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Communications as a development tool

Prior to implementing a public communications campaign as part of a children's health program in Ecuador, only 28 percent of people surveyed had had their children vaccinated.  After the campaign had been in effect for 18 months, the number jumped to 52 percent, according to a survey by the consulting firm HealthCom and the Academy for Educational Development (AED). 
Similarly dramatic results were reported by the consulting firm the Manoff Group during a reproductive health project in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Before a communications campaign began, only 2 percent of the women surveyed remembered that edema was a danger sign during pregnancy. After the campaign was underway, 64 percent remembered that fact.

“The question is not ‘Does it work?’” said AED Executive Vice President Dr. William Smith in his keynote presentation, “it’s ‘What kind of problem do I have?’ and ‘What kind of communications should I use to address it?’” Dr. Smith was the keynote speaker at a seminar hosted by the IDB on the role of strategic communications in development.

The seminar, held on July 1st at the IDB’s headquarters in Washington, DC, brought together a panel of experts from the IDB, the Academy for Education Development, the World Bank, and USAID to discuss best practices for integrating communications into development projects and achieving social change.

Elena Suarez, Chief of the IDB’s Special Programs Section in the Office of External Relations, mentioned a couple of ways that the IDB incorporates strategic communications into its activities. “We provide technical assistance to develop communications strategies for IDB-financed operations, carry out public awareness campaigns such as the Don’t Call Me Street Kid and Natural Disaster Awareness campaigns, and produce television programming on development topics such as domestic violence to sensitize public opinion in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

Communications in development projects: What works best?

Communications can be used many ways to advance development, according to Silvio Waisboard, Senior Program Officer at the Academy of Educational Development. For example, development professionals can use communications to promote behavioral changes, to educate, to mobilize communities, to advocate policy changes, to spark a community dialogue or public debate, or to increase participation in a project.

Integrating top-down approaches (i.e. mass media) and bottom-up ones (i.e. town hall meetings) is one of the most effective means of strategic communications for development projects, panel members agreed.

One way of doing that, according to Waisboard, is to have a tool-kit approach and combine media and interpersonal communications.

“You need to use techniques that fit your audience or target group, whether you use the mass media to mobilize large populations or do social marketing, or you use interpersonal communications to convince people to change their attitudes or behaviors.”  Waisboard continued, “Whatever you do, community empowerment should be the goal. If you want your project to be sustainable, you need to build community ownership.”

The experts at the seminar also concurred that such communications efforts should be aimed at various levels—from individuals, families and communities to members of civil society organizations and governments from the municipal to the national level. 

Along those same lines, Cecilia Cabañero-Verzosa, head of knowledge and capacity building in the Development Communications Division of External Affairs at the World Bank, emphasized the importance of building partnerships in all sectors of society.
“We’ve built partnerships at many levels, from internal networks at the World Bank, such as a 350 member development communications network, to sector-specific partnerships that focus on issues in the environment or the water sector, for example, to partnerships with civil society or the private sector,” Cabañero-Verzosa said.

A few caveats

The Center for Population, Health and Nutrition’s senior advisor on health communications and behavior change at USAID, Elizabeth Fox, warned that communications managers need to keep an eye on the structure of and participation in communications.

“Who owns the media? How is it financed? How much competition is there ?” Fox asked. “The answers to those questions are going to influence who gets access to mass media communications and whether or not diverse opinions will get the chance to be heard.”

Experts also explained that investments in communications must be ongoing and long-term if they’re going to bring sustained changes in behavior.

“If you drop your communications campaign, results are going to drop, too,” said Smith. He sited a campaign encouraging seat belt use in North Carolina called Click it or ticket. “Before the campaign began, 63 percent of drivers used seat belts. Once the campaign was established, usage climbed to 80 percent. The campaign was stopped for a time because local officials believed it had served its purpose. Afterward, usage dropped to 73 percent. They quickly realized what had happened and reinstated the campaign. At that point, usage again increased to 81 percent. The point is, using communications campaigns for short periods of time only brings short-term results.”

Getting results: Don’t Call Me Street Kid campaign

José Luís Lobera, a communications specialist in the Special Programs Section, pointed out the specific impact that the Don’t Call Me Street Kid campaign has already had in the region. “The campaign has created new links between groups—at least 15 new government-NGO partnerships and alliances per country.” The IDB has taken the campaign to eleven countries.

“The campaign has also expanded public debate,” Lobera said, “including 3 televised national debates in Bolivia that have catapulted the issue to the top of the political agenda.”

“In Mexico,” Lobera continued, “the campaign received an estimated $7 million in free on-air time, with our TV spot airing 30,000 times and the video documentary 416 times.”

Local policy changes that have resulted from the campaign include new local childhood policies in 50 municipalities in Colombia and the creation of action plans on the issue in Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

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