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Technology and Development in International Communicationfree

Technology and Development in International Communicationfree

  • Nanette S. LevinsonNanette S. LevinsonSchool of International Service, American University


Over the last six decades, discussions and approaches to communication and development have evolved considerably. Some of these changes particularly focus on the transformation of the nation-state role, from its initial conception to its current formation, as well as the transition from the study of political and economic progress to the analysis of cultural components and social development today. These major approaches include modernization, diffusion of innovation, dependency paradigm, monistic-emancipatory approach, institutional theory approach, industrial policy, strategic restructuring model, evolutionary paradigm, interorganizational approach, ecosystem approach, and an approach that highlights culture, power, age, gender and disability dimensions. Part of this investigation includes research trends in communication and development. Scholarship identifying such trends highlights newer technologies as well as a continuing presence of digital inequalities. Additional research is needed to capture processes such as cross-organizational and cross-cultural learning and improvisation in terms of communication and development, and to recognize the roles of power and culture in these domains. Furthermore, taking a co-processes approach prevents one from assuming that there is only one correct pathway in the field of communication and development


  • Development
  • Political Communication

Updated in this version

Revised to include discussion of cryptocurrencies, social innovation and Sustainable Development Goals, updated references.


Approaches to communication and development practice and studies have changed dramatically in the last 60 years. Whether it is the roles of individual national governments, or the focus on top-down vs. bottom-up, or even the assumption that culture matters, discussions centering on communication and development have altered substantially. Examples of these changes include a focus on the nation-state 60 years ago to a more multi-stakeholder focus today; a central and top-down direction 60 years ago to a more bottom-up or combination direction today; and a change from a primary focus on political and economic development to a more nuanced view, including cultural components and social development.

Some issues, however, remain much the same: communication and development as it relates to poverty alleviation worldwide, access to a specific communication mode (from mass media in the 1960s to Internet and mobile technology-related media beginning in the early 2000s), media interventions (whether for political development in the 1960s or health campaigns in the 1990s and beyond), and the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) and development policy-making challenges for governments. More recent issues, with the advent of the multi-stakeholder concept include: international organizations, private sector organizations, and nongovernmental organizations.

This article traces the major approaches over the last 60 years, highlights the changing panoply of players (and related technologies) involved in discussions of communication and development policy and policy making, and identifies trends in the field. It also briefly describes selected methods and measures used to approach technology and development in international communication. See also the articles on history of international communication, e-commerce, e-governance, digital divide, and gender for related discussions.



With the publication of Schramm’s 1964 book on Mass Media and National Development, the modernization paradigm came to the center of attention for that particular point in history and for that era’s scholars and policy makers. Central to this approach is the notion that what worked well for developed, democratic Western nations would work well for developing nations. What was needed was the diffusion of a modernization approach. This involves a linear, one way approach: there is information flow from a government to the people. Moreover, the role of the mass media within a country is central for disseminating information to promote democracy and, ultimately, modernization.

Lerner (1958) set the groundwork for a modernization approach, setting forth a stage theory of political development facilitated by the mass media: urbanization, literacy, media exposure, and then, integration into modern, participatory society. Adding an economic focus, still very linear and also involving stages, Rostow (1960) argued that there were five steps in economic development, moving from a traditional society to one with high levels of mass consumption. (Later in his lifetime, he added another step, beyond mass consumption, where quality of life becomes central.)

Key to modernization approaches (whether the focus is on political or economic development), in addition to the role of the mass media and the staged or linear nature of the approach, is the central role of a nation-state government. It is a top-down or Western-nation-to-developing-nation approach, paralleling the development of an innovation diffusion approach to communication and development. There is no attention to adaptation or culture or social change.

Diffusion of Innovation

Stemming from the modernization approach and, ultimately, writing about its “passing” in 1976, Everett Rogers added a focus on interpersonal sources in the diffusion process. But, again, the diffusion of innovation approach, especially in its earliest form (Rogers & Shoemaker, 1971), was a linear and unidirectional approach: a Western government would diffuse an innovation (such as new agricultural processes to promote development). To consider the innovation “adopted” by the recipient government or country or village, the recipient needed to use the innovation in the exact form as in its original dissemination. There was little attention to adaptation in the early days of this approach. As time went by and more studies were completed, Rogers (1976) modified the original diffusion innovation model to take into account the importance of interpersonal sources. He recognized a different role for communication including the role of radio programs. Highlighting three new elements, participation, mass mobilization, and group efficacy, he even began to argue for field experiments as opposed to surveys in the study of innovation diffusion.

Dependency Paradigm

Reacting to these primarily Western-based theories and approaches, some theorists—especially those from Latin America—began to formulate an alternative paradigm for viewing communication and development. Amin (1974) and Cardoso and Faletto (1979) viewed the relationship between developed and developing nations as one of core and periphery. The obstacles to development, in their views, are external to the developing nation. Indeed, developed nations at the core exploit and impact those on the periphery. Again, this is primarily an economic view of development. From the developing nation perspective, then, the dependency paradigm argues that a developing nation needs to remove itself from the world market and display self-reliance. Brazil is an example of a government that tried to develop its own computer industry, especially in the mid-1970s, with mixed results. See, for example, Crandall and Flamm (1989).

Monistic-Emancipatory Approach

Mowlana and Wilson (1990) built on the work of Ibn Khaldun (1958), who lived from 1332 to 1406. (Khaldun wrote about moving from a simple to complex organization with no separation between society’s religion and politics.) They argued for a monistic–emancipatory approach to communication and development. This approach is nonlinear and involves ethics, spirituality, and an emphasis on the community. Recognizing complexity of communication and development as well as the role of religion, it advocates a bottom-up strategy and popular participation. It also uses a monistic view and requires the unity of god, human beings, and nature. While this approach has not become central in the literature, it does presage trends in participatory approaches.

Culture, Power, Gender, Age, and Disability Dimensions

By 2001, Wilkins and Mody added a greater focus on the process of communication and social change and highlighted the role of culture (missing from modernization and early innovation diffusion studies). They adopted a critical approach and emphasized concerns with power and with “the gendered nature of development discourse” (Wilkins & Mody, 2001, p. 387). Adding social movement theory to their repertoire of tools for understanding communication and development, they talked about the role of the media in strategic social change and express concern with cultural homogenization. Thus, they called for a focus on who has knowledge and knowledge as a resource itself. This requires sensitivity to specific cultural contexts at specific times and places. Their writing extends communication and development studies to include work on, for example, health communication media campaigns (to diminish the spread of HIV/AIDS in developing nations).

