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close this bookThe Courier N 148 - Nov - Dec 1994 - Dossier: Education - Country Reports: Saint Lucia - St Vincent and The Grenadines (EC Courier, 1994, 104 p.)
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View the documentWorld Conference on Population and Development
View the documentCommunication and family planning in sub-Saharan Africa

Communication and family planning in sub-Saharan Africa

by Maria Rosa De Paolis

In the wake of the Cairo Conference, much ink has been spilt about the issue of population and development. The subject has certainly not been exhausted, but the aim of this article is not to outdo others in this field, which is not within the competence of the author, but more to dwell on and explore the particular area of family planning and to analyse the particular medium of posters as one of the means of conveying its message.

The developing countries are the most affected by the problem of population growth. In sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, the population growth rate and the fertility rate are the highest in the world and it is also in this region that family planning is practised the least. Rapid population growth and underdevelopment interact closely and are both the cause and the effect of one another. Under the present conditions, the forecasts for the coming years look disastrous: these countries, whose economic situation is already precarious, will find it hard to meet the basic needs of their increasingly large populations. A strategy must therefore be sought to ensure a satisfactory standard of living for these people, in a process of viable development, but also to avoid other consequences, such as damage to the environment, accentuating the phenomenon of desertification.

Among the various factors involved in maintaining and even increasing the high level of fertility of these countries, the socio-cultural factor plays a crucial role. In African society, especially in rural environments, the behaviour of the population in the field of procreation is strongly influenced by a series of values, traditions, principies and beliefs which are passed from generation to generation. In view of these values and the pressure of tradition, family planning is seldom favourably received. The planner, when tackling such delicate subjects as having children or sex, will meet with a great deal of reticence. Other economic and political factors contribute to keeping the population growth rates high.

Among the solutions to be applied to slow down the growth in the African population, communication is an essential instrument in family planning programmes. Indeed the first line of attack probably should be to devise effective communication strategies which take proper account of the economic, cultural and social factors.

Indeed, the 'Information, Education and Communication' (IEC) aspect is increasingly integrated into the implementation of these programmes. Respecting the right to choose freely and responsibly the number and timing of the births of one's children is one of the basic principles of demographic policies. This right also entails everyone having the information and the means to make use of it.

In sub-Saharan Africa, a large percentage of the population is illiterate and it is essential that the messages are devised to take account of this.

Among the different media for transmitting messages on family planning, the poster is one of the first approaches to awareness and information in this field. This means of communication by images is especially appropriate for a public which has received little or no school education, its visual nature allowing attention to be drawn and the message transmitted at a glance. Combining image and text, the, poster can be categorised as a socio-educational message aiming to bring; about a change in behaviour by the person for whom it is intended. The image generates participation and identification of the observer with the subject or object shown. The text, while consolidating the message and reinforcing the idea developed in the picture, has a distancing effect.

An analysis of 46 posters from 27 countries of this region has allowed the values conveyed by this medium to be defined, the status of the announcer and the recipient to be clarified, and their relationship and the attendant social consequences to be brought out. It is in this way that two lines of force inherent in any message emerge: the content concerning the descriptive meaning and the relationship covering the pragmatic meaning. Two categories have been established in this way: one groups together the topics represented most frequently by the picture and conveyed by the text, the other classifies the posters by strategies most used to present the message in order to discover the relationship between the talking partners and their status.

Each message is composed of different elements which contribute to producing certain effects on the recipient. Pragmatic analysis allows the possible effects to be defined deriving from the relationship between the announcer, the body expressing the message and the recipient or person for whom the message is intended.

One of the primary characteristics of this sample is that the vast majority of the posters contain drawings and only a limited number use photos. The limited use of the photo could lead to various hypotheses: are drawings considered to be a more significant mechanism for identification than photos? Is the iconic culture of the African peoples based more on drawings? Or should this choice be seen simply as an economic constraint? 2 It is interesting to note that some drawings are reproduced in a perspective and in proportions which differ from those to which we are accustomed in the West, their colours recall the natural landscape of these countries and they are largely devoid of objects considered to be superfluous to the meaning of the message.

Photo posters systematically represent a westernised image of the family and the landscape. The procedure, which is as modern as family planning, is based on modern publicity techniques. Family planning is an invented concept, imported from industrialised countries, which has made its way in Africa through other institutions, notably those of the health sector. However, its origin goes back a long way if one considers, for example, the traditional practices of post-partum abstinence.

