A well-known musician from Mozambique, Feliciano Dos Santos, was recently featured in a New York Times article  on his use of pop music toward changing people’s sanitation habits, especially in far-flung rural villages. His songs include messages regarding boiling water to prevent diarrhea and washing one’s hands before leaving the bathroom. His band, Massukos gained international fame via a combination of pop and socially relevant songs, while his nonprofit Estamos (“We are”) installs latrines and provides services to AIDS patients.
Blending effective message and service delivery might seem like an easy recipe for success. It is reasonable to argue that the combination of pop music, which tends to have melodic and/or lyrical “hooks” and repetitive song structures that aid in message retention, and service delivery at the local level, which reduces costs of access, particularly among rural villagers with limited resources, should do the trick in influencing behavior. Sometimes, perhaps, but not always. Quoting Dos Santos, The Times article states that “some people install the latrines and then never use them… some recipients sell the cement slabs.”
Given these difficulties, we might ask this question: how do we expect to influence behaviors that will improve sanitation in rural villages? According to Prof. Bob Hornik  of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication  change can occur in three ways: through the individual, social, and institutional routes, or a combination thereof.
Individuals can receive messages directly from listening to pop songs or the news over the radio. Social influence occurs through messages received from opinion leaders in one’s community, whether they are village council officials, friends, or family members. Institutionally, local governments might build latrines in each village and include lessons about sanitation in the school curriculum.
Being explicit about which route or combination of routes we believe will lead to change increases the likelihood of success. For instance, if we are fairly confident that Feliciano Dos Santos’ messages regarding latrine use are heard by villagers (individual route), and yet some of them are not convinced to do so, then perhaps next steps can either explore efforts toward shifting perceived community norms through opinion leaders so that individuals believe using latrines is the “right thing to do” (social route) or working with local governments to install more latrines for easier access (institutional route). It’s probably better to do both.
Which brings us to the critical point of this post: development effectiveness requires clear thinking as regards why we think what we do will actually make a difference. For that we need a theory of pro-poor social and political change. In addition, we need to learn more about approaches and techniques that produce change. And it is the responsibility of development institutions, such as the World Bank, to support efforts like those of Mr. Dos Santos, and figure out what works, what doesn’t, and why.
Photo credit: Flickr user mozakisha