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Saving the World: A Brief History of Communication for Devleopment and Social Change

Saving the World: A Brief History of Communication for Devleopment and Social Change

by Emile G. McAnany

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This far-reaching and long overdue chronicle of communication for development from a leading scholar in the field presents in-depth policy analyses to outline a vision for how communication technologies can impact social change and improve human lives. Drawing on the pioneering works of Daniel Lerner, Everett Rogers, and Wilbur Schramm as well as his own personal


This far-reaching and long overdue chronicle of communication for development from a leading scholar in the field presents in-depth policy analyses to outline a vision for how communication technologies can impact social change and improve human lives. Drawing on the pioneering works of Daniel Lerner, Everett Rogers, and Wilbur Schramm as well as his own personal experiences in the field, Emile G. McAnany builds a new, historically cognizant paradigm for the future that supplements technology with social entrepreneurship.   McAnany summarizes the history of the field of communication for development and social change from Truman's Marshall Plan for the Third World to the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. Part history and part policy analysis, Saving the World argues that the communication field can renew its role in development by recognizing large aid-giving institutions have a difficult time promoting genuine transformation. McAnany suggests an agenda for improving and strengthening the work of academics, policy makers, development funders, and any others who use communication in all of its forms to foster social change.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"It presents in-depth policy analyses to outline a vision for how communication technologies have—and still can—impact social change and economic/cultural development. . . . McAnany builds an historical paradigm that melds technology with social entrepreneurship. "— Communication Booknotes Quarterly

"Saving the World offers a judicious integration of Emile G. McAnany's own first-hand experience with many of the seminal people and projects in communication for development. McAnany provides a very valuable understanding of the underlying structure of the field and how these ideas have been implemented and theorized."—Joseph Straubhaar, author of Media Now: Understanding Media, Culture, and Technology

"All students who are just beginning will find this book an excellent introduction not only to the ideas and theories but also to the key thinkers who have helped frame the debate over the last 30 or 40 years. . . . Knowing the people and their histories gives an invaluable background to our knowledge."—Communication Research Trends

"A comprehensive, ambitious history and policy analysis of the field of development communication. McAnany's grasp of the major developments, issues, and advances of this field will appeal to scholars of communication, sociology, political science, and economics."—Robert Huesca, professor of communication, Trinity University

"Savings the World provides a strong history for understanding the context of efforts to use communication to spur development.  McAnany's continuing push for measures that will demonstrate success or failure is welcome.  This volume will be most valuable to those seeking historical context as they delve into the role of information and communication technologies for development."—International Journal of Communication

"Saving the World is a fascinating examination of how earlier technologies were applied to foster social change.  An easy-to-read, well-organized document; while McAnany carefully relays theory, he does it in a concise way that anyone will find accessible."—Technical Communication

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University of Illinois Press
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History of Communication
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Saving the World

A Brief History of Communication for Development and Social Change


Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03677-4


Communication in the Lives of the Globe

Over the past sixty years, the globe has expanded its population from 2.6 billion people to more than 7 billion. It has increased the number of independent countries from 80 to 193. It has increased international trade from billions of dollars to trillions. The number of television sets has grown from practically none in 1950 to 1.4 billion, with audiences of close to half of the global population. In many ways, the world, like the universe, seems to be expanding in all directions, with more people, more countries, more trade, more media, and certainly more problems if one attends to the news. Yet, in some very important ways, the globe as a whole has shrunk in that time span. Globalization is a theory of how our world is being pulled into a tighter network of communication, trade, travel, and cultural exchange. One aspect of this theory by Robertson (1992), Giddens (2003), and others is the belief that the world is being drawn into a common consciousness of modernity or awareness of the oneness of the world. The expectation of some theorists is that as people are drawn closer together into modernity, they will realize they are part of a "global village," somewhat as McLuhan (1964) articulated the vision almost fifty years ago. But there is another side to the theory that is perhaps less comforting.

The remarkable growth of the global economy over the past half century for some stands in stark contrast to the poverty of the many. Increasingly, our news media carry disturbing images of a poverty and conflict that seem perverse in a world of science, technology, and communication that has accomplished so much for our modern civilization of engineering, scientific advance, and instantaneous communication. It seems not only an opportunity but an obligation for the use of this modern infrastructure to solve the problems of those sectors of the globe that are most in need. This challenge was first addressed at the beginning of the new millennium by the global body of the United Nations, when its membership decided that, as a whole, the world could no longer stand by and see itself divided by the chasm of poverty and discrimination. The result was the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), eight concrete goals to overcome poverty, prejudice, human rights abuse, and other ills in the first fifteen years of this new era (un.org/ millenniumgoals). But was this a new beginning or an old story?

