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Theory and Practice of Participatory Communication

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Subtitle: 
The Case of the FAO Project "Communication for Development in Southern Africa"
Author: 
Paolo Mefalopulos
Affiliation: 

The World Bank

Publication Date

December 1, 2003

"Participatory communication is a term that denotes the theory and practices of communication used to involve people in the decision-making of the development process. It intends to return to the roots of its meaning, which, similarly to the term community, originate from the Latin word communis, i.e. common (Mody, 1991). Therefore, the purpose of communication should be to make something common, or to share...meanings, perceptions, worldviews or knowledge. In this context, sharing implies an equitable division of what is being shared, which is why communication should almost be naturally associated with a balanced, two-way flow of information."

This 306-page dissertation shares research by Paolo Mefalopulos, who was motivated by the observation that participatory communication - characterised by a horizontal flow of communication based primarily on dialogue - is increasingly being considered a key component of development projects around the world. After reviewing the literature on the subject, Mefalopulos offers an in-depth review and comparison on how participatory communication has been conceived theoretically, in the literature, and practically, in a project dedicated to this approach. That is, this paper centres around a case study analysis of Communication for Development in Southern Africa, a project that was launched in 1994 Harare, Zimbabwe, by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations with funding from the Italian Government. The purpose of this project was to promote the adoption of participatory communication approaches by other development projects through capacity building and advising activities.

Mefalopulos proceeds to examine this FAO project in detail, tracing the ways in which participatory communication was understood - and also implemented strategically - throughout each phase of the project cycle. The gist of the project itself was that it was designed to:

  • Strengthen a regional training capacity to improve the development support communication (DSC) skills of intermediate-level professionals so that they could improve the effectiveness of the rural development programmes in which they work.
  • Initiate an example of a sustainable national DSC service to support rural development programmes and projects.
  • Advance towards the creation of a group of DSC professionals in the region, by means of preparing a regional Post-graduate DSC Professional Diploma Course (through collaboration with the University of Zimbabwe in Harare).
  • Advise governments and other development-related organisations about the requirements for effective DSC in Southern Africa, for future action.


In short, the project was intended to promote the sustainable and systematic use of communication in the development process to help ensure people's participation at all levels, as part of an effort to identify and implement appropriate technologies and policies for the prevention of poverty. Mefalopulos does not focus in this dissertation on the evaluation of to what extent this vision was effectively carried out, or what impact it had, but he does provide a review based on a few project documents that offer feedback on the project. He offers a collection of impressions from these documents that - in general - indicate that participation and communication were integrated into a single systematic approach that had not been experienced in the region up to that moment. However, he stresses that, to have a more accurate picture of the impact of the participatory communication strategy and this particular project, an additional study, specifically focused on evaluation, would be needed (a prospect that presents its own challenges, which the author outlines here).


Based on a "Results" section which synthesises and recaps the main issues by reviewing how the conception and levels of participation identified in his research have shifted in each phase of the project, Mefalopulos concludes by arguing that participatory communication is an approach capable of facilitating people's involvement in decision-making about issues impacting their lives - a process capable of addressing specific needs and priorities relevant to people and at the same time assisting in their empowerment. In fact, he says, participatory communication is "a necessary component, consistent with a democratic vision of international development, needed to increase projects sustainability and ensure genuine ownership by the so-called 'beneficiaries'."

An excerpt from the Conclusion follows:

"The following is a summary of the main lessons and insights learned from this study:

  1. A project adopting and promoting participatory communication should apply those principles from the very beginning, making sure that all relevant stakeholders are not only taken on board, but involved in the conception and design of all objectives and activities...
  2. It has been discussed how, in order to promote the adoption of this approach, managers and decision-makers should be conversant with the principles and applications of participatory communication approach....Participatory communication approaches should be conceived and applied in a consistent manner at various levels, within the institutions
    and in the field.
  3. ...Empowerment of grassroots communities is very important, but so is raising the awareness and familiarity about these issues [i.e. the scope and functions of participatory communication] with those on the top of the pyramid...
  4. A successful participatory communication approach must be considered as a process, running parallel to any other development activity, facilitating its operations...
  5. Having to apply participatory communication approaches only in on-going projects, with pre-determined objectives, has been one of the main constraints of the FAO Project. This constraint has definitely affected the scope and nature of participatory communication applications. In order to be fully participatory a development intervention needs to be initiated, designed, implemented and evaluated by the primary stakeholders, or at least they would need to be involved in those activities in a significant way...
  6. The documents reviewed, the interviews carried out and my own personal experiences tend to confirm that the FAO Project "Communication for Development in Southern Africa" has been indeed an innovative project in the international scenario, as far as the promotion and adoption of participatory communication is concerned.
  7. ...[D]espite the formal acknowledgements, there is no strong "political" support for the systematic adoption of participatory communication approaches. This means that donors are unlikely to fund projects specifically dedicated to this discipline. Hence, it becomes vital that projects of this nature achieve a self-sustainability tapping in the vast resources allocated to international development. To succeed in this, they need to prove their added-value, documenting their achievements and promoting their services following an effective marketing strategy..."
Contact Information: 
Source: 

University of Texas at Austin website; and email from Paolo Mefalopulos to The Communication Initiative on August 6 2007.

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