Why is communication essential for sustainable development? This report from Panos argues that information, communication, the media and ICTs are powerful agents in giving ‘voice’ to the poor. open, participatory information and communication processes contribute to inclusive politics, better governance, a dynamic civil society, and to rapid, fairer economic growth. However, communication must be put at the service of the poor – at community, national and international levels. A wide-ranging, holistic and strategic approach to information and communication challenges is needed, plus – crucially – political will to address them.
Effective communication is about dialogue, not ‘media management’, top-down pronouncements, advertising and ‘spin’. The poor need to be able to receive information, but also to make their voices heard. Support for communication in the context of sustainable development therefore involves promoting dialogue in which power-holders listen to, consider, respect and use the knowledge and views of the poor.
A free, pluralistic media environment is important for such dialogue. The media provide a forum for political debate and accountability, and help shape social attitudes – for instance to women’s equality. While media freedom and pluralism of ownership do not guarantee ‘voice’ for the marginalised, they are prerequisites if the media are to hold the powerful to account. The essentials of public service media are accessibility (including by poor and marginalised people) and quality content that is accurate, informative, and reflects varied perspectives. The media, and information and communication more generally, can contribute in particular to four key areas of development:
- Inclusive political processes: These require open communication environments and can benefit from use of ICTs.Mobile phones are increasingly used to strengthen the integrity and credibility of elections, for example.
- Good governance: Responsive, accountable and capable governance requires effective communication between government and citizens. Information made available on the state and public services can help citizens to monitor government performance. Better communication can also improve administrative interaction and the effectiveness and efficiency of public services.
- A vibrant civil society: Information and communication are fundamental to the formal and informal networks between individuals, groups, institutions and organisations that facilitate public debate and build social capital. Where people are involved and engaged in discussions of issues that affect them, societal attitudes and individual behaviour are more likely to change.
- Efficient and more equitable economies: By improving communication processes, governments can make bureaucratic and regulatory businesses procedures simpler, faster, cheaper and more transparent. Mobile phones and the Internet offer new opportunities for small- as well as large-scale economic activity – enabling small farmers to know what price their products are fetching in local and national markets, for example, giving them a stronger negotiating position with intermediaries.
Support for communication processes must focus on strengthening the channels used by poor and marginalised people. This may involve establishing and realising legal rights to freedom of speech and access to information, supporting media, and developing and exploiting new opportunities offered by ICTs. Governments and development planners must:
- Build more open, transparent information and communication systems and political cultures: Governments and institutions must accept the reality of a networked world, which will shape politics and civil society in ways that are only just starting to emerge, and adapt to citizens’ expectations of transparency and the free flow of information.
- Treat information, communication and the media as public goods and invest accordingly: Governments should invest in strengthening those areas that the market alone may not provide, such as telephone access for poor people or high-quality public interest journalism.
- Take a holistic view of communication processes and integrate communication into development planning and implementation: The role communication should be specified in all development analysis and planning, and adequate resources of funding, expertise and planning must be invested in implementation.
- Invest in media development: Requirements for a diverse, dynamic and free media include regulation; strengthened media infrastructure, capacity and professionalism; and support for improvements in the quality and diversity of media content.