Talking It Out: A Communication-Based Approach to Sustainable Development

By Agunga, Robert | Harvard International Review, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Talking It Out: A Communication-Based Approach to Sustainable Development


Agunga, Robert, Harvard International Review


ROBERT AGUNGA is Associate Professor of Human and Community Resource Development at The Ohio State University.

Development aid seeks to improve the quality of life, particularly of rural people, in the developing world. But, with every dose of aid, the helper seems to benefit more than the helped. The result is a widening gap between rich and poor countries. For this reason, critics contend that aid is an instrument that fosters dependency, not a tool for liberating poor countries. A critical review of the literature over the last 40 years, coupled with my own first-hand field experience, leads me to conclude that the frequent failures of development programs come from errors of omission, not commission. Today, those charged with project planning and implementation often lack the professional expertise to address social and communication issues such as empowerment, capacity building, and cultural understanding, all of which constitute the main causes of project failures. A communication approach for sustainable development is crucial for the good intentions of aid-givers to bring about the desired social impact.

Critics of international aid contend that aid is a calculated attempt by industrialized countries to keep the developing world in a perpetual state of dependency. The dependency argument suggests that the greater the development of the industrialized nations, the greater the underdevelopment of the poor ones.

This is an unfortunate conclusion. In his 1995 book, Nurturing Development: Aid and Cooperation in Today's Changing World, Ismail Serageldin, Vice President of the World Bank, states that "aid represents such a small percentage of GNP that to talk of `dependency' is ludicrous." He argues that, except in sub-Saharan Africa--where total overseas development assistance reached about ten percent of GNP in 1992--the aid received by Latin America, East Asia, and South Asia represents only 0.4 percent, 0.7 percent, and 1.7 percent of GNP, respectively. Even if all the assistance promised to Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States materialized, it would represent only two percent of their GNP.

Since aid tends to constitute a minimal portion of developing countries' budgets, it is important not to dwell on the dependency argument, but to suggest how aid could significantly benefit these countries. The main problem is that there are not enough qualified experts to implement projects effectively. The developing world desperately needs a strategy for building local capacity that reduces dependence on foreign technical assistance. As one born and raised on a subsistence farm in Ghana, I have seen project appraisal reports filled with suggestions for indigenous participation. Yet neither the foreign technical assistance experts nor their local counterparts know how the masses of small-scale farmers, scattered across the rural countryside, are to be mobilized, organized, and trained for participatory decision-making.

A suitable climate for sustainable development has existed for the last 20 years. The policies of international development assistance organizations and Third World governments have consistently focused on the eradication of poverty and the raising of funds to accomplish that. With the end of the Cold War, most developing countries no longer feel a need to choose between a capitalist or socialist path to development, but can frame their own development agendas. Internal political instability, natural disasters, and an unreliable climate do affect the success rate of development efforts, but these are not overriding explanations for frequent development failures. The underlying reason is that development experts lack the communication skills to create development teams capable of getting the job done.

Between good intentions and final outcomes lies a gauntlet of unexamined assumptions, inadequate information, cultural misunderstandings, inappropriate strategies, and poor communication techniques which must be overcome before the intended beneficiaries can achieve development goals. …

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