The institutional challenges of participatory communication in international aid

By Silvio Waisbord - 2008

This article offers an explanation for the limited uses of participatory communication in development by taking an institutionalist perspective that examines prevalent notions about communication and organizational uses in international aid institutions. The argument is that institutional goals and dynamics determine the use of disciplinary and theoretical approaches. The selection of specific communication approaches is not primarily based on their analytical or normative value, but rather, on institutional factors and expectations. Institutional dynamics undercut the potential contributions of participatory communication in three ways.

First, bureaucratic requirements favor the use of informational models over participatory approaches to communication. Standard institutional procedures inside development agencies, donors and governments perpetuate understandings and uses of communication as a set of technical skills to disseminate messages. Second, the weak status of communication as a field of study and practice in development organizations undermine the prospects for expanding the understanding of communication that do not fit prevalent institutional expectations. As long as technical experts in public health or other fields expect communication to be ‘the art of messaging,’ communication staff lacks autonomy to make decisions and incorporate participatory approaches. Third, the institutional predominance of a technical mindset also limits the uses of participation thinking. The prioritization of technical perspectives decouples ‘development’ programs from local processes of participation and change.

Social Identities, Vol. 14, No. 4, July 2008, 505-522. PDF.


By Silvio Waisbord| 2008


Communication rights enable all people everywhere to express themselves individually and collectively by all means of communication. They are vital to full participation in society and are, therefore, universal human rights belonging to every man, woman, and child.


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