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Always a Friend, Rarely a Stranger
by Denise Gray-Felder

A South African tourism public service announcement claims that, among the nine officially recognized indigenous languages used in commerce in that country, there is no word for "stranger." I often think of this axiom as I travel throughout so-called developing countries. Confirming the premise of the South African commercial, it is most often in "still advancing" countries that I find the warmest welcomes, the friendliest smiles and the most open hearts.

Certainly human decency is not based on the number at the bottom of a balance sheet.

I like to believe that it is human nature to be kind, loving, just, peaceful and supportive of each other "“ whether we're meeting for the first time or the hundredth. These are characteristics that distinguish us from other mammals.

Yet we human beings are complex. Rarely in human existence is anything truly the way it appears at first glance.

My work at the Consortium demonstrates this often. We grapple weekly with the complexity of human existence: parents who neglect to immunize their children in order to make political points to government officials. Yet, these same parents open their hearts and homes to visiting strangers with notebooks; an infected couple is stigmatised by their neighbours because of their HIV status, but the same couple is allowed to continue to work as trained health care workers in the local clinic. Or a mother, despite burying one child to malaria, takes the insecticide-treated bed nets given to her by a local NGO and sells them on the black market in order to feed her surviving children.

In each of these cases, citizens choose to communicate their acceptance, contempt, dissatisfaction, displeasure or fear or despair in ways that may not seem logical or wise to us outsiders. As outsiders, we might likely comment that the actions are counterproductive and harmful. Yet it is probable that people are doing the best they can, given the circumstances in which they are living and with the information they have at hand when the time comes to decide.

Choice involves a complex mixture of information, emotion, experience and background, overlaid on top of societal norms and pressures. When good choices are made, most people impacted believe the choices are just and sound and will benefit a greater good. When bad choices are made, someone will be hurt.

In development, the opportunity for informed choice is too often taken away, intentionally or inadvertently, when we tell adults what to do before these people fully understand, discuss and accept the implications of the action. Smart people from donor organisations too often assume the rest of the world is stupid about their own well being. Billboards dot the landscapes of developing countries preaching: "Wear this condom". "Abstain from sex before marriage." "Keep your kids healthy." "Sleep under a net." Or my favourite: "Love Your Child." (Does any bilateral or multilateral organization really have to tell parents this?) Billions of naira, kwacha, rand, shillings, euros, etc. are spent on Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials that most often fail to E (educate) or C (communicate).

Karl Mannheim wrote more than 50 years ago that ignorance is not defined only as illiteracy but also includes "the masses' lack of experience at participating and intervening in the historical process."

Thus a key challenge for us as communicators is to negotiate, facilitate and monitor processes in which people, within their own communities, receive and manage information, discuss what it means to their circumstances, ask questions, and share their knowledge in order to make quality decisions about issues facing their families, communities and countries.

These are human processes. They often do not require technology, jingles or checklists. (Although such things can help catalyse meaningful dialogue and should be used when appropriate.)

I overheard a startling comment by an international aid worker the other day: "We have a log frame for dialogue." Is it possible that anyone really believes they can reduce the complexity of human conversation, emotions, awareness and interaction to boxes on a chart or circles in a diagram?

As communication professionals, we should be spending more of our time thinking than in creating forms. How can communication processes and subsequent decision-making be accelerated in urgent situations like polio eradication or in times of conflict? Can systems be put in place to help local provinces and municipalities organize community dialogues more effectively? How do we capture the data and information generated from such dialogues so that it can be best understood and analysed by those from the affected communities? Can we use today's stories of change to inform future communication processes?

Or, what rigor can we build into our qualitative assessment processes so that results of community dialogues can be better used by others, can inform future planning and can better help explain what is happening in the trajectory of a disease, social issue or occurrence? These are some of the complexities of communication for social change that its practitioners are tackling.

With polio communication, experts "“ both internal and external to endemic countries "“ have suggested that, with more knowledge, parents will make better choices. Perhaps. But it is also possible that knowledge without the necessary sensitivity to the local political, economic and cultural realities in countries like India, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, will hang unused like free bed nets in malaria-stricken countries.

The choice we often make as communicators for social change is whether to invest in the long term, which we know generally yields better results, or settle for short-term, message-driven fixes.

