Communication Compacts: The Role of Computer-Mediated Communication and Information Technologies (COMCITs) in the Design and Implementation of Development Programs in Central America

Pual Fervoy
Irene Chaverri
Nora Galeano
Stephen Cox
Fundación Acceso, USA

Abstract

Governments of developing countries and international development assistance bureaucracies alike have traditionally placed great emphasis on the preparation of meticulous a priori designs of how development programs will work and how they will be evaluated. Such "design rigor" may be useful when one can predict with some reliability how a program will unfold, but it cannot be applied to countries where unpredictability is the rule rather than the exception.

The complex challenge of promoting effective development requires more complete knowledge of a wider array of variables than any individual or institution can hope to command, particularly at the outset of a proposed enterprise. Moreover, it is impossible to know in advance how the participants in a proposed program or policy initiative will react during the life of the project and beyond. The development imperative of sustainability requires a greater focus on careful tracking of the evolution of projects over time than has been required historically.

Greater effectiveness, then, requires greater attention to issues of feedback and participation. Instead of "design rigor," what is needed now is "process rigor." To compensate for our necessarily limited understanding of how projects will evolve, process rigor incorporates feedback mechanisms to ensure a steady flow of updated information on how the project is unfolding and how our initial assumptions have changed or should change.

Computer-mediated communication and information technologies (COMCITs) offer unprecedented opportunities to establish practical systems to incorporate feedback and citizen participation in development activities. Projects designed to generate and take advantage of these inputs have a much greater likelihood of staying on track and evolving in ways that reflect the changing needs and contexts of the people they are ostensibly designed to serve. The use of process rigor in development planning can also reinforce the efforts of developing societies to build effective democratic institutions. COMCITs are the most appropriate and powerful means for bringing together inputs from a diverse and often geographically dispersed population of affected actors.

However, the incorporation of COMCITs in development activities and the invocation of process rigor as a fundamental design concept require multidisciplinary collaborations that have little precedent in the COMCIT field. COMCIT service providers in the field of development must begin to work with development planners, political actors, social scientists, nongovernmental organizations, and, above all, community leaders in new and heretofore unexplored ways. Collectively, these actors must begin to describe new "communication compacts" that establish clear rules for shared responsibilities for generating feedback and for taking it seriously.

This paper explores some of these issues and makes a series of concrete recommendations for designing COMCIT applications to promote process rigor (e-mail, conferencing, list servers, etc.). This paper also discusses the need for new COMCIT-using relationships that can help to ensure that development efforts reflect the needs and interests of the people whom they seek to serve.