MAZI Articles

Grappling With the Complexity of Change
Message from Denise Gray-Felder

Complexity is a subject that intrigues and confounds scholars and practitioners the world over. Many of us who work in international development think that complexity must be grappled with, wrestled to the ground and tamed.

On the contrary, I submit. As development professionals, we must marvel at the complexity of human lives and learn to include a celebration of complexity in our thinking, in our work and in our evaluation and assessment efforts. No longer is it sufficient—during a monitoring and evaluation process, for example—to reduce concepts like learned sexuality, social drivers of sexual behaviour, decisions about reproduction, power within families, or faith, religious intolerance and their roles in forming public perceptions into simplistic frameworks, guidance notes or lists of indicators.

I write this because, as communicators reliant upon funding from donors and partners who often demand accountability and metrics, we frequently are challenged by the question of how to boil the complex down to the level of boxes, charts, graphs and lists.

On the other hand, communicators can too easily hide behind the qualitative nature of complex communication processes in order to avoid answering the question: How do we know our communication work is making a difference? Our explanations can become crutches: “Communication is different from other disciplines. It is very imprecise to try to measure which communication factors influence changes in perceptions.”

While certainly true, we should not shy away from the challenge of demonstrating to our supporters that the processes we use can be assessed using a variety of participatory and qualitative approaches. And as importantly, that we start the communication process with a clear sense of objectives and strategies—based on the local conditions—whose effectiveness can indeed be monitored and evaluated rigorously.

It is between these two positions—that communication assessment must be reduced to numbers and graphs or that communication measures are somehow elusive—where possible innovation lies. Our quest at the Communication for Social Change Consortium in the area of monitoring and evaluation is to help catalyse new thinking and scholarship in this middle ground.

As I attended the XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico City earlier this month, I was struck by the dominance of complex thinkers. Dr. Peter Piot, outgoing executive director of UNAIDS, set the challenge of complexity in his opening remarks, in a speech imploring us to “Don’t Give Up the Fight.”

This conference takes place as we enter a new phase in confronting AIDS. A new phase because we now have results on a large scale. For the first time, fewer people are dying of AIDS and fewer people are becoming infected with HIV. For the first time, we have empirical evidence that our brilliant coalition can move mountains. … This is cause for encouragement. But not cause for complacency, nor for declaring victory.

Because the end of AIDS is nowhere in sight. Every day, almost three times as many people become newly infected with HIV as those who start taking antiretroviral treatment…

Global in outreach, local and personal in impact, the epidemic is evolving in a fast-changing environment. Compelling issues have risen up the global agenda: economic recession, growing social inequalities, climate change, energy and food crises.

Our challenge today is to position AIDS in this context … Let’s never forget that the epidemic could still bring us new surprises – as it has done so many times already.

If we are to get ahead of this epidemic, it is time to come to terms with complexity.

Whatever you may read in some journals today, there is no short cut in HIV prevention. Those who claim that we just need one or two things to prevent HIV – and those who say we can forget about involving communities – are playing with fire.

Simplifying what is complicated can be as counter-productive as complicating what is simple.

I wanted to cheer when I heard these words. Not for their eloquence but because they were being said to 23,000 people who are closest to the AIDS epidemic and who, thus, have the greatest chance of internalising and acting upon this advice. Or perhaps the millions of others hearing these remarks via the Internet or broadcasting might finally accept that “fixing the AIDS problem” cannot be reduced to simple solutions. Nor should even such phrasing and framing be used when communicating about AIDS. For until we accept the complexity of AIDS and what that means to the complexity of the human existence, we likely will continue to stumble from one communication “remedy” to the next.

Just as it is unacceptable to settle solely on condom use or male circumcision or microbicides or even a single AIDS vaccine as the one workable fix, so we must not persist in damning the science of communication with the words “it is only communication. Anyone can do that.” Or “just put something in the media” or “do a behavior change campaign.” (I shudder at such comments. Any parent or teacher knows with certainty that very few people, even toddlers, will change aberrant behaviour just by being told to do so.)

Communication about AIDS is by definition, tremendously complex. Yet too often scientists, healthcare providers, researchers, prevention and treatment specialists, funders, government officials throughout the world persist in limiting the contributions of communication. Perhaps it has to do with the word itself. For some, the term “communication” seems too simple to apply to the world’s most troubling disease. For others, “anyone can do communication” means that it is not valued like molecular biology or chemistry or medicine—or even like sociology or anthropology. How often have we heard comments like “why do you have a bunch of communication people on that committee? Where are the scientists?” The unspoken comment here is—“why not people who we value?”

