Devcom Matters with Ebenezer ASUMANG: Development communication in the 21st century ‘new normal’ and beyond

Communication has
  • If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.………Nelson Mandela


The term ‘development communication’ was coined in 1972 by Quebral, who defines the field as: “The art and science of human communication applied to the speedy transformation of a country and the mass of its people from poverty to a dynamic state of economic growth that makes possible greater social equality and the larger fulfilment of the human potential” (Quebral, Nora, 2001).

Quebral’s pioneering thoughts on development communication seem to suggest that the discourse was not just about informing or educating people to adopt new attitudes, knowledge, practices or technologies. It implied the unpacking and uprooting of the root causes of structural inequality, marginalisation, disempowerment that prevent individuals and societies from making radical changes to improve lives and welfare.

The World Bank defines and explains development communication as the integration of strategic communication in development projects. Strategic communication is a powerful tool that can improve the chances of successful development projects. It strives to change behaviour, not just to inform, educate or raise awareness. While the latter are necessary ingredients of communication, they are not sufficient for getting people to change long-established practices or behaviours (World Bank, 2004).

This is about the use of communication to facilitate social development via the engagement of stakeholders and policy-makers to establish a favourable environment, assessing risks and opportunities as well as promoting information exchange to create a sustainable positive social change.

Making a case for development communication in the ‘new normal’

Major changes and new highlights have emerged in the development landscape. Societies are open to debate and marketing for individual initiative; privatisation and entrepreneurship are encouraged; new technology becomes widely available; The management of public services is gradually being moved closer to the users, even entrusted directly to the users themselves, in order to reduce costs and find partners committed to implementing more effectively. Indeed, countless structural adjustments profoundly affect almost every aspect of human production and interaction. These structural adjustments require and have direct economic and social effects on people (FAO report).

Governments in developing countries can no longer provide all social and administrative services alone, especially in rural areas. Many economies are overwhelmed by the cost of repaying their foreign debt, and governments are subject to strict demands from international financial institutions to cut spending. To achieve greater cost-effectiveness in all of their activities, governments must have active support and greater contributions from citizens. As a result, governments are forced to look for new and perhaps unknown partners, from local leaders to members of various NGOs.

These people are therefore forced to take on new and perhaps unfamiliar responsibilities. Furthermore, a number of specific issues have come clearly into focus as being central to socio-economic progress, equity, social stability, to the future of humanity – and perhaps even to its survival.

All development requires some kind of behaviour change on the part of stakeholders. Research shows that changes in knowledge and attitudes do not necessarily translate into behavioural changes. To implement behavioural change, it is necessary to understand why people do what they do and understand the barriers to changing or adopting new practices. Raising awareness of the ‘benefits’ is not enough, it is critical to understand people’s barriers or the ‘costs’ they perceive such a change would entail (WB, 2004).

Meaningful communication involves providing information to specific audiences, listening to their feedback, and responding appropriately. Whether discussing a development project or broader economic reforms from health, education or rural development to private sector development, financial reform or judicial reform. The idea is to build consensus by enhancing community understanding and creating an informed dialogue between stakeholders.

Well-designed and professionally executed communication programmes that are directly related to reform efforts or project goals develop and integrate an understanding of political, social and cultural realities. Localisation into the design of development programmes can make the difference between the success and failure of a project.

Some areas to consider for development communication strategies

The first common theme across development issues is the human element: outcomes will depend less on scientific and material inputs than on the people involved. For, even if our understanding of the development process is changing, there can be no doubt that its future shape, its pace, sustainability and ultimate direction – for better or worse – will be determined by people, and the level of their awareness, participation and skills. Investments in scientific and physical inputs will not bear fruit without parallel investments in ‘human capital’ that informs people, opening avenues through which they can build consensus to act, and develop the knowledge and skills needed to make the best use of material investments.

Development communication experts can be engaged to help develop strategies to help tackle issues in many areas of societal interest and need.


