Book Review: Development Communication:

Reframing the Role of Media

Wilson Halder
University of Guelph
Ontario, Canada

Development Communication: Reframing the Role of Media is a welcome addition to the rapidly growing literature of media structures and processes within development communication. This book introduces the reader to not only the decades of development communication history, but it also addresses controversial issues in community informatics by providing meaningful context and case studies designed to stimulate discussion. Thomas L. McPhail has written a concise and comprehensive approach to development communication studies for those interested in social change within today’s globalized world. Without overburdening the reader, McPhail discusses theoretical assumptions concerning the role of technology for development while asking critical questions in development theory today. McPhail is not afraid to discuss past failures of development communication, such as the low-success rates seen in past top-down approaches to development in the field, or advocate his strong positive opinion towards a bottom-up approach focused on grassroots initiatives of development. Readers who are looking for a book that coherently introduces and covers a wide spectrum of communication development studies from modernization theories to the movements of liberation theology to participatory communication, cultural imperialism, and education-entertainment will not be disappointed.

By introducing the reader to the modernization era and emphasizing its failure to deliver positive change in low income nations, Thomas McPhail argues a paradigm shift is occurring within development communication studies from an economic preoccupation rooted in modernization theory to a broader more inclusive framework involving a bottom-up approach focused on participatory development. The evidence provided illustrates decades of development work that has seen billions of dollars of foreign aid not being used effectively while target beneficiaries and donors alike are aggravated due to the lack of positive social changes . Specific examples are discussed, including ineffective management practices for HIV prevention; US foreign aid policies; and the imposition of foreign assistance, values and ideas on the global south.

From the outset, this book challenges the reader to examine how information and communications technologies (ICTs) can act as enablers for growth and development. The book addresses key issues that shape the dominant paradigms in development communication; for instance, gender roles and feminism in development studies as well as the different types and influential roles of various non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Within the NGO category, McPhail distinguishes between the larger NGOs by examining the functioning of the major American foundations, the Carnegie, Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, while also describing smaller NGOs, such as the Communication for Social Change Consortium (CFSC), the World Social Forum (WSF), and the International Development Research Council (IDRC). McPhail also examines some of the conditions required to facilitate technology transfer in order to address the great digital divide, which is the gap between people with effective access to informational and digital technology and those with very limited or no access at all. This book concludes by examining two landmark cases, the case of the Sonagachi Project in India and the case of the Roma, in order to provide concrete examples of how the main theories and actors for development communication explained in previous chapters play an important role in furthering the fields of research and practice in these areas.

The first five chapters and the concluding chapter are written by Thomas McPhail. McPhail introduces the early phases of development communications (from modernization and liberation movements), theories that sought to replace the economically-driven modernization theory, as well as providing a history of different organizations working in this area. The remaining five chapters are written by eminent scholars in the field of development communication, and highlight the material discussed by McPhail in the earlier five chapters. This approach reflects an interdisciplinary perspective that is currently typical of how the field is being reframed.

Renee Houston and Michele Jackson focus on bringing a new understanding from the perspectives of technology and context to foster much-needed dialogue between these two perspectives for development through information and communication dissemination. Michele Rice examines the global digital divide and the determinants and conditions that have contributed to its creation. Luz Porras and Leslie Steeves discuss the role of women in development projects and communication in particular. Satarupa Das and and Eva Szalvai examine, respectively, the case of the Sonagachi Project (in India) for health development and the case of the Roma.

The two landmark cases provide a meaningful context to the conceptual framework that encompasses all of the chapters. The Sonagachi Project serves as an example that uses participation communication theory in order to empower sex trade workers by advocating and adapting models that allow unhindered dialogue and active social engagement. Satarupa Dasgupta indicates that this project does not subscribe to the modernization theory of dislodging traditional elements of culture and society. However, Satarupa does provide capsulized references to many of the project’s successes and failures, which can be attributed to development communication theories. Near the end of the chapter, the case study falls short of indicating any form of efficacy of this intervention model that can be applied to other programs in different conditions and environments.

The second case examines the Open Society Institute (OSI) and its development communication practices for marginalized issues with the European Roma population. Eva Szalvai provides a background on the origin of the Roma people and the disparities that the communities face through gender and racial discrimination that target their belief system, social organization and culture. At the beginning of the chapter, Eva provides a summary of social change models and identifies three paradigms: the modernization model, the alternative model, and finally the empowerment model. She later relates these models to their influence on OSI and its ability to facilitate innovative solutions based on the latest development communication techniques. The case of the Roma project provides an excellent overview of the extent to which ICTs impact social change by achieving the delicate process of fluent information exchange.

