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Communication and the Persistence of Poverty:

The Need for a


Return to Basics
The annual United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Reports
have regularly reminded us that poverty is a characteristic feature of the world in which we
live. While poverty levels may have remained constant during the last five years, the
percentage of people living in seriously vulnerable situations seems to be increasing rather
than decreasing. In other words, the gaps between the very poor and the poor have become
painfully visible in many parts of the world. Poverty is not limited by geography. The
wealthiest country in the world America is also home to pockets of poverty such as that
experienced by poor Blacks and Hispanics living in the Bronx, New York. People are poor
relative to others because they do not have the means to develop themselves, or to sustain
their development over time because they do not have recourse to significant and sufficient
resources. The means are normally identified in economic or material terms. A person who
lives on less than an average amount per year, in terms of a person’s access to health
resources, communication resources, physical resources and educational resources is the
person who is deprived of these resources in term of economic. UNESCO traditionally
defined communication deprivation in terms of ownership of radio sets and access to
newspapers per hundred of any given population

Poverty is not only an indication of a lack of resources but is also about the lack of awareness
on the part of a people of their own role in the fight against poverty. The lack of access to
legal advice or information on a country’s land reform legislation or minimum wages
prevents vast numbers of rural farmers around the world from demanding what is rightfully
theirs.

Access to information is the basis for the right to information. A key issue is the need for
transparency so that ordinary people can read for themselves the details of public
expenditures. So that they can identify if there are irregularities and demand explanations
from the concerned authorities. Access to information is an important right as it can become
the basis for the enjoyment of related rights and securities in education, shelter, access to
food grain and employment opportunities. Access to ‘survival’ resources like food and shelter
are critical to human survival. In other words, the notion of access suggests that when people
become aware of their rights, they are empowered to confront and deal with the many reasons
that continue to keep them in poverty. In the poverty as lack of resources model, the poor are
often seen as beneficiaries of government donations or charity and are not given opportunities
to use these resources in a meaningful manner over a long term.

Communication interventions in poverty are under-girded by one or another understanding of


poverty and the means to overcome it. The communication resource model has dominant
model exemplified by the early UNESCO approaches, the diffusion model and the latter-day
approaches to development communication based on ‘marketing’ and ‘communication
inputs’. The psychologistic, behaviouristic model is not as widespread as it was in earlier
years but is still very much a reality in many parts of the world. This model assumes that the
refusal to adopt innovations or modify behaviour is a consequence of a traditional mindset of
a people’s inability to empathize with or adopt modern sensibilities. It is assumed that such
ways of thinking are an obstacle to modernization.
The models of participatory communication are closely related to both the access and the
human rights approaches to development. It is based on a conscious effort to involve people
in their own development. The very success of ‘participatory’ approaches needs to be seen
against the gradual institutionalization of the NGO movement in large parts of the world.
Many attempts by governments to co-opt and dilute the notion of participatory change from
its original meaning rooted in the idea of grassroots people led, inclusive and autonomous
change to that of people led change defined by NGOs and governments.

There is a universal belief in the primacy of the market as the great leveller in development
that the more the people involve themselves in market-based transactions, the better their
chances of becoming part of the global consuming public. In other words there is an
assumption that consumption will inevitably lead to prosperity, to a levelling and to a closing
of existing economic gaps between the rich and the poor. Satellite technology can be used to
track hurricanes and map land areas belonging to indigenous populations but it can also be
used for military purposes. What are important and often neglected are engagements with the
policy implications supportive of the use of IT in development, for instance the logic of cost-
effectiveness and efficiency. Take for instance the use of IT in education through distance
learning and in the context of local learning initiatives IT becomes a substitute for teachers
and part of` self-fulfilling circle where the lack of teachers is weighed against the cost-
effectiveness and availability of IT leading to the edging out of the teaching fraternity.

The persistence of poverty can often lead to disorders. The obvious paradox of death, distress
and the dotcom is arguably also the paradox of communication in the twenty-first century.
There have been tremendous advancements in the field of Information Technologies and the
many advantages and applications. Digital forms of information have resulted in qualitative
changes in the lives of many people around the world. There are few journalists around the
world who actively report on poverty-related issues. While their contributions have been
important, it would also make sense to train local people in journalism. Local writers are best
suited to report on local realities that they understand better than outsiders. Such training will
allow their voices to be heard in contexts far away from their reality, in locations and
environments where decisions are taken. The implementation of the RTI (Right of
Information) offers one of the best hopes for the rural poor to fulfil their right to
development. The right to information movement is a grassroots expression of
communication rights. The operationalization of this right is a significant cause for hope.