09 Aug Musings about WACC
Communication for social change work taking place in rural Vietnam. Photo: UNESCO
There is no doubting the fact that WACC has played an important historical role in nurturing, shaping and expanding our understandings of communication ethics and communication rights via hundreds of projects spread throughout the world and through the facilitation of conversations on a range of issues inclusive of media gender justice, media and communication rights advocacy, community media.
There is also a sense in which WACC has played a critical role in taking some of the key recommendations from the MacBride Commission forward, in particular the need for media alternatives. Media Development, as the flagship WACC journal, has also been influential and articles from it continue to be widely cited.
Looking back at the time that I spent at WACC, one thing that stands out is the fact that WACC was all about supporting a multitude of exogenous projects and initiatives although there was very little internal investment in systematically learning from the literally hundreds of projects that WACC supported over the years. This was especially true in the area of project support, where literally hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on an annual basis and at that time very little was learned from the experience of project support.
Many projects, in the old days, were support for Christian mission in a narrow sense, although from the mid-70s onwards WACC’s project portfolio reflected a growing sense that communication rights were for all, irrespective of caste and creed. The fact that WACC had the space to pursue this agenda, despite pressures from within, was the chief motivating factor for my own 15-year stint with WACC.
However this tension between remaining an open association for which there were supporters in the London office and the demand to remain “Christian” that was a very real regional demand, remained an issue, and in a sense was one of WACC’s Achilles heels. The contradiction at the heart of the ecumenical movement to take a preferential option for the poor but not to acknowledge that the poor had the right to pursue the many pathways to liberation outside of the Christian experience was and presumably remains an issue for WACC and other like-minded Christian organisations.
Despite these contradictions, WACC had many friends among whom were many of the world’s best known critical communication scholars who stood for global human rights – Herb Schiller, George Gerbner, Margaret Gallagher, James Halloran, Cees Hamelink, Kaarle Nordenstreng, Robert White, Anna Reading, Seán MacBride, Stuart Hall, Jesus Martín-Barbero, Gabriel Garcia Canclini, Robert Hackett, Philip Schlesinger, Ruth Teer Tomaselli and Keyan Tomaselli, Stuart Hoover, Jan Servaes, Bruce Girard, among many more who form an illustrious roll call.
Given this roll call of names, it is unsurprising that WACC’s research agenda was closely tied to that of the International Association for Mass Communication Research (IAMCR).1 Even the fact that Seán MacBride nearly became President of WACC is a reflection of WACC’s standing in the field. Then WACC had the energies of indefatigable communicators such as Michael Traber. And the world’s communication scholars contributed to its journal Media Development.
One could argue, that since aid for communications was in its infancy, WACC had very really little competition and enjoyed a lot of goodwill. WACC acted as a laboratory for expanding understandings of communication rights and a number of scholars continue to acknowledge WACC’s formative role in the trajectory that their own careers subsequently took. WACC has played a key role in shaping conversations around communication ethics, communication rights, communication and social change, community media, gender media justice, and media and religion.
So much water under the bridge. And so much change that the world of communications and WACC have experienced over the last two decades. WACC is no longer in the public eye like it used to be, a reflection, in some part, of a reduction in funding but also the move out of London to Toronto, that may have been motivated by rising costs in London but that perhaps did not result in the advantages that it was supposed to have gained.
Today, there are a host of international NGOs involved in supporting citizen-based media projects, some like the Open Society Foundation backed by funding from Soros. Others like Internews supported by USAID and health communication projects that are supported by the Gates Foundation. We are also in a situation where there are any number of media-specific apex bodies and networks dedicated to community radio, internet advocacy, and participatory video.
So, one issue for WACC today is what to focus on in a context in which there have been major changes including, of course, the challenges brought by the confluence of new media and politics, fake news, surveillance, sousveillance and the like.