I found it particularly insightful how this book continually stresses the importance of grassroots-based communications having the power to intervene in stagnant projects and issues confronted by seemingly insurmountable barriers, as well as the ability to educate and promote positive social change. Although this approach to development is not a new one, McPhail describes different examples and situations that would significantly benefit from the perspective of a community or bottom-up grassroots level of communication development. One of these examples comes from Renee Houston and Michele Jackson’s chapter on conceptualizing technology. In this chapter they confront the question of whether technology and communication tools influence their context or do they remain constant regardless of context. Here they argue that technology as a change agent becomes more creative, more participatory, when it is integrated into the community, encouraging dialogue between the two perspectives of communication tools/technology and context of community. This is identified as ‘context as filter’, which is in stark contrast to a deterministic perspective of ICT implementation that lacks the need for developing attention to the needs of the context. Still, this book examines the weaknesses of adhering to grassroots movements which stem from some of the challenges that face any participatory form of initiative where researchers fail to hold the primacy of context over technology without ‘accurately idealizing or glorifying the social situation’ and local relations that may be laden with exploitations, hierarchies and internal resistances. These barriers may prevent the elevatation of the community as a whole, thus making development a slow and uneven process. In one of the more interesting portions of this book, McPhail expresses his contention with the three major American foundations and their influence over the promotion of western capitalism and foreign values. McPhail postulates that the general aim of reconstructing the global economy is to give a voice to poorer nations in setting trade rules rather than having the bigger corporations dictating the trade rules governing the communication and information sector (CI) and thus dominating the directions grassroots communication initiatives.

Overall this book openly challenges the past failures of top-down approaches to communication development. Each chapter in this book is formulated to build upon the theories and approaches introduced in the earlier chapters by providing important context to development communication theory and to build upon previous approaches by exposing readers to different perspectives found in this field. The chapters describe in detail the challenges faced by the authors who have written them and some of the strategies employed to overcome barriers which prevented effective communication for development. The identified barriers include: how development assistance is stagnant amongst high income nations, how the number of people displaced due to discourse is increasing, and how foreign aid is stringent about conditions attached to it and much of the southern hemisphere finds itself fighting for basic human rights for health and education. As each of the authors take the reader through specific projects and organizations, the reader learns something new and relevant to the discussions around communication studies and various associated opinions and analyses.

As daunting and diverse as the array of topics the book covers may seem, Thomas McPhail reinforces the relevance of communication and development work and carefully ensures not to undermine the multiple approaches that can be employed for development work. In chapter four, "The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)," the author discusses the various orientations of NGOs, such as charitable, service, participatory, or empowering, and he argues that the key for NGOs to garner mass media attention is in increasing the need to publish evaluative results, and that NGOs cannot survive without a communication strategy. Thomas McPhail emphasizes that some of the criticisms faced by NGOs can be rectified through a combination of two different approaches: a more rigorous, objective and evaluative approach to their work, and the creation of a communication framework, thereby enhancing the transparency of an NGOs’ representation of a global, national and/or local public opinion.

Thomas McPhail’s admiration for the work of the United Nations (UN) and some of the smaller NGOs is evident from his praise for them as powerful agents of change in the field of development communication. His focus on the protection of cultures can be seen in his critical oppositional stance against the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) push for free-trade agreements for the audio-visual sector which, according to McPhail, threatens the preservation of local cultures by subjecting laws of free trade to cultural entities. McPhail argues that these free-trade agreements will eventually assimilate lesser known indigenous cultures into the more dominant mainstream US culture.

As easy as it may be to acknowledge the materials that are left out in the chapters of the book, there is a "Notes" section at the end of every chapter that includes further information that is insightful and illuminating. This section provides the reader with further clarifications regarding certain contexts that may not have been completely explained in the chapter itself. This may be as diverse as expanding information regarding the role of the US within the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to brief biographies of individuals and organizations whose work was mentioned in the preceding chapter. It is especially helpful due to the short length of each chapter of the book, otherwise the faster readers among us will find themselves near the end of the book sooner than they would like.

Development Communication: Reframing the Role of Media demonstrates an overarching theme stretching to a multidisciplinary audience that is interested in a participatory approach to sustainable development as part of an inclusion model rather than a diffusion model. The book methodically chronicles contemporary development discourse from a modernization approach to an emphasis on participation-oriented process based on shared knowledge of common problems. Although some of the textbook details regarding development communication history is excluded, the "Notes" section that concludes each chapter presents further information and resources should the reader be interested. This book offers scholars and practitioners in community informatics with distinct concepts in development communication theory and stresses that development is neither one-dimensional nor easily evaluated. It leaves the reader with useful observations and ideas on how the field of development communication is continuously changing in order to improve the effectiveness of its initiatives. I have immensely enjoyed reading and expanding my understanding of development communication, sustainable development and ICT studies through this book.