Jan Servaes: Sustainability is the Key and the Achilles

Development Policy16 Sep 2009Jan Servaes

It was rewarding to hear so many positive reactions during the opening and afterwards. As some of you pointed out the ‘crux’ of the matter is ‘sustainability’. What does that mean for our field?

In an article published in Gazette (Servaes, 2007 – in attach) I have developed the argument further at three levels: (1) the difference between a top-down and a bottom-up CSSC model, (2) different CSSC strategies used by UN agencies, and (3) the role and place of different interpersonal and communication media in CSSC approaches.

UN agencies deploy different elements of communication strategies because they adhere to different mandates, objectives and methods. Distinct development communication approaches and communication means used can be identified within organizations working at distinct societal and geographic levels. Some of these approaches can be grouped together under the heading of the so-called diffusion model, others under the participatory model. As most often no proper ontological or epistemological assumptions are considered, many approaches (I have counted 14 in my article) contain references to both diffusionist and participatory perspectives in obvious contradictory and illogical ways. Adam Rogers, the former Head of Communications and Information at UNCDF and now with the UN Development Group (UNDG), summarized it a few years ago as ‘Participatory diffusion or semantic confusion’: “Many development practitioners are avoiding the semantic debates outlined above in order to harness the benefits of both approaches. For them, what is most important is not what an approach is called, the origins of an idea or how it is communicated.

What is critical is that we find the most effective and efficient tools to achieve the noble objectives outlined in the Millennium Declaration” (Rogers, 2005b: 183-184). Since the so-called ‘top-down’ approaches have fallen out of grace in the highly political development aid community, many statements and reports are now advocating ‘bottom-up’ approaches with references to participation, empowerment and providing ‘a voice for the voiceless’. Hardly anybody seems to be concerned about the implicit contradictions these forms of ‘hybridity’ pose at both theoretical and applied levels.

In general, these approaches and methodologies could be summarized at two overlapping levels:

  1. the communication channels and media used, and
  2. the desired or expected outcomes. Regarding the first level, I have proposed that communication strategies for development and social change should be subdivided at five levels:
    a. Behavior change communication (BCC) (mainly interpersonal communication),
    b. Mass communication (MC) (community media, mass media and ICTs),
    c. Advocacy communication (AC) (interpersonal and/or mass communication),
    d. Participatory communication (PC) (interpersonal communication and community media), and
    e. Communication for structural and sustainable social change (CSSC) (interpersonal communication, participatory communication and mass communication).

Interpersonal communication and mass communication form the bulk of what is being studied in the mainstream discipline of communication science. Behavior change communication is mainly concerned with short-term individual changes in attitudes and behavior. It can be further subdivided in perspectives that explain individual behavior, interpersonal behavior, and community or societal behavior. In isolation, behavioral change communication (BCC), mass communication (MC), and advocacy communication (AC), though useful in itself, will not being able to create sustainable social change. Participatory communication (PC) and communication for structural and sustainable social change (CSSC), being more concerned about long-term sustained change at different levels of society, are more likely to be succesful.

Looking at desired or expected outcomes, one could think of four broad headings:

  1. approaches that attempt to change attitudes (through information dissemination, public relations, …) ,
  2. behavioral change approaches (focusing on changes of individual behavior, interpersonal behavior and/or community and societal behavior);
  3. advocacy approaches (primarily targeted at policy-makers and decision-makers at all levels and sectors of society); and
  4. communication for structural and sustainable change approaches (which could be either top-down, horizontal or bottom-up).

Again, the first three approaches, though useful by themselves, are in isolation not capable of creating sustainable social change. Sustainable social change can only be achieved in combination with and incorporating aspects of the wider environment that influences (and constrains) structural and sustainable change. These aspects include: structural and conjunctural factors (e.g. history, migration, conflicts); policy and legislation; service provision; education systems; institutional and organizational factors (e.g. bureaucracy, corruption); cultural factors (e.g. religion, norms and values); socio-demographic factors (e.g., ethnicity, class); socio-political factors; socio-economic factors; and the physical environment. For instance, The Rome Consensus agreed at the World Congress on Communication for Development (Rome, 25-27 October 2006) states that “Communication for Development is a social process based on dialogue using a broad range of tools and methods. It is also about seeking change at different levels including listening, building trust, sharing knowledge and skills, building policies, debating and learning for sustained and meaningful change. It is not public relations or corporate communication” (emphasis added) (

However, major aspects of many projects and programs currently being promoted and implemented are, I believe, nothing but ‘public relations or corporate communication’ wrapped in participatory diffusion rhetoric.By way of summary, the field of communication for social change is vast, and the models supporting it are as different as the ideologies that inspired them. However, generally speaking, I see two approaches: one aims to produce a common understanding among all the participants in a development initiative by implementing a policy or a development project (that is, the top–down model); the other emphasizes engaging the grassroots in making decisions that enhance their own lives, or the bottom–up model. Despite the diversity of approaches, there is a consensus today on the need for grassroots participation in bringing about change at both social and individual levels.

Therefore, I wish to join Nobel Prize Winner Amartya Sen where he argued that “The deciding issue, ultimately, has to be one of democracy. An overarching value must be the need for participatory decision-making on the kind of society people want to live in, based on open discussion, with adequate opportunity for the expression of minority positions.”