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Culturelink review, no.22/August 1997 - contents - imprint - archive

Networking in Third World Environments

In Search of an Integration of Globalism and Localism

Original paper: UDC 008:316.77:32
Received in April 1997

This Dossier contains a selection of the 86 papers presented at the international conference Media & Politics, held at the Katholieke Universiteit Brussel from 27 February to 1 March 1997. For the first time, the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the Catholic University of Brussels collaborated with the Political Communication and Participatory Communication Research Sections and the Human Rights Committee of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR). This conference was unique in that it encompassed a multitude of exciting issues and features. The assembled papers and panels represented well the intellectual vitality and diversity of the interdisciplinary theme of mass media and politics. Some of the highlights included presentations and discussions on global perspectives of cultural identity; the Internet, democracy and human rights; questions of anti-politics, tele-politics, and multicultural communication. Special sessions concentrated on the changes taking place in Russia and Eastern Europe, the United States, Western Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Belgium. Also more theoretical and methodological issues were discussed: whether the public opinion exists; media stereotyping and content analysis; the effects of agenda-setting; and the mediatization of elections and propaganda. Of special interest to me, and hopefully also to others, was the topic of communication for social change. Therefore, special sessions focused on the role of the communication media in development cooperation, and on grassroots networking in the so-called Third World.

This Dossier of CULTURELINK addresses the latter issue, namely, networking in Third World environments. Both theoretical and methodological arguments, as well as a case study on Thailand will be presented. The unifying theme in all the papers is the search for an understanding of the obviously emerging integration of globalism and localism at the level of political networking.

Problems have to be solved at distinct levels. There are contradictions not only at the international level, between the metropolis and the dependent countries for instance; but also at the national level, where the clash between the interests of the state and 'organized communicators' (e.g., media owners) on the one hand and the government and the population at large on the other hand is evident. Therefore, it is necessary to combine and integrate local, national, regional, international and intermediate levels if one really wants to acquire an understanding of today's situation. The starting point in the case studies is the nation-state. However, it differs from the notion of the modernization scholars, who have also adopted the nation-state as their level of analysis: In modernization theories the nation-states are often the units of analysis in the traditional international relations framework, rather than communities, cultures, or regions in their anthropological, cultural, and historical contexts. In this latter conception, principles of decentralization and participation on the one hand, and the involvement in action and change on the other hand, become essential: "The new conception holds that it is not enough to provide for participation in the system, even if this can be made less formal and more substantial; the aim is also to create a just society. Participation is necessary but not sufficient for this to happen. What is needed is self-government, a decentralized order through which the masses are empowered. This would not be decentralization in the sense of territorial devolution of functions and resources to lower levels but decentralization in which the people are the center". (Kothari, 1986:182)

So there is a great complexity in the interrelationship between centralization and decentralization and each so-called decentralization or grassroots project must be carefully examined: "If the grass roots organizations were linked across space and sustained each other through exchanging ideas, they could contribute to the eventual emergence not just of a new consciousness but a new kind of state structure. Within such a state structure, decentralization of power and mass participation in economic/social decision making could become a real possibility. In the short run, grass roots experiments and people's movements could act as sources of countervailing power to the mechanisms of inequality and repressive control. In the long run, when structural changes at the macro level could occur, such organizations would form the institutional basis of developing a collectivist consciousness and unleashing the creative potential of the people for sustainable development". (Wignaraja, 1985:36)

The mass media, in the context of national development, have generally been used to support development initiatives by the dissemination of messages that encourage the public to support development-oriented projects. Although development strategies in developing countries diverge widely, the usual pattern for broadcasting and the press has been predominantly the same: informing the population about projects, illustrating the advantages of these projects, and recommending that they be supported. A typical example of such a strategy is found in the area of family planning, where communication means such as posters, pamphlets, radio, and television attempt to persuade the public to accept birth control methods. Similar strategies are used in campaigns regarding health and nutrition, agricultural projects, and education.

The participation idea does not deny the need for these media functions. The need for information is real, but the supporters of community media argue that this is still a limited view of communication for development, being vertical or one-way communication, and that active involvement in the process of communication itself will accelerate development. Research has already shown that, while groups of the public can obtain information from impersonal sources such as radio and television, this information has relatively little effect on behavioral changes. And development envisions precisely such change. Similar research has led to the conclusion that more is learned from interpersonal contacts and from mass communication techniques that are based on them. On the lowest level, before people can discuss and resolve problems, they must be informed of the facts, information that the media provide nationally, as well as regionally and locally. At the same time, the public, if the media are sufficiently accessible, can make its information needs known.