In prior work, Levinson (2015) has highlighted the culture kaleidoscope, noting the fractal overlaps among national, diasporic, organizational, small group, and occupational cultures. These overlaps shape in nuanced ways the experience and the interaction among technologies and development. These can also shape a researcher’s work and methods choice.

Adding nuanced dimensions to the study of communication and development, even though focused on media roles, Wilkins and Mody (2001) also discussed environmental concerns, increasing roles of the private sector, and even the impact of corruption. Echoing these concerns about the environment, Van der Velden (2018) focused on sustainability in the context of ICTs and the Sustainable Development Goals. For example, she wrote about the toxicity of smartphones and implications for sustainability.

These elements provide a foundation for important related work based on Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach (Hodgett & Clark, 2011; Andersson, Gronland, & Wicander, 2012; Dang, 2014) and other critical reflection and human development -oriented approaches (Zheng, 2015; Zheng et al., 2018; Poveda & Roberts, 2018; Walsham, 2017). See also Deneulen & Clausen (2019) with their focus on the quality of human life. For work focusing on gender, development, and information and communication technologies, see Vyas-Doorgapersad and Kithatu-Kiwekete (2017) or O’Donnell and Sweetman (2018). Francis, Ball, Kadylak, and Cotton (2019) provide a synthesis of research documenting digital inequalities for older adults. Focusing on disability and the digital economy, work by Trevisan and Cogburn (2019) or Yu, Goggin, Fisher, & Bingqin (2019) highlights the social, economic, and personal/psychological consequences of the use (or non-utilization) of digital technologies and related factors.

Institutional Theory Approach

Wilson (2004) pointed out how institutions play a key role in communication and development. As Zucker (1987) argued, institutional theory applies well when looking at groups of organizations over time and assists in examining the environments of organizations as socially constructed normative spheres. Using institutional theory to understand communication and development-related processes calls for a longer time horizon and in-depth looks at institutional change processes. While technological discontinuities such as the Internet can cause rapid changes, most institutional change is incremental. Institutional theory calls attention both to the cues given by institutional frameworks and to isomorphic processes as central in diffusing innovations and effecting institutional change.

One major illustration of the application of institutional theory is the abrupt change in many developing and developed nations from a central government agency that planned, controlled, and regulated all of telecommunications in a nation to the increasing role of privatization and a concomitant nation-state institution change.

A compelling illustration of these processes at work can be seen in Sandholz (1993), who vividly portrayed the rapid institutional change in Europe from nation-state monopolies regulating telecommunications to the dramatic creation of one new regionwide and powerful institution, ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute). Another related example rooted in an institutional theory perspective is the copying by nation-state governments of the idea of privatization of telecommunications. Whether this idea works or not, most governments increasingly copied this notion and restructured both agencies and policy processes to encompass privatization. For an evaluation of privatization impacts on developing countries, see Estrin and Pelletier (2018).

Industrial Policy

Industrial policy refers to the ways in which a country can promote its growth, productivity, and competitive advantage. Until the advent of the Internet, the concept of industrial policy did not really include information-related technologies. In fact, nation-state government agencies charged with promoting economic development did not deal at all with telecommunications policy. That policy space was usually the purview of the agency charged with the provision and regulation of postal and telephone matters.

As noted, communications, after the birth of the Internet (a discontinuous technology), increasingly became the purview of institutions dealing with economic competition and economic advantage. Thus, the precepts of industrial policy (a nation-state government’s toolkit for promoting its economic advantage and competing in the world system) came to include information and communications-related industries. In fact, the early 2000s have also seen the policy space for telecommunications-related issues primarily in developed nations expand to include a number of government agencies such as commerce (with primary responsibility for industrial policy), defense/security, and state or foreign ministry.

The work of Mansell and Wehn (1998) provides an example of industrial policy recommendations for developing nations with regard to information and communication technologies. They provided specific templates and “tools” for ways in which developing nations can use ICTs to achieve sustainable development. Emphasizing education, they also discuss how developing countries can build national information infrastructures, an important topic of that time.

Today, the big change from the early days of the modernization paradigm is the switch from a role exclusively on what governments can themselves do to what governments can do vis-à-vis the private sector. An additional change is from what nation-state governments in developing countries should do in general to prescriptions that are more individual for specific countries, each of which faces specific challenges. One trend that cuts across these themes is capacity building (Prasad, 2018). What can a developing nation implement to enhance capacity, and how should it measure such capacity?

Another newer dimension is industrial policy at the regional level (Simbanegavi et al., 2018). This focus reflects the growth of regional structures and the relative success of Europe as a region. Thus, there have been attempts on the part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and other regional entities to promote communication and development strategies, some focusing on regional organizations and their nation-state governments and others involving a focus on the private sector. See, for example, Bianchi and Labory (2019) for a general discussion of industrial policy at the regional level.

Strategic Restructuring Model

A more recent take on innovation diffusion with a focus on information and communication technologies as the innovation, as well as on nation-state government policies, is evident in the work of Ernest Wilson (2004) and his Strategic Restructuring Model. This model highlights the following dimensions as central to ICT diffusion in developing nations, especially over time: Structures (including political, economic, and social structures in a nation); institutions (ministries of information, state-owned enterprises, etc.); politics and government policies. It also highlights the role of key individuals in developing nations as champions of an innovation and the important role of institutions. Unlike both the modernization and dependency paradigms (where little feedback or social science data were collected), this model stems from extensive field research in developing nations. It adds power to the diffusion model by characterizing diffusion as a negotiation process. This study does not find a major role for multinational corporations in the diffusion process to developing nations. It highlights the local context as well as local institutions and tells an empowering story of social networks in the ICT revolution.

