Considering Development

People in the development field have attempted to diffuse a number of different technologies in order to aid, midwife, or spark the development of a broad spectrum of places.

From genetically modified rice to clean water systems to vaccines — if one thinks of a vaccine as a type of technology — technologies have been brought into what are considered underdeveloped communities to help them become healthier or less poor or more modern, but the projects often fail for one reason or another.

Among the technologies researchers and nonprofits have deployed to help aid in development have been communication technologies.

In 2009 I was coauthor of a study examining the research on what’s called Development Communication. The 8 of us working on the project were looking at how development communication had (or hadn’t) changed in an “era of ICTs and Globalization.”

At its most basic, theories behind development communication suggested that if you diffused a communication technology you could help developing places modernize.

Of course, it’s rarely that simple and research over decades only confirmed that. Our study was focused on whether researchers using newer technologies were diving into that old research or forging ahead without understanding how development communication had (or hadn’t) worked in the past.

What we found, perhaps unsurprisingly, was that projects were often touting the way new, interactive, Internet based communication technologies could aid in development. Rarely were they looking back to the early pitfalls of such an approach to communication for development.

Basically, these ICT — information and communication technology — projects were doing the same sorts of things that researchers using telephones or film or radio had done … hanging development hopes on the technology while often overlooking all the other factors that are important in the development of a community.

Of course, that leaves one wondering what to do.

As I sit writing this I came across a story from Deutsche Welle about the EU’s desire to cut costs and red-tape in the administration of its aid programs.

Whenever I read research or news stories about development projects I always wonder to what end? Who are the development projects for?

“Europe is interested in supporting economic development in other countries, because that makes them interesting trading partners,”┬áKlaus Rudischhauser from EuropeAID is quoted as saying in the Deutsche Welle article.

That mix of both self-interest and desire to help might explain why so much of the development literature is littered with projects looking for a technology that will quickly jump-start development. And why so many projects are abandoned when things don’t happen quickly enough.


A community health worker prepares a vaccination for a baby. Image via UK Department for International Development (Flickr).

Some of the most interesting conversations I’ve seen have centered on the UN Millennium Development Goals.

The goals have include attaining equality in education, the empowerment of girls, the reduction of the spread of HIV/AIDS, and improving food security.

With the 2015 “deadline” in sight, the United Nations is beginning to create conversations about what the future of development is and should be.

Of course it’s not just nation states or big international organizations who are funding development projects — there are also wealthy businessmen turned philanthropists like Bill Gates who are out there pushing development agendas.

It leaves you wondering what’s in store in the field of development. The Guardian actually has a section on its website full of articles pondering “The future of development.”

As for development communication, the area I’m most familiar with, it’s slowly fading away.

In our 2009 study we found that fewer projects were situating themselves within the field of development communication and a quickly Google Scholar search shows that very little has been published in this area since our study came out.

Researchers have, instead, been focusing their attention on the study of communication and social change. It makes me wonder if, eventually, development will be a concept that will be replaced by something else.

Social change? Economic change? Cultural change?

But it still begs the question — change for whom?