Communicating What?

MANILA: Is UP teaching now about love? Last year, Paoloregel B Samonte, Valedictorian of the graduating class of UP Los Baños College of Development Communication, told his audience, "UP taught me genuine respect, and love, and genuine respect for all forms of love" (Jenny Rose Manalo, 06 July 2015, ISPEAK, rappler.com). I'm an alumnus of UP Los Baños and I think what this valedictorian said is not true. "Respect for all forms of love" is his own construction, not the University's. Under academic freedom, a bedrock principle of UP, an academic may have taught him that, but that's not the stand of the University. I must hear it from the lips of UP President Alfredo Pascual.

Anyway, as a Roman Catholic, gay love is not the kind of love I'd love to hear about, and from a graduate of Development Communication at that! How can development proceed when certain people create social noise, insist on their human rights and empower themselves over and above other people of their village? I say human rights belong to those who do not belong to a village. "It takes a village to nurture a child" – African proverb. It takes a village to nurture a village.

But in fact, while this valedictorian had not meant to, he pointed out to what I see is a contradiction in the discipline of Development Communication (devcom): Devcom's pursuit of development for its own sake, not the people's.

I'm not alone in this. As I daily surf the Internet, I have just found the not-so-old Development Communication Sourcebook written by Paolo Mefalopulos and published in 2008 by the World Bank entitled Broadening the Boundaries of Communication (downloadable as pdf from worldbank.org; the image above is the cover of that book). Browsing, I take note that the concept of development communication (devcom) has not changed since I first encountered the concept at the University of the Philippines' College of Agriculture about 50 years ago.

I was in the vicinity when devcom was aborning, and also when the Department of Agricultural Communications of the University of the Philippines' College of Agriculture became the Department of Development Communication in 1972, when it began offering a BS as well as an MS in Development Communication. And thus was born DevCom or devcom.

I remember it was a lady, Nora Quebral who coined the term development communication; I also remember reading at about that time about the concept of development support communication by Erskine Childers of FAO, and I thought "support communication" was the real nature of that communication and not flat out "development communication," no matter the "obvious" meaning.

In 1968, Childers co-wrote with Mallica Vajrathon the paper "Project Support Communication" that said:

If you want development to be rooted in the human beings who have to become the agent of it as well as the beneficiaries, who will alone decide on the kind of development they can sustain after the foreign aid has gone away, then you have got to communicate with them, you have got to enable them to communicate with each other and back to the planners in the capital city. You have got to communicate the techniques that they need in order that they will decide on their own development. If you do not do that, you will continue to have weak or failing development programs. It's as simple as that. No innovation, however brilliantly designed and set down in a project plan of operations, becomes development until it has been communicated.

Communication for development, that is, communication in support of development. Not development communication as a different species. The first presupposes a development project to assist; the second pursues development on its own.

I read Childers in the early 70s. I know that in the late 1970s or early 1980s, as Chief Information Officer of the Forest Research Institute (FORI) based at UP Los Baños campus, as Editor in Chief of FORI's Sylvatrop, The Philippine Forest Research Journal, I wrote and published in Sylvatrop a long technical paper on the subject of what I called communication for development (comdev), that communication was a part of development and not apart from it.

It was now comdev vs devcom. Yes, I was conscious that my concept of comdev was in contradistinction with that of devcom espoused by UP Los Baños. That was precisely the reason I came out with that paper! To offer an alternative to devcom – except that I couched comdev in jargon. I knew I was the only one thinking comdev while the ladies and gentlemen of UP Los Baños were thinking devcom. Well, I have always been an original aboriginal thinker.

Now, in the early 2000s, had devcom changed to something akin to comdev, and pursued communication as a dependent tool for development, not independent? Not at UP Los Baños but elsewhere. Here comes World Bank's Paolo Mefalopulos himself saying in his book's Preface about development communication:

My frustration at the frequent misuse of the term "communication for development" has been a major impetus in writing this book. The Sourcebook intends to make clear the seemingly straightforward distinction between "communication about development operations and results" and "communication for development operations and results." In the first case, communication is used to inform audiences about development initiatives, activities, and results. It is about transmitting information and messages. In the second case, communication is applied to engage stakeholders, assess the situation, and devise effective strategies leading to better and more sustainable development initiatives. It is more than transmitting information; it is about using communication to generate new knowledge and consensus in order to facilitate change. Both are important and require a different body of knowledge and different (sets) of skills.

Communication for, not about development. So the World Bank had been thinking what I have been thinking almost 3 decades earlier. As it were, says Mefalopolus, to use my term, comdev is "applied to engage stakeholders, assess the situation, and devise effective strategies leading to better and more sustainable development initiatives."  Not simply transmitting information, as devcom does. In comdev, the information supplied is meant "to generate new knowledge and consensus in order to facilitate change." Comdev is to facilitate communication to facilitate change, that's for sure. Devcom is to facilitate communication, that's all.

Comdev is project-based, as any communication for development must be, not independent of any such organized initiative. Comdev can be a pioneer in communication, but not in development, which devcom likes to assume is its territory. Devcom, you must broaden your boundaries!

Yet, as in my case almost 30 years ago, the world was not paying attention to the World Bank speaking of communication for development.

Today, as an unstoppable blogger for development, I want the next knowledge revolution to happen at UP Los Baños, my alma mater, and in the College of Development Communication. It is time for a climate change in development communication!

I quote again from Mefalopulos' Preface of his book:

The main reason for writing this book was not simply to gather, organize, and disseminate knowledge on development communication. Rather, it was to make the case for its systematic adoption in development policies and practices. My long experience in the field made me realize that the media-centric conception of communication was not making a significant difference in people's lives. Too often the most important missing element in development programs was genuine (two-way) communication (among) the decision makers, the experts, and the so-called beneficiaries.

"Not making a significant difference in people's lives," Mefalopolus says; it is time for "the media-centric conception of communication" to change into people-centric communication, that is, among the decision makers, experts and beneficiaries. What does Childers say again? "You have got to communicate the techniques that they need in order that they will decide on their own development." If you don't do that, you're just another school of journalism.

Today, inspired by FAO and the World Bank, I would say the ultimate aim of development, and which should be the message of devcom reincarnated, is empowerment. Let devcom be engaged to empower. I say, "Power to the people!"

(In my next essay, I am going to blame the devcom people first for forest fires.)

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