Avoiding the Tower of Babel: Why Development Needs Communication for Empowerment to Happen.


By Phoebe Sakarombe


Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As man  moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with  a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and  not to be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan  to do will be impossible for them. Come let us go down and confuse their language so that they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

            (The Bible, Genesis 11: 1-10)

The story of the Tower of Babel is familiar with many Christians and also non-Christians. It is a lesson about development. Development happens when people agree about what they want to do, why they want to do it, and how they want to do it. But when there is no common language to use, development breaks down. The lesson is that communication is very important. Without it, development breaks down and becomes meaningless.


This essay uses the biblical story of the Tower of Babel as a starting point and point of reference to illustrate the importance of communication to development. Using the story of the Tower of Babel, the notion of Development Support Communication (DSC) becomes actually easy to define: to develop, we need to know what we are doing. To know what we are doing, we need to avoid confusion. From this story, we know that efficient communication is what enables us to avoid confusion, and thus to know what we are doing and thus to develop. In other words, development does not just happen by itself. Rather, development needs to be communicated and understood. Without communication, development becomes confusion. Avoiding development confusion is what Development Support Communication (DSC) is all about. DSC, therefore, can be two things: it is a practice, and a process. It is a practice in that it is planned. It is what development planners do to support development objectives. On the other hand, it is a process in that it is ever-evolving and open-ended. Development planners cannot stop planning. This two-sided nature of DSC is the source of its importance. A formal definition of DSC is that it is a multi-sectoral process of information sharing focusing on two things: i) development, and ii) planned action. This process links stakeholders such as planners, beneficiaries and implementers of development action that include, but is not limited to, the donor community. To avoid the confusion of Babel, DSC obligates planners and implementers to provide clear, explicit and intelligible data and information about their goals and roles in development and explicitly provide opportunities for beneficiaries to participate in shaping development outcomes.


Avoiding Babel: The idea behind DSC?

Development Support Communication has changed as the world has changed. From the patronising tradition of the modernisation paradigm, more emphasis is seemingly now on dialogue and empowerment, involving beneficiaries in the communication process and giving them power to shape policies (Quebral 1972). DSC itself came about as a solution to the limitations of Development Communication (DC) where communication barriers emanating from cultural, wealth and power differences between the development agents (benefactor) and the targeted communities (beneficiaries) were not fully questioned. A redirection of development initiatives towards participation of the intended beneficiaries in planning and implementation of development programmes resulted (Agunga 2006).


 The idea of DSC thus equates development with communication. More often than not, development problems seem to emanate from communication problems between the Global North and the Global South and thus, for Sonderling (2006: 547), pertain to the ‘Global North-South dialogue’. Ascroft (1986) argues that very often no appropriate message gets through. Between good intentions and final results lies many unexamined assumptions, inadequate information, cultural misunderstandings, inappropriate strategies and poor communication techniques which must be overcome before a suitable message can be acted upon (Ascroft 1986: 382). According to Rogers (1983), human communication is effective when two parties in the communication process are equal in terms of education, social status, beliefs, and power, among other aspects. Rogers argues that change agents from the Global North, who in the development process are the benefactors, are equal to their audiences in the Global South, who are the beneficiaries.


Beyond Babel: How does DSC propose to empower the marginalised?

DSC calls for grassroots organising and communicative social action on the part of poor women, minorities and others who have been consistently and increasingly marginalised and left out in the process of social change (Kaye 1990; Servaes 1999)). DSC posits the ‘community’ as the unit and level of analysis, and the participation of communities in the design and implementation of development programmes is important. DSC views participation and dialogue as a means for local people and communities to engage with and influence their development (Servaes 1995). Development Support Communication thus becomes understood as a two-way process in which communities participate as main agents in setting development goals and standards. Added to this, the notion of participation is deepened by the emphasis on community access. As a result, interpersonal approaches are now recognised alongside mass media communication as vital to achieving the impact, (Melkote 1991). Johnson (1992) argues that participation is central in the empowerment of the grassroots as participation results in self- reliance. DSC encourages the marginalised to plan for their own development programmes, thus ending dependency. As Rowlands (1997) points out, “disassociation from the central power holders is only the first step in self-reliance”. DSC facilitators ensure this disassociation by breaking the power structures and helping the marginalised to access resources so that they will use them to their advantage. White (2004) stresses that it makes little sense to talk of community empowerment through participatory communication and dialogue in the absence of change in the existing power structures.


DSC and power relations

Lack of access to appropriate opportunities is an issue of power, (Melkote and Steeves, 2001). For Rappaport (1987), effective social change processes mean that researchers and practitioners have to address problems of unequal power relations. According to Wilkins (2001: 1), ‘to reshape the field of development communication we must situate its discourse and practice within the context of power’. Melkote and Steeves (2001: 36) argue that empowerment cannot be understood without first defining power, since real change may not be possible unless we address power inequalities between marginalised individuals and groups at the grassroots and those who make policy decisions. Craig and Mayo contend that political power in capitalist societies cannot be separated from economic power. Further to this, White (2004: 14) points out that “the effect of the poor communities to pull themselves up would encompass a redefinition not only of the political system but also economic, social and cultural practices that might engender a democratic ordering for society as a whole”. Community empowerment can therefore lead to social movements that may challenge existing political power structures.


