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I’ve spent the last couple of days in a room full of experts, researchers, communicators, donors, programme people discussing how to increase the uptake of voluntary medical male circumcision (vmmc as they called it) among men 25-49 years old in countries in east and southern Africa as a way to reduce the spread of HIV, and ultimately create an HIV free generation.

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It’s not really my area of specialisation, but I was fortunate to be invited as a person who has done a lot of communication work for awareness and prevention of HIV generally.  I learnt a lot.  They discussed things like maybe vmmc should be repositioned so it’s not so closely associated with HIV, but more so with Hygiene and maybe even sexual attractiveness, and reducing female cervical cancer.  They also discussed how to get female intimate partners more involved as a primary audience because they are influencers in men’s life.  Ok hold on – for years we’ve been talking about how women aren’t empowered to decide how, when, and where to have sex, with the man totally in control of that decision, they can’t get a man to wear a condom, but now they can influence a man to cut his penis?  Wow!  So what are we saying, did the health campaign’s empower women too much?

In that same discussion – which I was lucky to be a panelist on – Hally Mahler who works in Tanzania as the Chief of Party for JHIPEGO – a USAID Project – she explained that while women could be great influencers, they can also be deterants because they didn’t want to have six weeks of abstinence while their partner healed, so they’d rather go to another man for that sexual pleasure – and the men now this.  In Zambia, they say women are scared that the partners would find being circumcised as the reason for men to go out and be unfaithful!

Times have changed indeed – women in Africa are acknowledging that they have sexual needs and not afraid to admit it!  

Enough of my sidebar, going back to my observations of the conference, I’ve been at several of these meetings, conferences etc where all these different people come together and I find it’s usually the same things being said – researchers want more money for research, so that everything can be evidence based, donors are agreeing with this, but saying they want results now!  And programme people (or are they implementers) are wanting to put more money into communication, while there are the those in the middle – not sure who they are – who are naysers about putting money into communication/mass media programmes.

Obviously as a person who is into communications and content development, I’m a strong advocate for putting more money into good quality content.  But I think everyone has to work together.  The researchers have the information to inform the content, the implementers on the ground have the networks and links into the service providers to ensure that when the demand is created the services are there for the uptake.  Too often these groups, when designing a programme are not in the same room.

I’ve been to tenders where organisations say they want to launch a comprehensive communication campaign to get a certain behaviour adhered to and so they’re now putting out a tender for 2 billboards, 3 TV PSAs and 2 radio spots.  Erm yeah, that’s going to get you a comprehensive campaign.  Not to say that they need to have loads more, but if they don’t have the media spend to flood the market, then it’s not really worth it and their money is better spent in a cheaper medium like leaflets – as long as their target audience can read.  But I am a strong believer that communication campaigns done well and sustained can work – there is lots of evidence for this, especially in the commercial world.

My point is they should be engaging an agency in the begining to tell them what they need to do.  People bring agencies in at the last minute and then question the agency as to why their campaign isn’t working – which could be for a multiple reasons starting with they didn’t really do a proper communication brief to the agency.  If an agency clearly understands what it is you’re trying to achieve, it makes it easier for them to plan a campaign for you – and all aspects of the campaign.  That’s another thing I don’t really understand about public sector, why they do this whole piecemeal thing – splitting out a campaign isn’t about making it fair, it’s just complicates your campaign and makes it harder to manage and control and makes quality control a nightmare.

Another one of my observations was how little we heard from local people.  I’m a big believer in local knowledge.  As I sat with other African colleagues at lunch, or during tea breaks, we laughed about how African’s are too polite, they’d rather let their Western colleagues go down a path that is culturally inappropriate than tell them it won’t work – don’t want to hurt their feelings, and obviously a lot of people still having their insecurities that the West are more superior than us poor, little Africans, in fact one person observed that the conference was about ‘white women telling black men to cut their penis’ – (i found that funny).  But I did wonder why we’re not pushing our own solutions – I’m not talking about the to cut or not cut issue here – but even when I look at all the communication campaigns we do for our clients, we’ve never been approached by the Ministry of Health or any such entity (except on governance issues, then it is the Zambian government we work directly with), so why are locals not pushing their own health campaigns to ensure they are culturally relevant and appropriate?

We have enough experience now to say we can, why aren’t we discussing our own learners, our own challenges?  Why is it enough to let the West try to solve our problems?  I don’t know.

I met a lovely man from India, also in communications (in the private sector) Ram Prased from Final Miles.  Not only was he hilarious, and honest, but he told me about how his company didn’t wait for a client to come along, that they’d tackle issues that they thought were important to them.  And maybe that’s what we need to do.  It is hard because everything in Zambia is so expensive, but I think, certainly for us at Media 365, we’re too passionate about what we do to wait for someone to ask us our honest opinion on how we think things should be done, on what should be communicated and how it should be communicated (we do have this knowledge too – not saying we’re right, but we’re just not really asked to even try it out), and just go ahead and produce what we really want to.

I’m inspired to do it because we need to start shouting about our success not, some random campaign that frankly no one I know ever heard about.  When I sort out our cashflow, believe me, we’ll be on it!  Watch this space.  And at least I met interesting people at the conference!  

In the meantime, we should keep the conversation going about VMMC – it’s an interesting one for sure.

I was shocked the other day when a client said that we couldn’t use a particular word in our communications campaign because they thought it was offensive – not that the intended audience would find it offensive, but people in their office would.

As if that wasn’t enough to annoy me, another client called me into their office for me to assure them that we would deliver a creative product for their campaign.  This in itself doesn’t seem bad (though as a creative agency, it’s a bit offensive to be asked if you know how to deliver a creative product), but later that same day, I saw some other products they produced with another agency which was truly atrocious!  And then my fear set in, if that’s what they thought was creative, would they approve the products we’re producing?  

I also got into a little bit of a twitter rage when someone I follow retweeted something someone they follow (I assume) that basically said promotion of condoms promoted promiscuity and that’s why HIV is still spreading.  I obviously said what a joke that statement was and the response that I got was that sex before marriage is dirty and immoral.  Yep in 2012 someone said that to me.  My response was demonizing sex is what is the problem and encouraging the spread of HIV, if you have a positive towards sex, you’re more likely to talk about it and know your options to keep your safe right?  Nope, instead I was met with the morality police – when I mentioned that multiple sexual relationships, especially in marriage is a huge driving factor, there was no real response from the morality police.  I guess marriage is too sacred to poo poo on.

I have been working in this industry for a long time, which is probably why my tolerance levels are getting to an all time low.  I think not being completely honest and giving people the correct information in the language they understand is doing a disservice.  But I guess the scary reality is that if the HIV crisis was solved today, too many people would be out of a job right?

This is one of the reasons that I want my company to focus on producing our own campaigns (kind of like the same reason why I think developing nations need to stop taking aid with strings attached) is so that we can control the messages we want to put out and deliver it in the way we know will work – because we are more of the audience than the clients are.

As far as I’m concerned a radical and different approach is needed, and it’s time that we’re all honest.  This is why I’m so excited for That Shuga Moment show to air where a bunch of young people talk openly about issues such as transactional sex (some believing it’s ok if it’s for an investment benefit – i.e. college degree), or women carrying condoms (women saying honestly they don’t because they don’t want the promiscuous label attached to them) and so many things that public health people would prefer people don’t talk about.

I really hope that this new campaign we’re working on will give us that creative and editorial freedom, and hopefully we’ll see some impact – watch this space….