Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
A story is told about family planning campaigns in the ‘90s that seemed to be working in reverse. This puzzled the people in charge of communicating these messages so much that they were forced to conduct a study to find out why.
They brought along two photos that were part of the communication campaign. One of the photos showed a well-dressed, smiling couple with their two healthy, happy children. Behind them was a mansion.
In the other photo was a dirty-looking, haggard couple with eight malnourished, miserable-looking children in tattered clothes. Behind them was a hut that did not look fit to be inhabited by human beings.
“What do these photos tell you?” they asked. “That poor people should keep having many children because it’s the only thing they can afford to have,” the poor folk responded. This led the team right back to the drawing board, as you can imagine.
The just concluded International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) summit, which has drawn almost as much support as it has controversy, may be suffering from an acute case of communication gone wrong.
Some of the themes the conference covered were universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights as a part of universal health coverage, drawing on demographic diversity to drive economic growth and achieve sustainable development and ending gender-based violence and harmful practices. Nothing sinister there, right?
But some Kenyans had the temerity to loudly protest the summit. The hashtag #LetterToTheState trended on Twitter for the better part of November 12.
The ICPD25 was invariably termed satanic, sinful and generally out to recruit people into the “dark world of gays and lesbians” and murder of the innocents (read: abortion).
While the dissenting voices rang loud, some religious leaders also came out clearly (but perhaps not as loudly) to state there was no sound religious basis to deny the public access to the information the summit participants dispensed.
The dissenting voices were dismissed as ignorant, or completely ignored by those who had the opportunity to communicate clearly and strongly the summit’s objectives.
One of the accusations made by those opposed to the summit was that it’s a “Western” thing.
The fact that it was a high-profile meeting with several heads of state attending, and that the loudest and most prominent voices on the matters to do with ICPD25 were those of foreign ambassadors, can be blamed for this.
And while those raising concerns might be accused of studiously ignoring the bigger picture or of being ignorant, the danger is that such positions, based on people seeing and reading only what they want to, easily go viral if not tamed.
All this can be countered with consistent, simplified communication, preferably from an ordinary mwananchi whom the resolutions from the conference are meant to help as opposed to technocratic justifications as has been the case.
Let’s end with a story, as we started with one. This one’s from a colleague whose church said a one-minute prayer to “cause confusion” during the ICPD summit.
Sensing an opportunity to get an interesting response, my colleague whispered to a fellow congregant: “What’s this ICPD thing?”
“It’s a conference starting next week. They are coming to force us to accept abortion or lesbianism or they will deny us funding,” she replied.
There you have it, folks. It should worry us that those tasked with shaping the minds and attitudes of the people whom the ICPD25 promises are meant to help are distorting the issues.
Aggressive and oblivious as they may seem to be, it will be more harmful to let them be.
The writer is the editor, ‘Living Magazine’; [email protected]