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Ebola and the Role of C4D

Paolo Mefalopulos's picture

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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Submitted by Kym on

This is a great blog. The early C4D work written by the Bank was great. I used it as a resource in some of my earlier development communciations work. When I started working at the Bank I was quite surprised to learn that it had fallen away as a field/ discipline. UNICEF still use it well. Thanks for sharing.

Submitted by Guy Scandlen on

Very concise AND precise explanation of how C4D WORKS. What it DOES depends on how it is applied and to what it is applied. Thank you Paolo.

Submitted by Jose Bergua on

Great contribution from a committed mind!!
Thanks to Mr Mefalopulos for this important piece, reminding us of the importance of C4D and addressing social norms, attitudes and behaviours in our development work. Important reminder in times when donors and managers seem only understand immediate and quantitative results...

Submitted by Gunter Heidrich on

Thank you, Paolo, for this contribution. I liked the part where you talked about mainstreaming. I think that C4D will never be the mainstream. Taken seriously, C4D is questioning existing power relations at all levels. If "mainstreamed" we should ask if the original emphasis is still there or if some false labeling is in place, a very common phenomenon in development (if we think of what has been done to Freire's concept of conscientization perverted into top-down approaches of so called "sensitization" or "sensibilisation" in the French speaking countries). We people promoting C4D are mostly still working within the niches provided by changing development paradigms or jumping on the opportunity of being called as the fire brigade when emergencies are coming up. After decades of conceptualizing and implementing C4D strategies we still keep facing the challenge of institutionalizing C4D - is this the attempt of squaring the circle?

Submitted by Obadiah Tohomdet on

Paolo, thanks for this useful article at these critical times in Africa. There is no question about the importance and role of C4D or what we used to call Development Communication or Stategic Communication in the World Bank. C4D will surely come in handy as well as play a key role in the fight against Ebola. The fight against ebola cannot be won merely by dishing out information but effecting attitudinal and behavioral changes. Organiztions cannot continue to live in denial of the relevance and key role of C4D as solutions to development challenges such as ebola.

Submitted by Sonali Mukherjee on

Focused and succinctly written. Thank you Paolo for putting C4D in perspective. I agree with you when you say that 'C4D is a “rebel” discipline, one that it does not fit very well in rigid structures and predetermined timelines.' And the only reason why C4D is mostly being used in reactive mode rather than preventive is according to me because people are used to seeing fast/instant results which the reactive mode delivers. Unfortunately even those from the development sector see more value in the reactive mode rather than in the preventive mode. The journey for us C4D ers as you say, has only just begun and we have a long long way to go before C4D is mainstreamed and used in preventive mode and not just reactive mode.

Submitted by Bon Cua on

Hi, this is a good read. It changed my perspective in looking at the role of devcom practitioners. I am with you when you said that devcom people perform more on being reactive rather than preventive. Can you give me some examples or situations where these are really the case? I am planning to write an essay regarding this as my requirement at the university. Thank you in advance for your help

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