Communities are not what they used to be…so let’s get real!

I like busting myths when I see them. That’s probably the result of my training as a journalist to be evidence-based, open-minded and always ask probing questions.

This makes me popular in some circles and very unwelcome in others!

I took a few shots at persistent development myths while speaking last week to a group of Asian broadcasters gathered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for a workshop on ‘Connecting Communities through Community Broadcasting and ICTs’ in the run-up to Asia Media Summit 2007.

I was speaking during a session on ‘ICTs – Bringing Added Value to Community Radio’. ICT stands for information and communication technologies.

The first myth I exposed was what I call the development community’s ‘rural romance’ — almost exclusive obsession with the rural poor to the exclusion of similar, or even more compelling, needs of the urban poor. I have already devoted an entire blog post to this topic, so won’t repeat it here.

The next myth I tackled was the popular notion of ‘communities’.

I told my audience of researchers, activists and broadcasters: Communities are not just rural and unspoilt as some of you might imagine.

Here’s the relevant excerpt from my remarks:

What does ‘community’ meant to many card-carrying members of the development community? For starters:
• To begin with, people must be remote and rural, and in a geographically confined location.
• They are invariably poor, under-developed and living on the edges of survival.
• If they also have unique cultural artefacts or performances, that would offer convenient photographic or videographic opportunities to the development workers travelling from the city bearing gifts.

You get the idea. Now I ask you to get real.

Yes, such idyllic, hapless and romanticised communities probably exist in some endangered form in a few locations. But in most parts of the Real World (at least in Asia), communities -– both urban and rural -– are undergoing rapid transformation:
• People are on the move in search of jobs and opportunities.
• Technologies are on the move — especially mobile phones that no development agency put their money on!
• People are discerning and demanding, not blissfully ignorant or willing to settle for any offering from the outside!

These may seriously shatter some of your visions of an idyllic and ideal community, but these are essentially positive changes.

And communities no longer need to be defined merely by geographic proximity.

Newer ICTs now allow individuals scattered over larger areas to be connected via the airwaves or the web. This enables the creation and sustaining of:
• communities of practice;
• communities of shared interest/need;
• single issue agitation such as rallying around for constitutional reform, or repeal of an unfriendly law; and
• clamouring for political or democratic reforms.

So please move away from your narrow understanding of communities. Members of any of the above kinds of communities can benefit from community broadcasting.

I added that broadcasting itself isn’t what it used to be. The days of centrally manufactured content being imposed upon a hapless audience are now over.

Interactivity and user-generated content are IN.

Pompous, know-all anchors and presenters are OUT.

My plea to all my colleagues was: Things have moved on in the media world. So must we!

Read full text of my remarks to the workshop (cleaned up after delivery)

Read my op ed on Media: Step-child of WSIS? published by OneWorld in Nov 2003

One Response to “Communities are not what they used to be…so let’s get real!”

  1. Graham King Says:

    Good points, and a helpful reminder to get real!

    Many different kinds of community exist and have validity (including online networking, based on exchange of information/experience/creative expression/items). In fact such online networks may play a vital part in empowering and catalysing local ‘real world’ shared activities, which in turn facilitate growth of relationships and community life.

    For example, online information gleaned from afar (and importantly, the encouragement of seeing what others have already achieved and thinking ‘I could do that!’) may inspire someone to begin a local community garden with a growing band of volunteers.

    There is though also the continuing need for that real-world, grass-roots development to actually occur. I do see a risk that some people may disengage from actual practical tasks to pursue an increasingly ‘virtual’ disembodied social existence, spent disproportionately in the seemingly-limitless world of ideas online.

    Information technology is a powerful tool; as long as it is in that role, of a tool in people’s hands – and not vice-versa, people controlled and absorbed by a system of machines – it can bring great benefits in exchange of knowledge, skills and material items.

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