Communication and Change: Lerner's Parable

Daniel Lerner (1958), a sociologist and communication scholar, wrote in his classic book The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East about a profound change that was coming to the postwar world of the 1950s. As a prelude to his study, he told a parable about communication and change. It concerned a small Turkish village, Balgat, and two of its citizens, the chief and the grocer, who were the symbols of tradition and modernization. The village had been exposed to mass communication, and while the chief resisted the change brought by the media, the grocer embraced it. Over time, the chief was left behind, while others became more "modern" and accepted news ways. Lerner's point was that modern mass communication in the form of radio, cinema, and newspapers of the 1950s was transforming Balgat and the entire Middle East, introducing not only news and information but a whole new way of thinking about the world. Lerner's thesis was that the process of modernization was thrusting traditional peoples into the modern world of the West through mass media—and that this was not only inevitable but a good thing. There has been a half century of critique of Lerner's modernization thesis and its mass communication bias, but though modernization has faded as a theory, the communication focus of his theory for change stemming from the array of new communication technologies has seemed to gain momentum (Rantanen 2005). We have been reminded of this transformative effect of communication technologies recently in the upheaval of the so-called Arab Spring of 2011.

Lerner argued not so much for introducing these technologies into societies to solve problems (that would come shortly later in the 1960s), but about the consequences of exposure to this new phenomenon of media. It may be hard to reconcile Lerner's cold war rhetoric (his study was sponsored by a U.S. government agency in 1951 to understand whether our propaganda was beating that of the Soviets in the Middle East) with his grand theory of communication and social change, but fifty years or more later, it is harder to deny part of his basic insight—for better or worse—that communication technologies bring content that has consequences for people everywhere. There has been a growing consensus over the past half century that mediated communication in all of its forms, from radio to satellites to the internet, has played an increasingly central role in societies—again, for better or worse (cf. Kenny 2009 for a recent positive view). Communication technologies have brought a largely Western message to increasing millions the world over. Along with this onslaught of information and entertainment, sometimes not welcome by its recipients, experts in development planning have been trying, over the past fifty years, to use both the technology and the content of communication for solving problems of marginalization and poverty. This thinking of how technology might help in development began even before Lerner's book created a theoretical foundation for concrete applications in communication technologies. In January 1949, President Truman began the call for a major effort to help developing countries improve their economies and societies through a Marshall Plan for the Third World, and fifty years later, the UN made a similar pitch for the Millennium Development Goals. Thus, there is a long history of creating change with the help of the emerging information and communication technologies (ICTs).

The purpose of this book is threefold: to document this history of communication's role in social change in some detail to understand how both theory and practice evolved along with the technologies, to ascertain where we are today in this long-term struggle to bring development and social change through ICTs as well as interpersonal communication, and to better understand how we judge the success and failure of this endeavor.

New Era, Old Questions: What Can Be Done Today to Foster Social Change?

It has been more than sixty years since Truman suggested a global effort to foster development in the developing world, and there has been much debate about what this means and why change has been so slow in coming. This book will not review the debate over the different theories of development in depth, nor will it try to settle debates over terminology that from the start have plagued the field of communication for development (c4d). The only clarification that we need to make at the beginning of this book is that the c4d designation is an abbreviation for a longer term that includes both development and social change within the meaning of this term. Although there is debate about both development and social change in our field, I use the abbreviated form for convenience, but I include social change in the phrase at times to emphasize the difference between institutional efforts (development) and significant and permanent (social) change that take place in people's lives on the ground. This indicates an important distinction that will be found in the remainder of the book between what is done for and to people by large outside institutions (development funders) and what people find to do for themselves. Not that funding is not needed, but people's participation in what funding may be able to provide to improve their lives is the critical factor in making change more meaningful and permanent.

Another clarification that needs to be made here is that this is a book based on my own experience over the past almost fifty years of professional interest in c4d. This means that this book is a biased account in that I have my own perspective and experience that limit the scope of the contents. I have chosen to call this a history of the field of communication for development and social change (again, c4d for short) because I arrived in graduate school in 1965 shortly after this field had been defined by the three recognized seminal figures of Daniel Lerner, Everett Rogers, and Wilbur Schramm, all of whom I either worked with or knew in more than a passing way. This is not, however, a memoir because I am not the subject of the book but rather an author and observer and because I am attempting to bring a historical perspective to the overview of the c4d effort of the past five decades. I have called on my own direct experience in both writing about the use of communication for development as well as my fieldwork and that of my graduate students at Stanford University and the University of Texas at Austin to go along with the research I have conducted in both primary and secondary sources in our field. But the purpose of this book is not purely historical in its interest.

My interest in this book is also in using any insight from the historical review of the theories and paradigms that have energized the field at different times to suggest an agenda for improving and strengthening the work of academics, policy makers, development funders, and people working in the field to use communication in all of its forms to promote the social change in people's lives, which is the basic rationale for the work of c4d. Therefore, I have tried in chapters 7 and 8 to summarize the insights from the historical review of the field in the form of suggestions that might benefit those who will continue to work in the field in the future.

