All hands needed for sustainable social change

21 September 2015

Professor Jan Servaes.

The new buzzword is sustainability.

Governments spend billions combating national and world problems. They propose well-meaning policies, kick-start intervention programs, and promise to meet targets. However, according to Professor Jan Servaes—the UNESCO Chair in Communication for Sustainable Social Change and Chair Professor of Media and Communication at City University of Hong Kong— roughly 80% of these plans are arguably unsustainable over the long haul.

The United Nations (UN) has ambitious goals: to end poverty, promote well-being for all, and protect the environment. In charting the next step towards these goals, the UN is revising its 8 Millenium Development Goals this September, into a more specified set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While the issues they address haven’t changed, a new emphasis has emerged: sustainability. In the latest Sir John Monash lecture on “Communication for Sustainable Social Change”, Prof Servaes shared two main takeaways:

  • Efforts at social change (or “development,” a closely associated term) must be sustainable.
  • Communication strategies used along the way must encourage the participation of many social groups, including ordinary citizens, and be appropriate to specific cultures.

Sustainable development can be defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” A well-known example is the issue of harvesting timber today while conserving forests for tomorrow.

More than ever, research suggests that communication and culture influence whether we succeed or fail in providing sustainable solutions. This is because communication strategies influence whether governments and citizens and organisations work together effectively. Based on this research, Prof Servaes made three suggestions.

First, the way we communicate, such as between government and citizens, should be more participatory. In other words, communication should be a two-way dialogue. Unfortunately, many governments communicate “one-way” and “top-down.” They assume that their policies and goals will naturally trickle down to and be embraced by citizens. A participatory approach, in contrast, encourages citizens to provide feedback and join in decision-making. This allows “two-way” and “bottom-up” communication.

Second, a country should not feel compelled to completely imitate another country’s model of development. Nor should it necessarily adopt, wholesale, another country’s communication strategies. Each culture requires a suitable approach. For example, certain cultures revere teachers and elders. These influential people can be harnessed to mobilise their local community for collective action.

Third, in choosing communication strategies, we must account for cultural factors that create obstacles. For instance, if we ask why India continues to be plagued by poor sanitation, we must also ask what is behind Indian peoples’ prevailing cultural habits, such preferring not to use the toilet facilities built for their benefit.

To further demonstrate what the theoretical field of communication says about real-world issues, Prof Servaes introduced three major paradigms: Modernisation, Dependency, and Multiplicity. All three paradigms or views, which emerged in the mid- to late-20th century, continue to be adopted by various governments. The three paradigms differ in what they believe to be root causes of underdevelopment. They also differ in their solutions to underdevelopment and which communication strategies to adopt.

The Modernisation paradigm sees development as a universal set of stage that should apply to any country. It sees the West as an example to be imitated. Mass media is a tool for influencing people to follow the footsteps of Western nations. Communication is largely one-way and assumes that people are naturally receptive to these ideas.

The Dependency paradigm reacts against Modernisation, asserting that over-dependency on capitalistic countries (namely, Western countries) is the root cause of underdevelopment. Mass media is a tool for influencing people to break away from Western capitalism. Communication is largely one-way as well. Both the Modernisation and Dependency paradigms focus on economic development.

The Multiplicity paradigm, however, embraces a more holistic view of development. It emphasises social development (e.g. promoting gender equity, education, democracy), believing that a nation which improves socially will improve economically. Communication should account for cultural factors and be participatory, harnessing the citizens themselves as a force of development. Therefore, any information provided to citizens must be made meaningful and easy to grasp. “Unless people can participate meaningfully in the events and processes that shape their lives,” Prof Servaes warned, “national human development paths will be neither desirable nor sustainable.”

Prof Bartlett presents a memento to Prof Servaes.

Meanwhile, three challenges lie in the path of future development: mobilising the right “stakeholders”; making compromises, which are inevitable; and, ensuring people are held accountable. These stakeholders, Prof Servaes says, actually encompass all social groups—citizens, academics, private businesses, governments, NGOs, etc. All should invest in the future of our planet. All should participate in good policy-making or implementation. This is the only way to meet ambitious goals like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

What can communication theory contribute to this journey? Prof Servaes concluded that current ways of communicating must be supplemented by strategies that are truly participatory and account for unique cultures. Then all hands can be harnessed to make the work sustainable.

The Sir John Monash Lecture is held in partnership with Jeffrey Cheah Distinguished Speakers Series.