Evolutionary Paradigm

Modelski (1996) linked institutions, especially, in world politics, his area of focus, to evolutionary theory and evolutionary change. Examining global political evolution, he looked at the long cycle involving the rise and decline of world powers. Highlighting the role of time, he made a strong argument for the role of evolutionary frameworks for understanding world politics. Taking a similar stance, but focusing on populations of organizations over time, Monge, Heiss, and Margolin (2008) also argued for an evolutionary or population ecology type approach in their examination of communication networks in organizational communities. The basic argument in each is that over time an environment selects out certain types of organizations for survival. There have been numerous powerful analyses demonstrating the appearance (or disappearance) of a range of organization types over long periods of time.

This paradigm can also be profitably applied to the field of communication and development. Others (Levinson, 2008) have highlighted the power of evolutionary approaches to help explain the growth of public–private partnerships in communication and development arenas as well as the trend toward multistakeholderism not only in communication and development but also in global environmental and health arenas as well. The evolutionary approach emphasizes environmental characteristics such as complexity and uncertainty as helping to shape over long periods of time those organizations and organizational forms that survive.

A Network or Interorganizational Approach

Monge, Heiss, and Margolin (2008) also linked network theory to communication and the evolution of organizations. A network is a collection of nodes or entities that can exist at the individual, organizational, or interorganizational levels. Looking at the environment of a network provides evidence of its resource configuration and the way in which members of a network may use the network to acquire, exchange or shape resources. Community ecology, a subset of evolutionary and population ecology dynamics, studies the very processes by which members of a network—organizations in a community—have relationships that help them acquire needed resources.

The evolutionary component refers to the variation, selection, and retention processes at work here. It traces how the organizations adapt to this environment over time. Much work on communication and development uses network theory or actor-network theory (Heeks & Stanforth, 2015) rather than evolutionary theory. A network approach captures well today’s complex patterns of competition and cooperation among organizations such as private sector organizations, governments at all levels, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations. It also facilitates analysis of alliances and partnerships to foster communication and development, an especially vital approach in light of global financial challenges. See Renkin and Heeks (2018) for a discussion of the strengths of social network analysis in understanding communication and development or Fuger, Schimpf, Füller, and Hutter (2017) for a powerful example of a network approach.

An Ecosystem Approach

A final approach combines both the units of a network at the organizational or interorganizational level and the characteristics and components of the environments in which they are set. This can facilitate both analyses in the short term and the long term. It also captures well today’s variegated entities and concomitant patterns of combinations and permutations that are key on the communication and development scene.

The ecosystem approach (Levinson & Smith, 2008; Rey-Moreno, Blignaut, Tucker, & May, 2016) thus allows for examining both the like and unlike organizations involved and the characteristics of their environments, including possible technological uncertainty/complexity, culture and resources (or the lack thereof). It also includes a focus on the connections and patterns of linkages (including the absence and strength of connections) and what can flow and does flow across those links (information, technology, other resources). It is particularly well-suited to the examination of developing countries’ roles in multistakeholder settings and in global governance (Jayawardane, Larik, & Jackson, 2015).


This section identifies research trends in communication and development. It begins with “back to the future” trends, then considers research on actors in communication and development, and moves on to consider emerging technologies. It also notes the linkage of environmental studies research to communication and development research. This paves the way for a discussion of implications for additional research with a focus on co-creation processes as a new knowledge niche with great potential for contributing to the field of communication and development. Linking co-creation processes to communication and development, together with emerging technologies (such as big data and artificial intelligence) and social entrepreneurship research provides both rich potential for future research and new ways of thinking and researching about communication and development in global context.

Back to the Future Trends

The “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC) initiative, under the leadership of Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab, captures both positive and negative aspects of the modernization and the diffusion of innovation paradigms. (As of 2019, there are approximately two and one-half million of these (OLPC) laptops around the developing world (Ames, 2016)). Here is an example of a professor in a leading U.S. technology-focused university with a big idea—a specific, inexpensive, hardy laptop technology designed especially for children in developing country environments—disseminating this innovation, using the media, and meeting with government leaders in select developing nations to promote his idea and to make a difference (Hatch, 2009).

Numerous studies, using a range of methods from ethnographic to surveys to mixed methods and being implemented at various points in the life cycle of a project, examine the OLPC initiative and its outcomes. See, for example, Ames (2016), Meza-Cordero (2017), Nogry and Varly (2018). Together these three studies, the first focused on Paraguay, the second on Costa Rica, and the third on Madagascar, indicate that the original intention of the project (to impact school performance or improve basic skills) is not overwhelmingly present in the children with the OLPC laptops.

However, the studies go beyond measuring (each in their own way) such impacts. The Ames (2016) study found that, while the OLPC students hardly ever used the laptop outside of the classroom, their primary use was “media-centric, downloading, for example, games and music. As Ames (2016, p. 96) observed, “this research invites us to question common assumptions about what role technology plays in children’s lives, what counts as learning, and the sometimes-fuzzy divide between education and entertainment.” Unlike the Ames study, the Meza-Cordero (2017) study found that the OLPC students increased their usage of laptops outside of class by about 5 hours per week. (Interestingly, they also found that male students were on their computers more than the females in the study.) Similar to Ames and to Nogry and Varly, there was little or no evidence of impact on performance. Another finding was that the OLPC students spent, on average, one hour less per week on doing homework or on playing outside.

The Nogry and Varly study, unlike the other two cited here, examined the OLPC students four and five years after initial implementation. This study found that the students used applications for photos and videos; there were also gender and grade level differences in types of applications used. Again, there was no evidence of impact on basic skills but there was data indicating the development of media literacies and ‘new forms of self-expression’ as well as for a correlation with family support of such endeavors. Taken together, these studies remind us of the roles of cultural context including family, friendship and school cultures in shaping outcomes. They also echo earlier studies of diffusion of innovations where the creators of innovations define successful utilization of their innovation in terms of their own goal definition rather than recognizing social and cultural adaptations.

A second back-to-the-future trend can be seen in the terminology “ICT4D.” ICT4D refers to the use of information and communication technologies to bring about development. The very phrasing of this term implies a top-down or innovation diffusion approach. Often the nation-state government and/or international organization is at the center of such work. The UNDP (2001) volume of the annual Human Development Report focused for the first time on this topic. It created a Technology Achievement Index correlated with measures of human development and argued that digital gaps do not have to be permanent.

