The context of your social message matters. Fix that!

Change makers must give prominence to local stories and local messaging even if they have a global goal

Meeta Sengupta
Updated: Feb 24, 2015 01:30:37 PM UTC

Among the global literacies that are useful in this day and age is the ability to be sensitive and responsive to local contexts. It is possible to cheerfully blunder on with massive messaging programmes, hoping for a deep impact in another country, not realising that your messaging could be having the opposite impact.

There is a story that is part of marketing and advertising lore of a famous detergent brand that tried to circumvent language barriers when they went to sell in the Middle East. They had a triptych advertisement, the left panel showing dirty clothes, the middle panel a bucket of soapy water and the final panel showing clothes that had been cleaned. Sales did not go up. To improve the story a bit, let us even say, sales dipped. They wondered—such basic, simple messaging, how could it not be working? Clothes, soap, clean. Committees were set up and meetings lasted nights, puzzling over this one. Till a young local chap suddenly realised what was going on—people in the Middle East read from right to left. Those who saw the billboard were seeing dirty clothes come out of the process in the bucket. As they read it, clean clothes turn dirty. No wonder no one wanted the soap.

Photo: Mexy Xavier

I see something similar happen in education: Girls’ education. ‘

The headline messaging that is going out from some multi-laterals is this: "When a girl has seven more years of education, she will marry four years later and have 2.2 fewer children."

I am sure that these numbers are sensible and reliable. It must have taken months of work, using data from lots of countries; it is not easy to arrive at such clarity. It is also a useful attempt at defining both the risks and rewards to a girl child if she is denied education. There are other figures that were arrived at after similar extensive research, including how much more will a girl earn for every extra year of education? But that is not being made the headline statement. Posters and info graphics speak of this: Later marriage and fewer children.

Nobody denies that in many parts of the world, especially those with low literacy rates, girls often get married shockingly early. They are expected to take on domestic and sexual burdens before their young bodies are ready for them. Some bear children, rather, start bearing children when they are as young as 12 or 12, and often have over six to seven children. All this puts a huge physical and mental burden on the girl child. It is often a terrible quality of life and a short life span. This is something we should all strive to change. But not this way. It won’t happen this way.

Change, social change, is a delicate process. As every intervention design professional knows, the prime rule is: First, do no harm. The designed intervention may have unintended consequences to society. The lives of human beings are dependant upon each other and the societies they live in. To change one is to impact more than one. This impact may be for long-term good, but may cause short-term harm-and this is one of the possibilities. Second, social change does not happen just because someone came from outside and said so. Missionary zeal and preaching can only go so far, they do not create deep rooted change.

Messaging is an essential component of intervention design. It is done via words and other means. Incentives support messaging, stories do, demonstration and proofs are even stronger. The strongest is the lived experience. Messaging in words is both the simplest and the trickiest. Take the case of the example above: Women marry later with more education. Women have fewer children. This is meant to persuade women and their keepers that they should be kept in education for longer.

This is based upon some assumptions:

From the perspective of the audience, it is a good thing that women marry later From the point of view of the target group, it is desirable to have fewer children
The audience cares about the welfare and health of women
An implicit assumption too-that women have choice and agency in making decisions, or participate in decisions and will be able to influence based on information about risks and rewards to women.
I am not sure that any or all of these assumptions will be valid in the places this message is sorely required.

Take marriage. The appropriate age of marriage is a societal norm, though always aligned with the legal age. This has evolved for a culture over many years and iterations based on its needs and fears. In many cases, marrying one’s daughter off early is seen as desirable. Older girls who have been left on the shelf are seen as damaged goods. Changing this view takes centuries, as even the countries of the West will attest. Early marriage is good for various reasons-apprenticeship for the skills required, safety or ‘responsibility’ of the girl child, economic reasons, etc. The value of early marriage has been proved in these communities and is an established ‘fact’. On the other hand, the value of education has not been established yet. When a community is presented with a statement that seven years of education is going to push back marriage by four years, this is clearly not going to convince the traditional community. Given a choice between the unproven merits of education and the established merits of early marriage, the message merely reinforces marriage. “Who is going to wait seven years to see the girl educated-who knows what might happen in these seven years?”, combined with “Four years of leaving the girl unmarried? Who will marry her then? All the good boys and families would have been taken”. And so on. Adopting the message increases uncertainty and risk for the adopters-often for at least a generation when it comes to social change.

If more education is going to push back the age of marriage by an incredible four years, many parents would brand education as an evil and choose to opt out of it. Very simply, if education is seen as disruptive of social norms, it'll be seen as an enemy of the community and traditions. Needs better messaging. Many would rather have the girl 'settled' into her marriage than run the risk of keeping her unmarried and therefore disruptive of the norm. Not just the traditionalists, if one were to run a simple calculation on the risks and rewards in the local context, it becomes clear that postponing marriage is not something that the community sees as aspirational. The message fails for lack of familiarity with the context.

Similarly, for the argument that claims 2.2 fewer children where fewer children are seen as desirable. In many communities, bearing children (earners) is proven to have greater economic value than education. Where infant mortality was quite high till very recently, each child is seen as a resource. An extra pair of hands and revenue into the household. In many cultures, child-rearing is seen as a cost, and once the child grows up, they are an independent economic unit. In most places in India, especially away from the metros, children are part of the larger family unit till there is a split. This means that each child brings in income and helps out in the household. This is often the only real social security net, especially in the absence of one provided by a government. The more children one has, the safer one is in old age or illness. To say that more education is going to lead to less children is to say that there will be a loss of income. (Even if one assumes that the mother earns, the gain is 1x earnings, and the loss is 2.2x earnings over a lifetime). How does this work as an argument in favour of education?

Fewer children due to more education may be better for the women's health, but not always supported by the community, especially in a patriarchy. This positions education as a force that will change a community’s way of life, its economics and its balance of power. If education is projected as disruptive of the patriarchy, they will not support it. Why fight two battles and lose both? If the idea is to promote education, only educate. Bring forth arguments that will hold water in the local context without pandering to the patriarchy. For example, a discussion around the economic value of education would have been useful as it would stir a debate and seek proof in the locality. It would start off a quest for role models, for validation. It would, at best, even be aspirational-and that is what we want. We want girls to aspire to a better quality of life and the ability to provision for themselves.

This is a lesson that retailers all over the world have understood-whether they are a McDonald’s or a Nestle. One has to create local stories and local messaging even if you have a global goal. People will not respond to messages that conflict with belief systems. Designing messaging in cultures that do not understand the needs and priorities of their audience is a mistake. Context matters. Fix it.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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