Strategic Communications in Development: Art to Science

Communication is more of an art than a science.
Communication is more of an art than a science.

There is a problem in reducing the art of communication into a science with preset tools, processes and templates. It manifests itself in the avoidance / incapability of or aversion to examination of cultural, social and economic nuances that arise across diverse geographic spaces and adjusting standardized templates and best-practices for those variances. For decades now, the big donors have been going about social & development communications in a similar manner. Once a concept or approach catches on e.g. advocacy relying on editorial material or generic demand-driven approaches to services – it is piloted and then replicated all over the world. It reminds one of the adage ‘when all you have is a hammer, all problems start to appear like nails’.

Broadbanding in a Diverse Planet

Big multilateral / bilateral agencies need to set down a standard or framework that’s to be followed in order to maintain a certain standard of operations & performance. Too broad a framework – and it is likely to be (deliberately or otherwise) misinterpreted. Too specific – and the scope for local knowledge, sensitivity and wisdom is effectively eliminated. Unfortunately, the problem arises when the host country has:

  • A uniquely different culture and religion that transcend Western ideas of state-citizen-NGO [non-governmental organisation]relationships (e.g. the Islamic state)
  • A unique local governance structure, role and sphere of influence
  • Existence of powerful elites / lobby-groups serving own interests and their relationship with the government
  • A lack of precedence in terms of how global approaches and campaigns are to be localized
  • A lack of trained, instinctive professionals (not generic aid-workers or development-professionals) who can account for the nuances and adjust the strategy accordingly

Localizing Global Communication Models / Approaches

Recently, I was researching communications and campaigns on Local Governance. Some perfunctory literature review led me to conclude that most of it concentrated on citizen involvement in and creation of demand for public service delivery at the local-level. However, for the project at hand in Bangladesh (South-East Asia), where I am the lead strategy consultant – we commissioned an insight-mining exercise (which, by the same token, has its own limitations as a social-science tool for gathering information). The key insight uncovered was that citizens see the government as a ‘ruler’ – and not a process open for participation. Taxes are deemed akin to tributes and public services, like favor from demigods. This could well be the influence of years of Buddhist, Hindu, Turkic, Pashtun (Afghan), Mongol and European monarchy and feudalism exerted over the commoners in the region. Citizens here have paid taxes to feudal lords and landlords for centuries and to them, the local government is the same phenomenon under a different ruler. They do not see their welfare and economic development as being dependent on the government.

Yet the donor-prescribed strategy sought to create demand for public services without really investigating whether the populace was willing to, or even capable of, acting as a pressure-group. The approach somewhat failed to involve the extremely-centralized government. This conclusion is based on the fact that program communications did not expressly target government counterparts. In another instance, a globally-decided communication theme on non-scalpel (NSV) vasectomy had to do with the manliness / masculinity of the procedure. There was a substantial ATL component (TV, radio, billboards) associated with the campaign. The problem was that in Bangladesh, talking about ‘real men’ and connecting it to vasectomy, instead of clearing the air, created a shroud of stigma around the procedure. It’s been speculated by local experts – both communications and technical – that playing around a ‘responsible family-planning choice’ could’ve been a better, albeit less creative, choice. Access to technical assistance for communications from agencies and consulting companies that are from other countries is advantageous. It works both to enrich campaigns with universal insights, expertise and also indirectly build capacity of local counterparts. But when the framework is too rigid, or imposed in the name of ‘international best practice’, it often ignores or bypasses local insights and knowledge. Involving local communication professionals and/or social-scientists in the planning process will help adapt global initiatives / campaigns to local contexts. This will only make communications for development or social-change more effective.

What do you think? Drop a line - and I will too.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s