Looking at this Report and other indices of development supplied by international organizations, one can see the nation-state as the central focus. There have also been Human Development Reports examining ICTs and development with a regional focus. (See the United Nations Development Program’s Promoting ICTs for Human Development in Asia [2005] for an example.) The 2019 United Nations Human Development Report returns to an examination of inequalities. It goes beyond illustrating income disparities and using traditional measures to highlighting other elements including access to technologies.

Examining primarily economic development, UNCTAD produces a yearly report in its series of Information Economy Reports. Here, too, the focus is on governments and on policy implications. For example, the 2017 Report examines digitalization and implications for developing country economies and for inequalities.

In 2009, the ITU issued a report, Measuring the Information Society: The ICT Development Index 2009, as a response to the WSIS meetings outcomes and as a way to make sense of the various indices that had appeared since the 2001 Human Development Report. The 2009 ITU edition concluded that disparities still exist, even though all countries improved (in terms of access, not use!) over the five-year period examined. The least developed countries remain toward the bottom of the index. Formulating an ICT Price Basket, it showed the high costs of access and the lowest access to broadband in the developing nations. The focus is again primarily economic; it does include data from UNESCO regarding literacy in the countries studied. While the 2019 Measuring The Information Society Report also measures and discusses access issues, it moves beyond to a focus on skills (especially the divide with regard to requisite ICT skills) and capacity-building regarding skills.

Warschauer (2004) reminded us compellingly through his fieldwork that a focus on disseminating innovations is not enough. What is needed is an understanding of a recipient culture to continue to use the model of the innovation diffusion paradigm. Placing a bunch of computers in a developing country classroom does not imply in any way effective use or even any real use.

Recognizing the limitation of the term ICT4D, the World Bank began to use the term e-development. It still includes primarily a nation-state focus but it provides data on e-governance and other e-related services (Schware 2005). Another option is use of the term ICT in development rather than for development. Early 21st-century research on ICT4D on highlights power inequality issues (Chipidza & Leidner, 2019) or ethical dimensions (Walsham, 2017) or ways to amplify participatory dimensions (recognizing the importance of culture) in information and communication technology and development contexts (Bentley, Nemer, & Vannini, 2019). Additional research (Boni & Frediani, 2017; Ernst, 2019; Frediani, Clark, & Biggeri, 2019) underscores the importance and impact of participatory or collaborative elements in development initiatives. More attention needs to be given to actual cross-sector collaborative or multistakeholder processes from design to implementation to evaluation.

Another trend here relates to the role of the nation-state itself in communication and development. The nation-state in early communication and development studies was the central actor and key focus, as is especially evident in international organizations such as the UN or the ITU reports. As noted in the discussion of privatization, nation-state governments no longer are the only game in town when it comes to communication and development. With the advent of complex and converging information-intensive related technologies, the panoply of players (and their interconnections) in the policy shaping and making arenas has changed dramatically. In the early 21st century, the notion of multistakeholderism is growing in most contexts building on the United Nations-convened World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the second phase of which ended in 2005.

Thus, today there are both new actors and new venues for communication and development policy issues internationally. At the same time, since 2001, nation-state governments, especially in developed nations, appear increasingly concerned with Internet and communication technology-related defense and security issues and thus with ICTs as well. Such cybersecurity issues exacerbate even more the tensions between strong nation states roles and more multistakeholder-oriented approaches. The power equations of nation-states vis-à-vis other actors continue to be in flux. Indeed, authoritarian nations prefer more multilateral fora and approaches as opposed to multistakeholder settings (McKune & Ahmed, 2018).

There is also a research stream that defines and looks directly at digital divides rather than primarily at specific actors. Indeed, scholarship identifies at least three different types of divides. The first divide is access and material access (e.g., access and ability to maintain hardware and other related technologies; van Dijk & Hacker, 2003); the second focuses on the skills necessary to use such technology (Hargittai, 2002; Tsetsi & Rains, 2017). A third level of digital divide focuses on outcomes or inequalities in outcomes achieved through the use of information and communication technologies (Scheerdeer, van Deursen, & van Dijk, 2017). Civil society organizations and some international organizations are becoming increasingly involved in discussions to bridge such divides and/or related initiatives. For example, in 2017 UNESCO called for closing the digital divides and protecting online rights.

A final trend is the continuation of research focused on inequalities—encompassing all types of digital divides. The SDGs (especially Goals 10 and 5) reflect this continuing concern with inequalities (and digital divides) as highlighted in prior decades’ research and discussions. Yet research and debates have now taken on a new significance and, indeed, more nuanced meanings. Solutions to bridging digital divides extend beyond access to digital technologies, the first divide defined in this essay. Research has expanded to examine “real” access—the ability to actually use the digital technologies for political, social, environmental, and economic participation—and it continues to study gender, caste, disability, and rural inequalities (to name a few) that are nuanced and still persist (Abubakar & Dasuki, 2018; Bhandari, 2019; Desta, 2018; Kamath, 2018; Masika & Bailur, 2015; Trevisan & Cogburn, 2019).

Related to these divides are a different set of inequalities: developing country nation state governments’ access to and involvement in the many organizations focused on ICTs and their governance, especially in cross border transfer and governance. A recent report (Pathways for Prosperity Commission, 2019) documents the problems for developing countries’ involvement in cross- border technical institutions or organizations, such as the IETF (International Engineering Task Force) or the IGF (Internet Governance Forum). The World Bank in its Annual Reports analyzing “digital dividends” (2016), highlights in 2019, access or lack thereof as it relates to global value chains—another actual/potential divide. Additionally, recent work (Nicholson et al., 2016; Heeks & Renkin, 2018) underscores ICT access in terms of social justice and human rights. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) 2019 Human Development Report focuses on inequalities; it also deals with digitalization and its impacts upon work, echoing recent OECD projects on the digital economy and including the social as well as the economic.

New Actors and Roles in Communication and Development

Technology experts, an epistemic community, are playing important roles in communication and development discussions, along with other actors (An & Yu 2019). Indeed, some have argued (Mattli & Büthe, 2003) that there is much power in standards-setting exercises; it is the technical experts who often are involved in such meetings. They are also involved in such entities as ICANN, the private sector not-for-profit, headquartered in California, in its 21st year of dealing with Internet domain names and related issues (Becker, 2019).

