Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. September 2004

6.4. Transkulturelle Kompetenz in der Umwelt- und Entwicklungskommunikation
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Ernest W.B. Hess-Lüttich (Bern)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

The local language - a neglected resource for sustainable development(1)

Thomas Bearth (University of Zurich, Switzerland) / Diomandé Fan (University of Kassel, Germany)


1. Bridging the gap

"Does the scientific community ask the right questions concerning sustainable development?" Heading the announcement of an EU-sponsored interdisciplinary conference on sustainability in development, held in Stockholm in May 2001 under the motto "Bridging the gap",(2) the challenge to the field of development research expressed through this question was taken up by ostentatiously putting the theme of communication between partners in development right at the top of the conference agenda. One could have hoped that language, language use and language diversity, as the basic factors on which the success and failure of human communication hinge, would in turn have found their place on such an agenda. But apart from pointing to linguistic fragmentation as a hindrance to socio-economic growth,(3) specialists of development communication have generally shown surprisingly little interest in the possible relevance of language to their field of inquiry. Melkote and Steeves (2001),(4) for instance, while offering a penetrating analysis of communication models and communicative practice in development around the world, remain silent on the language issue.(5) Wilkins and Mody (2001) leave no stone unturned in exploring conditions for improvement of development communication but do not even mention language as a potentially relevant factor to be taken into account.(6) Martens et al. (2002), writing from an economist perspective, trace the failure to achieve objectives set in overseas development co-operation to what they call the "broken feedback loop" (p. 26; passim), i.e. a deficit in the flow of communication from the local community back to the sponsors. While this view is characteristic of the gradual shift from an exclusively expert-centered approach to a focus on the local community as a relevant source of development communication, language-related factors do not appear to play a significant role either in diagnosing the failure or in current thinking about possible remedies.

Writing from an African perspective, Koné & Sy (1995) show greater awareness of the language issue and its relevance to development communication. As Koné (1995:42) points out, the choice of the linguistic medium may decisively affect the acceptance or rejection of an exogenous message by the target community.(7) Sy (1995:65) and Nwosu (1995:154f.) recognize local languages as depositories of the cultural knowledge on which development must build. Rambelo (1999) similarly maintains that reliance on local language and local culture are interdependent conditions for agricultural innovation and for local participation in development. Diawara (2000:370) paraphrases development "mediated" through local knowledge as "concepts and conceptions of development experts transmitted through local languages and measured against the practical judgement of local populations." Robinson (1996), in a ground-breaking case study on the motives and effects of language choice in a multilingual rural setting in Cameroon, claims "that the local language must have a place in a participatory kind of development intervention" (p. 248). Finally, Tadadjeu and Chatio (in press) identify the main cause of what they perceive as a perennial continent-wide failure to meet the objectives set by development co-operation as the failure of development strategists to take into account the local language factor in African-multilingual societies: "In African local communities, where day-to-day communication takes place almost entirely in local languages, [...] information on modern approaches to development is made available [...] almost exclusively in inherited official languages that the majority of the population neither speak nor understand. This has been the fate of the continent for over four decades today. This approach to information dissemination has accounted significantly for the failure of most of the development programs proposed and implemented on the continent over the years."

This paper proposes to take up the issue of the link between local language, development communication and sustainable development. Its main purpose is not to lament the damages resulting from the linguistic fragmentation of developing countries and the language blindness of development planners, but to highlight the positive role local language can play as a source of empowerment and as an ally in the quest for sustainable results. Specifically, the paper intends to point to the existence of institutionalized discourse procedures in the local language designed to help "indigenize" exogenous innovative messages in view of their self-propagation within the target society. The Konon ritual, practised by the Tura in Western Ivory Coast, will serve as an example in support of the claim, central to the paper, that communicative sustainability, resulting from the substitution of an endogenous source for the original exogenous source of an innovative message, is an indispensable precondition to developmental sustainability.

An ongoing agricultural diversification project among the Tura provided the empirical setting within which the notion of communicative sustainability was initially developed and assessed.(8) The Tura inhabit a mountainous area between latitudes 7 and 8 north and longitudes 7 and 8 west, extending from the northern outskirts of Man, the capital of Ivory Coast's western region called "Region of 18 Mountains", to the Sassandra river to the east and across its tributary, the Bafing, into the vast savanna of the Worodougou to the north. The Tura call themselves Ween,(9) corresponding terms are used as glossonyms referring to their language.(10) Extensive resettlement, imposed first by the French who took control over the area around 1912 and again by the post-independence administration in the 1960s, has reduced the total number of Tura-speaking villages to just about 50, with an estimated resident population of 30 to 40 thousand. Differing from neighbouring ethnic groups because of the physical remoteness of their territory and their fierce adherence to their traditions for which they are reputed,(11) the Tura live by traditional slash-and-burn agriculture; with rice, cassava and yam serving as staple crops, coffee and, to a lesser extent, cocoa, as cash crops. A notable deterioration of soils, following the disuse of traditional fallow practices, a consequence of natural population growth reinforced by immigration and re-migration, accounts to a large extent for the nutritional shortages that the Tura have been increasingly facing in recent years.

