Communication for all in the digital age: An African perspective
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Communication for all in the digital age: An African perspective

Charles Okigbo

Communication for All is the principle that everyone needs relevant information and communication in their daily interactions with each other and as active participants in the inescapable exchanges that characterize their membership of and participation in society. Human communication, in all its varied forms, is manifest in interpersonal, intercultural, international, organizational, and many other exchanges all of which underline the limitless scope for using messages to inform, educate, persuade, and entertain.

Regardless of our level of competence as communicators, from novices to experts, we must engage in this universal characteristic of humans, hence the universality of the principle of Communication for All. The World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) rightly adopted Communication for All as its guiding philosophy and this has endeared it to many and earned it a unique position of honour among international religious and communication associations and organizations. WACC argues that “everyone has the right to communicate and to be in communication, in the same way that they have the right to food, shelter, and security” (Lee, 1986).

Although Communication for All is intuitively appealing, only a few organizations have given it the recognition it deserves, and among these are The Association of Persons with Severe Handicaps (TASH) and the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). TASH created the “Communication for All Campaign”, which is aimed at promoting effective communication for people with disabilities or challenges. It was guided in its belief that regardless of any physical or mental challenges that we may face, we can all benefit from proper uses of communication. The TASH campaign emphasizes the inculcation of skills and knowledge that promote personal and group development through awareness, professional skills, access to communication technologies, instruction, and support (TASH, 2023).

WACC’s book Communication for All (1985) carries the subtitle “New World Information and Communication Order”, which was a major preoccupation of UNESCO in the late 1970s and the 1980s, culminating in the publication of the MacBride Commission Report (1980) and the funding of major communication research projects on information imbalance and news flow. UNESCO supported a new world order, with emphasis on balanced information and communication flows among national, regional, and global partners to ensure a new, more just, and more efficient world information and communication order. We are now in the digital communication age, where the concept needs to be propagated more urgently, especially in the less industrialized countries that suffered marginalization in the previous age of analogue, hegemonic, and imperialistic communication. This new digital age of communication brings much promise for fairness and equity in information flow and communication use for previously disadvantaged audiences and communities.

Communication for all in the digital age

WACC’s mantra of Communication for All is even more relevant today in our contemporary communication environment of digital, virtual, 24/7, limitless communication that fulfills Marshall McLuhan’s concept of a global village. Our contemporary digital communication age started with the advent of the information superhighway, which metamorphosed into the ever-escalating phenomenon of internet advances and the latest developments in artificial intelligence. Not only can we create unimaginable communication content such as trolls, fake news, misinformation, and deep fakes, etc., but these can be disseminated virtually to all world regions at once, faster than the speed of sound.

The latest developments in the digital age include the use of artificial intelligence and avatars that might genuinely support Communication for All in a world order that we could not have imagined in the 1970s and 1980s. The digital age has compacted our experiences in many respects, not the least of which is the erosion of the erstwhile marginalization associated with the old world of developing and developed countries. The imbalance has become less controversial as development agencies such as The World Bank and UN organizations emphasize more targeted global development, most recently through the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Instead of the ideological East/West blocs and the group of Non-aligned Countries of the 1970s and 1980s, we now have an international consensus on the value of setting transnational development targets across the globe, tackling poverty, hunger, health, education, water, energy, economic growth, inequalities, as well as partnerships for these goals.

One of the most perplexing problems of the era of the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) was the challenge of a free and more balanced flow of information and how the needs of the less industrialized countries linked with the flow of information between different countries and world regions. Today, free and balanced flow are largely irrelevant because the contemporary environment characterized by 24/7 virtual communication has yielded an open system that is better and more equitable than what we could have imagined. This is essentially Communication for All, which is as applicable in Africa as it is in other regions of the world, especially the Global South. If communication in Africa today is no longer as peripheral and marginal as in the past, what could be the ramifications of Communication for All as applied to Africa?

Orality, indigeneity, and ambivalent modernity

An African perspective on Communication for All has at least three distinct features that reflect traditional African culture: Orality, the attraction of indigeneity, and ambivalent modernity.

African communication is quintessentially oral because of the late arrival of written languages among African peoples, despite the historicity of hieroglyphics in Egypt. It was this reliance on oral communication that led Ugboajah (1986) to propose his foundational African communication paradigm of “ora media”, premised on the combination of traditional cultural symbols and aural features. Close to orality is the fascination with indigeneity and authentic African traditional communication expressed in spoken, performative, and symbolic communication messages and artefacts. More than a century after the arrival of foreign mass media forms in Africa, indigenous forms are still powerful and pervasive in African communication.

