Why does the use of participatory communication in development remain limited? Why are informational approaches still favoured in practice? This article takes an institutional perspective, examining prevalent notions about communication in international aid organisations. The selection of communication approaches is based on institutional factors and expectations, rather than on their analytical value. Institutional dynamics therefore undermine the potential of participatory communication. Researchers and practitioners need to broaden their understanding of communication in international development.
Traditional ‘diffusionist’ concepts of communication are no longer dominant in academia. Participatory communication and other critical approaches have challenged the notion that communities should be ‘passive beneficiaries’. But innovations in the academic field have not been sufficient to change practices and views about communication inside aid organisations. The selection of communication approaches is not primarily based on their analytical or normative value, but on institutional factors and expectations.
Institutional imperatives discourage the expansion of communication beyond the informational paradigm and limit the adoption of participatory communication. This happens in three ways: through bureaucratic requirements; the weak status of communication as a field of study and practice; and the predominance of a technical mindset.
- Bureaucratic requirements favour the use of informational models over participatory approaches to communication. Standard institutional procedures within development agencies, donors and governments perpetuate understandings and uses of communication as a set of technical skills to disseminate messages.
- The weak status of communication as a field of study and practice in development organisations undermines prospects for expanding the understanding of communication. As long as technical experts in public health or other fields expect communication to be ‘the art of messaging’, communication staff lack autonomy to make decisions and incorporate participatory approaches.
- The institutional predominance of a technical mindset limits the uses of participation thinking. The prioritisation of technical perspectives decouples ‘development’ programmes from local processes of participation and change.
If participatory communication goes against prevalent organisational imperatives, how can it be fully institutionalised? Is it a matter of changing institutional incentives and procedures? Opportunities vary across agencies and governments, while the international aid system itself remains the subject of political and academic scrutiny. Future efforts could include:
- Gradual yet significant innovations within institutional constraints. It is important to recognise achievements so far: approaches based on local ownership with viable sustainability and scale can intelligently link with international agencies.
- Top-level commitment to institutionalise different conceptions of communication. Persuading technical staff about the contributions of participatory actions is plausible; particularly if linked with similar approaches from other disciplines, for example community-based health, governance, and social capital.
- Revolutionising widespread conceptions of communication and linking communication to popular ongoing initiatives to strengthen accountability, human rights, and local participation in international aid.
- Researchers and practitioners embracing an analytical perspective that examines how alternatives to the informational paradigm might be effectively institutionalised in development agencies.