In the last posting  I discussed two key elements making change difficult to achieve; namely people’s inherent resistance to change and the tendency to design and deliver messages appealing to the rational side of people. This last point is often a cause of limited success in promoting change because it neglects to consider that human behaviours are not always guided by rational considerations, at least in a strict scientific sense (see the still rather strong diffusion of smoking despite that its harm is almost universally acknowledged).Taking into account stakeholders’ perceptions, satisfaction, and cultural models can often be more effective than solutions-based innovations, especially if suggested by external agents of change.
How can change for development help then? First of all, by raising awareness on the issue at hand and by emphasizing the causes and the effects related to the behavior in question. That can be achieved through media, but to be truly persuasive messages need to originate in an open space where they can be discussed and probed among all stakeholders. Interpersonal communication and dialogue are often necessary to cover not only the last mile of a development initiative but also and especially the first one.
No matter what the technical solution being adopted is, it almost inevitably requires that people will adopt it, and that usually implies some sort of behaviour change, and behaviour change often requires enabling cultural and social norms. Behavior cannot be changed if they collide with current predominant norms. For instance, designing a behaviour change communication strategy trying to eliminate the practice of child marriage will most surely end up in failure, unless the socio-cultural system that allows, and even promotes, such practice is addressed first. The strategy designed to affect individuals’ behaviour change needs to be significantly different from the one addressing broader social changes.
A socially and culturally conducive environment is the prerequisite for any change. Then, other elements can be adopted, among them the relevance to the issue to individual’s life, the perceived costs-benefits associated with change and the simplicity, or least-disruption, in adopting the proposed change. If these elements are present communication’s role in promoting change is likely to be highly effective, but if such elements are not part of the proposed change the effectiveness of communication will be greatly reduced, no matter how well the messages have been designed and distributed.
The most effective messages are those that resonate with something that is already being questioned or reflected upon by individuals. Change might be initiated by external factors, but needs to be derived and adopted by the “internal stakeholders”. Communication’s main role in this respect is that of facilitating that process of interaction between different social agents, putting pressure to achieve a broad consensus, or sometimes even creating cognitive dissonance, that will force members of a community to assess, probe and eventually reconcile their differences for a better collective good, such as, for instance, the welfare of their children. But as important as messages are, the messenger is often more important and more effective in promoting the content than the message itself.
On a previous blog  Sina Odugbemi mentioned a Wall Street expression: “you can’t fax a handshake.” Trust can be more easily achieved through an interpersonal relationship. It relies on dialogue, honesty and credibility. If you trust somebody and consider the person to be honest and credible, you will be more likely to listen to what he/she is saying than a person you hardly know or you do not have much confidence in. Communication specialists trying to facilitate behaviour and social change usually focus on messages, media, and audiences, often neglecting the messenger.
Many messages, even if masterfully designed, fail to achieve their potential because the messenger is not considered credible or is not influential. Those with teenage sons or daughters know that something said by a peer/friend usually has a much higher likelihood to be considered than the same thing come from a parent. Thus, if you want to increase your message effectiveness consider carefully who should be the messenger. But if you want to bring real change make sure that the message is also crafted in conjunction with key stakeholders. A credible messenger and a stakeholders-based message are the two things that make change possible and sustainable.
Photo Credit: Flickr user aturkus