Arthur Miller, a prolific American playwright and essayist, once described a newspaper as a nation having a dialogue with itself. More importantly, he pointed out that the quality of that dialogue helps shape the future of the country. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a national development process without communication playing an essential part. But what exactly are the key roles of communication in the modernization of a nation? As developing countries reach important crossroads in their path to modernity, we need sharper answers to this question. The range of possible answers is wide but, in my experience, three key roles stand out.
- Foster meaningful dialogue among different sectors of society. Most developing countries have a diverse society. Likewise, they often have a complex set of socio-economic and cultural stratifications that befuddles most foreigners. On one hand, we may have a segment of the country’s elites plugged into the Internet, fax machines, iPads, iPhones and MP3s, which are continually updated with the latest in technology and world events. On the other hand, we may have large segments of citizens who do not even have access to electricity or modern conveniences. They are deprived of access to the mass media, and thus ever silent in the process of national dialogue. This great divide, both in terms of access to information and contribution to knowledge, generates social and political tension, not to mention horrendous economic injustice. This cannot go on. We, in the field of communication, need to exert our best in bringing together the diverse cultures in the developing world into a mosaic with distinct parts or a fully integrated rainbow of colors that every citizen is proud of.
- Nurture a shared vision for the country’s future. Communicators are leaders. They help others see opportunities and current realities with a new lens and thus enable everyone to act in harmony. Every citizen is an actor and object of development. Everyone contributes to nation building or sadly serves as a drag, generating friction and causing a huge waste of scarce resources and energy. Perhaps, only when citizens of a country have nurtured a true-shared vision, transcending personal agendas, can the process of national development reach the tipping point for accelerated growth. Indeed, a country may develop only when its leaders realize the wisdom in the principle – power shared is power multiplied, not power diminished.
- Harness non-material and material resources to realize the national shared vision. There is growing recognition in the developing world that we have seriously neglected the value of non-material resources -leadership, discipline, teamwork, self-efficacy, creativity, harmony, etc. In a sense, we have overplayed the importance of money and machines and undervalued social capital. Yet, as we see development efforts struggle despite access to huge amounts of money, we begin to appreciate the value of non-material resources.
Robert Fogel, 1993 Nobel Prize winner for Economics, aptly said that non-material resources are more important than material resources. One, we don’t need parliaments or donor agencies to allocate them. Two, they increase with use instead of getting depleted. Three, it is easier to transform non-material resources to material resources than vice versa. Four, like creativity and human ingenuity, non-material resources are practically limitless. And last, non-material resources reside in every human being. Indeed, communication is an essential component of non-material resources.
In sum, communication is a bond that brings a nation together, yet respects the multiplicity of perspectives that is essential to the search for truth and meaning. A nation consists of individuals with diverse needs but bound together by a common dream. It is in the reconciliation of multiple perspectives with the call for collective action that developing nations can move forward with greater determination and impact. It is perhaps the search for dialogue, shared vision, and merging of material and non-material resources that will allow us to find the driving force for development.
In our quest, it may be useful to reflect on the multiplicity of approaches to development. Perhaps, it is man’s folly to assume that there is only one correct answer to every question. Or as aptly said by a wise man, “the belief that there is only one truth and that oneself is in possession of it seems the deepest root of all evil that is in the world.” True communication can wipe out that belief.
So, my fellow communication professionals, let us listen deeply to one another and hear the silent voices of people in our respective countries. Sometimes, meaningful communication involves the ability to also hear what is not being said!
*This piece is an update of an earlier message Dr. Lozare wrote to the Pakistan JHU/CCP Leadership in Strategic Health Communication workshop.