Social marketers are quick to point out that social marketing is not only about communication. Decidedly not.

Yet communication does in fact play a vital role in social-marketing related programs and other development work. Listening to the needs and wants of community members can determine success or failure in programs that seek to promote maternal and child health, prevent HIV/AIDs prevention, encourage breastfeeding, mitigate climate change, and position a host of other issues.

The Role of Communications in Development

Italian-born Bea Spadacini is a social marketer and communications specialist who has engaged in both behavior change communications (BCC) and communications to support peace (C4D) initiatives, most recently through a global mapping exercise for the UN agency on children—UNICEF. She says, “Within the broad communications sector, there is sometimes a myopic view on the potential use of communication to further programmatic goals. Communications is often perceived to be about corporate communications or packaging things with a pretty bow. When it is in fact, so much more than that. It is about engaging people in conversations and not just telling them what to do and sending pre-approved messages out.”

Communication tools have the potential to influence attitudes and behaviors—and ultimately these tools, Bea says, have the capacity to mobilize people to take action. They empower us to shape our own destiny. Those who participate in the communication process are often transformed by it.

Bea has contributed to multiple advocacy campaigns, resulting in increased public awareness of key development issues and policy change. Working primarily in East and Central Africa, she has applied her skills to further the goals of a variety of humanitarian and social justice agencies including Amnesty International, CARE, the International Youth Foundation, and Norwegian Church Aid. She has also worked with major donors, including the World Bank and the European Union Humanitarian and Civil Protection unit. Her work has contributed to positive change in the areas of human rights, gender, poverty, HIV/AIDS, disability, climate change, conflict, and peace and reconciliation.

Lessons on Behavior Change Communications in East Africa

Some 18 years ago, Bea’s original interest in social marketing sprang from an understanding of the power of community theater to promote dialogue and social change. In her Master’s thesis, she wrote about theater’s ability to portray public health challenges and offer solutions such as the value of oral rehydration therapy (ORT) to stop diarrheal diseases. Bea said, “At the time, mass media had not yet penetrated and even radio, though powerful, has its own limitations.” But she said, “Community theater—to this day—is a very powerful tool to engage rural audiences across sub-Saharan Africa.” The drama format enables people to see their own problems in an external story context, which is by definition less threatening, and thus elaborate solutions applicable to their own lives through someone else’s experience. “It is a clever way to entertain and educate at the same time.”

For Bea, a health program in Ethiopia underscored the importance of understanding the local context and taking time to pretest all communication materials. The project aimed to create public awareness about the harmful effects of some traditional practices, specifically female circumcision and early marriage for girls. The goal was to create disincentives for engaging in such practices and shifting the focus to alternative rituals that did not have harmful health effects on girls. Local artists made artwork for a poster that the team pretested through focus groups. However, the posters were only tested in urban areas. The theme of the poster was a stop symbol, but it was based on road signs that no one in rural areas understood.

This experience taught Bea that local knowledge must lead the project design and must be pretested and adapted in different social contexts. How the campaign unfolded was documented in OXFAM’s Gender & Development journal in the article, “Campaigning against female genital mutilation in Ethiopia using popular education.”

Following that experience, her team worked on a film about female genital mutilation (FGM). It was produced locally and included a violent scene of exactly how a girl was being circumcised. Bea said, “It was too brutal. I really didn’t want to see the girl in that situation. I felt we didn’t have to be so explicit, but Ethiopian men said, ‘No, we have to show this level of brutality. This is what is happening here, and it is the only thing that will encourage people to stop.’ Local people know their culture better than anyone else and must advise on what is culturally appropriate and what is not. You really have to listen and immerse yourself. It is completely different than corporate communications.”

Communication for Peace
Today, Bea’s work centers on Communication for Development (C4D). She said, “For me, it is the most interesting area in communication because it is strategic and it requires listening to people, researching and analyzing the overall context.” C4D in peacebuilding empowers people to transform conflict and promote peace through self-expression and dialogue. Bea said, “You cannot persuade people to be peaceful, they need to experience peace in order to create it.” Bea cautioned that “peace” doesn’t mean the absence of “conflict.” Instead, peace is about finding common ground and working together to carve out a sense of “normality,” even in the midst of conflict.

Bea said, “This type of work reignites my passion for why I chose to be an activist in international development and why communication is much more than a public relations exercise. Ultimately, it is about facilitating the creation of safe spaces for people to feel empowered and to take bold action.”

To read more about Communication for Development, see the United Nations Interagency site on C4D at Check out Bea’s work at


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