The pilot phase of the Tura cassava diversification project was launched in April 2000 as a co-operative venture between groups of young farmers from Benomba, Yaloba and Dantomba, a cluster of villages located within a perimeter of 7 to 15 kilometers northeast of Biankouma, the administrative center of the district of the same name, roughly 50 km north of Man. It is headed by Diomandé Fan, a German-trained agricultural expert, native of Benomba and co-author of the present paper. Its double purpose is (i) to improve, alongside other measures, the nutritional situation of the population by introducing varieties of a superior yield of an already well accepted staple diet; (ii) to test in a mountainous environment the resistance and productivity of new varieties of cassava developed by the Swiss Scientific Research Center (CSRS) in Ivory Coast in collaboration with Nestlé (BEHI and al. 2000).(12)

Against the background of a meagre record of success from previous attempts to change agricultural practice among the Tura, it seemed important to determine causes for resistance to change in the Tura community, and to ask what would be the conditions for overcoming it. Could a review of the strategies used to convey innovative concepts to the Tura community contribute to paving the way towards greater acceptance of changes on which, after all, the economic future, if not the survival, of the population might hinge? In pondering these questions, our attention was turned to a strongly ritualized discourse procedure manifestly connected with hospitality, the so-called Konon(13). Its use seemed to be functionally linked to the reception of innovative messages by Tura-speaking communities, and to the negotiation of the practical implications of such messages by the target group.


2. Communicating development in multilingual settings

In an asymmetrical multilingual environment, languages differ by status, and this difference, by necessity or by decree, is reflected in the status of those who habitually speak them, and in the way they communicate and perceive communicative interaction between them. Social inequality of which the language difference is both the cause and the symptom may interfere with the idea of a participatory approach to development, as will briefly be shown in 2.1. We shall then look at the contradictory effects on development communication resulting from the necessity of translating and/or interpreting the original message (2.2) and its implications for sustainability (2.3). Counterbalancing this somewhat pessimistic note, it will be shown how judicious use of local communicative resources, exemplified by the Konon conversational ritual of the Toura, may go a long way in overriding these negative effects (3). We shall conclude by pointing out the need for further interdisciplinary research with a view to making language-related insights bear on broader issues relevant to development theory (4).

2.1 Local language, indigenous multilingualism and the participatory approach

Kievelitz (1988: 64) defines participation as "a process that allows each participant [in a development project] to state his interest in and his conception of the envisioned goal in dialogue and to carry them out in consensus with all the involved participants."(14)

In defining participation in terms of verbal activity, as Kievelitz does, one inevitably raises the question of the language(s) in which this activity should take place. Can there be participation in the sense of the definition without a common language shared by "all involved participants", experts, agents and local actors? The fact that so little attention is generally paid to this strategic question is all the more surprising, as it is well known that sub-Saharan African countries, where three-quarters or more of the total population are "functional illiterates", are hardly out of the ordinary. Functional illiteracy very largely correlates with a lack of unimpeded access to the dominant language which, in the case at hand, is French. Paradoxically, limited access to popular varieties of French, increasingly common even in remote rural areas, is not so much an asset in this respect as ultimately a handicap. While facilitating daily routine interaction in informal multilingual settings, regular recourse to it denotes incapacity to use official French and therefore tends to be synonymous, socially speaking, with the exclusion from fully exercising one's rights of citizenship and participation in public debate and decision-making processes (Bamgbose 2000: 7-29).

It is important to understand the importance of limitations inherent in multilingual competence. The much hailed individual multilingualism observed on a large scale in African societies, which typically extends to other African languages and to substandard varieties of European languages, tends to be severely restricted in scope. This restriction significantly reduces the capacity of the majorities to actively participate in the public negotiation of issues of direct concern to them in the terms suggested by Kievelitz above.(15)

How then should these 'silent majorities' be able "to state their interests and their ideas" in a language they do not understand, or which they understand only to a very limited extent? Is enduring commitment, beyond the polite nod of acquiescence,(16) a realistic goal under conditions in which face-to-face negotiation of key issues is made impossible by prejudice favoring the dominant language as the medium of negotiation and ultimate decision-taking?(17) If, as seen above, unimpeded participation in the debate and in the decision-making leading to a given course of action is a prerequisite to "active participation", then, in turn, "active participation is an indicator of the legitimacy of a project within the beneficiary group" (Fremerey 1992: 63). Conversely, the de facto exclusion, on objective linguistic and/or language-ideological grounds, of local residents from taking part unimpededly in the decision-making processes, engaging their responsibility as players in the game, and affecting their way of life as members of the target community, will inevitably weaken the chances of generating a local commitment which will survive the physical presence of development agents and the external pressures and incentives accompanying it.

