Fighting Ebola at the community level

Type: CW Observer Blog
By 315987
31 October 2014

family reading togetherCommunicators can be forgiven for wanting to handle the Ebola outbreak like any other crisis. Our instinct is to focus on key messages that internal and external audiences need to receive. We want to design infographics and podcasts to share information about the virus. In short, we want to use information to stop this worldwide threat.

As a development communication practitioner, I see the Ebola outbreak as a golden opportunity to help communicators understand this Cinderella of communication disciplines. Development communication is defined as communication activities that support sustainable change in development operations by engaging key stakeholders—and herein lies the answer to preventing and responding to health crises like Ebola.

Many crisis situations can be mitigated and resolved through short-term interventions using traditional corporate communication methods. Dealing with a communicable disease on a global scale, however, forces us to focus on long-term issues. Prevention, which includes an in-depth approach to fixing root causes, is the only solution when a disease cannot be cured. A communicable disease epidemic in remote, underdeveloped countries can only be curbed by strengthening the social development to change the behaviors that leave communities vulnerable.

When dealing with social issues, such as health communication, the first rule to remember is that mass media communication cannot and does not change people’s behavior.

Change takes place mostly on an individual level and is influenced by the personal discussions we have about a topic. If Ebola is on your communication agenda (as it should be), give your teams scenarios and conundrums to talk through. Explore the power of role play. Ask people to tell you what they would do if they suspected that they were infected or if they heard about someone who may have been exposed.

As Paolo Mefalopulos, senior communications officer for the development division of the World Bank, rightly said: “Media, no matter how technologically advanced; messages, no matter how skillfully packaged; and information, no matter how relevant, are not enough to bring about meaningful and sustainable results. These results can only be achieved if the people involved (stakeholders) are part of the process leading to change.”

Enabling change from within

In the fight against Ebola, we will do well to draw on lessons from the past. In dealing with HIV and other infectious diseases in Africa, storytelling and social mobilization have proven effective.

Storytelling enables us to educate even children about the facts. The South African organization Soul City is very effective in developing stories with meaningful plots. Through their words and behavior, the characters make information accessible. The audience absorbs it and it becomes folklore.

Social mobilization is a process that uses the existing social capital in a community. It empowers people with appropriate information to mobilize their communities. Like the saying, “When an egg breaks from the outside, life ends. When it breaks from the inside, life begins,” social mobilization works on the principle that key community members receive the right stories and are empowered to engage their peers to bring about change from the inside out. Outside help may be necessary, but it can cause communication failures when it is not properly integrated.

A new approach to community development called Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) is another powerful tool that can be used to prepare for and respond to threats to society, including diseases such as Ebola. ABCD’s point of departure is to explore what is available in the community, rather than assuming a long list of wants and needs. In mapping the resources that are available to address the developmental need, you also discover the most effective ways for the community to take ownership and lead themselves in their response.

The bottom line is this: A crisis is an opportunity to change our worldview. It forces us to use all the available tools to protect individuals, communities and companies so that they can reach their social and business goals in the long run. Short-term interventions are unlikely to yield the desired results.

The current Ebola crisis demands a long-term investment in the power of communication. By using this powerful tool for developmental purposes, we can ensure that Ebola and similar crises are dealt with effectively on a global scale.

The next article in this series will take a closer look at how to share information through storytelling, social mobilization techniques and case studies, and how to implement a basic ABCD process in communities that are directly linked to your business.


Mari Lee, ABC, is CEO of Development Communication Solutions, based in Centurion, South Africa.

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