Choices. We all must make them minute-by-minute. In poorer or "advancing" countries, ordinary life choices often appear to have weightier consequences. When her parents refuse to let a health care worker put two drops of polio vaccine into a toddler's mouth multiple times in her first two years of life, are her parents making an informed decision to harm their daughter physically? Is the young university student "“ as she sneaks out evenings to sell her body for tuition money "“ trading on her future in order to prepare for her future? Can we effectively argue against such "live for today" logic?

Do the local officials representing settlements with hundreds of unvaccinated children find their choice to divert money and re-sell syringes intended for routine child immunization abhorrent? Can their fellow citizens really turn a blind eye and ignore such flagrant abuses, while, in effect, waiting for their own turn to profit monetarily from global health initiatives? What is it about the pull for cash, even in small sums, that overrides community responsibility, good sense and morals? And national pride?

When a post-pubescent teenager in southern Africa lies down with a woman his mother's age to "learn" new sexual tricks and to earn spending money for the week, we wonder who will likely spread the HIV virus to other partners "“ him or her. Can we expect this newly liberated woman to report her heightened HIV risk to her live-in partner or follow patterns set by her community and keep her exploits outside the home hidden, thereby potentially exposing future partners?

Each of these life choices has implications far beyond the visibly involved people, families or households. One of the certainties of our human existence is that "no man"”or woman"”is an island." While we prefer to believe that we are in control of our own destinies, we almost never completely are. Regardless of where we live, who we vote for or how much we earn or owe, we are part of at least two communities: one comprising our immediate neighbours, family and friends, and the other, the larger world, this complex system known as humanity.

Each of us has a mandate to live as humanely as possible. With this brings a set of responsibilities to help make the world better, safer, healthier and wiser. To worry about the future world we'll leave our children and grandchildren. To preserve clean water resources and conserve other natural resources as best we can.

Few of us live up to our mandate as citizens of the world community. If we did, more parents, religious and community leaders would be vaccinating children, not hiding them when health workers come to the village. Because every child struck by the wild poliovirus puts an extra strain on her village, her state, her country and ultimately the world "“ until polio transmission is ended permanently. If we did, husbands and wives would talk openly to each other, and national leaders would value each of the children under his/her electorate as if they were their own "“ irrespective of religious, political or tribal differences.

If you believe, as I do, that no one needs to be a stranger in my life for long, how one makes life choices becomes a bit easier. If I approach every life choice keeping in mind that my decisions will impact my friend, loved one or cherished neighbour, I act more responsibly. I choose more often to live my beliefs: beliefs such as stealing and lying are wrong, and that I have a foremost responsibility to love, protect and care for my children. And to honour my Supreme Being and my family above all else.

This issue of Mazi examines complexity in several forms: how communication for social change and complexity science can work hand-in-hand; how communication professionals within the United Nations system are working to streamline the complexity of their working relationships and internal operations, and how a married man living with AIDS confronts perhaps one of the most complex challenges ever. My hat is off to Nyambe Kamungoma for his candour and passion. He first told me his story several years ago when the Consortium started working to help every Zambian know his or her HIV status "“ a communication for social change initiative started in partnership with UNICEF-Zambia, Student Partnership Worldwide and NZP+ in Zambia. I'm hopeful that Nyambe's story will find its way into someone else's heart. But above all else, I hope that Nyambe will remain healthy and loved.

Each day brings a new opportunity to be dazzled by the depth of what we have yet to learn about what motivates people, about how they develop and communicate societal values, or about the role of communication in personal and social decision-making. What is it about the "development" process or the period during which a country moves full-speed ahead toward industrialization and technological advancement that can make its people more callous, more hurried and less able to listen? What is it about a country on the move that limits our abilities to reach out to those in our cultures who have been left out or pushed aside? What is it about having huge sums of foreign money flow into a country that causes its citizens to be more focused on the size of their bank accounts than on the character of their children?

Dialogue, listening and understanding how fundamental social values influence pressing social issues are core aspects of our work at the CFSC Consortium. So I'm always fascinated, albeit troubled, when I read stories about countries on the upswing plagued by internal corruption. I've always assumed that those of us living in North America and Europe "“ traditionally colonizers and donor countries which also struggle against corruption "“ have built-in biases against the value systems in place in many countries of Africa, Latin America and Asia. We are bombarded on media stories of theft and despair; this cannot help but colour our own perceptions of what "developing" means.

So it is that I write this message from the road "¦ pursuing polio communication and AIDS initiatives that are among the most challenging, yet rewarding, work I've ever faced. Let's hope that today's challenges will soon become tomorrow's successes.

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