ICANN, which does involve technology experts in its discussions, has been criticized for not having enough input from developing nations in its regular meetings, scheduled in various parts of the world including developing nations (see Grabowski (2018) for an update on ICANN efforts to involve developing countries both in terms of capacity building and funding).

Similarly, some criticize the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) for not enough emphasis on access and on developing nations, even though the IGF, by its very definition, is supposed to be multistakeholder in nature. Van der Spuy (2015) provides an African perspective on involvement in both IGF and ICANN. The IGF in its yearly agenda does continue to highlight access issues and to discuss capacity building in developing nations. Additionally, the year 2008 saw the beginnings of replication of multistakeholder forums at the regional (Europe, Africa) and nation-state levels (England). By 2019, there are more than 110 national, regional and youth IGF initiatives. See also Epstein and Nonnecke (2016) for a discussion of multistakeholderism and national and regional Internet Governance Forums.

One of the interesting shifts in recent times has been the shift from a sole focus on nation-states to a focus on other actors as can be seen in the creation of the IGF as a multistakeholder forum. Stemming from WSIS and its Working Group on Internet Governance (see Drake, 2008), the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) had its inaugural meeting in Athens, Greece in 2006. While it was established as an outcome of WSIS as a non-decision-making body that would focus on multistakeholder discussion of Internet governance issues, the IGF also had and continues to have access for developing nations and for disadvantaged groups as a key concern. There are, of course, serious questions as to whether all or most citizens of developing nations actually have access to such policy shaping and making whether at the IGF or elsewhere (Dutton, 2015; Hofmann, 2016).

International organizations have been reinventing themselves to capture the shifting sands here (Levinson & Marzouki, 2016). For example, both the ITU and the OECD have recently grappled with the roles of civil society. Each has decided to actively involve civil society. They have recognized that the number of nongovernmental organizations dealing with communication and development has grown exponentially. For a longitudinal view of civil society roles at the ITU with regard to spectrum issues, see Rashid and Simpson (2019).

The OECD notes that its interest in involving civil society stems back a decade to the OECD Ministerial on e-commerce and to the WSIS meetings. At the June 2008 ministerial meeting held in South Korea to discuss the Internet economy, the OECD Secretary General called for a process of formalizing the participation of both civil society and the technical community. Thus, there are now two new groups: the Civil Society Information Society Advisory Council and the Internet Technical Advisory Committee. They join private sector and labor groups who already participate in the OECD activities.

For their part, NGOs very much want a seat at the multistakeholderism table. While it is easy to identify international organizations with variegated interests in communication and development (the International Telecommunication Union [ITU], World Bank, the International Monetary Fund [IMF], UNCTAD, UNDP, the World Trade Organization [WTO], OECD, for example), it is much more complicated to identify who really is “civil society.” This is particularly significant when talking about development. For example, are the civil society organizations at a specific policy table representative of civil society in a developing nation? Providing a focus on civil society or NGOs in the global South, Dilevko (2018) focuses on southern NGO challenges in working with international nongovernmental organizations in the ICT field. Related to this question is a question about the role of diasporas within civil society. Brinkerhoff (2008) indicated how a diasporic community can use ICTs, among other options, to help family and home country economic development. Tapscott (2014) provided a broader perspective, including NGOs and diasporas in discussion of global governance issues.

The private sector also is keenly watching the multifaceted communication and development arena, now populated by nation-state governments, local governments, regional governments, international organizations, technical experts, and civil society. Scholars such as Prahalad (2006) highlight the potential of developing nations as a market for the private sector or, as he calls it, “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.” Additional scholars and nongovernmental organizations have jumped on this bandwagon. See for example the website Next Billion, highlighting projects all over the world that are linked by their focus (and their business models) on development through enterprise, as the site notes.

Related to these initiatives is the role of social enterprise and social innovation in recent communication and development efforts at the grassroots level (George, Baker, Tracey, & Joshi, 2019; Noack & Federwisch, 2019). Social entrepreneurs in both not-for-profit enterprises and for-profit businesses with a social mission strive to impact economic and/or social change and development. IDEO, a not-for- profit, is an example of an organization dedicated to partnering with local communities and using design-centered thinking to foster the use of information and communication technologies for development (Wyche, Olson, & Karanu, 2019).

There are tensions among each of these actors, each with its own culture and interests, and each acting in contexts fraught with technological change, increasing interconnections, and sometimes political as well as technological uncertainty. As a result of the Working Group on Internet Governance recommendations to the final session of the World Summit on the Information Society, there is the earlier mentioned IGF, with its fourteenth meeting in November 2019. The research (including Cogburn, 2006; Kleinwächter, 2007; Levinson, 2008; Marsden, 2008; Mueller, 2004; Mueller, Mathiason, & McKnight, 2004; Weber & Menoud, 2008) on this multistakeholder venue indicates its complexity whether in participants or topics. Every IGF annual meetings has included discussions of access and/or capacity-building.

This microcosm of multistakeholderism captures the complex relations and tensions among nation-states, international organizations, private sector, and civil society actors. Some private sector actors are concerned, among other issues, that an international organization such as the ITU might replace, slow down, or supplement markets and current mechanisms such as the IGF for dealing with Internet governance issues, including those of developing nations. There are also concerns that certain governments may continue to impose restrictions on Internet use and impede markets. Mueller (2019) presents a contrary argument and illustrates how sovereignty concepts do not apply effectively to the cybersphere in the early 21st century.

There are numerous examples of the private sector effectively promoting development at the local level, without direct involvement of nation-state governments or international organizations. The e-Choupal case in India (Chitnis, Kim, Rao, & Singhal, 2007; Madan, Sharma, & Seth, 2016), where a private sector Indian company dramatically changed the way in which farmers do their work, illustrates the use of information and communication-related technologies to improve local farming efforts, recognizing and reflecting local culture effectively. Other examples include that of the Grameen Phone initiative in Bangladesh, building on the Grameen Bank model (Vishkaie, 2018; Willows & McWha, 2019) or (Asgary & McNulty, 2017) using Internet technologies to link directly potential individual funders and development-related projects in other parts of the world.

