By Krishan Dutta
A group of Buddhist economists and communication scholars from Asia are embarking on a mission to redefine the development communication paradigm using concepts from the Buddhist philosophy.
A webinar held earlier this month organized by Lotus Communication Network (LCN) in association with the Institute of Asian Studies (IAS) at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and Delhi-based International Buddhist Confederation (IBC) discussed how ‘sufficiency economics’ (sometimes referred to as ‘Buddhist Economics’) and ‘middle path journalism’ could be incorporated into a new development communication paradigm.
Dr Kalinga Seneviratne, founder of LCN and Dr Jirayudh Sinthuphan, deputy director of IAS along with Supaporn Phokaew, the then head of the journalism department of the Faculty of Communication Arts at Chulalongkorn University (CU) started this mission in 2016 when they received a grant from the International Program for the Development of Communications (IPDC) of UNESCO to develop curriculum to train Asian journalists in ‘mindful communication’ to assist ASEAN integration.
This project culminated in a book published by SAGE titled ‘Mindful Communication for Sustainable Development: Perspectives from Asia’ that included over 20 chapters written by Asian communication scholars who attended a workshop held in Bangkok in July 2017.
“We changed the focus of the project from ‘ASEAN integration’ to sustainable development because we realized that sufficiency economics and mindful communication could get together very well to redefine development communication towards a more holistic concept of development where cooperation and contentment are given prominence over greed and competition in development thinking,” explained Dr Seneviratne.
“The project has been slow in taking off because we need to decolonize the minds of Asian scholars schooled in western thinking on development.”
The CU project developed a curriculum to train Asian journalists in mindful communication concepts. In August 2018, IBC organized the first Asian Buddhist Media Conclave in New Delhi, where a resolution was adopted to develop a ‘mindful communication for sustainable development’ programs initially through media training institutes in Buddhist countries in Asia, using the curriculum developed at CU as the basis. The webinar held on March 4 hosted by IAS and titled “Mindful Communication for Sustainable Development – Paving the Path” was designed to do just that.
Pointing out that the current development model is based on the pursuit of unending human needs, greed and unscrupulous consumption, Venerable Dr Dhammapiya, secretary-general of IBC in an opening address said “(this) global economic model is ripe with exploitation, injustice and dispossession giving rise to hatred, tension, conflict, violence and war—which is threatening the very existence of human society”.
He noted that Buddhism could provide ideas to change this “wasteful, highly unsustainable and polluting” economic model by providing a development model based on the ethical behaviour of the individual and society as a whole.
Interdependency and sustainability
“Compassion, sharing and equality are the core values (of Buddhism) that could guide (developing) an ethical framework for the economy,” he added.
Dr Sinthuphan believes that the international paradigm of development has failed us. “Be it democracy or development, this is an era of discontent. There is anger within us,” he said in a presentation to the webinar. “Everyone is trying to get their hands on limited basic resources.” He argued that development communication needs to emphasize the relationship between interdependency and sustainability, and not talk too much about independence.
Dr Sinthuphan is critical of transnational companies that go after cheap land and cheap labour with no concern for the damage they cause to the environment. “We need to be more responsible in our consumption patterns and production procedures. We have to be mindful of what we are doing, which may be a difficult thing to do in today’s (social) environment,” he acknowledged.
At the height of the severe economic meltdown Thailand faced in the later 1990s, King Adulyadej Bhumipol came up with the concept of ‘sufficiency economics’ to rebuild the Thai economy drawn from Buddhist philosophy. In explaining the fundamentals of sufficiency economics, Dr Priyanut Dharmapiya, executive director of Sustainable Development and Sufficiency Economy Studies Centre in Bangkok explained that at the root of such economics are three principles—moderation, reasonableness and resilience.
Moderation, she said, is based on the realization that resources are limited and one has to live “within one’s means”; while reasonableness means all actions have results and interactions that could have long-term results thus “one has to consider all causes and effects and minimize negative impacts”; and resilience needs an understanding that all things are changing and interconnected that calls for “prudence and mindfulness in risk management and developing prevention strategies”.
“When we talk about development, we need to look at human and spiritual development as well,” argued Dr Priyanut adding that the progress or development is having a balance between four factors — material economy, society, environment and culture.
“Sufficiency economy is the interconnection in these four dimensions. First is man-made material things, how we use these, and responsible consumption is one thing we should do. (That would lead) to second (concern for society) by embracing social capital through caring, sharing and non-harming. We see natural disasters everywhere which call for preserving natural resources as environment capital. The last one is about connecting us to the past, present and future, which is the cultural dimension.”
Malaysian IT and communication specialist Lim Kooi Fong, founder of the ‘Buddhist Channel’ focusing on mindful communication strategy to promote sustainable development argued that journalists should approach the topic with a mindset of doing no harm.
“What we publish, or broadcast may be hurtful, but we should be aware of the impact of our words and images on the lives of others.” he said, adding that a mindful journalist should be able to say that there is no right or wrong and “do all they can to minimize conflict, or attempts to not encourage hatred and enmity”. He recommends that journalists need to be trained to be responsible for the consequences that comes with their power to write.
Middle Path Journalism
Bhutanese communication scholar and filmmaker Dorji Wangchuck calls this communication model ‘middle path journalism’ (MPJ). “Middle-path journalism is a media model that takes into account the socio-cultural values and nation’s aspirations,” he noted in a presentation at the webinar. “It is not another set of code of ethics for journalists nor is it a substitute for the existing communication theories or genres such as peace journalism, citizens or civic journalism. It will complement the existing models.”
Wangchuck argued that the four theories of the press introduced by American communication scholars in the 1950s is “anchored in Western social and political evolution”. He pointed out that western societies are focused on the individual emphasising human rights, liberty and equality, while Asian societies are focused on collectivity that emphasize community, shared aspirations and common goals.
Wangchuck proposed a MPJ model that includes four points — contentment (wisdom of knowing enough where selling of desires are minimized), community (individual rights balanced with social harmony), commitment and compassion. “This type of communication involves avoiding extremes in expressing opinions in writing and reporting, less space for heroes and villains, news is reported for social good and news values based on local parameters, not on imported standards and principles,” explained Wangchuck.
“Our concern is that the journalism we have been teaching in Asia —imported from the West—has created an extremely adversarial communication culture that promotes conflicts and not helping to solve them,” argued Dr Seneviratne.
“We like to say that we are training communicators rather than journalists because this word is tainted with adversarial reporting. It would involve anyone involved in communicating (such as) development workers, NGO staff, community leaders and even monks. In today’s social media environment, everyone is a communicator.”