Perhaps it is because we communication professionals have allowed too many “wanna-be” professionals into our midst. Or we have not pushed hard enough for professional accreditation in communication for social change and development. Or demanded that universities educate their students thoroughly. Or put our writing and thinking into scholarly journals that our scientific colleagues read. Or promoted advance degrees. Or insisted, as the physical scientists have done, that every university student must complete several communication courses before graduating.

Instead, we have gotten on with our business of doing the work—of producing and implementing hundreds of AIDS communication approaches and trying to figure out how they work together under the big holistic communication tent. Of working at ground levels and listening and talking to those most affected by AIDS and other social issues. Of helping such people capture their stories and share what they’ve learned. Of looking at channels of communication within communities and trying to leverage those existing channels more effectively—instead of coming in with new approaches and new science that may be deemed threatening or insensitive. Of listening to the rumours and observing the stigma in order to better understand how they spread within communities, so that we might use similar means to communicate positively.

Whatever the root causes, the complexity of communication is often not understood, accepted, embraced, valued, talked about or studied across disciplines, most particularly among people who believe in science.

Reducing the complexity of communication in an overly-simplistic fashion does a great injustice to the field and to the people most affected by AIDS.

In a piece recently published in Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture, communication scholar Silvio Waisbord of George Washington University writes on how development agencies and typical agency priorities are not conducive to participatory communication (which is complex). He notes that “participatory communication runs contrary to a mentality that prioritises achieving rapid results within time-bounded funding cycles. The timeline of budget allocations does not match the pace of social change.”

Waisbord posits that the core nature of agency and funding mechanisms make it difficult for them to embrace the type of communication that we know works with AIDS and other pressing social issues like poverty reduction or family violence. His insights are useful as we in the Consortium, along with other like-minded community-centred organizations, continue to grapple with: how to keep communication practice from being minimized and made non-essential to decision makers.

Ordinary people living with AIDS or caring for those with AIDS or working with youth to prevent HIV risk know with great certainty that they must better utilize complex communication processes. Multinational corporations across the globe understand that. Politicians running for public office clearly embrace the power of communication to get them elected—especially the power of the spoken word and storytelling, and of innuendo and rumors.

Cultures and societies do not change, and generally cannot move forward until the complexity of communication is learned, applied and embraced.

I worked for Bell Laboratories, one of the premiere research and development laboratories of the world, in the mid-to-late1980s. There I learned that the best scientists also took great care to be great communicators. They understood the convergence of good science with the need to have that good science understood, shared, deliberated and passed along. But more importantly, they understood their obligation to make sure that people at all levels of their communities—customers, employees, legislators, fellow scientists, media, policymakers—all had a chance to hear and talk about their science.

Neither communication nor science has the luxury of elitism.

Societies do not move forward, scientific advancements are not perfected absent complex, systematic exchange of ideas, of listening and dialogue, of sharing, reflecting, analyzing and passing along critical ideas and information necessary to create a sense of collective ownership and responsibility for the societal future. This is also a useful working definition of good communication for development.

The fact that each person on earth with a voice has the means to influence, persuade, listen, share information and exchange ideas that can bring about individual and social change is terribly powerful. And it is hugely complex. It requires systems thinking orientation and professional study, analysis, evaluation and discernment.

As a child my father, a surgeon who spent his later professional years as a general practitioner in his native Jamaica, often complained that “the problem with surgery is that it is done by surgeons.” Too inexperienced then to fully understand his dilemma, I now realize that my dad was worried about the inability of some doctors to see the whole person. (This is one reason while I still insist that my teenagers go to a paediatrician; a doctor trained to look at the entire child, not just the part of that child that is sick or broken.)