Work by Bessette (2004) and by Okon (2015) also highlights the roles of communities and ICTs in developing nations. Possibly paralleling early work on the role of mass media in modernization, the focus on community radio in developing nations to effect change transforms the media role from being a top-down mechanism for change to being a local, bottom-up and culturally sensitive agent of change and help (Srinivasan & Ramos-Martin, 2018). (See also UNESCO’s work on community media and gender and community media.) Additionally, research indicates that community radio can play significant roles regarding gender empowerment (Nirmala, 2015) and also health and wellness in developing country settings. The focus on community also allows for work on participatory processes and participatory development approaches.

This leads to another emerging research focus, that of sustainability. One of the newest trends in studying communication and development is a focus both on the environment and on communication, thus bringing additional actors to the ecosystem (Yohannis, Wausi, Hutchinson, & Waema, 2019). There are at least two interrelated aspects to this intertwining of significant but heretofore rather separate arenas of international issues. One is the interconnection among technology type and environmental impact or the greening of communication technologies in both developed and developing nations. Environmental issues are particularly key to developing nations. The second is the broader issue set of policies encompassing environmental and communication policy decision making. Indeed, the IGF itself and even its dynamic coalitions provide examples of Internet governance-related innovations copied from the rhetoric and practice of multistakeholderism in earlier global UN-led environmental policy-making discussions (Levinson, 2008).

Scholarship also reflects changes (or changes in emphasis) in broader international relations studies, shaping research on technology and development. Examples include: the roles of nation states (see the arrival of regime complexes research—Nye, 2014; Orsini, 2017); the use of social media in nation state public diplomacy (see Brinkerhoff, 2019); new directions in foreign policy challenges especially in the realm of cybersecurity and cybercrime (Carr & Nye, 2019); or even human rights (centering on social justice and also on freedom of expression). Additionally, the decade began to see some but limited dialogue across global governance arenas (environmental, health, and Internet) with an increase in global governance studies. Another overarching aspect is increased research demonstrating the power of user involvement whether in the production of an innovative product or service or in the success of a social innovation. This work is often linked to the presence of partnerships (and collaborative or co-processes), an increasingly common word in both “best practices” and in information and communication technologies and development research studies. A final overarching change is the increased attention to metrics and to measuring rigorously impacts and outcomes, especially from a funder or foundation perspective. These broader trends frame the discussion in the section “Technology Types and Their Uses.”

The Sustainable Development Goals And Partnerships

The United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 with a target of 2030. Each of the seventeen goals, covering economic, social, and environmental aspects of development, links to 169 targets. A key aspect of the SDGs (and indeed a specific goal) is a focus on partnerships. Of note is the absence among the seventeen goals of a specific Information and Communication Technology (ICT) goal, although certain goals do reference the role of ICTs. For example, Goals 4, 5, and 9 reference ICTs in their sections on targets, including target 9c, highlighting the role of access to ICTS (especially in the least developed countries with a target date of 2020). The overarching goal, #9, Industries, Innovation, and Infrastructure, calls for building sustainable infrastructure, facilitating inclusive industrialization, and catalyzing innovation. Overall, these goals reveal continuity with their focus on the nation-state and poverty alleviation; they also demonstrate change in recognition of cross-sector connections/partnerships and newer information technologies. As noted earlier, their focus on targets/metrics indicates an increased concern, even beyond the development field, with the need to measure carefully impacts or outcomes. See van Velden (2018) for an important overview of digitalization and the Sustainable Development Goals, or Dandabathula et al. (2018) for a nation-state-based view of e-governance and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Technology Types and Their Uses

Another trend in communication and development focuses first on the nature of a technology itself and, then, its uses in communication and development contexts. Here there are a number of related technologies: open source technologies, mobile technologies, social media, artificial intelligence, and blockchain technologies, to name a few. Research on open source technologies in the context of communication and development highlights ease of access and lowering of costs for using ICTs in developing nations. Some research focuses on government roles in selecting technology standards for acquisitions and operations in their purview. For example, there is research (Ghosh, 2004) on Extramadura, Spain where the government selected open source as opposed to Microsoft technology. (Such decision-making may echo the dependency paradigm.) There can be political elements involved in such decisions as well: some developing countries and localities prefer to use software that is open for collaboration and that does not stem from one large country’s powerful multinational business. Research here is primarily on government decisions, roles, and outcomes. There is some incipient research on uses of alternative technologies (Musiani, 2016).

Research on mobile technology is mushrooming, especially research related to developing nations. There appears to be a good fit between this technology type and the needs of individuals and organizations in a development setting. See, for example, Asongu and Boateng (2018) who provide an overview of mobiles and inclusive development in Africa. Again, as pointed out at the beginning of this essay, culture plays an important role and cannot be forgotten. As Kam, Akhil Mathur, and Canny (2009) observe in their research on teaching literacy to India’s youth using mobile video games, culture shapes what is and is not successful. See Donner (2008) for a comprehensive review of mobiles and development.

Mobiles also converge with social media technologies. Such technologies are utilized in contests and challenges to promote social and/or economic and/or political change. See Mathews, Farley, Hightow-Weidman, Muessig, Rennie, and Tucker (2018) for the use of social media in health and development. Again, however, there needs to be additional research on the roles of culture, especially in interaction with these information technologies. There clearly is something significant here and much more research is needed to capture possible impacts on development and regarding relationships to international organizations, governments, and the private sector.

Additionally, continued growth of mobile technologies and the presence of (and their possible interactions with) newer, emergent and, in some cases, convergent technologies including big data analytics, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IOT), and blockchain possess important challenges, especially with regard to human rights. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights has highlighted the need for the human right of access to information-related technologies around the world as well as for the right of freedom of expression. He has reminded technical standards organizations of these rights as they develop standards for newer technologies. These rights become vital in all arenas. This is especially true when it comes to artificial intelligence and big data analytics. Here there can be possible implicit biases, among other potential problems, raising concerns in both developed and developing country contexts. Another concern is the need for building capacity related to these new technologies. There are two key aspects of capacity, one economic and the other social and environmental.