2.2 The interpreter's paradox

How then should development communication take into account the communication gap resulting from language diversity? What means should be used to "bridge the gap" and to bring the often complex issues of development across linguistic borders within reach of developing minorities, which are - do we need to remind ourselves of this? - synonymous with local majorities? The solution which comes to mind is the time-honored practice of translation and interpreting. Ever since the early colonial days, translation from the dominant language into the local idiom has been the strategy for communicating the messages of change and innovation to sub-Saharan African audiences. Even today, the expedient of resorting to the bilingual competence of African auxiliaries for bridging the communication gap is considered to be a mere technicality hardly worthy of attention, or, in the worst case, a stopgap measure dictated by sheer necessity, leaving no alternatives for choice. The purpose of this section is to suggest that the prevailing attitude of trust in the translation paradigm as the panacea to cross-language development communication, eloquently expressed through the almost total silence of the literature on this issue, is just as totally misplaced.

The few studies devoted to the issue of translation in development communication generally focus on questions of terminology and transfer of concepts.(18) Two types of shortcoming are identified: (i) terminological underdevelopment of the target language, and (ii) pitfalls inherent in the translation process itself. Among the latter, one might mention (a) the failure to readily access a communicatively equivalent expression, resulting in makeshift equivalents being used that fail to convey innovative concepts to the target audience; (b) lack of attention to, or awareness of, mismatches between "false friends"; and (c) quite generally a lack of contextualisation of the message due to the tendency of most translators to focus on form rather than on content. One might conclude from all this that once problems of equivalence of terminology and lack of mastery of translation procedures are overcome by providing training and enforcing standards, the problems associated with translation as a tool in development communication would be solved. However, this is not the case, for the fundamental problem with translation is neither translatability nor training but translation itself. It is not the transfer of the meaning of words and sentences, but the "meaning" of translation as a socio-cultural practice which is at stake. Paradoxically, the act of translating, particularly in face-to-face communication, while reducing linguistic difference, tends to maintain or deepen the communication gap by reinforcing social, cognitive and epistemic differences typically associated with ethnolinguistic diversity in the South:

1. Translation reinforces perceived socio-cultural asymmetry. As a by-product of the pervasive adoption of the translation strategy in a context of the imposition of colonial policies and values, the - mostly European - source language became intrinsically linked with the notion of individual and collective advancement, and the African languages with intrinsic backwardness. Post-independence development theory and practice, in spite of its rejection of the transmission model of communication and its insistence on collaborative and participatory approaches to development in more recent years, has done very little to replace the inherited stereotypes attached to languages and their roles. In fact, by ignoring the language factor, it has contributed to the perpetuation of the fundamentally dichotomic view of development communication as a process taking place between what might be called, for convenience, the "development source language" (DSL) and the "development target language" (DTL). Each time an innovative message crosses the DSL/DTL border and is translated into a local language, this process symbolically re-enacts the inherited paradigm by assigning DTL status to the receiving language, confirming its inferiority and its unsuitability as a creative tool in development communication. Reducing the DTL side to a mere receptacle of innovative thoughts and ideas, it implicitly denies its users the status of full dialog partners that participatory models explicitly reclaim for them.(19) It relegates to the state of communicative dependency those who are "condemned" to rely on the DTL as the principal or only medium at their disposal for daily interaction, the cognitive processing of their experience and the management of their natural and social environment, for working out solutions to their individual and collective problems and conflicts, planning and coordinating future action, as well as interpreting national and global events which affect their lives. Communicative dependency, in a more subtle way than exclusion,(20) stands in the way of communicative self-reliance as a prerequisite to dialogue, participation and, ultimately, sustainable co-operation in development.

2. The translation interface dichotomizes the processing of inferences. Taking recourse to translation presupposes a dichotomic speech situation, connecting and thereby opposing two parallel discourses, each relying for the construction of its meaning on its own language- and context-specific contextual and cultural background, which, in conjunction with what is said, provides the basis for inferring what is meant. In translation, the monitoring of inferential meaning, which is essential for interpreting discourse meaning, cannot be exerted by the interactants themselves but is relinquished to a third party, the translator or interpreter.
This is not to say that skilled interpreters are not able to match inferential meaning across languages. But the crucial point is that in translational communication, inferential processes cannot be monitored by participants directly. Not only does the receiving party not have control over the inferential meaning derived from the master discourse; what is more, it does not have control over the inferences drawn by the other party from its own discourse. Mutual control over inferences may never be total under any circumstances, but to the extent that direct control is possible, it is intimately linked to fostering attitudes of trust between participants, thus favoring in turn genuine dialogue between them. But, while the handling of inferences can be delegated to some extent, trust, at a deeper level, cannot.
Applied to development communication, this means that translation, not through any of its shortcomings nor because of bad practice, but, so to speak, on account of its virtues, while reducing distance in terms of factual content, tends to reinforce cognitive and social distance in terms of inferential control and interactional rapport.(21)

3. Translation carries with it an anti-dialogal bias. As a mode of communication, translation appears to be more congenial to the transfer of information, including instructional discourse, than to spontaneous dialogal interaction. Interpreting, particularly in an official or semi-official capacity, is essentially geared towards one-way communication and tends to assign speakers and addressees fixed and immutable roles with respect to the message. It is the message to be translated which almost inevitably controls the agenda and takes precedence over free negotiation of topics by the participants. Translation in face-to-face interaction is conducive to a hegemonial perception of the relation between source and target entities, rather than a participative one. The role asymmetry, which translational communication imposes on the communicative setting in the way it is practised and perceived by the participants in development communication, constitutes an obstacle to dialogal interaction which is not easily overcome.(22)

