Development communications are organized efforts to use communications processes and media to bring social and economic improvements, generally in developing countries. The field emerged in the late 1950's amid high hopes that radio and television could be put to use in the world's most disadvantaged countries to bring about dramatic progress. Early communications theorists like Wilbur Schramm and Daniel Lerner based their high expectations upon the apparent success of World War II propaganda, to which academia and Hollywood had contributed.

Also with World War II came dozens of new, very poor, countries, left by their former colonial overseers with little infrastructure, education, or political stability. It was widely accepted that mass media could bring education, essential skills, social unity, and a desire to "modernize." Walt Rostow theorized that societies progress through specific stages of development on their way to modernity, what he termed "the age of high mass consumption." Lerner suggested that exposure to Western media would create "empathy" for modern culture, and a desire to move from traditional to modern ways. Early development communications, especially that sponsored by the U.S. government, was also seen as a means of "winning hearts and minds" over to a capitalist way of life.

These early approaches made a number of erroneous assumptions, and have been largely forsaken in contemporary approaches to development. Obstacles to development were naively seen as rooted in developing countries, not as products of international relationships. Modernization was presumed to equate to Westernization, and to be a necessary prerequisite to meeting human needs. Development was seen as a top-down process, whereby centralized mass media could bring about widespread change. Producers of development media often failed to ask if the audience can receive the message (television penetration in developing countries is minimal and radio penetration in the early days of development communication was light), understand the message (a problem in countries with dozens of languages and dialects), act upon the message (with the necessary tools or other forms of structural support), and want to act upon the message. And because it was based upon a propaganda model, development communications efforts were often seen as propaganda and distrusted.

Projects embodying these philosophies have enjoyed little success. In the 1970s and 1980s, a new paradigm of development communication emerged which better recognized the process of deliberate underdevelopment as a function of colonialism, the great diversity of the cultures involved, the differences between elite versus popular goals for social change, the considerable political and ideological constraints to change, and the endless varieties of ways different cultures communicate.

But in some instances mass media technologies, including television, have been "magic multipliers" of development benefits. Educational television has been used effectively to supplement the work of teachers in classrooms in the teaching of literacy and other skills, but only in well designed programs which are integrated with other educational efforts. Consumer video equipment and VCRs have been used to supplement communications efforts in some small projects.

Some developing countries have demonstrated success in using satellite television to provide useful information to portions of their populations out of reach of terrestrial broadcasting. In 1975 and 1976, an experimental satellite communications project called SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment) was used to bring informational television programs to rural India. Some changes in beliefs and behaviors did occur, but there is little indication that satellite television was the best means to that end. The project did lead to Indian development of its own satellite network. China has also embarked on a ambitious program of satellite use for development, claiming substantial success in rural education. When television has succeeded as an educational tool in developing countries, it is only when very specific viewing conditions are met. For example, programs are best viewed in small groups with a teacher to introduce them and to lead a discussion afterwards.

A variety of types of organizations work with local governments to develop communications projects. The United Nations provides multi-lateral aid to governments. Non-profit non-governmental organizations (NGO) conduct development projects worldwide using U.N., government, or private funding. And government agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provide assistance to developing countries, but with political strings attached. There are three common types of development campaigns: Persuasion, changing what people do; Education, changing social values; and Informing, empowering people to change by increasing knowledge. This third approach is now perceived as the most useful. Instead of attempting to modernize people, contemporary efforts attempt to reduce inequality by targeting the poorest segments of society, involving people in their own development, giving them independence from central authority, and employing "small" and "appropriate" technologies. The emphasis has shifted from economic growth to meeting basic needs.

In this new view of development, communication becomes an important catalyst for change, but not its cause. Local folk media, for example, is employed to reduces media's bias toward literacy and provide information in a traditional, familiar form. Development journalism provides people with information on change in their society, and works at the local level to advocate change. Where mass media is now employed in developing societies, community newspapers and radio prove far more accessible and useful than television. The rapid spread of entertainment television in the developing world is proving to be more a disruption to traditional social structures than an agent of progress. One emerging genre of television does show promise for contributing to development. The telenovela, pioneered in Brazil, has demonstrated some success in disseminating "pro-social" messages. Such programs are now being evaluated in many countries for their effectiveness in contributing to population control, health education, and other development goals.

-Chris Paterson


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See also Satellite