Do farmers in the Pacific watch cat videos?

I started my career as an editor of cruise ship magazines. That’s right, cruise ships. Want to know which cruise lines have the best kids clubs? I’m your girl. Keen on an Antarctic adventure coupled with the best spa at sea? Look no further, I’ve got you covered.

My steward, Russell and I, just outside my cabin on Pacific Jewel

I loved that job, and I couldn’t be happier I started my communications career in the private sector. How I made the leap to international development and NGO communications is a story for another day, but what I took away from that first job was a belief in two things: 1. Content is king, and 2. The private sector has a lot to teach those of us in the aid world about effective communications.

Communications ‘about’ and ‘for’ development is really hard, – like, super hard – and time and again donor and NGO projects fail to have an impact because of the very narrow way in which communications is viewed in the sector. An area where this is most obvious is new and digital technologies, and how these tools are viewed in terms of development in the global South. As Arora and Rangaswamy (2013) rightly declare in their article Digital leisure for development, there is an inherent bias in the development sector that audiences in the global South only, or must, use new technologies for virtuous or pragmatic ends.

This pervasive and damaging belief suggests that teenagers in Papua New Guinea only use Facebook to learn about HIV/AIDS initiatives; or farmers in Tonga only surf the Internet to study crop yields. Theorists and practitioners in the sector have already determined that no one in the global South watches the Keyboard Cat on YouTube (46 million views and counting), or uses Snapchat to share the latest meme with their friends, and so projects are developed with a “deterministic utilitarian view of how information technology can lead to socioeconomic development” (Arora and Rangaswamy, 2013).

The best communicators in the private sector don’t start with a belief that they already know their audiences. Their audiences are a blank slate, until they mine the data and study and analyze the how, why, and where that their audiences are interacting and engaging. Good communication campaigns in today’s networked society don’t create new platforms and channels and then demand or persuade audiences to come find them; those leading the campaigns find out where their audiences are engaged, and they go to them on their terms (one of my favourite from last year was the stealth Instagram campaign ‘Like my Addiction’)

But we often assume the global South is different. There’s no time to understand why people are obsessed with Trash Dove when we know that people want to understand how to engage in safe sexual practices, or how to fight government corruption – one can’t have anything to do with the other, right? (Or can it?) And most people in the Pacific have limited Internet access, so how can we learn anything from private sector communications that rely on digital channels and practices? Well, according to the latest Digital in 2017 report from Hootsuite, while numbers on internet penetration may be low in the Pacific, they are growing at an exponential rate due to mobile phone usage – Nauru had a 39% increase in active social media users in the past year, for instance.

Don’t get me wrong, I know of many fantastic communications, C4D, and behavior change projects in the NGO and international development sector – many of which use edutainment and similar methodologies to reach audiences and create change. But like Arora and Rangaswamy (2013), I am an advocate for looking at “raw engagements with entertainment-orientated and social content” because only then can we see the “actual engagements and ingenious strategies marginal populations use to instate technology into their everyday”.

By removing our bias that audiences in the global South are “inert recipients of developmental action”, and acknowledging their agency – as those in the private sector do when considering strategies to engage their audiences – we can potentially find more effective ways to communicate and achieve impact.

Do you agree that NGO and development communications have a lot to learn from the private sector? Or do you think their aims and objectives are too dissimilar to be of any use? I’d love to hear your thoughts below, and also if you are aware of any studies, projects, or initiatives that are already working to analyze the raw engagements of audiences in the global South, particularly in the Pacific.


  1. Guillermina

    Interesting angle to the issue, Lisa. I agree with you that the ‘social’ in new technologies risks being overlooked in development in the global South, and I was also drawn to Arora and Rangaswamy’s article because they make a compelling case—much as you do. If you approached the issue of engagement by audiences in the global South with an open mind, then the private/development sector dichotomy would prove improductive—so I’m with you in that there is potential to learn from the private sector, at least in this area.

    Trying to find more on the subject I came across this special issue of _Information Technologies & International Development_: It deals more with leisure as “raw engagement”, but looks interesting enough. And guess who the guest editors are? 🙂

  2. Lisa Smyth

    Thanks for the comment Guillermina – I agree that the private/sector dichotomy is too big at the moment – while we can all specialize, there’s so much to learn from each other in the broad communications sector that it doesn’t make sense to close ourselves off. And thanks for the link to the special issue – Arora and Rangaswamy do seem to be the experts in this space!

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  4. Rudelene Nanette

    Thanks for this post, Lisa. I find it very interesting and helpful as I look at the topic involving the effective use of social media in small, local, non-profit organisations. I believe we have lots to learn from the private sector and this is something that I would like to dig into as I develop a training module design to help the small, local, non-profit organisations use social media effectively which benefits the organisations and the communities they work with.

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