4. Translation imposes constraints on utterability and face regulation. Restrictions on freedom of choice of topics in a translational setting may be seen as one aspect of speech inhibition due to lack of control of inference (see point 2 above). Topics likely to be avoided in a cross-language debate include personal conflicts, magic beliefs, and past negative experiences with development agencies.(23).
Recast in terms of face theory (Brown & Levinson 1987), such constraints on utterability may be assumed to obey the principle that domains which seem to be potentially face-threatening to either party or appear to incur social risks difficult to calculate for the speaker or his/her group tend to give rise to strategies of avoidance. Thus, negative evaluations of the actions of outsiders, who are in a position of superiority or are considered to be affiliated with local or state government, are not only threats to those to whom the criticized action is imputed, but they constitute a potential threat also to those who utter them. These are clear cases in which the risk involved is heightened by the translation-induced lack of control over possible inferences and therefore limits the possibility of addressing live issues, some of which might have been relevant to decision-taking on development action.(24)

While some of these factors may be tied to the specific socio-historic context in which development communication takes place in sub-Saharan Africa, others are inherent to the translation process itself. The following points summarize the general inadequacy of classical translation strategies for development communication in Third World multilingual settings:

2.3 Implications of dichtomous communication for sustainability

Under the spell of its initial staging in the dichotomous mode of translational interaction, the development message intended to trigger a process of innovation in the target community will continue to be perceived as fundamentally alien. Beyond its initial perception, the perpetuation of the communicative disconnection "meta-communicated" by the mode of its introduction to the beneficiary group through translation will threaten to adversely and irreversibly affect its subsequent handling by the group. There will continue to be two parallel, mutually uncontrollable discourses: the DSL discourse, considered to be the source and guarantee of orthodoxy in matters concerning development in general and the project at hand in particular, and the parallel local DTL discourse, which any degree of local adhesion to the project will inevitably generate at the level of the target community. The local discourse, conducted according to the "rules of order" applicable to local decision processes, reflects values considered normative by local actors and prime implementers, while at the same time being beyond the control - and typically even beyond the reach - of DSL instances. The latter will continue to articulate, participatively or not, normative standards and expectations in terms of global and national or regional development policies and planning. But without doubt, the commitment of the population to the cause will hinge on, and day-by-day implementation will be shaped by, DTL discourse procedures and DTL standards of negotiation. Thus, the sustainability of the project will ultimately depend mainly, if not entirely, on communicative activities, whose link with the initial exogenous discourse on which the project continues to depend for its material survival is at best tenuous. Regular elicitation of feedback may seem to be the logical answer in order to close this gap, but its dependency on translation is likely to be the source of contradictory interpretations on both sides with additional risks of compounding second-order communicative problems while trying to reduce first-order ones, and thus of again broadening the gap rather than reducing it. It may well be, after all, that Martens et al. (2002) were right in diagnosing a "broken feedback loop" somewhere in the circuit as the main defect in development communication, but then we hope we have convincingly argued that the DSL/DTL interface is the first place to look for its most likely cause.


3. The Konon: a bypass strategy for development communication

Under comparable conditions, recourse to translation will still remain as a necessary evil, unavoidable in spite of its inherent shortcomings, if ethnolinguistic borders are to be crossed at all in development communication. The question we shall ask, then, is not: Is there a communicative tool capable of replacing translation strategies? Instead we shall ask: Is there a strategy permitting us to short-circuit inherent weaknesses of the translational model, some of which were pointed out in the preceding section? Remember what is at stake: If there is such a strategy, it might be a remedy for the congenital handicap by which, according to Tadadjeu & Chatio (op. cit.) and others, development projects in sub-Saharan Africa are stricken before even being launched in the race towards sustainability.

3.1 The Konon procedure

The bypass strategy tested in the framework of the Tura pilot-project for avoiding the impasse inherent in the dichotomous communicative predicament offers a possible way to shift the discursive activity serving as its launching platform toward the local language. How is this possible? As a first step, the initial target of development communication must be redefined in harmony with an approach starting from the premise that the local language has an irreplaceable slot to fill as a key resource in plotting the action leading to the desired outcome. Rather than focusing primarily on a plan or a project, or attempting to bring across an argument describing the social or economic advantages which might justify its adoption in the eyes of the population, the target of the initial communicative activity must itself be communicative in nature. In conceptualizing initial action, there will have to be a shift from object-centered to procedure-centered communication. There has, of course, always to be a starting point in terms of content conveyed to a local audience; but the prime purpose in doing so is to establish the project in its embryonic state as an object of communication considered worthy of attention and discussion by the target group.

Emphasis must be put on the order in which things should be expected to happen. In terms of the methodology advocated here, the local communicative autonomy of a viable project is not a distant target one could hope to reach one day as the project materializes, as trust gradually builds up between the different groups of actors involved in the project, and as the commitment of the target group and its visible results might justify passing the baton into the hands of the local actors. On the contrary, communicative autonomy is to be the starting point.

