Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 40 (2015)
©2015 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation


Sibo Chen, Simon Fraser University

bookSaving the World: A Brief History of Communication for Development and Social Change. By Emile G. McAnany. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2012. 200 pp. ISBN: 9780252036774.

Although the history of Communication for Development (C4D) can be traced back to communication studies’ formal establishment in the first half of the twentieth century, the swift expansion of information and communication technologies (ICTs) over the past two decades has re-shaped C4D into a trendy field with growing theoretical and policy attention. Authored by Emile G. McAnany, Saving the World: A Brief History of Communication for Development and Social Change presents a chronological and theoretical summary of communication’s complex role in development and social change as well as the shifts of paradigms within C4D since the end of World War II. According to McAnany, the purpose of this book is three-fold: to explore how theories and practices have evolved along with the development of communication technologies, to evaluate the current status of C4D in the long-term struggle for development and social change, and to better understand the criteria for assessing the influence of C4D-related endeavours.  In this regard, Saving the World is both an intellectual history of communication’s intersections with projects aiming for fostering prosperity, as well as a call for continuing research and policy attention to communication’s great potential in future policy considerations. The book’s narrative begins with the emergence of “mass communication” in U.S. universities and Truman-era aid programs, which, in the context of the beginning of the Cold War, paved the way for applying U.S. mass communication research to the international arena. The book explicitly links the establishment of C4D to three foundational texts: The Passing of Traditional Society (Lerner, 1958), Diffusion of Innovations (Rogers, 1962), and Mass Media and National Development (Schramm, 1964). These works propose that mass communication technologies can function as “magical multipliers” with an implicit modernizing effect and thus the promotion of modern communication systems is crucial for transforming “traditional” societies. In contrast to other historical accounts that regard this body of literature as the defining factor of the dominant paradigm’s adoption of the modernization-diffusion model, McAnany emphasizes the vital role of institutional power, especially UNESCO’s, in shaping and implementing the dominant paradigm. This argument is supported by the retelling of a series of early development communication projects such as rural radio in India and educational media in American Samoa, El Salvador, and Mexico. Despite various positive outcomes, these projects indicate the major shortcomings of the dominant paradigm, namely its undue emphasis on institutional power, top-down approach to social change, Western-driven vision of “modernization,” and ambiguous criteria for project evaluation.

As the dominant paradigm’s shortcomings became increasingly evident, alternative voices aiming at establishing critical stances within C4D started to emerge in the 1970s. Within the context of the rising Third World in the United Nations, scholars from developing countries, especially those in Latin America, began to criticize centralized efforts from external funding agencies by revealing the Western-centric ideologies and ethnocentric assumptions underlying the modernization-diffusion model. This phase (the 1970s to the 1990s) can be roughly divided into the “dependency paradigm” and the “participatory paradigm,” though the boundary between the two is often blurred. This critical era of C4D is marked by seminal works such as How to Read Donald Duck (Dorfman & Mattelart, 1975), Mass Communication and American Empire (Schiller, 1971), and Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire, 1970). In general, this body of literature collectively demonstrates how cultural imperialism and ideological oppression can function through C4D projects and it argues that participation and empowerment of the local community should be the primary considerations in the decision-making of development projects.

Of course, the emphasis on participation cannot be implemented without material support, but when such support comes from a funding community it becomes the stumbling block for empowering the local community. This challenge brought new initiatives focusing on supporting bottom-up innovations and micro-business practices. Commonly referred to as “social entrepreneurship,” this emerging paradigm (since the 2000s) is the final paradigm examined by McAnany and the two prime examples addressed in the book, Ashoka and Grameen Bank, suggest a promising future for this approach. Although social entrepreneurship shares the same vision of local participation with the participatory paradigm, it can hardly be recognized as an emerging paradigm within C4D since it rarely addresses the role of communication for social change. Social entrepreneurship still offers four important lessons that might be adapted by C4D: 1) the marketing of innovative ideas can bring them to greater scales; 2) all change is local; 3) external funding should be a means to self-support; and 4) the evaluation of impact should be given primary attention in decision-making (pp. 112–115).

The book ends with two chapters evaluating the current status of C4D and discussing the field’s possible future directions. For McAnany, there are valuable lessons to learn from all the paradigms and it is crucial for C4D researchers to recognize that theories themselves cannot bring social change. The shifts of academic discourse can easily be traced but it is much harder for such shifts to be translated into practice when real-world policies are infused with ideologies and institutional power. Although the history of C4D seems to have more failed efforts than successful ones, it still offers the following five important questions for future research inquiries (pp. 129–141):

“Funding sources and controls: who will be in charge?”
“Who defines success and how is it measured?”
“What role does innovation play in C4D projects?”
“How do people and technology relate to each other?”
“Can good ideas solve problems in different contexts?”

How these questions will be solved is beyond the book’s scope, but there is no doubt that the future of C4D, as McAnany summarizes in the final chapter, will hinge upon technological innovations, knowledge emerging from universities, continuing inquiries on the parameters for C4D assessment, and public mobilization.

Overall, Saving the World provides a brief, yet thought-provoking, account of C4D and its concise writing style makes it a great candidate for senior undergraduate and graduate seminars on development communication. McAnany’s involvement in some of the early C4D projects and his personal observations have strengthened the book’s overarching narrative, especially in Chapters Two and Three where McAnany describes how texts such as Schramm’s (1964) guided his own academic journey back to the 1960s as well as the lesser-known story about how Schramm’s ideas were translated into UNESCO’s early practices.

Unfortunately, Saving the World also bears two notable shortcomings. First, it could have benefited from more discussion on ICTs given ICT4D’s increasing centrality in many development projects ranging from open education to social innovations. Noticeably, although the dominant paradigm seems to be a “passing paradigm” according to the book’s chronology, the idea of communication technologies as “magic multipliers” remains a central assumption in many current ICT4D practices. Second, some readers may be disappointed by the fact that the book only tracks the history of C4D back to the post-World War II era, without contextualizing it in the broader context of capitalism’s global expansion modernization. As pointed out by other reviews of Saving the World (e.g., Jenks, 2012; Schneeweis, 2014), the colonial experiences of many developing nations remain vital for understanding the voices and concerns within C4D, and the book could have paid more attention to this aspect. In this regard, some readers may find that books such as Mattelart’s (1994) can be complementary when reading Saving the World.


Dorfman, Ariel & Mattelart, Armand. (1975).  How to read Donald Duck: Imperialist ideology in the Disney Comic. New York, NY: International General.

Freire, Paulo. (1970).  Pedagogy of the oppressed . New York, NY: The Seabury Press.

Jenks, John. (2012).  Review of Saving the world: A brief history of communication for development and social change, by Emile G. McAnany. American Journalism, 29(4), 147-149.

Lerner, Daniel. (1958).  The passing of traditional society: Modernizing the middle east. New York: Free Press.

Mattelart, Armand. (1994).  Mapping world communication: War, progress, culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Rogers, Everett  M. (1962).  Diffusion of innovations. New York, NY: Free Press.

Schiller,  Herbert I. (1971).  Mass communications and American empire. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Schneeweis, Adina. (2014). Two on development communication: Saving the world: A brief history of communication for development and social change/communication, media and development: Problems and perspectives. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 91(1),  202–204.

Schramm, Wilbur  L. (1964).  Mass media and national development: The role of information in the developing countries. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.


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