Jan Servaes: Communication for sustainable social change

Civic Action06 Sep 2009Jan Servaes

Let me start by stating at the outset that our Center does not intend to replace, nor compete with other projects or programs on campus. To the contrary, we hope to being able to work with many if not all who are interested in collaborating with us.

We aim to be comprehensive and interdisciplinary on the one, and focused and down to earth on the other hand. The specificity and added value of what we offer lies in the title of our Center:

COMMUNICATION: which covers structures and processes from interpersonal, over group and traditional media to mass and the so-called new media, Information and Communication Technologies, the internet, facebook, twitter, digital storytelling and whatever comes next…

However, the role and place of all these communication forms need to be assessed from a SUSTAINABLE SOCIAL CHANGE perspective. This eliminates about 75% if not more of everything which is nowadays being sponsored, studied and advocated. Though ‘sustainability’ is a pandora’s box in itself (as Prof. Cox will explain), it will be one of the benchmarks for our Center.

The reference to Social Change opens it to local, national and international levels of reflection and action. Our field was and sometimes still is being addressed as Development Communication with its connotation to the so-called Third World. We have argued that there is no universal development model. Development is an integral, multidimensional, and dialectic process that differs from society to society, community to community, context to context. After all the US is the richest Third World country in the world.

Important challenges lie ahead from a sustainable social change perspective: Though many US mainstream media (copying Wall Street spin-doctors) preach that the crisis is about over and we can go back to business and consumption as usual, the current crisis is having major economic, social and cultural impacts on the disadvantaged everywhere, and especially countries in the global South. A statistic generally unreported in the media shows that the World Bank estimates that GDP per capita will fall 2.9% in developing countries (probably with the exclusion of China and India). This will have significant social and cultural ramifications such as increased unemployment and a further deterioration of human rights. The impact of this fall will be large and prolonged and will mark the end of a global development cycle and the start of a period of uncertainty for some years to come. Therefore a paradigm shift is needed, one of global sustainable development.

We wish to collaborate and enter into a dialogue with others in this search for both theoretical and applied solutions. Yes, indeed, we don’t intend to limit our objectives to an academic exercise, but wish to engage with the real world as well. As you can see on our website, our projects aim to cover a broad area of activities, going from teaching and training, over research, conferences, local and international networking, lobbying and advocacy. We acknowledge that this will not always be easy as there is a thin line between scholarly engagement and activism, and the place and role of public intellectuals in today’s society is no longer clear and straightforward.

Therefore, we are thankful that our local ACTV community station is videotaping this event for broadcasting and web streaming, and the Europe-based bi-monthly magazine on development coorperation, The Broker, has offered to blog our event in preparation of a special issue on the theme of CSSC. The Broker aims to contribute to evidence-based policy making and better formulated research questions in the field of poverty reduction and international development. The Broker helps policy makers, practitioners and scientists to make a better use of the results and conclusions of recent and ongoing research and evaluations, in the fields of economics, governance, security and science & technology.