The first problem which such a strategy faces is that of the entry point. It will have to be a communicative setting which favors the shift from the normally expected DSL-centered message to DTL-centered communication. The difficulty is not just one of choosing the right procedure; it is first of all a research task whose objective is to find out what the right procedure under given circumstances in the given culture might be. And it is not just a matter of practical mastery of the language, although one should never underestimate the symbolic value of being able to greet an audience in the local language, exposing thereby one's limitations while earning usually bridge-building dividends of initial goodwill and empathy.

As indispensable as greetings may be, an inquiry into one's prospective interlocutors' expectations of what is to come after the greetings may be the key to success or failure, as illustrated by the Konon ritual of the Toura. The following description is taken from a field report written by the second author during the pilot phase of the project (Report from 6 June 2001):

Take the term Konon that has been used during this short initial phase [of presenting the project for the first time successively in several villages]. In fact, during each meeting it appears at first essential to avoid getting to the point, i.e. to avoid the topic which is the purpose of the meeting. This way of proceeding aims at preparing an atmosphere of confidence and trust. It offers the opportunity to say everything except what is directly in relation to the topic that will constitute the subject of the meeting. At the same time, however, the very mention of the term Konon during this preliminary phase of interaction makes clear to everyone that the meeting will provide the frame for taking a decision. It defines the meeting as a kind of dialogue in which everyone will be given an opportunity to express his/her thoughts. Following the greetings, the bearer of the message will address his message explicitly to the head of the group - usually the oldest man - but in doing so, he will pass through the youngest member of the group who will repeat the message and "pass it on" to the others by order of ascending age until it reaches the top man. It is this ceremonial repetition which will be the first "turaization" of the innovating discourse. And it is at this stage that the assembly hears the innovative message for the first time, but it is also the first time for the expert to hear his message in the target language, and from someone other than himself.

Thus the conversational genre denoted by the Tura term Konon is not a strategy to be invented by the newcomer. It is a local language institution already there in Tura society which serves the explicit purpose

As a conversational discourse genre, the Konon protocol is subject to constraints which distinguish it from other genres, notably Wiibha 'Greetings', to which it is sequentially related, and from Sonon, with which it stands in a paradigmatic relation:(26)

  1. Its subject is new by its content but above all it is new by its origin. In fact, the Konon bearer is necessarily from outside the addressee group.
  2. The Konon is inclusive in terms of public participation, while the Sonon is exclusive.
  3. In terms of discourse procedure, indirectness is essential to Konon: its subject is not directly addressed but after a thematically unspecific preparatory interaction (subsumed under "Greetings" in the report).
  4. As mentioned in the report, its "syntax" contains a compulsory repetition of the message. The term "repetition" used in the report is not to be taken literally, but in the sense of a reformulation with the purpose of contextualizing the innovator's speech and giving it the format suitable for discussion in the target group. Thus the Konon procedure implies a perspectivization and an adaptation of the original message. However, reformulation of the message implies more than rewording to fit the audience's predilections; above all, it entails a change of its formal status: Being restated by a member of the target group, it is relieved of its status as a purely exogenous message and acquires the intermediary status of a message transmitted from within the target group. It is thus publicly adopted as an endogenous object of communication, while its external source is still being formally acknowledged.(27)

The Konon principle is not constrained by distance or language diversity; it works in similar ways whether the declared source of the initiative is the neighboring compound or a European university, whether or not the bearer of the message is himself Tura and whether or not he or she speaks Tura or not,(28) provided the source can be perceived as external in respect to the target group. Konon is a commodity freely offered to any bearer of an innovative message on condition that he or she recognizes it as the entry point sanctioned by Tura society and makes appropriate use of it. Although one would not want to speculate that it was prophetically ordered for the purpose of meeting, one of the great communicative challenges of the late age of globalization, the launching phase of development communication does in fact perfectly fit the description of a situation for which the Konon seems to have been originally invented.

3.2 Implications for long-term development communication and sustainability

If the implementation of the Konon is the consequence of a strategic choice by the bearer of the innovative message, what are the implications of this choice for the role and status of the expert himself? And what difference does it make for the further fate of the innovative message and, ultimately, the sustainability of its outcome?

In order to answer the first question, we may quote from an early field report by Diomandé Fan (Report from 15 May 2001): "In this process [i.e. taking part in the Konon procedure], it seems important that the expert should restrain himself and allow the constituency to negotiate in order to obtain the consensus by themselves." Yet he goes on to stress that this restraint does not entail a total retreat of the expert from the arena, which would leave it to the audience to work out the material implications of the project. On the contrary, adherence to the prescribed procedure allows him to play his role of expert to the full, making use of his know-how to inform, ask questions, even at times to guide the conversation, in short, he is fully operational as a catalyst in the process which his appearance on the scene has triggered.(29) However, the essential difference is that his role and participation are not justified by his external status as an expert. His right to the floor follows from the fact that, by submitting to the indigenous Konon procedure, he has been adopted as a participant in a negotiation process whose outcome is controlled by the community. His discourse may be innovating by its content, yet it is sequentially and procedurally integrated into a local discourse to which he is free to contribute but which exists prior to, and independently of his intervention.