Surveillance is yet another issue that information-related technologies can exacerbate. The Internet of Things (IOT), where everyday objects intersect with information technologies/infrastructures in ways just beginning to be studied, presents a powerful example of potential dangers. Digital disinformation (Golovchenko, Hartmann, & Adler-Nissen, 2018) is another vital sub-theme here, one with global and local ramifications.

Turning to blockchain technologies (and related cryptocurrencies), decentralized as they are, together with mobile telephony, one can see both positive (see Pathways for Prosperity Commission, 2019 or Larios-Hernandez, 2017) and negative potential (see Risse, 2019). For example, on the positive side, blockchain technologies have potential for private and possibly low-cost transfer of remittances, improving user experiences (and costs) with existing mobile money systems. Potential also exists in terms of these technologies doing good for health and environmental monitoring arenas. On the negative side, there are, myriad possibilities of cybercrimes, some yet unimagined (Werbach, 2019; Zetsche, Buckley, & Arner, 2019).

Also related to these newer technologies, including the growth of social media, is the emergence of what researchers now term platforms, each also with major implications for developing nations. Two distinct literatures study platforms. First, from a public administration perspective, a new development is governance platforms. Here communication and emerging technologies facilitate the conduct of collaborative governing beyond and sometimes including the nation-state. Ansell and Gash (2018) define governance platforms as facilitators of collaborative governance processes. Indeed, they see platforms as “generic organizational logic(s)” (2018, p. 17). Such platforms can catalyze, facilitate, and possibly even regulate what Ansell and Gash term as “many to many” collaborative relationships. This resonates with literature highlighting the roles of participation or co-processes (Baird, Plummer, & Bodin, 2016) in successful development initiatives, as discussed also in the original version of this article.

Contrastingly, the term platform governance (see Schreieck et al., 2018; Gorwa, 2019) refers to the emergence of new communication technology systems such as the iPhone or Facebook or Google or WeChat and the power that such technological systems have over users (DeNardis & Hackl, 2015; Zittrain, 2019). An example from Facebook is a zero-rating project called Free Basics aimed at developing markets: this refers to the provision of free but selective access as decided by the platform company. Technological platforms in many parts of the world have been subject in the past to limited regulation in order to foster Internet and related economic growth/competitiveness. Today, with the flourishing of platform companies and the rise of platform governance, many legislators at all levels and the public are expressing concern about platform company powers and impacts. Such impacts are particularly significant in the context of those with the least access to the Internet.

Taking an even broader view, the term digitalization in the context of development has emerged as a way to frame thinking about the technologies discussed here. Digitalization refers to “the increased connectivity and networking of digital technologies to enhance communication, services, and trade between people, organizations, and things” (Linkov, Basu, Fisher, Jackson, Jines, & Kukjla, 2016, p. 1).

An example with a focus on the nation state comes from the work of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Focusing on developing digital nation-states, it collaborated with the Turkmenistan Academy of Sciences to work on digitalization in Turkmenistan. (See UNDP Turkmenistan.) An OECD 2017 Report (Key Issues for Digital Transformation in the G20) also focuses on the digitalization of the nation-state. It examines the digital economy and links digitalization to economic growth, observing that digitalization is “an accelerator of development and the G20 must be ready to make the most of it.”

Digitalization has potential for both positive and negative social and environmental impacts. In its 2019 Report on “Measuring the Digital Transformation: A Roadmap for the Future.” the OECD, adopting a positive stance, calls for a multistakeholder approach and for “sound measurement.” Studies of digitalization in the context of digital divides (Salemink, Strijkera, & Bosworth, 2017; Sylvester, Toland, & Parore, 2017) underline a positive potential connection between digitalization and education (including skills training). They also point out the challenges of bridging existing divides (especially gender and disability divides) and possibly catalyzing new divides.

This discussion leads to an examination of research on “leapfrogging.” See, for example, Singh (1999) or Tan, Ng, and Jiang (2018). This argument is a counterbalance to the staged and linear requirements inherent in the modernization and related approaches. By using certain kinds of technologies (such as mobile technologies), this argument states, a developing nation can leapfrog over stages and develop more quickly. Here South Korea’s economic progress with regard to mobile phones provides an illustration of successful leapfrogging.

Co-Creation Processes and Communication and Development

Open source, mobile and even blockchain technologies foster the presence of innovative co-processes such as co-creation, a final trend in the communication and development field. Research in innovation studies (von Hippel 2007) highlights the role of the user in co-creating innovations; research in labor–management negotiations highlights co-processes and cross-party learning as a result of negotiation (Culpepper 2008); and research on citizens and their local government puts co-creation at the center of new trends in public administration (Bovaird, 2007). This work in three complementary domains presages the importance of co-processes such as those found in participatory development to shape positive impacts. (Note, however, that these same cyberinfrastructure and mobile technologies can promote co-processes in the conduct of, for example, cybercrime or cyberterrorism in the context of developing nations.) The aforementioned technologies provide a foundation for virtual co-processes as well as face to face. Such processes also bring the field away from a purely top-down or bottom-up approach. Rather they allow for civil society, international organizations, private sector and/or governments at all levels to work in co-creation processes impacting social, political, and economic development. They also allow for looking at processes involving the private sector in developed and developing nations. See Jacobs, Rivett, and Chemisto (2019) for an example of a successful co-design approach to amplifying capacity in rural South Africa, or Sell et al. (2018) for an additional example with a focus on small scale farming. Baird et al. (2016) illustrate the power of successful collaborative processes in a similar context, that of environmental governance.

Research Needs

More research is needed to capture such processes (including cross-organizational learning and improvisation in terms of communication and development) and to recognize the roles of power and culture (and how they may shape outcomes in these settings). Furthermore, taking a co-processes approach prevents against the early thinking in the field of communication and development that there is one correct pathway and it can be disseminated. As even the World Bank points out (Schware, 2005), there are different challenges for different countries. Indeed, international organizations may not always be necessary in solving development challenges. Recent developments in social entrepreneurship indicate that neither governments nor international organizations necessarily have to be involved in communication and development efforts for them to be successful; others, however, may argue that such efforts are piecemeal.

