Book Review: Media and Development by Martin Scott

We work in an era when technical specialties dig ever deeper into their own rabbit holes of complexity and nuance, while simultaneously calls resound for a next generation of global health and development based on integration, “silo-busting,” and cross-cutting approaches, including capacity development.

In his book Media and Development, Martin Scott, of the University of East Anglia, confronts this dichotomy head on by sketching out three separate media related “fields,” while considering their (at times uneasy) relationships within the one world of global development. Through delineation and comparison, he highlights their unique conceptual and practical potentials, and then considers their sometimes symbiotic, sometime divergent natures. Overarching all, Scott notes how fast-moving trends in communication technologies that are opening up new frontiers within each.

The three fields:

Communication for Development (C4D). Inclusive of approaches known as behavior change communication, social and behavior change, and entertainment-education, C4D traditionally aims to foster pre-determined awareness, attitudes, and ultimately behaviors that have proven to contribute to better health or development. Well established and relatively well funded, this field boasts the ability to make credible links between donor investments and desired health outcomes.

Media Development. By focusing on the development of a sound in-country media sector, this relatively young development approach aims to support essential foundations for democracy, good governance, human rights, healthy markets, advocacy opportunities, and more.

Media Representations of Development. Characterized by the author as the portrayal of the “global South” and development efforts to Northern audiences, these take the form of humanitarian appeals, NGO fundraising efforts, news, documentaries, films, novels, reality TV, and more. Such efforts often attempt to show both causes and solutions (usually entailing Northern intervention) to global poverty, disease, inequity and more. Among global development practitioners, this wide-ranging set of ideas and formats doesn’t get much notice, and is not often analyzed as a whole, or for its effects on the other fields.

As a premise for considering the state of—and possible futures for—global health and development, the novel juxtaposition of these three fields provides fresh food for thought, including a range of capacity development implications. Foremost, Scott clearly presents the case for recognizing these perspectives as potentially powerful, he warns that too often proponents unfairly elevate them to “magic bullet” status. With that qualification, he explores the transformative role they might play in international development—if we both reimagine them and better position them within this larger context.

Beginning with C4D (but with application to all three) Scott reminds development practitioners to put aside the false assumption that the mere dissemination of information is sufficient to create change. Another idea to jettison—development as a linear process of modernization that eclipses the “traditional.” Media and technology-based approaches are extremely susceptible to these failed premises. [Editorial note: how many photos have we seen of indigenous laughing with amazement at their digital images, presumably shared with them by a foreigner.] Both assumptions are anathemas to true capacity development based on the “agency and distinctiveness of local populations.” (p.33)   Conversely, media efforts—within any of the three fields in question—carefully designed and employed to foster agency and voice have incredible potential. For example, what Scott designates as “media hybrids”—e.g. media-based advocacy for policy change or to address inequities—have successfully challenged social or legal structures in many places. Regardless of the model employed, a key role for global development practitioners that becomes apparent throughout this book is that of facilitator, rather than technical expert, technologist, or content supplier.

Scott’s exploration makes wonderfully apparent an entrenched problem of development. Within global health, for example, we are firm in our rational, scientific self-assurance gained from successes based on established biomedical facts and proven using tools like randomized control trials. Too often, we have transferred that certainty to other areas that are not based on predictable physical realities, e.g. communication, policy, advocacy, governance, democracy, and finance. Given the intangible, highly context specific and variable nature of these focus areas, we must unpack our inherent biases (basically, that we know best), change our premises, and THEN imagine development solutions. If our media efforts are based on such biases, they will simply be a new version of the same old thing.

With regard to conceptualizing media development, Scott likens it to “nailing jelly to the wall.” But one thing is clear: again, simply digitizing the old formats is not the way forward. The tenets of classic journalism and freedom of expression hold strong, but as applied with an open mind to emerging models including citizen journalism, crowd-sourced content, and a voice for civil society within or alongside elite- and government-owned and controlled media. Ultimately a strong media can play the role of watchdog, set agendas, and serve as a civic forum. An enabling environment of laws, policies and regulations must be in place to foster a diverse media landscape. All of these—and more—jelly-like  parameters call for diverse and creative approaches to fostering a thriving “media sector.”

Next, Scott breaks humanitarian communication of Northern NGO into three categories: shock effect appeals, deliberative positivism, and post-humanitarian communication. While the first two attempt to relay the “reality” of life in the global South in order to generate engagement, the third gains attention through NGO brand appeal and new forms of engagement including “clicktivism:” online activities such as sharing on Facebook, and signing online petitions. This shifts the emotional focus to the audience’s own selves, rather than on the people of the global South. While the author doesn’t take a stand on the approaches, Scott makes the case that perhaps the most problematic aspect of this whole “field” is the lack of understanding of causal links between it and mass stereotyping, foreign aid and political decisions, news coverage, and other important implications.

It’s exciting to see this “field” get fresh and serious consideration given extraordinary influence these media approaches must have on the fundamental beliefs and ideas of millions of people in the global North. Yet, a stronger critique is surely warranted, given the appalling nature of much of the content, which is often appears designed to simply fulfill short-term fundraising efforts, rather than promote nuanced understanding.

In sum, this book provides an accessible overview for students, and a timely stock-taking for experienced professionals trying to keep up with dizzying rates of change. Thus, this book speaks to any “career at the intersection between media and development.” (p. 195) 

As the fields of media, communication and technology are at times thoughtlessly conflated, yet also actually converging at points, the implications are myriad. Scott portrays media within development, media about development, media as a delivery device, and media’s role in fostering change. A widening range of actors are involved, and he notes the potential value of incorporating a political economy perspective. While he cautions against undue influence of ICT4D technologists who rely on an “innocent, techno-fascinated worldview.” (p.197), he also recognizes how “new media can promote interactivity, debate, decentralized networks and greater individual autonomy.” (p. 202). Then again, media can also have the opposite effect.

More than ever, design and implementation of development efforts must take into account the larger contexts: Scott cites the need “to speak of media’s role in social change, rather than development.” (p. 199) Scott recognizing that his wide-ranging exploration might raise more questions than provide answers. Nevertheless, any shortcuts that don’t include grappling with these ideas are likely to do just that—fall short.

While Scott’s book doesn’t focus on capacity development per se—that might call for a second volume—the one-step removed nature of capacity development fundamentally lends itself to taking the long and bird’s eye views to enable us to strategically support locally-conceptualized, locally-driven and locally-implemented employment of media formats and communication content to promote equitable global health and development through social change.

This book review was written by Ann Hendrix-Jenkins for LenCD

Ann has an MA in International Development from American University and 25 years of experience in international development and global health. Ann currently works at Futures Group as a Technical Director on Capacity Building

Contact Ann on Twitter @AnnHJenkins or by email  AHendrix-Jenkins@futuresgroup.com