In the light of the reversal of classical assumptions about establishing relationships in initiating innovative action, the question of participation raised in section 2.1 above may have to be re-framed so as to focus on the conditions for the expert and the DSL agents to participate in the pre-existing local discourse, rather than fitting the latter to the development communication agenda introduced by them. The question that matters initially is not so much what should be done to enable the local community to participate in the elaboration of an innovative program, but what steps must be taken - or avoided - in order to enable the expert and his associates to become legitimate participants in, and their innovative message a felicitous addition to the local discourse. To the extent to which the Konon procedure provides a valid answer to the second question, it makes the first obsolete.

The long-term effects of the Konon procedure are closely linked with its inclusive function as a public forum open to all without discrimination of age and sex. The traditionally democratic structure - and particularly the participation of the women - stands in stark contrast to the gerontocratic rule prevailing in other formal settings, which, at least until quite recently, used to impose severe restrictions upon individuals' right to speak. Often those primarily concerned by the matter under discussion were excluded from the public debate, notably the women, but also very often the younger and most active segment of the male population. Whatever the rationale might have been behind the traditional Konon in providing a public space of relative freedom, compared to the notoriously hierarchical structure of village government,(30) it means that those primarily concerned by the proposal introduced through the Konon procedure take part in negotiating its implications and in deciding its fate. The right to express oneself during the Konon naturally carries over into the post-Konon phase and enhances participation in the subsequent discussion on acceptance and implementation and in negotiating individual actors' preferences. "The news [in fact the Konon procedure] triggers a continuous process of communication between participants," states the report of 6 June 2001. The conclusion which may be drawn from this observation is that the adoption of the Konon principle sets the stage for "self-propagating communication, [...] the ability to generate within the target community a sustainable communicative process that will continue after those who have set it up (experts and agents) have left." (Bearth 2000: 82.)

To sum up this section, we may ask to what extent and in which way the Konon meets the requirements of a procedure suitable for complementing the "normal" approach via translation of an innovative message and for compensating its inherent shortcomings. We find that this is indeed the case in several essential respects concerning, respectively, the innovative message itself, the expert or bearer of the innovative message, as well as the target language:

  1. The dichotomy which separates the message from its original source under the premises of the translational procedure is effectively circumvented by substituting for the original external source a secondary source on the other side of the gap which translation sets out to bridge.
  2. The expert, instead of continuing to act as source of an expert discourse coming from outside the community, is formally adopted as a participant and co-actor in the latter's current discourse activity
  3. Through the simple application of the Konon procedure, the target language is raised from DTL to DSL status, thereby cancelling the dichotomizing effect of the DSL/DTL barrier.
  4. The follow-up to the original input - whatever the ultimate fate of the latter will be - is not left to chance, but is part of a formal involvement of the target.

Thus, one of the communicative prerequisites for sustainability is met as a result of the application of appropriate procedures for the local processing of innovative objects of communication: The Konon procedure provides an ingenuous local bypass solution allowing one to circumvent the congestion caused by the translation bottleneck, and one which, from the standpoint of the acceptance of innovative proposals, must never itself be bypassed.


4. Conclusion

Institutionalized discourse procedures for specific purposes of communal life such as the Konon protocol of the Tura which was briefly presented in the previous section are part of a repertoire which may be thought of as a communicative module within the vast body of local knowledge. Adherence to such conventions to the extent that they are open to newcomers just follows recommended practice in intercultural communication. However, the principle of ownership of communicative resources illustrated by the Konon has broader implications for development methodology. It has notably consequences for monitoring the development processes far beyond their initial stage. Thus - to mention some domains which have been briefly touched upon above - communicative sustainability presupposes control over linguistic and other communicative resources required for naming new objects, monitoring inferences drawn by participants from debate and argumentation relative to a given field of activity, and management of face and conflict between the players involved on the local scene.

A full-fledged discourse methodology is clearly required for an exploration of such language-related issues of development which have primarily to be studied in their natural context of oral communication. Such a methodology would necessarily have to be multidisciplinary. It would have to rely, minimally, on insights and methodology from the linguistic disciplines, including specific knowledge of the languages directly involved in the empirical situation, and on ethnographic and sociological analysis for relating variables observed from the viewpoint of linguistic discourse analysis to the social dynamics reflected in the negotiation of power, social values and practical issues. The present contribution was intended to be, both through its critical analysis of the apparent non-issue of translation in development communication, and its short highlight on the bypass strategy of the Konon¸ a plea for recognition of the necessary place of a language-sensitive and linguistically informed approach to problems of development in the multiply multilingual environments typical of most Third World countries. It follows, in our opinion, that the list of disciplines called upon to contribute to a comprehensive understanding of communication problems both in development sciences and elsewhere will have to be revised accordingly (see note 5).