The AIDS conference presented a number of challenges for communication for social change professionals that require us to look at the whole systems of development and social change:

  1. AIDS within the United States has reached frightening proportions among African Americans. Nearly 25 percent of African-American men aged 18-25 in New York City are infected with HIV. AIDS is the leading cause of death among young African-American women ages 25-34. If the U.S. African-American population was a free-standing country, its rate of HIV infection would rank 16th in the world. Yet, AIDS continues to be a silent killer in Black communities where people deny its existence or persist in waging war against those who compile the statistics (Centres for Disease Control) instead of mobilising against the disease. We must aggressively use communication to help elevate the sense of ownership and urgency desperately needed within Black communities.
  2. Many sessions in Mexico City emphasised the need for communication for social change, or social change communication. There is a growing realisation that we must influence the total social environments in which communication happens and influence the underlying attitudes, beliefs and perceptions about AIDS even if behaviour change is to make a dent. The Consortium along with a collaboration of others including Panos Institute, Soul City, Project Concern, Centre for Communication Programs at Johns Hopkins and the University of West Indies CARIMAC (working with local Caribbean agencies serving vulnerable populations), are advising UNAIDS partnerships group on social change communication and especially on monitoring and assessing effectiveness. This group delivered a poster session at the conference and developed a set of social change communication policy recommendations.
  3. The need to continue to focus global attention on taking a futures-oriented look at AIDS communication, or planning for how we will address future communication challenges, was evident in several venues including The Lancet special issue on HIV prevention produced in collaboration with UNAIDS.
  4. The Consortium launched our Facebook aids2031 view the first day of the conference. Here, interested youth are encouraged to log on and discuss their concerns and observations about managing AIDS communication in the future. (This site can be reached easily by searching for aids2031 on Facebook.) This is a precursor to the aids2031 communication working group plans to host a series of conversations—face to face and virtually—during the next five months on youth and AIDS and AIDS in Cities.

This issue of Mazi includes two other pieces on either the subject of complexity or AIDS. First is a summary piece compiled from numerous sources on the highlights of the International AIDS Conference. Then there is a fascinating piece by Ohio University graduate student Virginia Lacayo on complexity and the machine analogy.

The last half of this year will mark a number of milestones for the Communication for Social Change Consortium. We will launch the Spanish version of the CFSC Anthology: Historical and Contemporary Readings. Look for the promotional story in this issue in order to purchase the book in English or Spanish. Production of both versions was made possible with the tremendous initial operating support from the Rockefeller Foundation. A grant from the Carnegie Corporation allowed us to distribute copies of the English version free of charge to more than 200 universities in developing countries. Proceeds from each copy of the anthology that we sell allows us to continue our work in university outreach and networks in developing countries, as well as case story development.

Secondly, we will begin work with UNICEF on child protection issues in the Pacific Island region. I know that our understanding and celebration of complexity and communication will serve us well there.

Thirdly, we will complete a multiyear journey working in polio communication in Nigeria, first with UNICEF and then with John Snow International and USAID. This work has challenged every truth we have held and propelled us to new levels of understanding about how and why people make life-alternating decisions—and how communication influences such decisions. We have been able to test in real-life situations the process and value of community dialogue. In northern Nigeria where polio vaccines were boycotted for 11 months a few years ago, local people are now saying “we are the ones who are responsible for immunizing our children. This is our duty as parents.”

We are just now getting hints of what is possible—as facilitators of communication processes funded by outside forces. We are seeing that the long-term investment in CFSC approaches that is required is almost always underestimated, underfunded and undervalued. We’ve learned that people are instinctively eager to take over and take control—but that funding-patterns make real community engagement elusive, especially in environments where trust is low.

We’ve also learned important lessons about catalysing community dialogue, documenting its processes, assessing progress and engaging poor communities in utilising evidence and data to inform their public conversations.

So it is that we strive to understand and celebrate the complexity of social change while staying rooted in the day-to-day need to just get the work done—and to just keep going. Doing so continues to be a difficult balancing act. As a global nonprofit organisation, we compete with all other NGOs for the limited sources of contracts and grants. While some would argue that it is a “universal truth” that development cannot happen without effective communication, it seems also apparent that the current structures of development—as so aptly described by Silvio Waisbord—are fundamentally hampered by their structures. Thus while the universal truth may not be universally accepted intellectually, decision makers within development agencies clearly are not, or perhaps cannot, put “its money behind its words” for the long-term.

Thus, we at the Consortium see the greatest opportunities in helping people themselves—within villages and cities and compounds—learn to use communication for social change, learn to share their learning with others, and are able to replicate their usage of CFSC approaches on issue and issue, year after year.

That is the simple complexity of our work.

Click here to return to Mazi 16