Therefore, the point of departure for regional and local communication and networking must be the community. It is at the local community level that problems of the living conditions are discussed, and interactions with other communities are elicited. The most developed form of participation is self-management. This principle implies the right to participation in the planning and production of media content. However, not everyone wants or needs to be involved in its practical implementation. It is more important that participation in the decision making regarding the subjects treated in the messages and regarding the selection procedures is made possible. One of the fundamental hindrances to the adoption of the participation strategy is that it threatens existing hierarchies. Nevertheless, participation does not imply that there is no longer a role for development specialists, planners, and institutional leaders. It only means that the viewpoint of the local groups of the public is considered before the resources for development projects are allocated and distributed, and that suggestions for changes in the policy are taken into consideration.

To better understand the complexity and dialectics of the distinct aspects related to communication for development, the meaning and philosophy of development and social change must be assessed in a coherent and integrated way.

From a structural perspective one can distinguish between actors and factors that influence policy and planning. Actors can be defined as public or interest groups which, by both direct and/or indirect means, try to push their explicitly or implicitly agreed upon program through. Factors, on the other hand, determine the contours within which the actors can operate. Factors are time and space bound, and they differ from society to society. Some are of a conjunctural nature, others of a more structural nature. The drafting of policy objectives must be tuned to the needs and expectations of the various public groups and it must also take account of the resources available and the capabilities of the country. Therefore, elsewhere (see Servaes, 1989, 1997) I have tried to specify a number of policy objectives and needs.

What is necessary for the formulation of policy objectives is, in the first place, the identification of existing needs and requirements. Thus, as regards the political sector, most scholars point to an obvious lack of cohesion in most developing countries. The lack of contact between the authorities and the public at large means that the latter cannot, or will not, identify itself with the nation or community, although such identification is the first precondition for development.

Legitimacy and political credibility can be fostered by the establishment of what is called participatory democracy through networking, the building-in of actual participation by the public. This is only possible when the communication system is decentralized. Control over communication and information may not be monopolized by one or a few segments of society. Unfortunately, most of the time structural aspects stand in the way of the ideal of democracy. In most developing countries, the first stone for bridging the gap between the ruling elite and the masses has still to be laid. For the establishment of participatory democracy, therefore, dialogue must be made possible between the authorities and the public, nationally, regionally, and locally. In the political sector, this can be achieved through political parties, pressure groups, civil action groups, environmental movements, and the like. Thus, political credibility as well as social and cultural identity of the population and an awareness and support of the development goals are needed.

To communication technology is attributed a direct impact on economic development and political organization. Three observations can be made in this regard. First, there is a predominant impact of transnational corporations through technology transfer. In virtually all the Third World countries, the advantages of technology transfer benefit primarily the transnational industries (the suppliers) and the transnational banks (the financiers). These corporations account for approximately 80 to 90 percent of the technology transferred to developing countries, and most of the Third World countries depend on transnationals for their own technical development capacity. Second, technology is called into existence by a particular set of historical circumstances that shape and define technology. One must understand that set of historical circumstances if one is to comprehend the effective relationship between technology and society. Therefore, technology is not politically neutral and value-free; technology definitely determines the socio-cultural structure and communication patterns of a given society. In the international field, accelerating technological development suggests that opportunities for the expression of cultural difference can be ensured. In reality, these developments appear to be the instrument precisely for the destruction of this difference and its replacement by a uniform, Western-dominated technological model.

>This perspective has implications also for the practice of the policy and research process. Many policymakers and researchers, however, who support the above principles, seem to forget that such an engagement must be materialized as well. Forms of rational/comprehensive or allocative planning which have been executed by technocrats and bureaucrats at distinct levels for many years do not fit in with the demands of 'another' communication policy and planning. Especially the applied methodology, the choice of the place and context of research, and the place and role of the policymaker and researcher differ fundamentally from conventional models.

Policymakers and planners face important choices not only concerning the communication problems they address and the solutions they propose in their recommendations, but also concerning the way in which change will be organized and carried out. As discussed in this Dossier, different kinds of problems and situations call for different solutions.


  • Kothari, R. (1986), "Masses, classes and the state", Alternatives, 11, 2.
  • Servaes, J. (1989), One World, Multiple Cultures. Towards another paradigm on communication for development. Acco, Louvain.
  • Servaes, J. (1997), Communication for Development. Back to the basics. Hampton Press, Cresskil.
  • Wignaraja, P. (1985), Industry and sustainable development. A long term perspective for action. Society for International Development, Rome

Jan Servaes

Jan Servaes, Dean, Faculty of Political and Social Sciences. Director, Research Centre "Communication for Social Change (CSC)" Katholieke Universiteit Brussel (K.U.Brussel). Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at the Katholieke Universiteit Brussel and Visiting Professor at Cornell University (USA). President of the Participatory Communication Research Section of the International Association of Mass Communication Research (IAMCR).

Contact address:
Katholieke Universiteit Brussel (K. U. Brussel)
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e-mail: freenet002@tornado.be
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