As to the specific contribution which can be expected from a systematic rather than a merely anecdotic linguistic approach to development studies, one would seem to be justified to maintain a low profile until the results of further investigations are available for inspection and comparison. However, there has been an increasing convergence of opinion, supported by various disciplinary vantage points, including, for instance, economics, to the effect that problems of communication are likely to be at the heart of pervasive development failure. While language has not figured prominently or not figured at all as a key issue in this kind of diagnosis, our case study confirms the contention by African writers quoted in section 1 above that it cannot be ignored. If extrapolation from the Tura case on a continental scale is perhaps somewhat speculative at the present time, one may nevertheless say - while keeping in mind the diversity of multilingual situations, on the one hand, and of factors influencing local commitment to development, on the other - that a language-sensitive approach to development communication is far from irrelevant to cost-benefit analyses of the development enterprise at large which have been the focus of inquiry from various disciplines including economics.

© Thomas Bearth (University of Zurich, Switzerland) / Diomandé Fan (University of Kassel, Germany)


(1) The main ideas of this paper were first presented by the authors at the Colloquium on Research partnership for Sustainable Development in West Africa which took place from August 27 to 29, 2001, at the Swiss Center for Scientific Research in Abidjan (Ivory Coast) on the occasion of its 50-year jubilee and were subsequently published in French in the Proceedings of this Colloquium (Bearth & Fan 2002). The present English version incorporates subsequent research, notably interviews with villagers in the Tura area in September 2002. This latter research was supported by the Volkswagen Foundation (Hannover, Germany) as part of the Program "Key issues in the Humanities" (= "Schlüsselthemen der Geisteswissenschaften"). The authors are indebted to a group of farmers from Benomba who participated in the group interview on Sept. 13, 2002, and to the collaborators of Alphatoura who participated in the analysis of this and other recorded interviews, in particular Mr. Joseph Baya, and Mr. Goh Soupou from Kpata. Thanks also to Ms. Irene Wepfer (University of Fribourg, Switzerland) for keeping the minutes of the analysis sessions. Mr. Joseph Baya and Mrs. Grace Benjamin have helped with the English translation. Special thanks to Mr. Steven Bond for proof-reading the final version.

(2) Bridging the Gap - Sustainability research and sector integration. See <> (12 April 2003).

(3) Müller (2002: 39f.), reviewing correlations between cultural indicators and socio-economic development, affirms that "ethno-linguistic heterogeneity is detrimental to economic development" (p. 39). This common sense opinion, popularized by an influential World Bank paper (Easterly & Levine 1997), had already been challenged by Bamgbose (1991) on the grounds that an apparent correlation between density of language diversity and GNP, in reality reflects a negative correlation between literacy rates and economic growth. While admitting evidence against over-generalization of Easterly/Levine's claim, Austin (2000/2001), in a more recent World Bank paper, still defends its general validity. However, the Rwandan conflict between Hutu and Tutsi, which he adduces in its support, precisely shows that ethnicity may be constructed on sets of criteria which need not include language diversity. Whatever the ultimate truth of the matter, the point we hope to make is that taking language as a factor of development seriously may turn the perceived obstacle into a blessing.

(4) The same it true of older references such as Ban et al. (1994), Parlato et al. (1995), and Servaes et al. (1996).

(5) Most significantly, in the enumeration of disciplines having possibly some bearing on the multidisciplinary approach to development communication advocated by the authors, no mention is made of the sciences of language (p. 41). Where successful radio or TV programs on subjects such as AIDS are identified by their local language titles (p. 142), their success is attributed exclusively to the choice of genre, e.g. entertainement instead of education; the choice of language is not even considered as a possible factor.

(6) An English-reading Martian studying the bulk of development research literature would go by the assumption that planet Earth - its so-called Third World included - speaks English and English only and that development communication research is all about communication between people sharing a common language!

(7) Koné perspicuously remarks that rural populations often oppose passive resistance against development messages conveyed in a language other than their own. However, the prejudice may also work in the other direction: "The steady reliance on L2 [i.e. the development source language, see below] symbolizes the expectation that development comes from outside rather than from oneself." (Joseph Baya, p.c.) Examples showing how language prejudice interferes with the goals of development interventions are discussed in detail by Robinson (1996: 203-240).

(8) The notion of communicative sustainability was originally developed in Bearth (2000: 82). Using slightly different wording, communicative sustainability may be defined as auto-propagation of an exogenous innovative message in the target community, independently of external stimuli. In a more explicitly participatory mood, communicative sustainability may alternatively be defined as the set of interactional conditions under which sustainable knowledge can be constructed collaboratively and consensually between the exponents of external (expert) and target-group internal sources of knowledge.

(9) Written Wɛɛn in the Tura orthography, the name is pronounced [wɛ̃ɛ̃]. The official French name is "Toura".

(10) The Tura language belongs to the South-Eastern subphylum of the Mande language family, along with the languages of their more numerous neighbours, the Dan or Yacouba to the west, and the Guro to the south-east (Bearth 1971: 1-6).

(11) See B. Holas (1962).

(12) The project is part of the activities of the local NGO "Association Espoir pour le Canton Toura" (AECT) and is scientifically monitored by the "Centre National de Recherche Agronomique" (CNRA) and the CSRS.

