Theory and practice of participatory communication: the case of the FAO project "Communication for Development in Southern Africa"

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Mefalopulos, Paolo

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Participatory communication is increasingly being considered a key component of development projects around the world. Therefore, the purpose of my research has been to conduct an in-depth review and comparison on how participatory communication has been conceived theoretically, in the literature, and practically, in a project dedicated to this approach. I carried out the investigation through a case study analysis of a project named "Communication for Development in Southern Africa," which was funded by the Italian Government and implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), one of the major international organizations in this field. This project started its operations in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1994, and its main purpose was to promote the adoption of participatory communication approaches by other development projects through training and advising activities. This dissertation, after reviewing the literature on the subject, explores how the FAO Project originated and how participatory communication principles were conceived and applied throughout the process, in each phase of the project cycle. The only phase not specifically addressed, for reasons explained later in this study, is the evaluation phase. One of the main intentions of the study has been to gain relevant insight about the operationalization of participatory communication, i.e. understanding what happens when the theoretical conception is applied in real life situations. Key questions that emerged are discussed throughout the study. In its conclusions, after proposing the basis for a revisited model, this dissertation argues that participatory communication, thanks to its horizontal and people-based connotations, has the potential to support “another development,” capable of addressing specific needs and priorities relevant to people and at the same time assisting in their empowerment. While not constituting an alternative paradigm per se, participatory communication is an approach capable of facilitating people’s involvement in the decision-making process. It is a necessary component, consistent with a democratic vision of international development, needed to increase projects sustainability and ensure genuine ownership by the so-called “beneficiaries.”