Another key area of needed research with a focus on multistakeholderism is the issue of trust (Hofmann, 2015; Luo, Li, Zhang, & Shim, 2010; Taylor, 2016). To what extent does trust exist across stakeholder groups? (See Jacobs et al., 2019; Luo et al., 2010; Osei-Bryson & Bailey 2019.) Does this trust level possibly increase as the stakeholders interact in networked fashion over time? Additionally, there is the need to focus on possible connections among stakeholders in the practice of multistakeholderism. What is the flow (if any, and in what directions and intensities) of ideas and other resources among the stakeholders? What are the outcomes of such processes? Recognizing that there are national cultures, organizational cultures, alliance cultures, and professional cultures, how does cross-cultural communication play a role?

Measures and Methods

This leads to a discussion of the aforementioned key need to begin to measure more accurately impacts (Heeks & Molla, 2009) in the communication and development arena. Looking back at the 60 years of approaches highlighted here, there has been a change in the methods used to collect data on communication and development. Methods rooted in both the modernization and innovation diffusion approaches tended to be checklists or surveys. Little qualitative or what we today call mixed methods (quantitative as well as qualitative) were present. As technology itself changed and with the advent of Internet and now mobile-related technologies, researchers have used a variety of methods including the traditional checklists and surveys.

Today’s methodological toolkit for understanding complex communication and development issues includes network analysis and mapping (Padovani & Pavan, 2007; Renkin & Heeks, 2018); participant observation and other quasi-ethnographic methods (Ames, 2016); and content analysis and case studies (Levinson & Marzouki, 2016). It can also include big data analysis (Trevisan & Cogburn, 2019). For recent literature reviews, see Levinson (2015), or Osei-Bryson and Bailey (2019), or Sein, Thapa, Hatakka, and Saebo (2019). Much research utilizes survey and indicator data, as can be seen in studies and annual reports of United Nations-related organizations. See, for example, the Human Development Reports; the annual United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Information Economy Reports; and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Annual Reports on Measuring the Information Society.

Case studies tend to be the most prevalent; they are used to capture the rich data needed to understand the complexities of culture and cross-cultural communication in development settings. Also there are methods related to examining long cycles and large populations of organizations in the population and community ecology fields of study. These are less popular in the study of communication and development; but perhaps they will increase in popularity due to the need to capture the growing interest in the interconnections between environmental and communication concerns.

One of the major future research challenges is assessing and measuring the presence of multistakeholderism and co-creation processes in this field. To what extent is there change and what types of change? And to what extent, if any, does multistakeholderism make a difference when it comes to social, political, or economic development? What are the comparative roles of developing nations in this new multistakeholder era? Are developing nations shaping such changes and to what extent? Which methods are most appropriate for capturing answers to these complex questions, and can technology itself play a role? Schwittay and Braund (2018) provided a critical overview of participatory approaches. There is also incipient research using two different methods: experimental methods and indigenous research methods. For an experimental research methods approach, see Fishkin, Senges, Donahoe, Diamond, and Siu (2018); and for a discussion of indigenous research methods, see Arsenault, Diver, McGregor, Witham, and Bourassa (2018).

While there have been extraordinarily audacious changes in communications-related technologies over the last six decades—changes that parallel in magnitude the changes at the beginning of the industrial revolution in the United States, for example—poverty is still a major problem in our world as is the absence of democratic governments. Ideas for using new communication-related technologies to foster development include e-governance, e-government, e-health, and e-education. Recently, some scholars have replaced the “e” with an “m” in order to focus on mobile technologies and their potential power in development (Bailur, Masiero, & Tacchi, 2018). Much of this discourse still centers on the nation-state and its roles in development. Some success stories exist, usually in the form of case studies.

The challenge ahead and the way forward, to borrow terminology from the UN and the IGF, is to design research teams that recognize the complexity of today’s communication and development issues and include all relevant actors (not just nation-state government-focused studies). There is even a role for co-creation processes in the conduct of future research related to communication and development processes, especially with a focus on outcomes and impacts. Finally, there is an opportunity to utilize indigenous research methods as seen in Arsenault et al. (2018).


A brief scan of topics discussed at recent Internet Governance Forum (IGF) meetings as well as in reports related to communication and developing nations indicates that capacity-building is a significant topic of discussion. There is a need for additional research on absorptive capacity (Guimon, Chaminade, Maggi, & Salazar-Elena, 2018) and development, with special attention to contextual variables and to openness to change. Further, the presence and use of metrics themselves in research studies on communication and development can influence development outcomes in nuanced yet significant ways.

Researchers recognize the advent of specific communication-related technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data, and blockchain (including cryptocurrencies) and the growth of giant information/media/tech companies, each with major implications for developing countries and possible digital divides. The concomitant concerns regarding needs for regulation including platform regulation are growing. Yet developing countries (and their citizens) themselves are not always at the table, as concern for regulation increases. There is not enough discussion of either appropriate new technologies or platform regulation in developing countries.

The number of studies (and Panels or Commissions) focused on cybersecurity and/or cybercrime is increasing. These developments possess significant implications for future studies of communication and development. Research also tells us that remittances via mobile telephony continue to be on the rise. The potential of emerging and converging technologies and actual intersections with mobile telephony (especially blockchain and cryptocurrency-related technologies) influence our next decades’ research agenda. Most importantly, geopolitics has not disappeared. (See De’, Pal, Sethi, Reddy, & Chitre [2018], who call for a critical research approach in ICT and Development studies.) Power, including platform power, and inequalities, along with and especially highlighting ethics (Walsham, 2017), must remain key in research agendas, along with units of analysis beyond the nation-state.

Links to Digital Materials

  • Communication Initiative Network. ICT for development. Reflecting one of the newest trends in the field, this site uses ICTs to share information about climate change.
  • The Global Alliance for ICT and Development. The Global Alliance highlights best practices and includes projects relating to ICTs and development.
  • InfoDev at the World Bank. This online resource from the World Bank describes relevant subtopics and activities linked to communication and development.
  • International Telecommunications Union-Development Section. Listing events, publications, and activities, this website includes access to new and recent reports.
  • Netsquared. This website notes that its role is to help nonprofits related to ICTs and social action including human rights. It also presents the results of contests including projects that involve ICTs to make a difference.
  • Next Billion.Net. This site links development and business and highlights roles of ICTs. It provides a directory of projects by region of the world as well as news.


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