Communication strategies are undeniably important for development, but we must ask: are we truly communicating or merely talking to ourselves? Are we using media mindlessly? Little is known about the impact of development communication, yet more and more aid agencies are allocating sizeable sums for “project support communications”, money which might otherwise be used for drugs, food supplements, extension workers, and so on.
Instead of studying the cost-effectiveness of image-building, the average project officer goes shopping and buys as much media as he can afford and the more sophisticated the medium, the more he wants it.
The real experts in communications, the advertising agencies, cannot afford such a careless approach to media planning. Their efforts must stimulate a rise in product awareness, or the client will abandon them. True, the effects of development campaigns cannot be measured as readily as the sale of soap or Coca Cola, but there must be measurement and testing at all stages, else we may shortchange the beneficiary by giving him expensive media when what he needs is Vitamin A.
Communication must lead to awareness and action. But the suggested action must be feasible; there is no use telling people not to defecate on the roads if they have no latrines. Some time ago, a leading UN agency in Kathmandu produced a poster which depicts a mother and child. The message is complex and authoritarian, exhorting the mother to stimulate her child. If she needs to be told, the chances are she does not know what that means and there is no attempt to explain. This is communications for its own sake.
The “formula” approach must be abandoned: X is unhappy because she has too many children, Y only has two (a boy and a girl) so she can afford more goodies and is happy. Take the family planning commercial on Nepal TV where happy Dad romps with his children and a little girl is shown kissing her mother, who is driving a car! The product in question is dramatically revealed locked up in a steel cupboard. What a wealth of cliches.
The formula approach also leads the communicator to concentrate on women. Posters tell her about diseases, flipcharts about nutrition, films about child care. The focus is on the woman not because we believe her to be mistress of her destiny, but because she is viewed as more docile, easier to pin down. It is a sad indication of how far off the mark we are that all campaigns are directed at women regardless of the low female literacy rate, and the fact that she can rarely initiate new action.
The July issue of Himal reported that UNICEF had teamed up with a private manufacturer to print the “noon-chini-pani” (salt, sugar, water) oral rehydration message on traditional Nepali cloth. That may be communications for its own sake. Do we seriously think that a mother will look at the blouse and remember what to administer to her sick child? We seem to be confusing her with westernized women who like to buy sloganeering tee shirts.
People charged with delivering the development message must be trained as their task is highly complex; there is no homogeneity of symbols and language, no shared background. There must be ruthless evaluation of all development materials. We must stop churning out media if all it manages to do is to make us look and feel good.
Since the field of development communication is still relatively new and expensive, there must be more pooling of effort. Two rival bars of soap might not adopt the same advertising strategy, but it can be done for “selling” nutrition, sanitation or family planning. The sharing of creative ideas would preclude wasteful and sometimes amateurish efforts. If there is a good idea, it should not remain as a feather in the cap of some agency. Let us co-ordinate, evaluate and communicate in order to take full advantage of what is a powerful instrument for development.
Manorama Moss’ book, Lilies That Fester, has just been published by Writers’ Workshop (India).
The Viewpoint section is a forum for debate and dialogue. Contributions are welcome. Opinions appearing here d& not necessarily reflect those of Himal’s editors.