Photo: Some of the conference speakers. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-INPS - Photo: 2019

Universities Need Going to The Grassroots to Help Achieve SDGs

By Kalinga Seneviratne

SHANTINIKETAN, India (IDN) – With Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the new trend among development communicators, are universities in the developing world equipped to assist in achieving these goals, by educating young communicators in culturally appropriate approaches to development and sustainability?

This is a question that was addressed at a three-day conference held at the famous university founded by Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

In the past two decades there has been a rapid expansion of journalism and mass communication departments in universities right across Asia. These departments have spearheaded the teaching of development journalism and communications mainly using development theories composed in the West in the 1960s and 1970s. At the conference, this wisdom and methodology was questioned.

“For decades, the right to one’s own environment have been taken away from the hands of the communities in the name of national interests. Traditional values and indigenous knowledge has been replaced by Anglo-European discourses of progress. Physical resources for the livelihood of the community have been turned into measurable Gross Domestic Products index,” noted Dr Jirayudh Sinthuphan, Deputy Director of the Asian Research Centre at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University speaking at the International Conference on ‘Media and Communication in Sustainable Development’ at Visva Bharati University here.

The Thai communication expert argued, that the community needs to be directly involved in co-designing interventions that will allow sustainable and ecologically sound growth that takes into account the socio-cultural reality and values of the community. He went on to give examples of such development models being implemented in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia.

The three-day conference from February 11-14 was addressed by a number of development communication experts from Asia and the Pacific, most of whom questioned whether the development theories that were devised in the West decades ago and still taught in universities across the region are relevant to today’s realities.

These theories espouse using modern communication tools to wean away the “natives” from traditional lifestyles to a more consumption-oriented society. Today’s sustainable development movements are questioning such development models and the conference addressed the issue of what role universities could play to address these global concerns.

Many of the speakers raised the issue of whether universities should play a prescriptive role – as they have done traditionally – or go out into the community and play a participatory communication role.

The conference chair, Prof Biplab LohoChoudhury, Head of the Centre for Journalism and Mass Communication at  Visva Bharati argued in an interview with IDN that universities could be a conduit for promoting development communication if they are willing to go out to rural communities and work with them in developing theory.

“Universities in rural areas have more opportunity to interact with community (and) better scope for developing field based theory, which can solve many problems in development sector,” he said. “Universities in cities give more space to technically mediated communication, which perhaps is failing to make development a success.”

Professor LohoChoudhury explained a project in a rural community about 80 kms from his university where he and his students have been working with the community to develop what he calls “developing community from within”. They are developing an entire communication spectrum with the community. “Students get involved, research scholars get involved, Phd scholars get involved. Everything is done that way,” he added.

A keynote speaker at the conference was Prof Jan Servaes, who has been UNESCO Chair in Communication for Sustainable Social Change. He argued in an interview with IDN that development communication is being added to existing departments who are not the right fit for it. “For instantce, there is an assumption that when you offer journalism you can also offer development communication, because journalism is about news covering development issues,” he noted adding: “We need to have another look at it from that perspective.”

Prof Servaes believes that development communicators should be trained alongside community workers, training them to do good stories like journalists, while introducing them to techniques and methodologies of communication.  “(But), there is still a tradition of assuming that development communication is about journalism or PR. We need to go beyond that,” he said.

Dr Usha Harris, a Fiji born development communication specialist from Sydney’s Macquarie University said that recently, NGOs like Oxfam have stepped into the sphere of development education in the South Pacific islands by doing participatory media training. She argued that where universities could come in is “critically preparing students” with theories of development communication and then get them involved at the grassroots.

She is the author of a recently published book ‘Participatory Media in Environmental Communication’. She explained to IDN how universities could work with communities to develop communication strategies for development and climatic change education. “My field experience (in the Pacific) was what informed my theory. I also had understanding of what theories were out there. What was working, what’s not. The more I went into the field, the more I realized that some of these theories had to be transformed,” she said.

Dr Harris explained a strategy universities could adopt to make their development communication teaching relevant to today’s society. “In July I will be teaching students theory in Macquarie, and then they will go and spend two weeks in Kiribati working alongside the youth there, working with local NGO Kiribati Climate Action Network in capturing the work and raising awareness, doing videos, audio interviews, go to costal areas to see what are the impacts, talking to people,” she said.

Dr Harris believes that journalism training in universities is too much focused on event reporting and development communication is on reporting a process. “What we really need is bottom up strategies for long-term behaviourial change, understanding of what is happening around them,” she argued.

Dr Golam Rahman, former Chief Information Commissioner of Bangladesh argued that universities could play a role in changing the mindsets of young people they are training to become journalists. He pointed out that in Bangladesh this mindset change is happening with media focusing less on victims of floods and more on the safety nets provided by the government to overcome these disasters.

“Their mindsets need to be transformed into a new set of order. Universities are places where we also teach those things,” he argued. “Disciplined education is done in universities, but they need to take in the knowledge from the field, of the people of the grassroots,” he told IDN. “So that, they can design pragmatic communication strategies, pragmatic communication activities”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 06 March 2019]

Photo: Some of the conference speakers. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-INPS

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

Send your 

Subscribe to IDN

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top