In addition to the bias that my own experience brings to the telling of this story, I need to add that I have chosen to make a brief rather than a lengthy discourse. As a consequence, I have left out much of c4d experience in many parts of the world. I should note several here. I am well aware of the early work in the Philippines of using communication in development, especially in agriculture and rural social change (Quebral 1972, 2002). I also know that a number of early scholars in India worked in similar areas with significant success (Rao 1963; Dube 1967). There was similar work in the rest of Asia and Africa of which I document only a limited part. It is also true for Latin America, though I have included more from this region because of my own more extensive experience there and its relevance to several of the four paradigms I review in the book. I wish to acknowledge at the beginning these and other scholars and c4d workers who have contributed to advancing the field over the past half century even though they may not be mentioned by name.

Given the overview of this book's rationale, the question about how the field might improve is central to what this work is about. Before briefly addressing this problem, we have to ask why there is a need to improve, and here my personal experience and concerns acknowledge several of my biases. First, I am and have been an academic in American universities throughout my career and am concerned about the continued work of communication scholars from American universities in c4d. Over the past thirty years, there has been a slackening of interest in c4d in our field by my American colleagues. This is manifest by personal impressions and those of my U.S. colleagues still focused on c4d, but it is also empirically based on some recent studies of journal articles related to these topics (Fair 1989; Fair and Shah 1997; Ogan et al. 2009) that show a significant dropping off of online and offline journal publications with a development and communication focus. Ogan and colleagues' review was for the decade 1997–2007, but they account for all such publications from 1958 through 1996 by citing the two other authors' work as well. Ogan and colleagues' conclusion is that there has been a dropping off of academic research in the c4d arena as well as a shrinking of relevant courses in major American graduate teaching programs in communication. There may have been similar declines for c4d publications in other global regions, but perhaps not, and I have no empirical evidence on that question at hand. I do, however, wish to acknowledge that in the past ten years (perhaps due to the United Nation's definition of Millennium Goals to improve the living conditions for the world's poor in 2000), there seems to be greater public awareness and growing attention to the problems addressed by c4d efforts in various institutions and aid agencies. The other bias of mine is that I have worked with media research in my professional life and tend to know technology-based studies better than other approaches; as a consequence, many of my examples will be from this area. I am fully aware of the key importance of an interpersonal, face-to-face communication approach that has been part of the c4d field from early on and its importance to the field's improvement.

Why It Is Important to Refocus the Communication for Development Field

The fact that we live in a globalized world of increasing connections with others has been recognized by the communication field for some years now (for example, Rantanen 2005). But we need to specify how globalization might affect the work of c4d in greater detail. The role of ICTs in the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals has been mentioned by UN planners and others (see Hemer and Tufte 2005), but there has been relatively little input from the communication field in the published literature on general development theory or as is evident in policy and projects sponsored by many large aid-giving institutions. There is an almost universal awareness of the centrality of information and communication technologies in the societies of our increasingly connected world, but national leaders seem to be less cognizant of how this awareness could be translated into social purposes within their borders or how people's participation in the use of these technologies is crucial to improving their lives. Globalization in this book will be understood as the increasing interconnectedness of people across the globe through communication, finance, trade, transport, cultural exchanges, and so forth. Later discussion will cite literature to underpin the context for more recent historical analysis. In short, there is a need and a challenge to place communication back into the work of development and social change today.

Part of the problem with the c4d field over the past five decades has been the split between theory and practice or application. The work of theorizing is quite rightly left to the academy, and the work of application is often carried out by persons who have little exposure or interest in theory. In some cases, people who have worked in the field have later reflected on and distilled their experience into theory: for example, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who will be referred to in later chapters. But theory can and does affect practice through the work of policy makers in large aid-giving institutions who control vital funds for the creation of projects that can reflect the theories of communication scholars. This interaction of theory and practice is a complex process of institutional influence and academic writing that will form some of my own theorizing in this book. It will be based on some analysis of how practices and theory form part of a larger discourse about development that may change over time but is influential for consequences in people's lives on the ground. A consequence of the importance I give to both theory and practice is that throughout the chapters, I try to provide case studies that illustrate how the theories that drove c4d over the past fifty years had consequences for practices.

This book will argue that there may be a better way for communication to renew its role in development by recognizing that large aid-giving institutions have a difficult time promoting genuine change. There are other ways of organizing c4d that promise to be more effective by beginning closer to the ground and promoting smaller projects with more modest funding and even of searching for ways to make c4d self-sustaining rather than dependent on continuing aid from the outside. There is no search for a magic bullet here, but an examination of the history of the c4d field over the past fifty years may provide some guidance for both theory and practice that can help improve the lives of people.


Excerpted from Saving the World by EMILE G. McANANY Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Emile G. McAnany is the former Walter E. Schmidt, S.J., Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University and the author of several books, including Mass Media and Free Trade: NAFTA and the Cultural Industries.

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