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Blog Post

Ebola and its lessons for communications in Africa

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In the last few months the epidemic that has struck Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria has been described as the worst Ebola outbreak in history and has officially been declared an international health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO). What has been most worrying to many has been the inability of the myriad of organisations to stop the outbreak.

 

The gaps in communication that the Ebola crisis has laid bare apply to all those seeking to communicate with the diverse audiences of the African continent. Ebola is in many ways a terrifying disease; however as a virus which is not airborne, it is far more controllable than diseases like malaria or TB. The failure to effectively communicate this to the public in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria is one of the factors that have allowed the epidemic to spread as far as it has.

 

What is clear is that effective communication among all stakeholders is a crucial aspect to any public health issue, particularly in crisis situations. Furthermore those communications must be formulated with your target audiences and stakeholders in mind. What the Ebola crisis has shown is that governments and institutions need to learn to talk to each other and the public much more effectively. However these lessons are not confined to the health or even the public sectors, the lessons of effective (or ineffective as the case may be) communication during the Ebola crisis contains instructions for anyone, from businesses to NGO’s, seeking to engage the communities, governments or institutions in Africa.

 

Communicating in the diversity of Africa

A crucial component to the response to a public health crisis is the trust and cooperation of the communities involved and the buy-in of the wider public, in order to achieve this effective communication is a must. Africa’s diversity of cultures,  and peoples compounds this challenge. Not only must you identify your stakeholders but you must tailor your efforts to suit your audiences, in order to do this there are three key issues you must keep in mind; understanding, representation and context.

  • First and foremost is understanding. You must talk to people in a language they understand, this applies in both the language you speak to them in, and the manner in which you speak to them. In the myriad of languages and cultures it can be tough to translate a message from one language to another. However, it is not enough to merely translate information from one language to another it must be contextualised in order to be fully understood.
  • Secondly, you must carefully choose a spokesperson that people will listen to; this can range from public figures such as pop stars and politicians to local leaders such as tribal elders and religious leaders. As has been seen with Ebola crisis experts such as doctors can be viewed with hostility and can even be the victims of violence. To gain access to some areas, the support of village and tribal elders is vital. The professionals so violently rejected could perhaps be more warmly received if they were introduced to the communities by the elders or religious leaders.    
  • Finally, you must talk to people in forums or context’s in which they are comfortable and willing to listen. In some cases this may be the village forum; in others such as mass communication, radio rather than TV or the Internet is the preferred tool.  Context should dictate the approach, what works in a city may not work in a rural setting, a particular forum or venue (such as church) may be more effectual for the desired purpose than less specific public forums.

 

Lessons for communicating

Gaining the trust and cooperation of your target audience is fundamental to public health. At its core making your communications understandable, choosing an appropriate representative and properly contextualising them, is about understanding, factoring in, and using the diversity of Africa to further communications. Not doing so can, as we have seen in West Africa recently, present a significant barrier, to communications having the desired effect.

 

These lessons apply not only to the health sector but anyone operating in Africa that needs to communicate for their operations to be a success. For NGO’s and development organisations, and even governments this is a well-known issue, many initiatives and programs have floundered not because they were bad ideas or lacked resources. Rather, they failed because they did not effectively connect with the very people they were trying to help and their efforts fell on deaf ears. For organisations operating in complex stakeholder environments with multiple audiences and interested parties to communicate with, understanding the different audiences and ensuring that messages are tailor-made to secure understanding is doubly crucial.

 

The Ebola outbreak has given many a pause for thought. It has tested and shown the weakness in global, continental and state emergency response systems. It has stunned the pharmaceutical industry and research scientists into action, and it has shown how vulnerable a globalised world can be. It has also shown that communication is vital; failure to communicate effectively can worsen the very issues you are seeking to mitigate. Furthermore effective communication in the multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic melting pot that is the African continent is dependent upon understanding your target audience so that you are not merely another voice among many but one that is truly listened to. 

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Eugene Ngumi, Associate Consultant, Nairobi

Eugene is an associate consultant with a deep knowledge of the political and regulatory structures of Kenya. He has previously worked in politics and digital media and was educated at The University of Sydney in Australia.

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