In the context of decreasing funding opportunities, I think that it would make sense to focus on a limited number of areas – but importantly to create a strategic five year plan in two distinct areas – media & gender where WACC does have a global reputation through their support for the GMMP and GAMAG, and communication rights that in a sense underlies much of the work supported under the WACC label. Rather than supporting projects per se in both areas, the aim should be to deal with both issues in context. Perhaps a theoretical framework for this initiative can be drawn from Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach with an accent on strengthening capabilities in the context of supportive, enabling environments.
I believe that this would give an opportunity for WACC to understand how access to and use of communication can make a difference in people’s lives. It would give an opportunity to understand context – the role played by culture, hierarchies, power flows, enabling institutions, all the requirements that are necessary for people to own and use communication.
I am thinking of a model such as the one used by Rhizomatica in Mexico – where this NGO has partnered with local indigenous communities to create local telecom coops that provide numerous services to local communities. While the NGO facilitates the deployment of resources such as technology and is involved in advocacy, training, documentation, and exploring sustainability – the local community plays a key role in determining what local connectivity needs are, and local capacities are developed in and through the provisioning of local services.
To operationalize this within WACC, there would be a need for two distinct teams – one working in the area of media and gender and the other in communication rights, who have both specialised skills and the ability to work in partnership with local communities. The teams would be tasked with working on dedicated community communications initiatives and the objective would be to strengthen local capacities, explore sustainability and community ownership.
WACC would need to take a deliberate decision to scale down other activities that it is involved in and focus on a small set of activities that are funded over the long term. I am of the opinion that such projects would generate textured research data on the affordances of community-based communications and the various factors that contribute to community-based communications and connectivity. Despite the many thousands of dollars that have been spent on community communications initiatives, there is precious little information available on local ecologies of practice, the sustainability of such initiatives and understandings of how genuine capacities can be developed and sustained within local communities.
WACC will be involved in a bridging role – enabling and facilitating the processes required to legitimise, build, maintain and sustain community communication projects. It will employ nimble and agile staff who are not only specialists but who also have the capacity to explore and create opportunities, take decisions, connect with larger networks, and establish communities of practice. These projects will be explicitly secular, meaning that WACC’s Christian roots and values will be reinforced not by what they say but what they do. WACC’s principles articulated in the document Communication for all: Sharing WACC’s Principles states on page 6 that:
“Communication rights claim spaces and resources in the public sphere for everyone to be able to engage in transparent, informed and democratic debate. They claim unfettered access to the information and knowledge essential to democracy, empowerment, responsible citizenship and mutual accountability. They claim political, social and cultural environments that encourage the free exchange of a diversity of creative ideas, knowledge and cultural products. Finally, communication rights insist on the need to ensure a diversity of cultural identities that together enhance and enrich the common good.”
These words do not represent a manifesto for any specific religious or denominational communication. On the contrary, they restate the case for a communications for all people who belong to a diversity of cultural identities. The common good transcends the narrow horizons of any given religious community including that of WACC. And the challenge for WACC is to practice that commitment.
Let me conclude by quoting another WACC stalwart, T K Thomas, who happened to be my father. In a piece entitled “Credible Communication”, which I think he wrote when he was at the World Council of Churches in the 1980s, he pointed out some of the issues with the practice of Christian communications:
“What is worse, we have imitated the popular media in our communication efforts, building up bishops and celebrating anniversaries of consecrations, making much of our own activities and taking no notice of others, being parochial when we should be denominational, being denominational when we should be ecumenical, and being ‘Christian’ when we should be human”.2
Not that Christian communication is unimportant, just that WACC’s mandate is to work towards communication for all.
1. Today called the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR).
2. An Ecumenical Wordsmith: The Writings of T K Thomas (2002), CSS Publications, Tiruvella.
Pradip N. Thomas (PhD) was WACC’s director of studies and publications and co-editor of its journal Media Development. He is currently Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Centre for Communication and Social Change at the School of Journalism and Communications, University of Queensland, Australia. A leading academic in the area of communication and social change, Thomas is also on the advisory boards of a number of international institutes including the India Media Centre at the University of Westminster. He is the author and/or editor of several books.