I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media Studies and Production at Temple University. My current research program seeks to answer critical questions at the intersection of two important sub-fields of communication research: communication for development and social change (how media and communication can promote positive social change for marginalized or disadvantaged communities) and communication about development (how information about development work is communicated to policy-makers and the public). Governments, NGOs and private donors spend billions annually on aid projects in the developing world, yet there is now widespread acknowledgement that these projects have not produced the social welfare improvements that one might hope for after decades of intervention. What can be done to improve global development and spur social change? Why do some projects fail while others succeed?
Other questions my research addresses include:
- How can we use communication and media to promote more effective and sustainable development?
- Incorporating project beneficiaries into CDSC development projects may be more ethical, but is it actually more effective? How does incorporating project beneficiaries influence project outcomes?
- How can participatory strategies be practically and efficiently implemented under current funding models?
- How do current efforts to communicate to the general public about development (e.g., through the news) impact development work and development outcomes?
- How can we make communication about development efforts more ethical and more productive, in order to facilitate positive social change?
- Do project evaluations themselves, as a key form of communication about development, promote or deter funders’ and policymakers’ support for participatory practices?
- What role should project evaluations serve? If they function more as public relations tools than as learning tools, how can we make them more useful so that we can build theory and improve interventions?
- While CDSC is participatory at its foundation, CAD is not. How can CAD (both project evaluations and communication through the mainstream media) better incorporate the voices of the stakeholders that development efforts strive to serve?
Communication for Development and Social Change (CDSC): CDSC addresses how communication and media tools can be used to promote positive social change among disadvantaged and marginalized groups. One theory underlying much CDSC work is that project beneficiaries (the marginalized groups at the center of development projects) should have a central role in project development and implementation in order to 1) produce more ethical and empowering interventions; and 2) increase the likelihood of project success and sustainability. This represents a significant shift from most early development projects, as project beneficiaries have historically been excluded from development project planning and implementation, with projects focusing instead on the ideas and assumptions of outside donors and policymakers.
Despite the growing popularity of such so-called participatory project design, there remains a significant gap in evidence supporting the theory that participatory project design actually produces better outcomes, with CDSC adherents relying primarily on anecdotal (though growing) evidence that may or may not reflect development practice in general. Those who do not support full participation point to the time, cost, and general inefficiency of such projects due to the typically small number of beneficiaries impacted. There is also a strong belief by many in the development community that data on the impact of participatory interventions is weak because the approach does not align with positivistic data collection methods, such as experimental and quasi-experimental designs (the “gold standards” of development project research). The consequences of this gap in the evidence are that much of the development world 1) remains skeptical of the benefits of participatory CDSC projects (leading to a lack of funding and support), 2) is unsure of how to practically and efficiently implement such projects under current funding models, and 3) uses nominally participatory practices (such as pre-testing media materials on audiences) that they may tout to outsiders as inclusive, but which do little to truly embrace the needs, thoughts, and desires of the groups which they intend to serve. Addressing this gap in the evidence is one main focus of my research.
Communication about development (CAD): CAD is a distinct, but related emerging field that addresses how policy documents, project evaluation reports, and other information sources portray development work to policy-makers and the public, and how those constituencies respond to those portrayals. CAD matters, in part, because funders’ and policymakers’ understanding (or misunderstanding) of the role of media and communication in development influences development policies, and specifically funding (or lack thereof) for CDSC projects. Thus, CAD not only shapes interactions between publics, governments, and development funding agencies (particularly in the Global North) but also interactions between those institutions and the marginalized, oppressed, and disadvantaged – the very groups that those institutions purport to help.
Within this emerging sub-field, little attention has been paid to how CAD, directed toward the general public through the mass media, impacts development work and development outcomes. This represents a significant gap in the literature, as it is crucial to understand how development projects, as well as solutions to development problems, are constructed for global audiences. This construction impacts how Western publics view recipients of development aid, how they envision the appropriate relationship between wealthier societies and disadvantaged communities, and the types of development work that they ultimately support.
Project evaluations: Project evaluations are central to the gaps described above in both the extant CDSC and CAD research. First, evaluations purport to provide the public and policymakers with essential information about how to “do” development. They are the “report cards” of those who conduct development work in the field. But in my experience, evaluations too often do very little to improve our understanding of development and social change theory, serving instead as public relations tools for project implementers and political administrations. A set of related questions, then – which my research seeks to answer – is 1) what purpose these evaluations are intended to serve, 2) what purpose they ultimately do serve when it comes to policymaking, and 3) how evaluation principles need to change in order to produce more useful data and improve development theory and practice. For example, if done properly, formal evaluations could be used to test the theory (described above and embedded in much CDSC research) that interventions are more likely to be successful if they are structured as participatory processes, rather than top-down interventions driven by the beliefs of outsiders.
In sum, my evaluation work is therefore focused on three distinct, but overlapping issues: 1) examining why certain media and communication interventions succeed (or fail); 2) investigating how evaluations influence the policy-making space and how they could better serve the policy-making space; and 3) examining the validity of theories surrounding participatory project design in CDSC interventions.
I hold a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in Cinema Studies from New York University, and a B.A. in Economics from Stanford University.