As you all probably know, I’m in Zimbabwe this week working on some communication documents for UNICEF.
Specifically, I have been tasked with writing a plan for communicating with about 30,000 households about the end of a social cash transfer programme. What this means for these households is that they will no longer be receiving bi-monthly support payments after February. Some of these households have been receiving this payment since 2011, and the end of the programme can lead to difficult circumstances, since these households are both food poor (which means they are unable to secure the daily minimum number of calories everyone in the household needs) and labour constrained (meaning there is no one in the household who can perform productive labour, or there are more than 3 children for every one adult in the household). Over the next two weeks, starting today, UNICEF and government counterparts will be communicating the end of the programme to people in eleven districts that will no longer be part of the programme.
The Role of Communication in Creating Sustainability
Like many of us, I tend to try to make the world fit into the categories my brain has created over my lifetime. We all do this to greater or lesser extents; we are evolutionarily wired to be able to make quick judgements about the nature of the world around us. I tend to see things in terms of communication and its potential impact on the situation.
The programme I’m working on has an excellent evaluation component. Research has been done on the impact of the cash transfers on households after the first 12 months of being on the programme; we know the impacts in terms of spending categories, household resiliency, school enrollments, and another eight categories of indicators. What we don’t know about are people’s beliefs about the impact that cash transfer programmes can have on their households. I would like to know, for example, if they feel confident in starting a small business or investing in agriculture; if they believe that investments in such things will be beneficial; if they believe all members of their communities can contribute to the well being of families and community life. All of these examples, and others, could form the basis of a communication plan that could increase the likelihood that people work to graduate from the programme by taking part in savings and investment programmes or building businesses. A few have done so, but it seems as if it is a small number of what we call positive deviants. Unfortunately, the lack of a strong communication plan means that we don’t have a good sense of what people really think about programme and haven’t been able to communicate about how to get off it or about they might support themselves if and when it ends.
It’s important to be realistic about what such programmes can do. It is the case that not everyone will be able to graduate from the programme and support themselves, for both structural, macro-economic reasons and for household specific reasons. But moving 25% off the programme into their own support structures would be an excellent outcome and the funds that would be saved could be reinvested into other households and districts in the country, hopefully leading to upliftment in those regions as well. That is what I think of as sustainability.
Plan for Communication Early
Thinking about communication early in a project can create conditions in which all stakeholders’ understanding of the issues involved is in alignment. It also means that we think early about measuring the things that communication can address – things like knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and social norms. Paolo Mefalopolous’ Development Communication Sourcebook addresses these issues in much detail and promotes the use of communication as an essential, early component of development. Including a strong communication component can also prepare us to advocate effectively on behalf of our cause or issue, and ensure that all stakeholders are accountable. And if we measure what people think, feel, believe or know early, we can determine whether our communication has had any effect later on.
Although we might have the best intentions as communicators, communication that supports other work like cash transfers is often considered late in the project. In this case, the communication we’re creating is useful for making sure people know why they’re on the programme or the reasons they are being exited, but it can’t do much about preparing them for graduating from the programme. We could argue about definitions, but it’s really about providing the right information to the people who need it, rather than communicating about the programme. That’s not ideal and doesn’t usually lead to sustainable outcomes.
Many communities have overcome significant challenges to solve problems together and create conditions that promote inclusion and opportunities for sustainability. Including communication in the process is an essential component if these outcomes are to be achieved.
I hope you all are enjoying the class so far and had an excellent meeting with your partner organization. Please update me on Slack with any progress or questions you have.