The environment and its relation to sustainable agriculture and food production is a huge challenge. The issue of primary concern is the rational use and conservation of natural resources. These resources are often degraded by impoverished rural populations who do not have immediate alternatives to meet their needs for land for food and firewood. Their over-exploitation of forests, with negative consequences of soil erosion and reduction of water resources, can only be stopped by new programmes to create jobs and incomes and the adoption of conservation by development communication specialists.

However, such solutions will need to be accepted by local people, many of whom will need considerable encouragement and training in new skills. The provisions of Agenda 21, which emerged from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro (1992), will only become a reality through large-scale changes in attitudes and behaviour of companies around the world.

Population growth:

Population growth put pressure on natural resources, food production, and the ability of governments to provide basic services and job opportunities. Population growth depends on the choices of individuals. Helping people make more informed choices by raising awareness with development communication strategies about the impact of family size and unwanted pregnancy, and methods of contraception, is more than just messaging. Instead, we must learn from the people and their leaders how to make these issues socially acceptable and worthy of urgent action. You need to understand people’s underlying attitudes before you can help them change their mind.

Women empowerment & development:

This is another matter of preference. In many countries, women do most of the work in the countryside. When given the opportunity, women have repeatedly shown themselves to be very responsive and responsible when being helped to mobilise and utilise available resources to create sustainable results.

Women need more technical and organisational skills, and society needs more women at the heart of decision-making. Specific challenges where development communication is important include helping groups of women strengthen their self-determination and expanding gender dialogue about rights, privileges and responsibilities.

Rural poverty:

This continues to increase in many countries, accelerating urban migration and creating intolerable social and economic problems. The solution, of course, lies in the development of rural areas. Most rural communities are characterised by their dependence on traditional knowledge and production systems, based entirely on what has made their existence in the past. This led to the belief that rural communities resisted change, even though their traditional wisdom was hard to beat and their reasoning was correct.

Planners should take this into account as the first step in any planning exercise. For this, and for all rural development activities, communication between local communities and national decision-makers and the local populace is of vital importance, but unfortunately, in rural areas, this is the weakest. Development communication experts can help mitigate this phenomenon by their skill in understanding and working directly with the rural people.


Malnutrition is both cause and effect of underdevelopment. Over the past few decades, daily calorie intake per capita in many countries has steadily decreased. The International Conference on Nutrition, held in December 1992, drew attention to the fact that more than 780 million people in the world are chronically malnourished, and each year around 13 million children under the age of 5 (FAO stats). Death from infectious diseases can be caused directly or indirectly by hunger or malnutrition.

However, nutritional well-being is not just a matter of food availability and economics in families. It also depends on adequate knowledge and acceptance of the proper diet. At the planner level, mainstream nutrition concerns turns into development initiatives for agriculture, food security, forestry, land use, exports, and more. This calls for increased awareness of nutritional priorities as these are not spontaneously identified in these areas.

The points elaborated above are just a few of the many areas development communication can be leveraged as a tool to help solve associated challenges.

Looking ahead

Any development programme that sees people as mere beneficiaries rather than real creators of change and progress, often fails. Consulting with people and actively involving them in making decisions that will affect them virtually guarantees the success of the programme.

In fact, effective planning must make a deliberate effort to define what people want to do, can do, and can continue to do in a sustainable way. To find out, communication techniques go beyond a simple question and answer survey. Constructive discussions created by people trained in interpersonal communication skills, and audiovisual tools, such as video or radio, can help communities identify their real problems and priorities, and where their competencies and needs lie. This self-analysis can help the community come up with practical recommendations for new development initiatives and ignite enormous interest in seeing these initiatives succeed.

Development Communication is the key for the ‘new normal’.


Jan Servaes (2002), Approaches to Development Communication

(FAO reports), Communication, a key to human development

World Bank reports (2002), Development Communication,education%2C%20or%20awareness%2Draising.

OECD (2014), Good Practices in Development Communication,

About the Writer

The writer is is a Development Communication professional with a penchant for researching, practising and writing on multi-sectoral issues related to development communication globally.

You can reach him on [email protected]































Leave a Reply