The family is the theme most commonly represented by the image and the text: information on family planning necessarily involves the family, the synonym of fertility. A place of union, the start of life, it is in the family that tradition, morals and religious precepts are anchored: a man and a woman unite to have children. The family implies happiness, joy and harmony. The messages of the posters try to provide the key to preserving or rediscovering this joy.

The majority of posters represent the traditional, nuclear family of the western world, comprising the father, mother and children. It is interesting to observe that this image does not necessarily reflect reality in Africa, where traditionally the extended family, including other members, such as the grandparents, uncles and aunts, is more widespread.

The image of the family shows the distinction between the 'ideal' family with a limited number of children serving as a model and the family 'to be outlawed' with a large number of children.

Given the message that is being put over, it is not surprising that it is the image of the nuclear family that is most commonly employed. The number of children shown varies from 1 to 4, with an average of 2. The message advocating the ideal family places family planning among the solutions to achieving happiness and success. Is it not possible that the allusion to this idealistic image, borrowed strongly from publicity techniques, could have the consequence of aggravating existing social inequalities and competition between individuals?

The few images of large families, on the other hand, show them in conditions of obvious distress and the association of the two elements must, in principle, encourage recipients to change their attitude.

The progressive assimilation of the model of the nuclear family could result in a veritable cultural shift. Although it is true that the nuclear family, once free of influence and even pressure from the other members of the extended family, especially grandparents, contributes to reducing the number of births through better acceptance of family planning, there is a risk, on the other hand, of this image toppling family values based on strong solidarity between all the members, in favour of an individualist society such as we have in industrialised countries.

The most widely used message strategies in this sample of posters involve three types of announcer: authoritarian, non-authoritarian and the character announcer.

The messages belonging to the authoritarian type are characterised by the absence of any visible announcer (voice 'off'). The announcer is therefore an abstract, transcendent authority, imbued with power and knowledge. The titles, in large letters, placed in the upper part of the poster, stress this authority. Since the verbal messages are often in the imperative form, they are warnings or orders.

Depending on the argument used in the message, the bodies conveying it represent different authorities which may be the government, medical science, the teacher or even religion. The governmental and medical type authority is the most widespread and this is partly explained by the fact that in the field of family planning, the bodies representing these entities are at the basis of policies and the implementation of programmes. In certain cases they are even the authors of the messages. The teaching authority is characteristic of the posters intended for an adolescent student public with warnings of the risks of early, unwanted pregnancies.

For this type of message, the relationship between the announcer and the recipient is distant, sometimes intangible. In this case, the message is explicit and the recipient is not invited to reflect upon it.

A second category of message strategy groups together announcers of the non-authoritarian type. Despite the voice 'off', the message contains no orders or threats. The announcer could be a counsellor or a mediator. The relationship between the announcer and the recipient is one-to-one, friendly and reassuring. The arguments are based on a more intimate repertoire, closer to the recipient than that used by the authoritarian announcer. The observer is induced to complete the interpretation of the message. This type of strategy is important in so far as the figure of the counsellor embodied in the announcer appears as a friendly talking partner in inter-personal communication, following the African oral tradition where what is 'said' is important. The many questions addressed to the recipient establish dialogue in a friendly relationship.

A third and final category concerns the announcer who is shown as one or more of the characters portrayed in the picture. The character represented speaks in the first person, sometimes addressing the observer directly; the comic strip bubble is used for this purpose.

The most remarkable aspect of this category is the fact that men are the announcers in the majority of cases. Shown as fathers of the family, they are the means of providing arguments for the responsibility which lies with men in the field of family planning. Identification is facilitated by the egalitarian, friendly relationship which they pursue with the observer. In this category, the woman is decidedly deprived of any possibility to speak for herself.

A first explanation could be that the decision to adopt family planning is primarily that of men, or that men are a target group to be made aware and convinced, or simply that the producers of messages themselves being male, they give pride of place to men among their announcers.

This category was represented in the largest number of posters allowing reflection on the meaning of the message. This confirms the relationship existing between the status of the protagonists and the cognitive operations.

The posing of numerous questions suggests that the observer is considered to be a genuine partner in the dialogue and a greater call is made on his or her ability to draw inferences. This type of strategy, involving the public, may be considered among the approaches which take account of the participation of the people themselves and this participation becomes essential for the success of communication programmes.

Dealing with the demographic challenge and achieving a balance between economic growth and population size is probably the main issue for developing countries as we approach the end of this millenium. It is clear that, in addition to being an important factor in family planning programmes, methods of communication are a vital element in global development more generally - with the poster having its own particular role. Given the changes that are currently taking place, a verdict on the success or failure of present family planning communication strategies will obviously depend on an analysis of what actually happens in the coming years.

M.D.P.