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The role of communication in development practice

I write in support of Keith Bezanson and Geoffrey Oldham's editorial (see Rethinking Science Aid) with its strong emphasis on innovation and systems, on learning from past successes as well as failures, on devising demand-led approaches, and on placing greater emphasis on the application of scientific and technical knowledge in a wide variety of different contexts.

These need to be at the heart of new initiatives for poverty reduction. The authors refer to the past 50 years of lessons that can inform renewed efforts. This week, Bellanet, the UK Department for International Development, the International Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (Hivos), the International Communication Association, the International Institute for Communication and Development, OneWorld, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Bank, hosted an online e-forum on 'communication for development'.

Contributors emphasised that to be successful, development projects require effective and participative communication. This is crucial to enrol all the stakeholders and enable them to express their needs and priorities. Some contributors observed that it is very difficult to convince those who fund development projects that this is essential.

As in the case of the debate about the role of science and technology, we have decades of research on the importance of interactive communication in support of learning, capability building and action. These lessons are not often taken on board by those with the authority to decide on development financing priorities and resource allocations. A key issue that needs to receive much greater attention is why it is so difficult for those who decide upon these issues to change their thinking, to take on board the lessons of the past, and to change their priorities in ways that are more likely to have the desired result.

Funding the support of effective communication through networks of all those involved in innovation for development is one way to ensure that the lessons of the past are continuously brought to the foreground. They need to be combined with today's new ideas about how to forge ahead to achieve poverty reduction.

Failure to do so brings substantial risk that new initiatives will not be 'demand-led' or sustainable in the long term and that the millennium development goals will remain an unrealised promise for international development.

Link to World Bank e-forum on communication for development