and forward thinking academics, the practice

of communication for development might catch up to the theory.


Heimann, D. (2006) Supporting communication for development with horizontal

dialogue and a level playing field: the communication initiative. Development in
Practice. 16(6)

Quebral, N. (2006) Development communications in the agricultural context (1971,

with a new foreword). Asian Journal of Communication. 16(1), p. 100-107.

Umaru, B. (2008) Daniel Lerner, Cold War propaganda and US development

communication research: an historical critique. Journal of Third World Studies.
Spring. As found at:

United Nations 2015 Millennium goals:

Waisbord, S. (2008) The institutional challenges of participatory communication in

international aid. Social Identities. 14(4), p. 505-522

Wikipidea, “List of Development agencies”:

Yun Kim, Y. (2005) Inquiry in intercultural and development communication. The

Journal of Communication. 55(3), p. 554-577