Ebola has been defined as the most serious challenge humanity has faced in recent times. The mobilization for addressing this challenge is becoming greater by the day— many colleagues are already fighting this emergency and others are ready to join the fight. The medical response, which at first came under fire, is now being adjusted and improved rapidly. Nevertheless, a medical curative response, as good as it can be, it is not sufficient to win this war. There is the need to monitor, respond quickly, and, most of all, prevent the spread of the disease. A number of actions and expertise need to work together to be effective. One of such key area of expertise is Communication for Development or C4D.
C4D- also at times known as Development Communication, Behaviour Change Communication or Communication for Social Change- is probably one of the most critical, yet often neglected ingredient of development. Its adoption and institutionalization has traditionally gone through a number of ups and downs since it first began to be applied in a more scientific manner in the 70s. The reasons for such swings are not always clear since its functions and objectives have been, and still are, consistently acknowledged as crucial to achieving an effective, sustainable and people-based kind of development.
What are the key principles guiding the current paradigm of development? I could venture to say that it must be participatory in nature and evidence-based, with evidence coming from local realities as well as expert-driven settings. Change should be shaped by the local context in which social norms are as important as individual behavior. Finally, it should include the drive for consensus building and emphasize transparency and dialogue as key principles. These are also the core principles of C4D, which should be driven neither by information nor media technologies but by concepts such as dialogue, knowledge sharing, and interpersonal communication. The understanding and use of the social web and its modus operandi are often at the core of sustainable change and betterment of society, as guided by C4D.
So, we go back to the same old questions. If C4D is so crucial to development, why has its trajectory been so full of ups and downs institutionally? One of the reasons is its proximity to another kind of communication: external communication. External communication is meant to inform audiences, and its focus is mostly on the message and the media, which are often assumed (wrongly) to have the capacity to make people change their attitudes and behaviors. Another factor is the cross-cutting nature of C4D, which requires knowledge in a number of areas of work (i.e. communication, marketing, media, anthropology, sociology, psychology, participatory approaches and more) as well as the ability to apply its methods transversally to a number of sectors (e.g. health, education, sanitation, governance, rural development, human rights, etc.).
Finally, I would like to add a third reason why C4D is not easily “mainstreamed” in major institutions. C4D is a “rebel” discipline, one that it does not fit very well in rigid structures and predetermined timelines. C4D practitioners are, for the most part, highly committed individuals who like to practice what they preach. Hence, if people participation is at the core of C4D, the rules and structures guiding development processes are often challenged and by-passed.
Nevertheless, while results in C4D (that is change in social norms, attitudes and behaviours) take time and are not always easily quantifiable, there is enough evidence to show that they lead to sustainable results.
It is quite ironic to see how, despite all the evidence demonstrating the value and key role of C4D, such an area of expertise is taken seriously mostly when there is a major emergency. It happened with the avian flu, where C4D experts and strategies were key in addressing the emergency; again in the fight against Polio, where C4D was instrumental in eradicating the disease from India; and now it is happening with Ebola.
As I wrote in other occasions, it seems C4D’s role and value is seen more in terms of putting out fires rather than preventing them. Certainly, C4D can be used in a “reactive mode” and help in times of crisis and emergency, but it can be of even greater value in the “preventive mode” not only to prevent or address emergencies from the onset but to also engage communities and strategically define, plan, and implement the needed changes.
In the case of Ebola, C4D experts should be given the space and autonomy to address and engage communities with a blend of expert-driven messages as well as knowledge derived from local norms, maintaining a rigorous and effective approach without being pushed by external pressures that value immediate products over long-lasting results through community engagement. Now is the time of acting fast, but once the emergency is gone, it will be time to rethink the whole role of C4D in international development institutions so that people-based processes can be strengthened and responses in times of crisis can be immediate. And most of all, every international agency should have its own C4D unit or department (currently within the UN family this is the case only in UNICEF), as changing norms and/or behaviours is at the core of almost any development initiative.
I want to conclude with my deepest respect and acknowledgments for those (C4Ders and others) who are in the front line of this crucial struggle against Ebola.
Photograph by UNICEF Guinea via Flickr
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