(13) Pronounced kɔ̃́nɔ̃́.

(14) Translation from German by T. Bearth.

(15) "... hors de leur culture, donc hors de leur(s) langue(s), il n'y a pas de participation des populations au processus de développement." (Rambelo 1999: 200)

(16) See Bearth (2000: 83) for a linguistic correlate to this gesture.

(17) For a well documented case study of language choices in development communication and their theoretical and practical implications, see Robinson (1997, ch. 5-6).

(18) E.g. Kishindo 1987; Ohly 1984-5, 1987; Tourneux & Yaya 1999; Mutembei et al. 2002. In recent work, increased attention is paid to social consequences of communication failures (e.g. in health services, Crawford 1999) as well as a shift of attention to terminology as a source of local representations of key notions (Mutembei et al., op. cit., in respect to AIDS).

(19) Characteristic for this view is the recommendation in regard to local languages in The Guidelines for Research in Partnership with Developing Countries published by the Swiss Commission for Research Partnership with Development Countries (kfpe, Berne, 1998, Principle 7): "To make the results [of research projects] widely available, they will also need to be described in a way that can be understood by the general public, if necessary translated into local languages." [Italics by the authors.] While this solitary reference to local languages as possible media in development research publication is certainly welcome; their recognition as possible source languages for insights which might be made accessible at large would take us a giant step closer towards breaking up the DSL/DTL deadlock.

(20) Whereas a policy of exclusion (Bamgbose 2000) refuses to take into account peoples' linguistic needs and rights, the translational paradigm, while claiming to address these needs, stands at the same time for outside control over local discourse and relegation of its users to the status of receivers of information, no structured outlet being provided in the model for negotiating their viewpoint through the medium in which they are competent.

(21) The following distinction made by a villager between speech and ideas reflects quite accurately the screening effect the translation process has on transfer of inferential meaning: "When what we have to say is translated, many things that we want to say remain in our heart, for we know that only our speech will be translated (correctly or not), but as regards our ideas they remain entirely for us." (Quoted from D. Fan's pilot project report from 6 June 2001.)

(22) In fact, overcoming it requires a level of metadialogal skill that is rarely available and for which bilingual development agents are not normally trained.

(23) The list was suggested by Tura assistants during a work session devoted to the analysis of recordings of village group interviews (Sept. 16, 2002, Man).

(24) For instance, one of the participants in an interview (Group interview in Benomba on 13 Sept. 2002) candidly told the assembly why, in his estimation, a recent experiment with a new coffee variety introduced by a development agency had failed. One of the Tura assistants later commented that this report would have been withheld if it would have had to be translated to an outsider present in the meeting.

(25) A native viewpoint on the connection between translation and trust may be worth quoting here. A group of villagers (see previous note), some of whom had previously been exposed to different variants of expert talk, including the classical translation approach and an approach where the expert spoke their language, used a current metaphor to compare the two experiences: the discourse mediated through translation was like yílí 'wood', the direct approach like kɔɔ 'hand'. "A piece of wood may deceive, a human hand does not," explained one of them, supported by laughter from the whole group. Pending closer inquiry into the precise circumstances reflected in the negative part of the metaphor, the comment made on it explicitly validates the hypothesis that the translational procedure is locally counter-indexed as to its effect on trust as a prerequisite to sustainability. Its positive corollary, the metaphor of the touch of the hand lends itself to a reading in terms of the mutual monitoring of inferences communicated in addition to, and independently of, the words spoken in non-translational verbal interaction.

(26) Pronounced wɩ̀ɩ̀6à and sɔ̃́nɔ̃́, respectively. Sonon is the functional counterpart of Konon. It denotes a consultation in closed circle which can be requested during the Konon by any of its constituent entities and leads to interruption of the Konon proceedings.

(27)This is recognizable by the speech introduction formula e/wo wɩɩ ye/wo X 'He/They say X'.

(28) This authorizes the conclusion that translated exchanges may be embedded in the Konon.

(29) In the case at hand, the rather atypical fact that the expert is himself a native from the region and speaks the language doubtlessly facilitates his intervention within the set frame of the Konon but it is not as such, and not under any circumstance independently of Konon¸ a guarantee of a successful launching of the project. The war raging in Western Ivory Coast since late 2002 has led the second author to temporarily engage in a similar agro-consultative activity in Uganda where he finds himself in the more typical role of the exoglossic expert depending on translation for all his local activities. A follow-up study drawing on this experience will allow for a comparison of the two modes of communication on the basis of the heuristic framework developed in the Tura pilot context and under the auspices of an enlarged multidisciplinary approach already tested in the Tura case study. Further work on the Konon and Sonon protocols of the Tura, including their detailed description and documentation, are planned after the resumption of normal activities in Western Ivory Coast.

(30) The exemption of the Konon from this rule, appears not to be due, as one might think, to the winds of socio-economic and political change blowing since the late 90ies that favour pluralistic views and practice of communal life and have begun to erode gerontocratic power in many parts of the Tura area.


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6.4. Transkulturelle Kompetenz in der Umwelt- und Entwicklungskommunikation

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