 Avoiding Babel? Heifer Project South Africa as a DSC agent

The Heifer Project South Africa (HPSA), affiliated to the Heifer Project International (HPI), is a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) that attempts to promote community self-sufficiency in food and agriculture. Projects consist of giving farm animals to help produce income and provide community relief. Intensive training in animal husbandry, farming techniques and community development also form part of the programme. According to the HPSA, receiving a farm animal as well as training in its care is an important step toward ending a family’s poverty. According to Steyn and Nunes (2001), the HPSA is primarily concerned with human resources development, empowerment, affirmation of identity, environmental protection and, above all, sustainability. HPSA is involved in DSC related activities such as interpersonal communication, capacity building and advocacy in empowering the community at large. The Heifer Projects’ gift animals, for instance, are an attempt to offer families affected by hunger a way of feeding themselves and becoming self-reliant. But for Heifer projects to work, they have to first find ways of avoiding a Babel-like situation where donors and beneficiaries misunderstand each other due to developmental ‘noise’.


The avoidance of Babel must begin, at the very least, with a change agent’s stated mission, values and philosophy. In this regard, the HPSA’s mission is stated as being to alleviate hunger, poverty and environmental degradation through education and training in sustainable animal production, raising public awareness. First, are these values enough? Some might raise the valid criticism that these values sound like clichés. However, it is the communities themselves that ought to decide. In line with Heifer’s mission, the host community is given space to decide and determine their need and develop a concrete plan for achieving their goals. But how big is this space? It seems that communities are asked, as families, to join together to define needs, set goals and participate in managing their projects as far as is possible. It is critical that, at the very beginning, a project such as HPSA develops a strategic, clear plan of action. Time is certainly important during this development of such a plan – so for up to three years staff, board and community members are all obliged to participate in this planning. This may define partnership. In this regard, Heifer works in productive partnership with civic groups, churches and individual donors.


HPSA has developed a set of core principles through which interested communities or families are screened, monitored and evaluated (Steyn and Nunes 2001). Some of the principles are:


  •  Accountability. Groups define their own needs, set goals and plan appropriate strategies to achieve them.
  •  Sustainability and self-reliance. Projects groups must plan to support themselves, eventually because HPSA funds a project for a limited time.
  •  Full participation. PHPSA works with grassroots groups or intermediary organisations representing grassroots groups.

Identification of the community’s needs has to take place within the parameters of the Heifer Cornerstone Model, which regards the poor as the head cornerstone of development. After the situation has been defined, the action group elected and training provided for a specific project, the planning phase begins. The purpose is to see that all resources are optimally used to obtain desired results. In this regard, HPSA believes that planning can be done by one person, but that involvement of all members of the action group is essential in goal setting and strategy design. Heifer staff, similar to DSC facilitators, helps the community to think realistically about the long term effects of any proposed activities and a dialogue about sustainability is initiated.


In terms of management, the Heifer Cornerstone Model emphasises a number of ‘key’ principles such as good leadership, partnership, collaboration, training and participatory monitoring. These, it is assumed, are not achieved through top-down management or within an autocratic and domineering style of leadership. Rather, it is the responsibility of the action community to keep participation and motivation higher. As part of the project, the donor group who provide the funding for the ‘gift’, visits the community and interacts with them in their own environment. The community shows the donors the fruits of their labour, and discusses their progress and problems with them. In this way the donors are kept up-to-date on how ‘their’ money is being spent. Finally, monitoring is used to check the progress of the project, while evaluation scrutinises the effectiveness of the project. On-going self-evaluation is a participatory learning process continuing throughout the life of the project. Special emphasis is placed on collaboration between the development agency and the action community, obtaining outsider assistance as needed. Having done all that, still, the Heifer project is not immune to Babel type situations. For instance, though the Heifer Project claims that it is agency based, it still seems that management determines the development agenda before extension workers take decisions in the field. Steyn and Nunes (2001), however, do not consider this to be a problem since, in their opinion, development and communication approaches used by HPSA fall under the DSC paradigm of development,. The two scholars argue that a holistic communication approach (Malon and Grossberg 1998) is used.



DSC would not work if it were not sensitised to beneficiaries’ real needs. As a way for connecting local people and communities with donor agencies in a two-way flow of information, DSC must treat beneficiaries as equal partners, helping them to set their own agendas for development. Cultural, economic and power differences are some the issues that stand between the development agents and the targeted community. For DSC to be effective, there should be DSC facilitators who should empower the marginalised through constantly engaging them in activities to identify relevant community needs and issues. A style-sheet like that of the Heifer Project is worth emulating, though it should not be followed blindly as it has its own potential flaws. For instance, it still carries traces of top-down decision-making. At the same time, while it is not possible to find all the characteristics of DSC in a single change agency because processes are often context specific, I still find Heifer Project South Africa to be an interesting DSC case study because its planning, implementation and monitoring and evaluation not only show that they regard DSC as a practice and a process, but that they are proactive in dealing with ‘noise’ and confusion. Popular participation should imply continuous sensitising of local people to become more active (and not just receptive) to development programs since participatory development means the peoples’ full participation in, and approval and clear understanding of, what is proposed. In fact, as illustrated by the work of the Heifer Project, the people must do the proposing themselves. They know their own needs better than any NGO. Where the grassroots community are refused the space to initiate the projects but are told what was already decided for them and must be receptive and responsive and grateful for what the benefactors have in store for them, this would indicate the persistence of the top-down communication model with its disproportionate emphasis on the all-powerful, all-seeing sender. The old emphasis not only serves to make the sender more influential and powerful at the expense of the receivers but is certain to lead to the confusion of Babel-like proportions.


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