Nevertheless, modern communication tools are prevalent now in Africa as in other world regions because of the affordability of the new information technologies such as internet tools, cell phones, social media, and the increasing use of artificial intelligence. The use of new communication gadgets creates ambivalent situations because some are embraced by people who at the same time are enamoured of traditional ways of communication.

So, what is the African perspective on Communication for All? This is ever evolving and will include the general and universalistic expressions by TASH that all people are deserving of the purposeful uses of communication, without exception, as well as WACC’s principle that communication is a human right. UNESCO’s drive for more balanced treatment and flow of information also applies to African communication. In addition to these universalistic standards, an African perspective will include the uniquely African communication characteristics of orality, indigeneity, and modernity. We can conclude here that Communication for All in Africa is multi-layered and complex.

In the contemporary digital communication age, we are witnessing African countries adding a new twist to the multiple layers of Communication for All. This is seen in such areas as Nollywood films and home videos from Nigeria and other African countries in a world where Africa is increasingly becoming a more important player in the global, digitally connected and more open communication environment of many voices – in which some are louder than others. However, while everybody has a chance to be heard in the true sense of Communication for All, this does not mean that all voices will be heard equally. There is no doubt that some voices dominate and carry further than others. The digital age sometimes makes it appear like many voices, one world. At other times, it appears to be many worlds, one voice.

One world or continent, many voices: Where is Africa?

Africa’s place in global communications does not reflect the continent’s demographic position as the second largest grouping (1.426 billion) behind China (1.454 billion). India comes a close third with 1.416 billion. Many factors are responsible for this systematic and age-old neglect, which is not likely to change soon. Among the most critical factors are the historical injustice of the 1844 arbitrary carving up of the continent at the Berlin Conference, the colonial policies of exploitation rather than genuine development, and the pervasive corruption that characterizes many African governments. Development in Africa has suffered serial setbacks in many African countries such that today the continent accounts for many of the poorest countries in the world. The future holds better promise for greater development of African economies, especially if they remain peaceful, adopt pro-growth policies, and embrace higher educational standards.

The world is increasingly moving towards a unipolar global situation since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989. Although there are still a few outliers such as Russia and North Korea, occasionally with China joining them on some ideological issues, many of the countries in the world are closer today than at any time in the past. Now more than ever before, African countries are closer to a situation of One Continent, Many Voices, but slowly moving towards the dream of improved growth and development that will lead to an African Renaissance, which is the ultimate goal of the Africa Union’s Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want.

Communication for All in Africa is desirable to overcome some of the development deficits that have held the continent down from precolonial times to the present. The contribution of Communication for All is so fundamental to national, regional, and global development, it is the theme of the forthcoming book edited by Jan Servaes and Muhammad Jameel Yusha’u titled SDG 18: Communication for All, in the Palgrave Macmillan SDG Series. The thesis of the publication is that “the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the successor Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are incomplete because of the absence of a specific focus on communication for all, which should ideally be a separate standalone goal SDG 18” (Okigbo, 2022). The 17 SDGs were selected to provide the focus for redressing local, national, regional, and global underdevelopment by targeting the key objectives which include eradicating poverty, ending hunger, providing universal access to healthcare and education, addressing climate change, and enhancing partnerships for these goals.

Many development communication experts accept that Communication for All is necessary for the SDGs to stress the centrality and urgency of communication in any serious development and social change enterprises. In this book, Okigbo and Ogbodo (2023) argue that Africa and other industrializing nations need strategic communication and Communication for All to achieve their sustainable development goals, without which meaningful socio-political development will not be possible. African development continues to be problematic with many countries performing below par on many of the SDGs, as the continent looks towards the 2030 target date for all the participating world regions and individual countries, and 2063 for the African Agenda for Development.

There have been some setbacks in African development, but it is not an entirely woeful experience because some encouraging successes have been recorded in Africa. It is the prospects for greater achievements that have led to the drafting of Africa’s own development forward-looking plan named Agenda 2063, which has 20 individual achievable goals and the following seven critical aspirations:

  • A prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development.
  • An integrated continent; politically united and based on the ideals of Pan-Africanism and the vision of Africa’s Renaissance.
  • An Africa of good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and rule of law.
  • A peaceful and secure Africa.
  • Africa with a strong cultural identity, common heritage, values and ethics.
  • An Africa whose development is people driven, relying on the potential offered by African people, especially its women and youth, and caring for children.
  • An Africa as a strong, united, resilient and influential global player and partner (Africa Union, 2023).

