Guest author: Development sector has communication problem

Palash Ranjan Sanyal






By Palash Ranjan Sanyal  — The development aid paradigms have many flaws and the sector has a “communication” problem. Take control grouping or providing solutions for “accepted” problems for one. Nobody wants to be guinea pig – not even the donors and the NGOs, and of course, not the so-called beneficiaries. But in the food chain, the strong dictates the weak. Thus, beneficiaries are often the guinea pigs and we have names for our approaches, pilot projects, randomised control trials etc. This chaos has no balance. Once this reaches it’s peak, things will (maybe already have) fall apart. When the chaos become new normal, then invading species become predominant, making the ecosystem obsolete. Once the agency runs out of money and time, they leave the project area without having effective evaluation mechanism in place, not to mention in many cases without achieving the project goals. It is not a surprise, that communities who had received development aid or project support, often do not trust aid agencies again.

How do we gain their trust back? The answer lies in communication.

Even when it comes to government projects, communication is detrimental. With 600 million people without proper sanitation, India’s “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” campaign seems to be legit. The main objective of the campaign is to make India open defecation-free by October 2, 2019, by building close to 120 million toilets. This “Clean India Mission” has halved the spending on information, education and communication activities to eight per cent of the total megaproject budget. Yet, around 82 million dollars have been spent on TV ads and commercials since 2014 but the outcomes are gloomy. The lack of communication with the grassroot communities will be the core reason of this projects failure if it ever comes down to that.

This is just one example where the focus has been on infrastructure rather on the people. Government-built toilets throughout India inscribed with bright red and yellow painted slogans praising their health and safety benefits can not change behaviour and beliefs.

It takes more to change beliefs and behaviour than simple signs.

Development projects use indicators and measures, these indicators give us a general overview of the entity in question. From data collection to quantification, the whole process depends on how communication works. How collector/surveyor and respondent view things, what questions are asked and how often, what are the motives? Even though there are baselines and standards, how often do we incorporate the biases of response in our standards? Not to mention, when it comes to communities, we barely know or can quantify anything about it’s core culture. The standard set of questions used or forced by the authoritarian agencies possess hinderance in the process. We seek commonalities avoiding the essential features.

This brings me to the problem of assumptions and solutions. The idea of “there is a problem as our indicator shows” lack reality. The failure to communicate what is required, and what is missing create a space for prescribed solutions, as we quantify and modify projects to achieve funding goals. The aid community should stop pretending to know the answers and start asking the right questions.

There is a difference between knowing the solution and asking the question.

Data is abundant and scarce at the same time in this sector. Take data of NGOs working on water and sanitation in rural Asia for example. First, there is no centralised system to know for one specific location how many NGOs have projects, what kind of projects they have and what proponents are involved. During UNLEASH lab 2017 this came up as a problem for rural India. Isolation/lack of inter-organisational communication and lack of understanding of the community social or economic context has been present for a long time and unless things change dramatically, it is not going away. Project success is strongly linked to communication and cooperation between stakeholders (Diallo & Thuillier, 2005).

The question that keeps me up at night is

“in the path towards attaining SDGs, who (groups/community) will be the last wall standing?”

Change in belief, behaviour and ways of cooperation require time and effective communication. From trust to cooperation, communication is the key to solving many of the problems mentioned like the ones above. In the era of technological advancement, communication strategies and methods can get lost in complex solutions. The simplest communication techniques still bring efficient outcomes and we will investigate some of those in the next post.

Palash Sanyal is a development practitioner and facilitator currently working for Global Institute for Water Security and Soliya Connect Program. He previously has worked with TEDTalk, WaterAid Bangladesh and other non-governmental organisations. His work focuses on different aspects of WASH and energy.


Diallo, A., & Thuillier, D. (2005). The success of international development projects, trust and communication: an African perspective. International Journal of Project Management, 23(3), 237–252.