These aspirations provide guideposts for achievable targets that individual African countries are supposed to adopt and modify to suit their extant conditions. Mirroring the MDGs and SDGs, but more strategically directed at the most pressing problems of African development, these seven aspirations deserve to be promoted among all segments of African societies through purposive strategies of Communication for All so that Agenda 2063 would be a household concept all over Africa.

Top 10 areas for Agenda 2063: Implications for communication for all in Africa

A discourse analysis by Nhamo (2017) of the Agenda 2063 official document showed that the top 10 issues (ranked) are women, peace, youth, technology, trade, gender, education, governance, infrastructure, and inclusiveness. Africa has had a vision of its development right from the early days of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the struggles of the individual African countries for political independence in the 1960s. From the experiences of the MDGs and SDGs, African leaders now have a clearer vision of the continent’s development priorities as expressed in Agenda 2063. Having a vision is one thing and being able to mobilize the resources to achieve it is another. It is instructive to examine how the top three issues of women, peace, and youth can benefit from purposeful attention to Communication for All.

Each of these three issues plays a significant role in contemporary African development as well as the expectations for continued growth and development in future. The first issue – women – touches on other aspects of development such as gender, health, children, education reproductive rights, and population growth. Equally important is the need to treat all members of society with respect and accord equal rights to all individuals. Communication for All is central in all these expectations of better treatment of women in Africa so that they can contribute maximally to African development.

It is not surprising that peace is the second issue because it is of great import. The poorest countries in Africa are usually the most challenged for maintaining peaceful coexistence among their ethnic groups, while the most peaceful countries tend to be among the most advanced. Civil strife and wars reflect breakdowns in communication and conviviality, and so it is expected that good applications of Communication for All should improve the chances for peace within and between African countries.

The third value is youth, which holds great promise for continued development, but only if the quality of the labour force improves significantly through better education and improved health conditions. Africa’s demographic dividend is best felt in the youthful age of the present population, and this has implications for political development and eventually the realization of the aspirations expressed in the Africa Agenda 2063. Successfully addressing these three top issues of women, peace, and youth in African development will require purposeful applications of the principles of Communication for All, especially in this age of digital communication.

Conclusion

Africa needs strategic uses of communication in support of development, especially in this digital communication age. It is recommended, therefore, that Communication for All be adopted as a cardinal principle in efforts to implement the ambitious plans of the Africa Agenda 2063. This is the set of development targets that will bring about sustainable development of the continent in the key areas of prosperity, integration, good governance, peace, cultural identity, people-centeredness, and resilience. Africa, as the second largest demographic grouping in the world cannot afford to lag behind in global human development, and making Communication for All a cardinal principle is an imperative for success in implementing the ambitious plans of Agenda 2063, lest it becomes another good design that fails in implementation. Advances in the new information technologies and digital communication underline the benefits of science and new knowledge in improving the human condition for all peoples, especially women and youth in Africa.

In the long run, what emerges from the widespread application of Communication for All in Africa will be a new vista of genuine hope based on systematically assailing the pressing challenges and obstacles that have constrained development on the continent. The promise of an African renaissance rests on the strategic uses of communication, specifically Communication for All, to get all segments of African societies to contribute meaningfully to attaining the ambitious but achievable objectives of the Africa Agenda 2063. Anything short of this will be self-defeating.

References

African Union (2023). Africa Agenda 2063. http://au.int

Lee, P. (1986). Communication for All: New World Information and Communication Order. Orbis Books.

Nhamo, G. (2016) New global sustainable development agenda: A focus on Africa. Sustainable Development, Vol 25, Issue 3/ p. 227-241.

Okigbo, C. (2022) Communication for all in the age of sustainable development Goals (SDGs). International Communication Research Journal, Vol. 57, No. 2, Fall 2022.

Okigbo, C. and Ogbodo, J. (2023) Communication for all in Africa: The complexities of development and communication. Servaes, J. & Yusha’u. (Eds.). Forthcoming/2023. SDG18-Communication for All. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

TASH (2023). The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps. https://tash.org

Ugboajah, F. O. (1986) Mass Communication, Culture, and Society in West Africa. Munchen: Hans Zell Publishers.

Charles Okigbo is a Professor Emeritus of Strategic Communication at North Dakota State University and Director of Fundraising and Development Communication at the Missional International Church Network (MICN). He was formerly the Executive Coordinator of the African Council for Communication Education (ACCE), a WACC affiliate organization in Kenya.

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